Badi dismisses the notion that younger people are less interested in the zikr, citing space constraints to explain the low attendance. But among the younger generations, new ways of understanding Islam are taking hold; what locals here call “traditional” Islam, a religion suffused with Chechen and Kist cultural traditions, is dying out. What is taking its place is a more pared-down, Quranic approach to religious practice. Omar Alkhanashvili, a Duisi local who identifies as an adherent to this more modern form of practice, explains that under the repressive Soviet regime, his elders had little information about Islam. Few knew Arabic; fewer still could read the original Quran. Now, as young men learn Arabic, the Islam they practice is more in line with strict Quranic teaching, in which customs like the communal zikr are discouraged in favor of private worship. As 19-year-old Nona Margoshvili, a distant relative of Badi’s, puts it, “Twenty years ago, people had cigarettes, they were drinking. They did not have [much] information about Islam.” Her community’s elders have been slow to change. “Old people don’t listen,” she says, laughing.
The shift has had a palpable influence in the community. A new mosque, called the Wahabist mosque by locals and built with Saudi money, dominates Duisi’s main road; the young men who spend their days outside it — unemployment is rife here — sport long beards, while most older men are clean-shaven. It was once customary for girls to keep their hair uncovered, as Nona does, until marriage, but now about half of female children wear headscarves. Rumor has it one young man recently chastised a local shopkeeper in the village of Jokolo for selling beer. Alarmed, community elders notified the Georgian police. And a few of the men who tell their families they have gone to study Arabic in Saudi Arabia end up in Syria; only last year, two brothers returned in body bags.
But both Badi and Omar insist that Pankisi is a peaceful community; differences in religious outlook are largely theoretical rather than practical. “My father practices the zikr,” Omar tells me. “I do not.” Older people may practice what they see as a more “traditional” — that is, traditionally Chechen — form of Islam, “but we are all Muslims. God will know who is right.”
The building used for the zikr recitals, right, is located in the courtyard of the town's old mosque. Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America
For her part, Badi, curious about the younger generation’s perspective, set out to find a definitive answer on matters of doctrine and practice. As a child during the Soviet era, she says, she had little access to information about Islam. But she remembers hearing about the sultan of Brunei’s religiously motivated anti-alcohol stance. As a publicly Muslim figure, “he may know better,” she reasoned.
About five years ago, she sent him an email from Tbilisi to ask whether it was true that the zikr was un-Islamic. She didn’t have Internet access at home in Pankisi, she says, so she doesn’t know if he ever answered.
As the interview with Badi comes to a close, she asks if she, along with three other members of Ensemble Aznash, can perform a song. They sing one about life and death, and the life to come.
When they finish, Badi has tears in her eyes; this song always moves her. When the ensemble performed it in Germany, she says, “[We] were all crying; we could not stop.”
They conclude with another song, the one with which they begin nearly all of their public performances: “Marshua Kavkaz,” the prayer for peace.