Tajikistan July - August 2011
What follows are first hand accounts of the travels and adventures of 2011, as experienced by Afsaneh Art & Culture Society - Ballet Afsaneh members, and honored dance artists/scholars Hannah Romanowsky and Kristen Sague.
Wednesday 7/6/2011 – After a series of long flights taking us from San Francisco, through Istanbul, to the remote country of Tajikistan, Sharlyn Sawyer, Hannah Romanowsky, and Kristen Sague finally arrived, exhausted but in good spirits, at the small airport that services the Tajik capitol of Dushanbe. There we were greeted by our colleague Mariam Gaibova, who had arrived back here to her homeland from her new home in California a few days before. She took us by taxi to the apartment she had secured for us on Rudaki Prospect, just down the street from Padida Dance Theater, which would be our home for the next month. Rudaki is the main avenue in Dushanbe lined with fountains, government buildings, apartments, theaters, shade-giving trees, and monuments to prominent cultural icons, such as Ismail Somoni, the grandson of the founder of the Samanid Empire, who is considered “father” of the Tajik nation. The avenue itself was proudly named after the Persian poet Rudaki, the founder of Persian classical literature, who was born in 858 in what is now present-day Tajikistan.
Our apartment is very clean and newly painted, with a good-sized living room, one bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Soon Emelie Coleman came by to welcome us. Emelie had arrived from San Francisco few days earlier and would be staying for many months after the rest of the team left to complete her Fulbright Scholarship research project. It was so exciting for us, having learned Tajik dance from our colleagues, who had laid the groundwork for this visit years before as part of the initial team that comprised the Tajik Dance Initiative, to finally be here experiencing the land, people, and culture firsthand. We were glad to be together and looked forward to being immersed in our experience of a country we had learned so much about from a distance; yet, in another sense, one we experienced intimately through the somatic experience of dance, a medium of understanding that can reveal deep insights into the nature and values belonging to the people. That first night Emelie cooked us dinner, but we were so jet-lagged that by the time it was finished Kris, Sharlyn, and Hannah were all sound asleep.
Thurdsay 7/7 – After settling in to our new home, the first order of business was to visit our friends at Padida Theater, which is located behind the Chaikhone Rohat on Ruduki. A lot of work had been done to the Padida Theater building since Sharlyn was here last, and the space was quite beautiful. The main dance room, which used to be a mess of storage, was beautifully decorated with suzanni tapestries, and the wood floor stained a dark brown. There was a sound system and a couple mirrors, all making it look much more appealing than what we had expected based on the stories of dangerous nails sticking up out of the floorboards that our fellow dance scholars had described from previous trips. We were glad to find that the Padida dancers had a much safer and more inviting space to work in than three years ago, and proud that the efforts of Tajik Dance Initiative and Afsaneh Art & Culture Society helped make that possible.
Inoyat, sister of company director Sharofat Rasheidova, and some of the teenage dancers who were instructing the children’s classes greeted us. Sharlyn was quite moved being there again after three years and, though it was wonderful to reconnect with Inoyat, it was sad we would not be able to see Sharofat, who was touring all summer with most of the dancers in China. Our organization had developed a fruitful exchange with Padida over the years, however the fact that most of the company and the director were on tour during our visit here meant that we would be contacting other dance companies in Dushanbe on this visit. With the help of the very capable and amicable Lola Ulugova, administrative director of TDI, and Mariam Gaibova, we soon arranged for visits with the Zebo and Gulrez ensembles, though it would be a few days still until either group had an opportunity to meet with us, as their rehearsal and performance schedule was quite full at that time.
Yesterday we met with the seamstress Adolat to have new costumes made for the company. Adolat was incredibly knowledgeable regarding the traditional patterns and costuming of Tajik history, and was all too happy to pull out and display some of her handiwork for us.
Saturday 7/9 - Pamiri Festival in the Botanical Gardens
We followed the sound of the dafsoz (daf orchestra) playing the traditional opening celebration as we excitedly turned off of Rudaki avenue and ran down into the Botanical Gardens. For these three Ballet Afsaneh dancers, Pamiri culture suddenly and incredibly became a living breathing entity. We have studied Pamiri dance with Ballet Afsaneh, we’ve worn the costumes and heard recordings of Pamiri music, and heard stories of the Pamirs from Sharlyn and Aliah Najmabadi, but to see a group of 20 strong women playing dafs, the thunderous sound enveloping us, with their white and red costumes and red yarn braids with tassels dangling from the ends moved me almost to tears, even out of their Pamir mountain context.
Emelie and I (Kristen) found the Aga Khan Foundation’s table particularly engrossing. We learned that in 2006 they completed the third bridge linking Tajikistan to Afghanistan, and they are close to completing the fourth. According to the Foundation, “promoting cross-border cooperation between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in order to create socio-economic linkages between the people living in the border areas of the two countries. Improving cross-border perceptions and trade can be a powerful vehicle to enhance relations between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. This is particularly beneficial to south-central Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, as the populations on each side are isolated from major commercial centres in their respective countries.” We also learned about the successes of their electricity program in the Pamirs. Since the Aga Khan Foundation’s commitment to the Pamirs began, the Khorog has gone from having 2-3 hours of electricity a day to an average of 22-23 hours a day. They are also working on solar installation and sharing electricity with Afghan Gorno-Badakshan.
Sunday 7/10 – This morning we attended a Badakhshani Culture Show at Borbat Theater. We particularly enjoyed a traditional performance by a distinguished group of Badakhshani elders who played the frame drums. One gentleman began dancing in a slow, meditative style very different from the performance choreography often on display here. We were especially moved by him, as his slow but intentioned movement seemed to radiate something of a spiritual or personal nature through the dance. Another man joined him in a slow sword dance, and a third man in green was greeted by cheers upon his entry; Sharlyn informed us that he is a well-known keeper of the traditional dance living in the Bartang Valley named Sarkory, and we all hoped that we might be able to see more of this type of performance.
There were several other Badakhshani songs and dances on the program, including a couples’ dance, but much of the culture show paid homage to the cultures of Tajikistan in general rather than to Badakhshan alone. In moments reminiscent of the Soviet “friendship of nations” concept, in which each individual culture is put on display only to glorify the unity of the nation, quite a few songs paid homage to the “beauty of Kulob,” the Zerefshan Valley, wonderful Dushanbe, and of course, the Republic of Tajikistan. Many references were made to the upcoming (2 months away) celebration of istiklol (independence day), and it seemed clear that the unity of the Republic of Tajikistan was important to the producers of the show and the two mayors that spoke at the end (of Dushanbe and GBAO, respectively).
This was also our first formal introduction to the “cupcake” costumes which became popular over the last decade; a dance that mostly looked like a sort of above-water synchronized swimming to what Kris playfully characterized as “deranged Blue Danube” music was more amusing than inspiring. We certainly don’t have many chances to see as much sparkle and glitter in one location as we did this day; each female singer came on in sequins, chiffon and all manner of dazzle. Ah Tajikistan!
Monday 7/11 – Today was a day we were all looking forward to. Mariam and her father arranged a couple cars and drivers to take us out of the city to a place called Oasis by the Varzob River. We packed up our swimsuits and edibles for the day and eagerly piled into the vehicles. When we got there we found families laughing and splashing in the pools and a grove of trees under which were raised cushioned platforms called tapchans where people could lounge. It was quite lovely, with the dappled sun falling through the quivering leaves. The soft breeze and the sound of the rushing river were so refreshing after spending nearly a week walking along the hot and dusty concrete of Dushanbe. We chose a tapchan that looked like a sort of banquet table, with the plastic tablecloth on the floor of the platform in the traditional way and cushions for lounging surrounding the sides. After sending our tomatoes and cucumbers to the kitchen to be chopped and ordering some lamb kebobs and yogurt, we laid out the bread, filling our glasses with the local (and refreshingly light) beer, called Sim-sim, and dropped the melons in a protected place of the river so they could chill without being swept away by the strong current.
