Stories from Avj: Dr Shirinbek Davlatmamadov20 min read

 In Central Asia, Civil Society, Interview
In a series of interviews conducted in 2019, Solveiga Kaļva talks to people who live in or are somehow connected to Avj, a remote mountain village in the Pamir Region of Tajikistan. 

I was trying to arrange an interview with Dr. Shirinbek, my Pamiri ‘grandfather’, for a long time, but he was always so busy, besides I respect him so much that I didn’t want to disturb him with my humble questions.

On one of my last days in Avj, I was cleaning the house when I ran into Dr. Shirinbek. I asked him if he would have some free time today. He promised to give me an interview once he was back from his pharmacy. When Dr. Shirinbek came back, unexpected guests arrived and he had to talk to them. Later I saw Dr. Shirinbek walking around with a shovel and changing the water flow in the irrigation channels of their fields. It really amazes me how much water one can gather for his field, if he knows how to change the current of the mountain spring. Some digging here, some digging there, some stones here, some stones there and – voilà!

Not long before dinner Dr. Shirinbek knocks on my door. He has some time for the interview. Dr. Shirinbek sits on the floor and encourages me to sit right next to him. Finally, a long awaited interview.

Dr. Shirinbek is peaceful as always. More precisely, peaceful as always when he talks about history, legends, culture, memories, medicine, and life. If he is in a bad mood, you better watch out! He can be stubborn as a mule. Mostly though he reminds of a thousand year old mountain spirit, wise and peaceful. He usually enjoys good company, a few sips of a hard liquor, and is a master of heart-breaking toasts. 

How are you connected to Avj?

I was born in Avj on 15 March 1939. The blood from my umbilical cord leaked in this village. Avj is my birthplace and my homeland. I have spent a lot of time in various cities, but my homeland has always been calling me back. Nostalgia!

We lived in Avj, but there was no school, so for the first three years I went to school in Mulvoj [a village about 5 km from Avj] and later in other villages. In my childhood, I helped my family with various farm work. I cut grass, watered plants, carried firewood, as well as going to the summer pastures in the mountains with our livestock. We were running around barefoot. After the seventh grade, I continued my education in a boarding school in the district of Hisor [region of Tajikistan located west of the capital].

I wanted to study chemical biology at university. Once, I was in the library, and two other men entered the room. They spoke in Russian, I already knew a bit of Russian too. They started a conversation with me and asked me what I was planning to study. I said I would like to study chemical biology. One of them said with Georgian accent: “My dear! Why do you want to learn about frogs? You should study medicine!”. The other was a chief physician and they gave me a recommendation for the medical institute.

I passed the entry exams with good grades and was accepted to the university. I started my studies with a preparation course in order to improve my Russian. I had a scholarship of fifteen rubles per month, and I paid two rubles for the dormitory. I had to survive the whole month with thirteen rubles, and my family couldn’t give me any extra money. When I started my medical studies for real, the scholarship was bigger – thirty rubles. Still, I was hungry all the time. I didn’t have proper boots or clothes for winter, but I knew I had to study. There were thirty six students from Badakhshan [an autonomous region in Eastern Tajikistan] in my year, and only six of us graduated, the others quit. All six of us had health problems caused by poor nutrition, but we didn’t quit our studies, and I became a doctor.

After graduating from the medical institute in Dushanbe, I worked in the hospital in Ishkashim [a city about 30 km from Avj] from 1964 to 1972. My wife, Hadicha, was a midwife. We were working day and night. I was doing surgeries in the light of kerosene lamps without anesthesia, as we didn’t have electricity. Like this, docha [daughter].

Then I worked in the hospital in Khorugh [a city about 80 km from Avj] from 1972 to 1992. But Avj, my homeland, and nostalgia towards my birthplace called me back, so I moved to Avj, became a chief physician in the sanatorium and built this house. We still live here. I worked as the chief physician in the sanatorium until 2005. From 2005 to 2010, I worked as a traumatologist in Ishkashim. Since 2010, I’ve been doing some social work in the region, treating patients with folk medicine in my own phyto-pharmacy, as well as writing new books.

What is the history of Avj? Who founded this village?

Avj was founded by people who spoke Persian, also known as Farsi, which is almost the same as Tajik. Most likely, they arrived here from Iran around the beginning of the 19th century. In Dehbolo, one of the villages in Aghduru valley in Afghanistan, lived our forefathers, four brothers Aydi, Odina, Nozri and Davlatmamad. In those times there was no border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, so they spent summers on one side, and winters on the other side of the Panj River [the river serves as a natural and official border now]. When the border between the two countries was created, the four brothers moved to Mulvoj and built a house there.

