John Emerson sent me a link to a NY Times article by Ellen Barry about the complex relationships among the peoples of Dagestan, one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth. Barry starts out with Magomedkhan M. Magomedkhanov, an ethnographer from Dagestan (sadly, the M. stands not for Magomedkhanovich but for Magomedovich):
He grew up among the Archi, a 1,200-member ethnic group that speaks a language of unknown origin and, for at least seven centuries, was connected to the outside world only by rugged mountain paths. This is fairly typical of Dagestan, a collection of 14 major and several dozen minor ethnic groups that formed in tide pools and cul-de-sacs off one of humankind’s great migration streams.
All this has proven exceptionally fertile ground for ethnic humor. Dagestanis can tell ethnic jokes for hours, returning to beloved themes like the muscle-bound denseness of the Avars, the naked commercialism of the Dargins, the bookish pusillanimity of the Lezgins, the slyness of Lakhs and so on. And that’s not counting jokes about especially dumb villages.
One example: An Avar is carrying a wounded Dargin off the battlefield. The Dargin entreats his friend to leave him behind, lest they both be killed, and asks the one favor of shooting him so he does not suffer. The Avar, finally convinced, pulls out his firearm but finds he has no ammunition. The Dargin roots in his pockets and pulls out a bullet. “I’ll sell it to you,” he says.
I’m sure the “beloved themes” represent stereotypes as superficial and unhelpful as all such, but I’m grateful to have even superficial stereotypes to go with what to me have always been mere names (Avar, Dargin, etc.). And the jokes are pretty funny. There’s some interesting historical material, too, but I’m not sure I trust the Times for that kind of thing.