We spent the rest of the afternoon dipping our feet and bodies in the ice-cold mountain river water rushing nearby, lounging in the tapchan, and talking or reading. In the late afternoon we headed back to town, relaxed and rejuvenated. The rest of the week would be a packed with meetings, classes, and errands, so this break away from the bustle of town was quite welcomed!
Referred to as The Pompeii of Central Asia, Penjikent was one of the major cities on the Silk Road Trading Route until the 8th century when the conquering Muslims burned it to the ground. Remains salvaged in the early 1900’s are split between the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and The Museum of Antiquity in Dushanbe.
As an epicenter of cultural exchange on the trading route, religion in Penjikent was a rich mix including Buddhism, Zoroastrian and Hinduism. The recovered art and literature contains Greek, Persian and Indian motifs, such as narrative cycles from the Mahabharata, Romulus and Remus and Rustam. Scenes from Aesop’s Fables, the Sinbadnameh, Everyman and the Pantchatantra are depicted on the salvaged temple walls.
One of the salvaged pieces from the burned wooden temples was a 12 ft. x 12 ft. wall carving depicting tales included in Ferdowsi’s Persian epic, the Shahnameh. It was amazing to see proof of the popularity of these stories so far before Ferdowsi’s masterpiece was published.
After the museum, we have all been reminded of the question we often receive, “Why would a Persian dance company be interested in Tajikistan?” We engaged in an informative discussion on the common literary traditions (specifically Post-Umayyad periods), and a bit of Ismaili history to prepare us for our trip to the Pamirs.
The fall of the Umayyad Dynasty in 750 AD opened a period of religious pluralism and open theological debate that was beneficial to the spread of Ismailism in Central Asia. This was also a period of active intellectual exploration, supported by the Samanids. Many of the most famous Islamic scholars and poets of the period were active in this area of the Persian World. Rudaki (859-941), Penjikent, Current day Tajikistan), Abu Ali ibn Sina, or Avicenna (940-1020), born in Afshan near Bukhara, present day Uzbekistan), Al-Biruni (973-1048), born/educated in Khwarezm, or Chorasmia in current day Uzbekistan and Turkestan, traveled to Bukhara later in life) and Ferdowsi (940-1020), Khorasan in current day Eastern Iran) all worked with the protection of, or with encouragement of, the Samanids.
In 999, the Ghaznavids and subsequently the Seljuks (1034-1300) forcibly imposed Sunni Orthodoxy across Central Asia, prompting an Shia - Ismaili exodus from Khorasan, Transoxiana and as far away as Sindh in Pakistan and Badakhshan. The eastern regions of Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan (Badakhshan, or the Pamirs) became a stronghold for Shia Ismailis. The Ismaili branch of Islam are followers of the Hazrat Imam or Aga Khan. The Ismaili religion celebrates cultural pluralism, and human development through education. As a result of these progressive attitudes existing local Zoroastrian, Buddhist and other spiritual practices historically enjoyed a greater continuity within the practice of Islam in the region. For more on Ismaili history and regional accomplishments in social development visit:
For those interested in learning more about Tajikistan’s development as a nation in the Persian World, William O. Beeman’s paper Ferdowsi and Tajik National Identity is an interesting read. You can find it here: http://ilex.ilexfoundation.org/pdf/ferdowsi_2/beeman300.pdf
Wednesday 7/13 – Force-Feeding in Faizabad
After today’s class with Zebo dance company, we met Amon Moseyev, a well-known Tajik choreographer who occasionally works with TDI. We sat outside with him and Lola discussing the history of Shash Maqam music & dance, the effects that the Soviet Union had upon the tradition and what we wanted to learn from him while in Dushanbe. He agreed to set a Shash Maqam piece on us later in the week, then invited us to the town of Faizabad for a music, dance and hair festival later that evening, in which he had choreographed a few pieces. Uncertain of what a “hair festival” was, we gladly obliged.
|Speed Braiding Contest|
We were then taken to a nearby house, where a sizable traditional Tajik feast awaited us. With musicians, dancers and journalists from the festival, we had giant chipati type bread, yogurt, honey, watermelon, apples, mutton soup, massive caveman-like drumsticks, and a vegetarian stew topped with piles of fragrant cilantro. To top off the meal, we were offered all the homemade wine, brandy and whiskey we could drink. The food just kept coming, and filled to bursting by the second course, any attempt to refuse the offered next course was met with determined vehemence that we “Eat more!” So, not wanting to offend our generous hosts, eat we did.
We drove back to Dushanbe, our stomachs full of Tajik hospitality, serenaded by Tajik pop music and illuminated by a wondrous silver moon.
Thursday 7/14 – We enjoyed a leisurely morning followed by lunch at the Morning Star Café, a western-style bakery establishment offering wonderful fresh homemade comfort food, indulgently delicious iced mint coffee frappes, warm scones and jam, quiches, croissant sandwiches, and tuna melts with lovely homemade brown bread. (For those who may wonder why we chose to eat western food in Tajikistan, rest assured, we exhausted every restaurant in town and experienced excellent Georgian, Indian, and Chinese food along the way. The traditional Tajik fare, however, did not always sit well with our stomachs, so we were thankful to have other options when our bellies were feeling less than hardy.)
After this satisfying meal, we went to the studio of the Gulrez dance ensemble for our first class with the director and choreographer, Imomali Rachmoniyon. We had the pleasure of meeting him and watching the company run through their warm-up and repertoire a few days before, and now we were looking forward to taking class ourselves. After breaking down a few movements for us, Imomali appeared pleased with our abilities and agreed to teach us a Shash Maqam. We admired his artistry and were delighted to have the opportunity to learn from him. Kris held up beautifully considering she was still recovering from our incredible traditional Tajik meal the night before, and as we spun like tops across the floor the company dancers clapped with delight. (Turns are a salient feature of Tajik dance, and the ability to turn well indicates a capable dancer. Evidently, the girls were pleased to see us execute this signature aspect of their dance with some degree of skill.)
Except for Padida Dance Theater, which has miraculously been able to stay afloat on self-earned revenue, dance companies in Dushanbe are funded by the state. We had the pleasure of attending classes with two state-run ensembles, Gulrez and Zebo, both of whom regularly train a cast of young dancers for their large ensemble presentations. Frequently called at a moment’s notice to perform for cultural events and state functions in Tajikistan and abroad, these post- soviet ensembles maintain the role of ‘cultural ambassadors’ with a codified repertoire based on Tajik regional dances theatrically staged to represent Tajik national identity and culture. Dance presentations are a key component of the expression of Tajik culture and pride, and are not only included in most state functions, but are shown on television frequently.
We admired the perseverance of these artists who train relentlessly in less than ideal circumstances, including uneven and splintered floors and extreme temperature variations in the winter and summer. The influence of Russian dance and the Soviet aesthetic was apparent in the exactitude of their lines and formations. While these staged versions of regional Tajik dances are indeed a sight for the eyes and the technique of the dancers admirable, this is a far different experience from what we expected to find in the isolated Pamirs, where the connection among the tradition, the environment, and the spirituality of the people remains, however tenuous in a land that has experienced its fair share of culturally-repressive forces.
After class Hannah (caught off guard) danced a little “Arabsky” for the students while the doira player hit up an Arabic rhythm, then we walked to Indian food at Ashoka, feeling really great having experienced a very satisfying dance class.