Aydi, Odina and Davlatmamad stayed in Mulvoj, and Nozri moved to Ishkashim. Davlatmamad had two sons Kurbon and Navruz, they moved to Avj in 1927 and lived there together. Later they built another house, and Navruz began to live separately from his brother. Navruz and his wife, Gulshod, had a daughter, Shobegim, and a son, Navruz Youngest. Kurbon and his wife had a son Davlatmamad, my father, and a daughter, Nitbaht. When Navruz Oldest died, his brother, Kurbon, married his wife Gulshod, as Kurbon’s first wife was dead too. Kurbon and Gulshod had a son, Rustam.

Kudrat [a neighbour] told me a legend about seven brothers, the founders of Avj. Is it somehow related to this history?

The legend is about our early history. It is about our ancestor, Aydarmahammad, his wife, Nukra, their beautiful daughter, Tous, and her seven brothers. They lived in Mulvoj. Where they came from, nobody knows. They spoke Farsi. The oldest of the brothers was Navdraht and the youngest was Alimahammad. People from Barshor [a village about 10 km from Avj] arrived in Mulvoj and kicked this family out of Mulvoj. They moved to Avj.

Navdraht was a hunter. As a rule, every time Navdraht went hunting and it started to get dark, his mother and sister went to wait for him around the place where Bozor [a neighbour who

lives higher up the mountain] lives now. The girl was very beautiful, even the emir of Kabul learned that a real beauty lives in the mountains of Badakhshan. He sent twelve men with a mission to bring this beautiful girl to him.

On one beautiful day, Navdraht went hunting, and the twelve men arrived. They captured the other brothers, tied their hands and tried to kidnap the girl. But the mother was a very smart woman. We, Ismailis [a branch of Shia Muslims], have a custom – when a woman lets her hair down, even a tsar has to obey her will. She knew that Navdraht would understand something was wrong if his mother and sister were not waiting for him. So, she let her hair down and said to the men: “Oh, please, wait, I will prepare a dinner for you, and after that you can go!”.

Pamir Mountain Region in Tajikistan

When Navdraht finished hunting, he was very surprised that his mother and sister were not waiting for him. He understood something bad had happened. He went to their house and quietly climbed on the roof. He saw through the ruzan [an opening in the ceiling] that their house was full of strangers, and his mother was preparing dinner for them. Navdraht threw a small stone so that his mother would know that he came back home. She sneaked out of the house and explained to Navdraht what was going on. He suggested hiding sharp wooden poles behind the door and asked his mother to ensure that these unknown men released his brothers’ hands.

Before the meal, the mother asked the men to release her sons’ hands, as Ismailis have to wash their hands before a meal, it is a custom. When Navdraht entered the room, the brothers grabbed the poles and won the fight. They beat the men almost to death. That night they all went to Afghanistan. They brought the captured men with them. They crossed the river close to the mineral spring a few kilometres from Avj in the direction of Khorugh. By dawn, they reached a very rocky and steep cliff and brothers wanted to kill the men, but their mother said: “No, don’t do this! Otherwise, all of their kind will try to kill us!”. Navdraht took a knife and cut each man in a different place – ear, nose, back and so on. He didn’t kill them, only left scars as a warning.

Navdraht went to the closest emir and told their story. The emir said: “Thank you for your manliness and bravery! You are a real man! What would you like to have for your bravery?” Navdraht asked for land. Emir gave him land in Yaftal, a village in Afghanistan. Six brothers started to live there, but Alimahammad stayed on the Tajik side. The others lived in Afghanistan for two or three years, and then two of the brothers moved back to Mulvoj, but later they moved closer to Ishkashim. Alimahammad had two sons, Davlatmamad and Mamadbek. 

Davlatmamad had a son, Kurbon, and Kurbon had four sons, which I

mentioned before, Nozri, Aydi, Odina, and Davlatmamad. This is the history of Avj.

What is the history of the sanatorium? Who founded it and when?

In my childhood, we took baths in the mineral spring itself, there was no bathhouse, no sanatorium. In 1965, male and female bath houses were built. In 1978, a therapeutic department was built, but it could only hold twenty five patients. Later the sanatorium expanded.

