10 Observations on Tajikistan culture and society
Travelling, couchsurfing and hitchhiking across Tajikistan for one month was one of the most interesting experience of our Long Way Home adventure and during that time we tried our best to observe the culture and society of this rugged land.
It is Central Asia’s poorest country and life is a curious blend of austerity, friendliness and religious conservatism. We must highlight, however, that these are just our subjective observations and we would love to hear what you think. Have we misunderstood anything? Do you have any observations to share yourselves?
Tajikistan culture and society
Weddings are always a great insight into any culture and while we were in Tajikistan we had the opportunity to go to one of these socially important events. It was a real eye-opener, as well as being a really fun night, especially when contrasted to the ceremony that we know so well in the West.
The first thing to note was its length, a mere 3 hours. This is not by choice, however, but because of a government decree imposing the limitation.
It was also very strange for us the behaviour of the bride and groom. They didn’t participate as in western weddings, but sat aloof not saying a word, and in the case of the bride looking close to tears, on the top table. They didn’t communicate, they didn’t smile and in all honesty they looked as though they’d rather be anywhere else in the world except there. We were told that it might be due to the fact that weddings often happen in Tajikistan because of social pressure rather than love itself and people marry young, which means that detaching themselves from their protective (or over-protective) parents might be difficult to some.
Some aspects were similar, there was music and dancing but alcohol was, on the surface, off limits. There was, however, a secret room where all the musicians and male friends of the groom drank shot after shot of brandy and vodka occasionally emerging to take a turn on the dance-floor.
Read about our experience of attending a Tajik wedding.
Although we didn’t see it in person, once while sitting in a student flat in Tajikistan somebody put on a DVD of Tajikistan’s national sport Buzkashi (Kokpar).
Animal lovers, look away now. The game has a passing resemblance to polo with the main difference being that instead of using a ball and stick, the horse-mounted players attempt to drag a goat’s carcass towards a ‘goal’. The game is played individually, imagine a free for all of horses, dead animal carcass and men whipping each other and horses, and the winner is usually given a live animal such as a sheep, goat, camel or even a bear or wolf! Apparently the game is popular across Central Asia but the treatment of the animals was a bit shocking to our Western sensibilities.
Read more about our experience of watching this sport.
Tajikistan is a poor country with around 80% of the population living on or below the poverty line. This lack of material wealth demonstrates itself in several ways and one of the most glaring for foreign visitors is in its cuisine.
Put simply, Tajik food is dire. The national dish, qurutob, consists of yoghurt water poured on bread and mixed with tomatoes and cucumber. It really is as tasty as it sounds! Breakfast usually consists of tea, bread and condensed milk, and the choice in markets is extremely limited. Meat is rare, pork non-existent (due to religious reasons) and there are frequent food shortages across the country. It is certainly not a food lovers paradise.
Contrasting with the food shortages is the abundance of food put in front of visiting guests. It may seem strange, given the grinding poverty you will often encounter, that in every house you visit, fruit and sweets will be piled high in front of you.
This is due to the importance of hospitality in Tajik culture. Tajik people are simply lovely and it is a source of great pride for them to make any guest feel comfortable and satisfied in their homes. We lost count of the amount of times we were invited in by complete strangers who insisting on cooking up a plov for us, sending the children to the shops to spend what little cash they had on feeding these guest from a faraway land. Sometimes it was a fine line between being courteous guests and having the feeling that we were taking food from people who were merely making ends meet.
Interestingly, it was also only the most prominent members of the family who would eat with us, normally the patriarch (father and grandfather) and an older matriarch (usually an elderly grandmother) whilst the children and wife would eat elsewhere.
After being invited into so many Tajik houses it is only fair to say something about their abodes. Tajik houses are bare, there is no furniture, few if any books, sometimes no cooking equipment beyond a portable gas stove but usually a TV (sigh).
The one thing ubiquitous in all Tajik houses are kurpachas, a colourful single mattress covered with velvet that doubles up as a bed and seat. These versatile objects are more often than not the only thing in a room, and when food is served 3 or 4 are used to form a square where a tablecloth is put in the middle. All food is prepared on the floor (not literally but without using a table) and as few houses have any plates or cutlery, food is served from a communal bowl and eaten by hand. It is in the bathroom that things get a little grim, though. Hot water is a rarity, so to clean it’s water in a bucket and a bowl I am afraid. Toilets are of the squat variety.