Friday 7/15 - We awoke to an overcast, dusty Dushanbe. It was pleasant to sit at the kitchen table drinking tea and watching the dust swirl around the oak trees as Kris, with her long arms, performed her designated morning oak beetle ceiling vacuuming duties. Overcome with waves of nostalgia for California style food, we wandered down the road, reveling in the newly opened, freshly paved Rudaki Prospect to the Morning Star Café. After yesterday’s physically and mentally rigorous Gulrez class, we were delighted to refuel with strong coffee, massive slabs of whole wheat bread, delicious scones and ample quantities of water.
From there, we accompanied Madame Hannah to Padida Dance Theater to teach her first Tajik Belly Dance Class! She was warmly welcomed by an excited group of women, ranging in age from 3 to 30. When word gets out that a good belly dancer is in town, there is always a high turnout. Surrounded by suzanis and pulsating Arabic music, Hannah put her Farsi directional and numerical vocabulary to work and taught a fantastic class. The women had a blast, their faces wreathed in joyous grins for the entire class.
Saturday 7/16 - Saturday morning we traveled across Dushanbe via two Mashrutkas (numbers 3 and 2, respectively), and arrived at the Teatr-I Javono slightly squished but ready for dance. Lola and Shar watched and videoed. We had our first lesson with Amon Mousayev. We began with Shash Maqam technique and then moved on to a piece of choreography. Amon Mosaev has a very emotive style, which fit our dance training well and was a refreshing change from the more traditional, restrained dance form.
In the afternoon we walked up to the Shash Maqam Institute/Academy of Shash Maqam and met with the director Abdulvali Abdurashidov and two faculty members. Ostad Abdurashidov provided us with historical background of Shash Maqam and of the Institute. The Shash Maqam Institute was founded with the mission of reviving traditional performance of the classical Bukharan musical/theatrical tradition, which had been all but lost during the Soviet era. The Soviets discouraged the traditions, finding them “too Arab.” They were pushing for a homogenization of cultures with the inclusion of European musical styles, as well as strengthening the national cultural identity thru bureaucratized cultural exchanges of state sponsored performing troupes. Working from manuals, the director and faculty have managed to reconstruct the method of traditional performance. Since then, they and their students have been holding concerts in order to revive the style/correct changes that have been made. Traditional Shash Maqam is about an hour-and-a-half long and tells a story. Dancing only occurs in a couple select places during the performance, for example in the Tarana, which lifts the audiences mood after the lengthy (and often sad) tale told by the singer.
Following this introduction, the three musicians performed a short selection of pieces for us: a short nava on solo tanbur, a female vocal piece with tanbur and doira, and a male vocal piece with tanbur, doira and dotar.
After this hot and information-packed day we were hungry, so we went straight to the closest American-friendly restaurant, Salsa. Normally the food is very nice, but this night’s meal did not agree with Emelie.
Sunday 7/17 – Today Emelie was not feeling well and stayed home and knitted while Kris and Hannah ventured out on their own to Teatr-i Javono (Youth theater) via taxi to meet with Amon Mousayev, choreographer for the TDI Performance Ensemble, to finish the Shash Maqam he began choreographing on us yesterday. After adjusting to the fact Emelie was not present (apparently he was concerned she didn’t like his work) Amon Mousayev invited us into the dark theater and we waited for the music to arrive. Because we did not have a translator present that day, in lieu of being able to ask Amon Mousayev questions about the history of the dance, we kept ourselves occupied by displaying samples of our dance repertoire for one another. More specifically, Amon Mousayev grabbed Hannah as a partner to do “jive”, the mambo, salsa, waltz, Moldavian, and Belarussian dance around the theater. (She was relieved when the Tajik music arrived because he was a strong and boisterous partner and nearly yanked her arm out of its socket!) We spent the next hour finishing up the choreography created by him for this special exchange.
The emotional nature of Shash Maqam as a genre is one of yearning and melancholy brought on by separation from the beloved, in both the earthly and spiritual sense. The traditionally subtle movements of the dance reflect its courtesan past where the artist would sing during segments of the musical presentation and accompany her plaintive voice with expressive movements and gestures. Amon Mousayev’s style was more theatrical and contemporary, which meant the movements were adapted for a stage rather than the intimate setting it originated in. For this reason it especially suited Kris, who also enjoyed the introspective, melancholy nature of the genre, and expressed, sighing, that she enjoyed being sad.
Afterwards, we followed our instructor to what turned out to be his shop. He sat us down and began showing off beautiful hair tassels with antique silver and beads. Meanwhile, Kris consulted her Tajik language “cheat sheet” (written on her arm) and asked “how much,” and one of the fellows who worked there consulted his own cheat sheet and proclaimed “we give you best discounts”. Then we were taught words for pretty, including “zebo” and “khosgel”. Amon Mousayev generously gifted Kris a pair of silver earrings and Hannah a beaded Pamiri necklace set, before sending his two American students on their way home on the #3 to join Emelie, Sharlyn, and Lola at the apartment. Sharlyn and Lola had gone to the hot, dusty, crowded, Carvon Bazaar and returned with heaps of convincingly fake “gold” earrings for the company in the traditional style.
Kris and Hannah went to Deli Darbar for thalis. Upon returning, we lounged, played with the adorable kittens who we had befriended in our apartment complex, and cleaned the house in preparation for the arrival of our colleague, Neema Hekmat, who would be arriving the next day from California.
Thursday 7/21 – At last, we are bound for the Pamirs! We departed Dushanbe at 11 a.m. with reassurances of a 10 - 11 hour jeep ride. We finally get through the last Dushanbe police bribe taking station and for six bumpy hours our breath was taken away by each new mountain range that burst out of the earth. We passed through Bungakiyon…donkeys loaded with hay, beehives painted happy greens, reds and blues. Kalai Dasht, Boboi Vali, Ilok, Kashkaraha, Fathobad and the mountains have fully exploded out of the ground. Patchwork farms dot the hillside as we pass through Saroy. Herds of cows lay by the river. Kalai Nav, Kadi Ob. We pass through 180 switchbacks and zigzagging goat paths. When we pulled over for lunch, we met some Parsi women from Ishkashim. Neema chatted with them, one thing he learned was that they blamed Iran for the rise of the hijab (modest covered Muslim dress & headscarves) in Tajikistan, most of the time the wearing of hijab is forced. Emelie had commented before that there were many more hijabis than last year when she was in Dushanbe…back to the van. Near Obi Garm we drive through a huge construction site for a new hydroelectric dam. They were in the process of clearing and restructuring the valley below. We cross a suspension bridge, the racing grey river below lined by mud brick huts of brown with rainbows of drying laundry.
After 6 hours of bouncing along the road, BANG! We hit a huge rock. Our axle is broken.
The car limps along to the next village. Assessment of the damage begins. After two hours on the phone with Samondar, our host for the festival in Khorog and some industrious but failed attempts to fix the axle with a hammer, rusty saw, two by fours with baling wire and a scythe, it is decided that Samondar will hire a car to come from Khorog to retrieve the stranded nomads. We will spend the night in the village. We dine on fresh bread, eggs and honey and make friends with two carfuls of Moldovian Gypsies with broad gold toothed smiles and bright headscarves. Later in the evening, we spend our time well, rehearsing Neema's new composition Ey Jon-e To under the light of the Milky Way and twinkling stars. After dousing ourselves in bug repellant, we find fitful sleep, laid out in a row in the chaikhona (teahouse) on a tapchan.