In 1992, I moved back to Avj and became the chief physician at the sanatorium. I reorganized it into a regional rehabilitation center. We had different medical devices for diagnostics and masseuses. I checked every patient, talked to him or her, explained how to take a bath, suggested the most suitable food [for their condition] and prescribed herbal teas or tinctures. My wife Hadicha prepared them right on the spot. At night I used to go down to the sanatorium and check whether everything was fine and if everyone was feeling well.

Later, someone didn’t like me. I had a good relationship with the regional representative, he even celebrated his birthday here several times. Everything was fine, but then someone started to spread a rumour that I asked for bribes from every patient. This was not true, of course. I have always been fighting against bribery. I noticed that the regional representative started to communicate with me in a different manner than before. In short, they ‘found’ some reasons to kick me out of the sanatorium. A lady from Mulvoj started to work in my place. One year later she was kicked out too. Then a man from Ishkashim started to work there. He was a friend of the regional representative. Using the income of the sanatorium, he built a two-storey villa for himself. That’s how it goes, docha.

Herbal tea mixture and herbal medicine products made by Dr. Shirinbek Davlatmamadov.

What are the most important places to you in Avj?

Every place in Avj is the best and the dearest to me! I like the view that I see when I go a bit higher than Kudrat’s [a lower neighbour] house – the whole of Avj, the valley of the Panj River, Afghanistan, everything is beneath me! A very beautiful landscape. On a good and clear day one can see thirty kilometers away to the bridge across the river in Ishkashim. ‘Avj’ in Tajik means ‘height’. Another really beautiful place is the mountain pastures with cold spring water and fresh air. In general, I like Avj as a whole.

Is there any place that was important to you in your childhood, but that doesn’t exist anymore?

Such a place is my childhood home, where I was born. That house doesn’t exist anymore. It was located next to the place where Kudrat lives now, you can still see some ruins. In 1964, during the rule of Khrushchev, there was a law passed that small villages had to be joined together in order to improve living conditions and to make administration easier. I was already a student around that time. Everyone from Avj had to move to Mulvoj [a village about 5 km from Avj], their fields were forfeited with no remuneration.

My family built a new house in Mulvoj, the local government found this out and said: “Oh, you have two houses? You have to destroy the one in Avj!”. My relatives were forced to destroy my childhood home in Avj. Such a short-sighted local government! During the rule of Gorbachev there was more democracy and I could obtain the land in Avj again and start building this house. Like this, docha.

Do you miss Avj when you go somewhere else? What do you miss the most?

Of course, I miss Avj! When I lived in Khorugh [a city about 80 km from Avj], every night in my dreams I was in Avj! Every night! Either in the mountains, in the pastures, or in our house… I left my career in surgery, I left Khrough and moved here. I became the chief physician in the sanatorium and started to use the mineral water to heal patients. I even wrote a book about mineral water and its healing effects.

During the Civil War [1992 – 1997] people had nothing to eat, they ate grass. I turned to Mother Nature too, and educated myself about herbal medicine. Today I still use phytotherapy and other methods of folk medicine. I am a surgeon, balneologist and phytotherapist. I was awarded the titles of ‘The Best Healer of 2010’ and ‘The Best Healer of 2012’ and certificates by the Association of Phytotherapy and Folk Medicine of Tajikistan. I am also a member of Russian Folk Academy of Sciences, and I have several publications in their journal. I was also awarded several medals. I have written and published sixteen books.

Is there any place in Avj that is holy to you?

There are two mazors [shrines]. One of them is near Kudrat’s house, and the other one is in the cemetery. These are holy places to me.

How often do you go there?

Every time I go through the cemetery, I stop by the mazor. Other than that I go to the mazor during Muslim celebrations. When we go to the mazor during a Muslim celebration, we bring buikhush [‘bui’ means ‘smell’ in Tajik, but ‘khush’ means ‘nice’] with us. It is a homemade incense which we prepare from three holy plants – juniper, immortelle, harmel. We ignite this mixture and fumigate it, while thinking about the souls of our ancestors. Two biggest Muslim celebrations are Kurban and Ramzan. Kurban honours the willingness of prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son in order to show his obedience to God. Abraham’s son was already prepared for ritual sacrifice when a sheep appeared and was sacrificed instead of Abraham’s son. Ramzan is a month of fasting and prayer.