To politics, and Tajikistan shares a lot in common with the other former countries of the Soviet Union. A strong man leader who rose up through the Communist Party ranks, took the opportunity to seize power and has never let go, Emomali Rahmon, president since 1992, is a big brother figure throughout Tajikistan. Staring down from posters in every town and city, the propaganda borders on the ridiculous: here’s President Rahmon in a field of rye, here he is sniffing a loaf of bread, always enlarged to double the size of any other figure. The strange thing is that he seems to be popular enough (perhaps it is not so surprising as he controls all the media and has suppressed all other opposition, I suppose) and only very few people we spoke to were prepared to criticise the president.
Seemingly, the key tool for keeping the authorities in power is the word terrorist. If anybody disagrees with the powers that be, they are labelled a terrorist and that is the only justification needed to cart somebody off to jail. This creation of fear of Islamic fundamentalism is a key tool in the distraction policy of the government and a fantastic way to maintain the status quo. It also helps ensure western support as they claim to be fighting extremism while hinting at the chaos that could be unleashed if a strong authority figure was not keeping a lid on things.
Another day, another Central Asian dictatorship that will run and run and run.
The feeling of religious fervour was one of the most intriguing things for us in Tajikistan and perhaps the reason why the government is so fearful. The Tajiks are arguably the most morally strict Muslims of all the countries we had visited thus far (and this includes Iran), with an extremely conservative population. Perhaps one example best illustrates the point. One discussion with a group of students (the very people you would think would be most liberal) that we stayed with in Khujand was enough to shake our preconceptions. They were all good Muslim boys, never drank or smoked, went to mosque frequently, but there is nothing too strange in that for us. What was curious was there support for the banning of solo female singers. Music sung by temptresses was a sin in their eyes and apparently all we needed to do was watch some YouTube videos by a Muslim cleric and we would be of the same opinion. Tajikistan was an extremely patriarchal society, with definite gender roles, namely that the women stay at home, provide for their husbands and have babies and equal rights was not a concept widely held.
As an example to tie together the themes of politics and religion in Tajikistan, the best probably remains the beard ban. Beards are, in practice, illegal in Tajikistan and there has been a spate of enforced shavings by the police in recent months.
The government links beards to fundamentalism, as though having hair on your face is akin to declaring you are a terrorist, and very few people are safe from the long sheers of the law. Being foreign, however, does garner you some protection and I wore my beard with pride. I got a wide variety of responses for my mane from the mistrustful to the admiring thumbs up and the beard ban just goes to underline the government’s mistrust of any belief that can not be easily controlled by them.
Away from politics, but staying with fashion (yes, my beard is extremely fashionable, I’ll have you know) are the clothes that you can see around the country. In Dushanbe, the attire is more western with men in t-shirts, shirts, jeans and suits and women dressed in the usual array of things not uncommon in any European city. Leave the capital, however, and things get a little more interesting.
Clothing is expensive in Tajikistan so as a result many women buy fabric (atlas) and go to the tailors to get things made specifically cut. The most common traditional garment for women is a straight dress, widening at the bottom, worn over trousers cut from the same fabric. The colours tend to be bold and bright, and patterned like a wave of distorted colour and there are lots of regional variations in the cut and fit of the clothes. The traditional head dress is a square kerchief that is again, highly decorative depending on the region.
The last point to make is the cultural divide between the western Tajiks and the rest of the people that live in the Eastern part of the country, in the high Pamir mountains.
People there have maintained a different culture, religion, languages and identity. Pamir houses are unique and overflowing with symbolism. Within the main room there are three living areas representing animal, mineral and vegetable and 5 pillars representing the 5 members of the family of Ali (Ali was the son-in-law of Mohammed). The houses are bright and airy and unlike anything you have seen before.
In the Pamirs there are four main language branches: Shughni–Yazgulami, Munji–Yidgha, Sanglechi–Ishkashimi and Wakhi – each highlighting the different ethnic and cultural history of disparate groups. In many ways visiting the Pamirs is like visiting a complete separate country and it is of little surprise that the Civil War of the early 1990s fell broadly along east-west divisions.
Have you been to Tajikistan? What were your impressions of this fascinating country? Which part of the article did you find the most surprising?
written by: Jon