When morning comes, we wander out into the gorgeous countryside as the stars begin to hide. Through our combined investigations, we learn that the village is called Yaz-Ghun, a Sogdian word that means “disperse and bring back together”. The Sogdians were an ancient group of Iranian people. The Sogdian language is classified as a Middle Iranian, it’s script derived from Aramaic, and was spoken in the area known as Sogdiana centered around the fertile valleys near the Zerafshan river and Samarkhand, spanning a region that is now split between modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Sogdian was widely spoken along the Silk Road, it’s economic and political importance guaranteeing its survival after Islamic conquests in Sogdiana. We were fortunate to see some remains from the Sogdian epicenter of Penjikent when we were at the Museum of Antiquities in Dushanbe. Central Asia’s Pompeii. Today, the living Eastern Iranian Yaghnobi language—spoken by the Yaghnobi people in the upper valley of the Yaghnob River and Yaghnobi re-settlers in Qurghonteppa and Dushanbe—is considered to be a direct descendant of the Sogdian language and often referred to as “Neo-Sogdian” in academic literature.
Yaz-Ghun village is completely self-sufficient, piping its water from the stream at the top of the mountain and growing all their own crops. They keep cows, goats, donkeys, chickens and bees. There is a local doctor and his wife who combine their training in modern medicine with their holistic knowledge of the local flora and fauna to care for the village. The local school goes up to 11th grade. Neema met two young girls while he was walking around. He showed them how to make flower crowns and they showed him two types of edible berries. He was delighted to find that the dialect of Tajiki they spoke in Yaz-Ghun sounded remarkably similar to that of his grandmother in Shiraz, Iran.
The car arrives later in the morning and we happily continue on our way.
After crossing into Badakhshan province, we twist and turn our way thru Darwaz, then begin the uphill ascent to the top of the pass. We stop at the top to breathe the cold, thin mountain air and appreciate the dizzying heights while eating locally made yogurt, then continue on. Many houses up in the mountains are built along streams and have a small water wheel. The structures are made out of car parts stripped from vehicles that have tumbled down the mountainside, tarps and tank parts. We pass many flipped skeletons of Soviet tanks from the Tajik civil war, their treads hanging broken and trailing along the ground.
By mid-afternoon, we hit the Afghan border and spent the remainder of the day driving along the Panj River, staring in speechless wonder at the soaring mountains of the Afghan side of Gorno-Badakhshan. Our drivers with their matching Pamiri hats were an amicable pair, chain smoking and singing boisterously along with the Afghan version of the Neapolitan classic O Sole Mio and the famous Persian song Majnun Majnun, popularized in the Persian world by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s masterpiece Layli o Majnun. We drove through countless little villages, clusters of cob houses with sheet metal roofs held down in the corners by boulders and mountainous piles of drying apricots and toot berries drying in the relentless sun. The small gardens, framed by fruit trees, contained corn, squash, peppers, tomatoes, sunflowers and many types of lettuces. All building material was recycled, but my favorite was the one house that ingeniously utilized an old Soviet bus as part of their fence, cutting thru the drivers side to make a second door then installing a gate and using it as the entrance to the property. On the Afghan side of the river, we saw serene older men navigating twisting rocky paths on their donkeys, young boys running excitedly down the verdant hillsides along waterfalls to swim in the tumultuous river below.
The Afghan side was much more fertile and well cultivated than the Tajik side, with rotation crops and terrace farming established. After 90 years of Soviet influence, the mountainous Pamir region in Tajikistan had been transformed from a society of self-sufficiency to one of dependency, the forced collective farm structure resulting in the loss of knowledge of the land and proper farming techniques. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the following Tajik civil war, the Pamirs were further devastated by their complete isolation from the rest of the Tajikistan. Our Pamiri friends in the US told us stories of having to cut down 200 year old apricot trees for firewood and having no food at all. Thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation’s intervention and subsequent financial support of infrastructural and cultural development projects, the Tajik Gorno-Badakhshan region is slowly beginning to thrive. The third campus of the University of Central Asia is being built in Khorog, its projected finish date is in 2012.
You can read more about the Aga Khan Foundation’s projects here:
*Clarification: the two terms of “The Pamirs” and “Gorno-Badakhshan” refer to the same area of Tajikistan, unless designated as “Afghan Gorno-Badakshan”.
Sunday 7/23 – "Roof of the World Festival" Yesterday after breakfast we met Lola Ulugova, Amon Mousayev , and our festival fellow performers in the park across the street from our Lal Inn Bed and Breakfast. After warm greetings, hugs, and a bevy of picture-taking, we joined the parade down to the open lawn where the stage was set up. After finding a piece of lawn under a tree in the shade, we gave our teaser performance at the Roof of the World Festival, and later that evening we attended a dinner at a traditional Pamiri house hosted by our friends and fellow performers. What a rich evening it was! Following a wonderful vegetable noodle stew dinner (thoughtfully made for us vegetarians) accompanied by bread and fruit, our friends pulled out their instruments and began playing and singing. Of course, we dancers joined in, as was expected of us, encouraged by our spunky new friend Alma who was happy to share her skills dancing. Perhaps my favorite moment was when Kris danced a duet with the great male lead dancer for the TDI ensemble Sheraly. There was evidently a great deal of mutual admiration in the playful exchange!
We were grateful to have been assigned a guide and translator named Asror who was warm, attentive to our every need, and made for delightful company.
The second day of the Roof of the World Festival performances also took place in the grass field of the beautiful Chorbogh central park in Khorog. Though we had challenges to face, particularly with the sound system, we were pleased overall with our performance, and the people here generously expressed how touched they were by it. We presented a contemporary dance using Persian and Central Asian motifs choreographed by Ostad Sharlyn. The beautiful piece of music was composed by our very own Neema Hekmat and set to the poem Abre Gel Nakonim by Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980). The poem entreats ‘don’t muddy the waters’ as a testament to the love of nature featured in much of Sepehri’s work, and was in keeping with the intention of the festival’s programming to draw attention to both cultural and ecological conservation.
Indeed, this mountainous land commands both respect and awe, the profound relationships between the heart and soul of the people and the devastatingly majestic surroundings is palpable; with the symbol of water, as Nourisher in the form of mountain streams and rivers that irrigate the arid land, and Destroyer in the form of the harsh floods and ice that threaten the safety of people living in the Pamirs, occupying a central role in Badakshani culture and spirituality. Indeed, it is common to see the motif of water in Pamiri dance, with the dancer miming pouring water from a jug, washing her face, or splashing the surface of the stream.
The audience, of course, delighted in the large swath of watery silk rippling in the Pamir breeze that was featured in the culmination of our piece. Emelie’ s singing in Farsi was absolutely exquisite, as was Neema’s artistry on the santur. Also joining us were the Tajik musicians Davlat Nazri and and Khurshid Zaripov, who had accompanied choreographer Amon Mosaev ’s group and Lola Ulugova to the festival with the Tajik Dance Initiative (TDI). In addition to Abre Gel Nakonim, Kris danced a solo to Solh - Peace, lyrics based on a poem by Masoud Sepand, an Iranian poet based in the San Francisco bay area, and Hannah danced to Eh Jon E Toh, also composed by Neema with lyrics from a Rumi poem.
One of Neema’s favorite moments of the performance was when Sharlyn and Hannah called all the young children up to make a circle around Kris as she danced to the lyrics of Solh, expressing the value of peace for the children. With only a little encouragement, the children left their smiling parents and eagerly joined the grassy “stage” and we all swayed with our hands in the air. Afterwards Sharlyn and Hannah gave “High 5’s” to each delighted child, of which there were about 100.
After the performance, two distinguished older Tajik gentlemen came backstage in tears. They grasped Emelie’s hands, utterly speechless for a moment and then told her how phenomenally beautiful her singing was. They were also blown away when she started speaking Farsi, remarking how her “Iranian Farsi” was perfectly clear.
Another memorable moment was when Sharlyn took the stage to demonstrate “Amercanski Falak” and broke into an old American folk tune Darlin' Cory. The crowd was absolutely delighted with Sharlyn’s gusto. (The culturally specific lyrics, though, about a mountain woman and her stillhouse proved somewhat challenging to explain to our curious Tajik friends.)
Unfortunately, shortly after our performance the electricity in the entire town went out, and the final three groups were unable to perform. Though something like this hadn’t happened in a number of years – even in the winter- and so was unexpected, we were very impressed by the grace and calm with which the local people responded to the circumstance. While many of the festival guests wandered off, most of the performers stayed in costume around the stage in the dark under the sprinkling of scattered stars and chatted contentedly with one another. When enough time had passed to convince the crowd that the power was not going to return anytime soon, we all retired to change and prepare for the evening’s banquet that was held for the performers on the lawn outside of the beautiful Serena Inn.
(As a side note, it might interest readers to know that there are numerous Serena Inns in South Asia and East Africa, including Afghanistan and Rwanda. The company is dedicated to responsible tourism, offering a comfortable travel experience to typically under-touristed regions in a manner that benefits the local community and ecology.)
The Serena Inn in remote Khorog, located right beside the Panj River that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan, was beautifully designed using the ancient motifs of Badakhshani culture, with the lobby modeled after a traditional Pamiri home. It was a treat to be able to enjoy an evening on the Inn’s lawn along the rushing river, as the dappled lights from the Afghan town across the expanse of dark water –thanks to their recent introduction of electricity- intermingled with the stars, so that it was almost unclear where one ended and the other began. At nearly 7000 feet above sea level in the bowl of the valley, with large shadowy mountains looming above, it truly did feel like we were on the “Roof of the World”.
Monday 7/24 – Sharlyn, Neema, and Hannah were incredibly relieved to have received the call this morning that we could get seats on the 18-person mini propeller plane that was planning to depart from Khorog in 20 minutes, and that the plane would wait for us while we frantically packed up our belongings, said goodbye to friends, paid our room and board, and rushed to the small airport. As majestic as the scenery on the drive from Dushanbe to Khorog was, the roads were quite uncomfortable (though nothing compared to what it used to be, Sharlyn remembered) and it was a relief to be able to have gotten the first plane back to Dushanbe as there had been no flights for two weeks. (Because of the notoriously dangerous reputation of this flight path through the mountains, if there are any problems identified with any of the planes, or if there is even one cloud in the sky, they do not fly.) The view from up here, soaring between the Pamir mountains, is absolutely incredible, with jagged mountains peaks caked with snow. The last two days have been full of dancing, music, and good company, but now it was time for Sharlyn, Neema, and I (Hannah) to return to Dushanbe to finish business there, leaving Emelie and Kris to continue the adventure. We had all sensed how special the Pamirs were to Sharlyn before coming here, and now that we experienced Badakshani culture for ourselves we understood why.
7/25 - After Hannah, Sharlyn and Neema depart, Emelie and I (Kris) obtain lodging with a Pamiri family on the other side of the river where the previous TDI group stayed during their last visit. In between our travels to the Bartang valley and Bibi Fatima Garm Chashma, we will sleep on korpachas with the sound of the river rushing powerfully along. After settling in and happily playing with their wolfish dog, sweetly named “Pupski,” we ambled back across the river as the sun slipped behind the mountains, painting the sky with a fiery palate. At dinner we met two highly entertaining British trekkers, returning from leading a three-week trek into the Wakhan Valley of Afghanistan. Glad to be back among English speakers again, they downed vodka like water, telling us about the hardships of the landscape, language barriers, isolation and seeing Greg Mortenson’s schools dotting the mountainsides, marked clearly with large stars to prevent misidentification. They playfully told us that the foreigner population in Khorog consists mostly of Afghan truckers and trekkers.
The literacy rate in the Pamirs is a whopping 98%. The spoken languages include Tajiki, Russian English and an unwritten Southeastern Iranian language called Shughni. I heard that Shughni is related to the Sogdian based language Yaghnobi, but I cannot verify that from any other sources. Education is highly valued and accessible in the region around Khorog. Most residents are multi-lingual, speaking Tajiki, Russian, English and Shughni. The completion of the campus of the University of Central Asia will further the already high quality of education in the region.
7/26 - Today was the final day of the Roof of the World Festival. After three days of Kazakh, Pamiri, Afghan, Kyrgyz and Persian musicians and dancers, the concert ended with a fantastic presentation by The Tajik Dance Initiative: the Amon Mosoiev dancers accompanied by Dowlat Nazeri’s musical group. After their performance, the local younger amplified groups took to the stage. We were dismayed to see the entrance of the synthesizers. We were even more dismayed when the lip-synching started. Our hosts, festival producers Tolik and Samondar, made a quick exit. We joined them later to find them very reserved and slightly embarrassed for the artists who were lip-synching. By including the young pop groups they had hoped to accomplish two things: support the younger local pop artists and expose them to the musical talent of the local Pamiri and TDI musicians. They talked about hoping to stop the loss of the cultural connection stemming from an inability to play real instruments and the loss of mystical connections that the said instruments provide to nature and one’s ancestors.
7/27 - Today was market day! We walked over the bridge and entered the roasting hot sheet metal market to score Badakhshani honey, vegetables and lentils for soup and some much needed soap to wash our fragrant clothing.
While at the market, we ran into Emelie’s old friend Nat, from her last summer in Dushanbe. We made plans for dinner the next night.
We had our lovely friend Asror over for a homemade dinner of lentil, cabbage and carrot soup. We traded with our landlord: soup for the yogurt/cottage cheese-esque chakka and some fresh baked bread. Asror brought apricots and we picked some aluchey (similar to loquats) from the tree. Pupski the dog sat at our feet in the gazebo as we enjoyed our feast.
7/28 - We met up with Nat for dinner. For the past few years, she has been working as a rogue cultural agent and occasionally with a German cultural development NGO in Dushanbe and the Pamirs. Last summer in the Pamirs, she taught a kids theater camp out of a bus. Also on her resume is the title of Guitar Teacher. When she started in Khorog, they brought her all the guitars in town. Most of them had fishing line and cow gut for strings, making it possible for them told hold tune for about 5 minutes on a good day. The lessons were enthusiastically received: the kids had a blast and learned quickly. Her current project is the acquisition of Pamiri socks to sell at the Bactria Cultural Center in Dushanbe while simultaneously working with the women she buys from in Bartang and the surrounding areas of Khorog to create and use natural dyes instead of synthetic dyes in their knitting.
We went to De Pamiri Handicrafts with her to pick out Pamiri socks. She showed us the regional knitting patterns and motifs—Bartangi, Murghabi and Rushani were a few. Pamiri socks are calf/knee length thick, colorful woolen socks, hand knitted and utilizing nature-based motifs. Prominently displayed on the wall is a pair of Pamiri socks from the early 1900’s: they are thigh high, knit out of naturally dyed purple, burgundy, gold and blue wools. Most knitting patterns and designs have been lost over the last 100 years. Working against this loss, De Pamiri is a local organization devoted to reviving, preserving and developing traditional Pamiri folk handicrafts within the context of the specific culture of the Pamiri people. You can read more about their projects on their website http://depamiri.wordpress.com/ . While we were admiring all of the different socks (they have hundreds piled about the shop), she told us about their latest trip to Murghab (translated from Persian, means “River of Birds”), the easternmost town in Tajikistan, on the Kyrgyz border. Their car hit a mafia drug runner’s SUV, and after further surprisingly amicable conversation, Nat and her friends learn the men are on their way to shoot Marco Polo sheep, at $20,000 a head. Not in the least concerned about their SUV, they invited the girls for a drink. They all ended up going to the bar and had a lovely evening exchanging travel stories.
We climbed a twisted path up to a lookout point over the valley. We had a clear view of the University of Central Asia campus below us, as well as a huge hydroelectric station. Down the far end of the valley the sun was setting, so we wound our way back down the mountain.
7/30 - Snapshots from the road to Bibi Fatima:
Loaded down by 4 pounds of almonds and pistachios and a bag of hand picked Khorog apples, we are stuffed into the back of a Chinese truck, built without shocks. We have to sit doubled over because our heads skim the ceiling when seated. Throw in an unpaved road roughly shaped by glacial till and you have a very uncomfortable, concussion riddled, stunningly gorgeous way to spend the next 6 hours.
Following the Afghan border still further, we see ten children jumping rope on the roof of a house.
More tank skeletons and broken steam shovels silhouetted against the Pamir Mountain range.
Pamiri cob houses with mounds of apricots drying in a circle around the skylight.
Spectacular fan tailed alluvial floods splaying from the stark mountainside.
Fences laboriously made of precisely stacked, glacially smoothed stones.
Goats, donkeys and ibex dotting the hillside.
Countless boulder fields, with heaps of rocks as far as the eye can see. The Pamirs were given their vicious, jutting shape when the Indian and Eurasian continents collided, the collision reaching its maximum intensity in the Pamir area. The following rapid glacial retreat further carved the mountains into their present contours.
We stop at the Ishkashim market. After surrendering our passports, we cross over to the market on the Afghan side. The faces of the Afghan men are unreal: their eyes twinkle and smile, the deep lines on their faces are perfectly carved out of well worn leather that has felt every sunrise during it’s time on this planet. They all wear thick ankle length wool coats as old as they are, with red trim at the edges. They are quick to smile and joke with us, which is a shock after the closed demeanors and furtive staring in Dushanbe. I shook the proffered hand of a man selling watermelons to find calluses so thick I doubt he could close his hand. I bought an old piece of jewelry from one particularly sweet old vendor. Receiving the Tajik Simoni from my hand, he held it to his chest, shut his beautiful pale brown eyes and began to croon and sway in a very mast type fashion, singing “Amrikiye! Amrikye!” with a huge, delighted smile on his face. He and his three friends started to dance in a circle together in an Attan-ish fashion, enjoying themselves immensely. We watched, completely forgotten by the dancing men, our faces wreathed in smiles.
We have made good friends with the four women traveling with us, starting a conversation over Emelie’s knitting (she is knitting an alpaca sweater for her handsome fiance Navied, at home in California). They exchanged knitting techniques and admired her work. Two mothers and daughters, all of them extremely friendly with warm smiles, quick to laugh.
After 6 hours, we finally begin the seven-mile jaw dropping, hair-raising switchback ascent to Bibi Fatima Garm Chashma - Bibi Fatima Hot Spring. We stop where our new friends are staying, the supposed only guesthouse at the springs. They refer to it as “The Sanitarium“. Upon entrance, I am immediately reminded of the Napoleon XIV song; They’re Coming To Take Me Away. All the gardeners and cooks are decked out in torn, muddy scrubs. There are quite a few “doctors” wandering around in muddy white coats with garden spades and grubby 1940’s style stethoscopes. When they catch sight of the foreigners, their jaws drop and they stare at us in surprise, shuffling about uncertainly in the flowerbeds. The lead doctor is a kindly elder, with a beautiful toothless smile, stained white coat, plaid pants and bedroom slippers. We are told there is a room for us, and then told to wait. The “garden doctors” continue to stare at the strange foreign folks as we sit on a staircase contemplating the mountains and eating apples picked from our Khorog orchard. We coax out a few nervous smiles as Emelie speaks to them in Tajiki and I offer them some apples.
Over the half hour we wait, we are thrice moved and told multiple times by multiple people, “There is a room, no wait! There’s not!” We are finally taken to the manager’s office, where we sit surrounded by lascivious, leering pictures of President Rahmon. The manager slowly stares us up and down in a most inappropriate fashion, and informs us that the guesthouse is full, and that we may pay $25 US dollars (that’s an approximate inflation rate of 100%) each to sleep on the floor in his daughter’s room. Which is next to his room. We sit for a moment looking at him in disgust, and make our exit.
As we are standing in the road contemplating the fact that we are stranded on a mountain with a pervert blocking our only rooming option, our four lovely new lady friends and the driver emerge from The Sanitarium. The driver tells us that there is another place next to Bibi Fatima, but it is under construction with no running water. We are overjoyed. The women invite us to come with them to the hot springs and then they will take us to the other place and negotiate lodging.
Bibi Fatima Garm Chashma—"Lady Fatima Hot Springs" is named for Fatima the daughter of the prophet Mohammad (PBUH) —sometimes called the "sleeves of Fatima" the springs are in a small cave tucked into a fissure between two massive mountains. The mineral deposits in the water rushing into the cave have turned the rock surface an ethereal green, giving it the appearance of being carved from jade. Steaming water pours from above your head, dripping down the two ‘sleeves’ and from a sidewall out of a waist high circular spout.
The hot springs are said to rejuvenate a woman's well being in a way that improves female fertility. To experience the maximum benefit of your fertility sojourn, there is a small crevice about the size of a human body you must crawl into, with water up to the chest. Once inside, you submerge yourself to the floor, where you must fumble about to pick up one stone for each child you wish to have. One of the daughters we traveled with couldn’t get inside the crevice because of knee problems, so she asked me to crawl in for her, holding my hand as I dove down to pick up her two ‘children.’ After clearing water from my eyes, I was surprised to see tears in her eyes as I handed her the babies. I was touched to be part of such an important experience in her life. I picked up two babies for Emelie as well, and the women all cheered, their cries drifting up in the steam toward the piercing blue crack of sky framed by mossy cliffs. “A son, a son!” they chanted, patting her on the back. “NO!” Emelie retorted energetically, “Daughters are better!” The woman all laughed knowingly and longingly, embracing Emelie and smiling sadly. We both felt the sadness, and yet another downside of a patriarchal society.
After sharing this bonding experience together in the springs, we walked arm in arm with our new companions up the dirt road to the guesthouse, tightly bundled in Pamiri socks and shawls.
7/31 - Mir & Safar (meaning “Journey”), father and son respectively, are the owners of the new guesthouse at Bibi Fatima. Their smiles are so big their cheeks threaten to split, as they welcome us into their home. Mir makes us our first sheer chai—somewhat like Indian chai, but with salt and butter instead of sugar. One of the staple foods during Pamiri winters, it puts hair on your chest, according to Tolik. Over sheer chai, we remark on the beauty of their carpets. Most houses in Dushanbe have the same brand of cheap looking pseudo-Persian carpets. They have the same brand, but the quality is far superior. They tell us that Langar, a town further down the main road, has a bridge that leads into Afghan Gorno-Badakhshan, then further on into Pakistan. It is a major trade vein, with many high quality rugs coming through from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Where we stand, we can see two ranges of mountains, one behind the other. The first range, directly across the river below, is the Afghan Pamir Mountain Range. The second range is the start of the Hindu Kush in Pakistan. It was amazing to stand there contemplate that I have seen the other end of the range when traveling in Kashmir years ago.
Later in the day we hiked out to the Yamchun Ruins, referred to as The Zanr-i-atish-parast, or Fortress of the Fire Worshippers. This incredible fortress has almost achieved a perfect state of ruination. From the Greco-Bactrian and Kushan periods (3-1 BC) with parts built in the early mediaeval period, it sits atop the mountain in perfect silence. Covering about 3,000 square feet, most of the unprotected ruins are just above head level. The Afghan Pamir range juts up behind the fortress while the valley unwinds along the river in either direction.
We learn there are many 10,000 + year old petroglyphs in this area, reminding us of the phenomenal display of petroglyphs we saw at The Museum of Antiquity in Dushanbe. The Shakty Cave at 4,200 meters has the highest known location of Mesolithic or Neolithic (12,000-8,000 BCE) cave paintings (pictographs). In Langar alone there are over 6,000 petroglyphs. Later petroglyphs depict Islamic motif and religious texts or poems in Arabic/Farsi script.
We stopped into Bibi Fatima for one more soak before heading back to retire for the evening as the sun slipped behind the mountains.
8/1 - At 6 am, we hit the road as the sun crests over the valley. The driver wants to see his cousins, so packed tightly back into the miniature Chinese van we juggernaut down the road to the village of Shirgin. In the soft light of daybreak, we park next to an old shrine covered in ibex horns and gorgeous woodcarvings of old Persian poetry. Sucking in shallow breaths from the cold, thin air, we follow a cowherd up a winding path to the top of the village. I notice that most houses have full herb and vegetable gardens, boasting cilantro, parsley, squash, potatoes, tomatoes and more. These gardens are nestled among assorted fruit trees. To my surprise I also see quite a few solar panels glinting from the roofs, next to the skylight windows. The whole village is built alongside their water source—the tumultuous waterfall that cascades down the mountainside. There is no shortage of sunflowers and vibrant wildflowers bursting from every available dirt patch. In the valley below, the village spills out into terraced farming. They grow grains for bread making, corn, and all larger crops down here. The village has a large population of cows, goats, chickens and bees, which live in harmony with the 98 people, making Shirgin a model of complete self-sufficiency.
We are warmly welcomed by his family and seated on a tapchan as the early sunlight filters quietly through the trees. Our traveling companions have brought a massive pile of apricots. We add a pile of almonds to the spread. We enjoy a morning bowl of sheer chai with real fresh churned sweet butter from the cows in the back paddock. It’s so chilly up here that the sheer chai sends perfect steam spirals into the air as we gladly clutch it’s warmth close to us. While we revel in the pure unspoiled beauty of where we sit, Emelie knits away at Navied’s sweater. It’s about mid torso at this point, coming along quite nicely. The mothers are delighted to exchange more knitting advice and Emelie shows them the technique she is using, letting them happily try a few lines. Then, holding hands in the gentle sunlight, the two mothers wander off on a slow circle of the yard, staring off at the mountains and smiling and speaking softly, sharing a beautiful moment. The daughters notice me watching them contentedly and tell me that they have been friends for their whole lives. It is so warming to be in their presence, you can feel the deep seated camaraderie between the women.
The ride back to Khorog was much like an old Wells Fargo route. Loaded down with many packages, our truck stopped upwards of 20 times to exchange produce, medical supplies, old wooden doors, books, bags of tea leaves, and automobile parts, to name a few. We stopped at the driver’s house to pick up his wife and two children, squeezing them all into the front seat. It is a fine example of very industrious carpooling. We return bruised, cramped and happy in the early evening to Khorog.
8/2 - In Robert Middleton’s Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, there is an entire page of suggested translations of the word ‘Pamir,’ from Old and Middle Persian and Turkic languages. My favorite of all of them is from Old Persian, ‘poye’ and ‘mehr’ meaning “The land at the foot of the sun”. It seems the most fitting translation. The Pamirs also claimed the title “the Roof of the World” long before Tibet.
We learned today that Tajik/Afghan Gorno Badakhshan is the only area in the world where lapis lazuli is found. Wherever it is found in antiquity, there is direct evidence of trade with Badakhshan. Lapis lazuli has been found in Sumerian tombs in Mesopotamia, Ebla in Syria, and on King Tut’s funeral mask, to name a few. (*Post Pamir Addition* After Tajikistan, I traveled to Spain. On the second day I found direct evidence of Silk Road trading. In the autonomous Catalan region in northern Spain, there are many salvaged frescos from countryside chapels. One of the most famous, known as The Fresco of the Pantocrator from Sant Climent de Taull (1123), is heavily influenced by Byzantine styles, most likely painted by troubadour style artists wandering over the Pyrenees or across the Mediterranean. It's fantastically preserved, and a great example of the Spanish/Catalan obsession with "mirada fuerte", or "strong look", a technique utilized by Picasso. All of the blue used in this massive fresco is made from lapis lazuli. It is still unusually vibrant and shimming, 900 years later.)
We spent part of the day researching the Scythians. The first written records of human activity in the Pamirs are from historical accounts of the Scythians (Sakas in Persian). The Scythians didn’t leave a lot of physical evidence, but they can be linked to the Achaemenid Dynasty in Persia (559-300 BC) through the Histories of Herodotius (420 BC). They were fire and sun worshippers and their language was in the Indo-Iranian group of the Indo-European linguistic family. Among modern languages, Ossetian and other dialects in the Pamirs are probably closest to the original Scythian language.
Our research was wonderfully broken up by a welcome lesson with Sharlyn’s friend Meingul. We are very lucky she was able to squeeze us in: the timing of our visit is, most unfortunately, very poor. A week from now is Istiklol, the celebration of Tajikistan’s independence. Most of the artists in Dushanbe and Khorog have been booked solid by the government for celebratory preparation. We had a basic follow along Pamiri dance session, followed by a break down of the three parts of the main Pamiri drum rhythm. Most of the drums were being utilized for rehearsals all week long, so we all gathered around the single circular daf, playing the three parts simultaneously on the one daf. Studying with Meingul and Anargul, we have realized that even up in the Pamirs, the Soviet theatrical influence of dance is strong. Everything we have experienced in Khorog, as in Dushanbe, is stage ready, it is performance. It is an incredible opportunity to study the traditions, but one cannot help longing to feel, to see what it was like in pre-Soviet times. We are looking forward to our Bartang trip, to find true folk dance forms with Sarkory and Jomboz.
8/3 - As I lay bathed in sunlight, staring up at the superbly carved Pamiri roof above my head, I feel obliged to impart an in depth explanation of these humble, sacred, earth connected structures. All terminology will be in Shughni, unless otherwise noted.
The Pamiri House, or ‘chid’, has strong root in Aryan/Buddhist philosophy. It is 2,500 years old, a symbol of the universe and a place of private prayer and worship. As of today, there are no mosques in GBAO (Gorno Badakhshan), all worship takes place in the home. The ‘chid’ is constructed of stones and plaster or cob, with a flat roof to dry hay, apricots and manure for fuel. There are three tiered living areas, ‘sandj’, symbolizing animal, mineral and vegetable. The floor, ‘chalak’, is the animate world, the first raised dais, ‘loshnukh’, is the vegetative soul and the second raised dais, 'barnekh’, is the cognitive soul.
There are five supporting pillars, symbolizing the five angels of the Zoroastrian Avesta, and simultaneously the five "pillars of Islam", the members of the prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and his family: Ali, Mohammad's (son-in-law), Bibi Fatima (daughter), and their sons Hasan & Husayn.
They represent the earth, water, air and fire; the latter being the highest and first warmed by the sun’s rays. The opening skylight, ‘rauzan’ is at the center top and represents the clear all-being oneness of the universe.
The colors of red and white play a strong part in Pamiri culture, specifically in traditional dance costumes. The costumes consist of white dresses for women, pants and shirt for men. Belt and boots are usually red. The women wear red yarn braid woven into their hair, with beaded tassels dangling from the ends. Red stands for sun, blood (the source of life), fire and flame (the first thing created by God). White represents light and milk (the source of human well being).
We also were able to clarify a few musical forms today:
Dargilik is a melancholy song of separation.
Falak refers to a song of fate.
Ghazal is a love song
Hikayat is a versified story
Khaliqi is a traditional or popular song.
Lala’ik is a lullaby.
Munajat is a beseeching religious song.
We talked with Tolik today about the use of Pantomime in traditional Pamiri dance. He said originally, the pantomime dances and the pure dance were separate forms. The Soviets combined the two together for a more dynamic, interesting stage presentation. Traditionally the two styles are separate. According to him, the two best preservers of Pamiri folkdance are Zaragul—who is now living in Moscow—and Sarkory in the Bartang Valley. We grow even more excited to travel to Bartang. He is the last person who knows an old pre-Soviet funeral dance tradition, which TDI has video-documented on their newly released DVD series of Tajik Dance Styles.
One of the other factors responsible for cultural loss in Tajikistan was Stalin’s 1929 splitting of Tajikistan from Uzbekistan. Because of it’s location at the edge of the Islamic world, he wanted Tajikistan to be it’s own republic, so he detached it from Uzbekistan, throwing in the Khojand region (mainly Uzbek) at the last minute to achieve the 1 million population necessary to create a republic. He left the Tajik cultural capitals of Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. There is no way to truly know how much Tajik culture has faded away because of this split.
Despite the apparent cultural damages suffered over the last 100 years, there is still a dearth of material in which to immerse oneself. We have an incredible opportunity to study the Sovietized theatrical traditions kept by the government-supported companies in Dushanbe alongside the more traditional reconstructed works of the Shash Maqam Institute and the folkloric dance and music traditions out in the Pamirs. We have such a unique opportunity to study a many-layered palate of dance traditions and bureaucratic utilization of said traditions, preserved in a theatrical form by Soviet nation building practices.
Brains full, we contentedly practice our Pamiri drumming and enjoy another homemade dinner of soup and bread alongside the Gund River as the stars make their appearance.
8/3 - BARTANG
Sarkory is 64, with a kindly, laugh lined face, high defined cheekbones, twinkling brown eyes and a dazzling smile. His four gold teeth playfully accent the sparkle of laughter in his eyes. His father was a famous gijak player, and also a keeper of Pamiri dance traditions. Sarkory grew up on his father’s knee, opposite the gijak. As soon as he was old enough to walk, his father began imparting the dance traditions of his own generation to him.
When we arrive, he is a bustle of activity: wearing snazzy, sharp-toed cowboy boots, he lithely swings up into a tall tree with a red bucket. We see his hand and the toes of his boots through the sun-filtered foliage from time to time as he deftly fills the bucket with golden-auburn alutchey fruit. We sit with him and his wife, enjoying the alutchey and tea with the almonds and pistachios we brought along. We have a “chak chak”, or a chat, about why we have come to Bartang.
Clad in a bright sapphire blue shirt as the sun’s last light filters into the kitchen through the geraniums on the windowsill, Sarkory glows as he shows us the Bartangi style of Badakhshani dance. He shows us the difference between the sliding, sinuous female movement and the sharp, percussive male movement style. Softly up lit as the sun begins it’s decent behind the mountains, we kneel on the ground to learn the pantomime farm-based movements. When we asked him about the Cultural Show we saw him in at Borbat Theater in Dushanbe, he said all dance there is women’s dance. What he and the other Pamiri men did was very unique, with all men singing, drumming and dancing. We asked if that was because they were less affected by Soviet influences in the Pamirs, he said that was the most likely explanation. He also explained that in the traditional forms of Pamiri dance, the hands never go above the shoulders, but that this rule has become more relaxed in recent years.
After our dance lesson, we had the practical application section: that night was the birthday of one of the village elders. There was a huge party for the whole village. As guests, we were obligated to dance for the crowd, so to riotous applause, we eagerly obliged by presenting what Sarkory had taught us earlier that day. He then took the floor, and the crowd erupted with cheers as he danced a beautiful duet with an older woman. Then the children converged on the clearing, joyfully kicking up the dust.
We retire for the night laying side by side with the other women of the house on a tapchan under a kamikaze apple tree, which drops apples down to the earth all night long. We listen to the trickle of the stream as we drift off, watching the diamond studded sky thru the leaves above us.
8/4 - Our dance space cheerfully framed by tomato plants and golden orange marigolds, Sarkory demonstrates the funeral dance, and then explains the symbolism behind the movements. The following was rapidly translated by the brilliant Emelie Coleman and transcribed by myself (Kristen).
Women did this dance in pre-Soviet times. It was discouraged by the Soviets, finding it too dramatic and emotional. The Soviets also worked actively to separate religious elements from daily life (for example, banning the practice of Ramadan), resulting in most people forgetting the tradition completely.
In the past, Tajik women always washed their hair on Mondays. They would then braid up their long tresses, which would remain tied back for the remainder of the week. The only time they let down their hair was during funerals.
The dance consists of four main movement ideas. All the women would gather around the body. With soot smeared on their face to represent that Adam was made from clay and returns to clay, they would throw themselves to their knees, their head on the ground in grief. They would then reach to the heavens, head back, then throw their head back to the ground. This symbolized that the body went into the ground as the spirit traveled to the heavens. The second movement consisted of a half turn in which one would fling the arms away from the body, then bring them back in to rest, holding either the heart, the kidney or the back—all the parts of the body that hold grief. Men would tie fabric around their waist, protecting their back and kidneys from grief. The third movement was turning and clapping four times in the faces of those grieving, the theory being it helped to calm their grief.
All movement circled around the corpse, as the musicians played the tambur, rebab, daf and sometimes the santur. When the body was inside the house, the men would play instruments. Once outside, the women would sing and play the daf. Women sang in pre-Soviet times, but no longer. They would sing a falak after the music would crescendo, as they carried the body out of the house. The singing incorporated lyrics from Persian poetry, mostly Rumi, from the Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, sung in Farsi. They chanted in Shughni. The only woman who knows these vocal traditions is Mamadior Khojomiorev: she is 80 years old and too old to teach.
After a birth, woman drummers would play a series of rhythmic patterns, and the women would dance a Shodiana (dance of joy). In Bartang, a Shodiana is an improvisational dance; it’s whatever makes the women happy and expresses their joy. They use the same dance at weddings. Sarkory knows roughly 70-80 Badakhshani songs; he plays daf at weddings to liven up the mood and encourage dancing.
Sarkory also teaches all the children of Siponj village traditional Bartangi style Badakhshani dance. He is very happy that he can be a keeper of culture, passing along the traditions from his grandfather’s generation to the young generation of today.
We wanted to express our gratitude in a meaningful way to Sarkory and his wife for their time, hospitality and the gift of knowledge. We had brought gifts of pistachios and almonds, but it wasn’t enough. The family was so busy with farm and cooking tasks during our stay—fruit gathering/drying, bread baking, meat curing, water hauling and land prep—so I asked Sarkory if there was anything that we could do to help. He looked at me for a second, then smiled wide, disappeared into a shed and returned with two sickles. Emelie and I spent the next three hours on our hands and knees cutting the grass, while the smell of cool mountain air mingled with freshly baking bread. Most of the village stopped by to peek over the fence and smile at us; we were proud to do our part to break the propaganda myth of the “lazy American.” Blistered, sunburned and sore, we had one last tea with Sarkorys before heading down the winding Bartang road.
I cannot help thinking of a Badakhshani song quote I read in Robert Middleton’s companion book to Tajikistan and the High Pamirs: “The bright people of Rushan (a town in Badakhshan) are like a crystal mirror. They remove rust from the hearts of a traveler.”