Could you tell me some other legends about Avj? Almost everyone in Avj refused to tell me legends, saying that I have to ask Dr. Shirinbek this question as he is the oldest and the most knowledgeable.

Most likely, it was in the beginning of August as we already started to cut our grain. I was coming home with two guys through the cemetery, it was around 11 PM, the night was very dark. Suddenly, someone threw a stone at me, but it didn’t hit me. I didn’t say anything, I understood. Then another stone was thrown in my direction, and another one. Four stones. I asked the guys: “Guys, what are you doing?”. 

One of them said: “Nothing, nothing, let’s go!”. He understood too. We were almost at home, when the fifth stone was thrown in my direction. Our dog started to bark and didn’t stop. The guys went back down passing by Kudrat’s home. Stones were thrown at them until they reached the road down in the village. Then I started to believe in spirits, I didn’t believe in them before. It was completely impossible for someone else to go parallel to us and scare us. Impossible! It was a spirit.

Rumors of different supernatural experiences circulate around Avj. For example, my father told the following story. My mother was in the pastures, and he was alone with his horse watering the garden. It became twilight and got quite windy. He decided to go inside the house and make some tea for himself. When my father entered the house, he saw a woman in white clothes, she stood up and turned around. My father ran outside and spent the night sleeping on the roof. When he told me this story, I said to him: “Father, if I were you, I would jump on the horse and run away!”, ha, ha!

My mother worked on the kolkhoz’s farm [a collective farm in the USSR] in Avj. Early in the morning around 5 AM, mother came to wake me up, but I didn’t want to wake up and go anywhere, so she had no other choice but to wake up my younger brother, Akimbek. They went to the barn. They went through the first room with cows and entered the second one with sheep. Mother said to Akimbek: “Wait here, I will go up on the roof and give you grass through the opening in the ceiling, distribute it to the animals!”. In those times we didn’t have electricity, we used kerosene lamps for light. Mother left a lamp inside the barn. Right when she closed the door, a woman in white clothes suddenly appeared between the sheep. My brother started to scream. Mother was afraid to go through the room of cows without the kerosene lamp as she could run into cows by accident in the darkness. She ran on the roof and pulled out my brother through the opening. My brother then told this story.

Grandfather Kurbon told me that he has seen a jindik, a gnome with shaggy red hair, twice in the mountains. Something exists in a parallel world. For sure, docha.

Others told me that Avj doesn’t accept everyone.

This is true, this is true! Avj doesn’t accept everyone, especially bad people. I told you about the spirit who threw stones at me and the two other guys. Once, one of them stayed overnight at our home. During the night, he wanted to go to the toilet, so he went outside in the yard. Right away, someone started to throw stones at him, he didn’t even manage to pull his pants back up as he got afraid and ran back home. Avj didn’t accept this guy.

Do similar things happen in other villages too?

Yes, yes, each village has its own spirits that protect it.

Which are the most important events of your life connected to Avj?

We have experienced so much happiness and so much sorrow in Avj! The most important events for parents are raising their children and organizing weddings for them. We organized weddings for our sons Olim and Nozim here, those were very important events in my life.

Which are the most important objects to you in Avj related to memories?

All the ancient items which we have exhibited in our museum [they have a pharmacy and a museum down in the village] are important to me, those are our traditions. Mostly household items, different baskets and wooden dishes. In the olden days, they were made and used by everyone.

Other types of important objects are all the medals and diplomas which I have received for my work in medicine. I have done some surgeries even in our yard on the tapchan [a type of outdoor furniture for sitting, eating, relaxing]. For example, when half of Asan’s [a neighbour] finger was cut off, he came here and I managed to sew it back on, and it healed successfully.

What does Avj mean to you in general?

Avj is my homeland. I was born in Avj, and I think I will leave this world in Avj.

Going to the White Mountains and in the second image: blood paintings in the White Mountains

On 29 August 2020, a surprisingly windless day, Dr. Shirinbek brought my boyfriend Valdis [he came from Latvia to visit me] and I to the White Mountain to tell us another legend. When I wanted to go there together with Bahtbegim [Shirinbek’s granddaughter], Dr. Shirinbek didn’t allow us to go alone as there is a soldier post really close to the White Mountain and they could threaten us. Once, they started to shoot at Dr. Shirinbek’s granddaughters who were only playing there. 

A very narrow mountain path goes from Dr. Shirinbek’s house to the White Mountain. He huffs about tiny burdocks falling all the time into his shoes, yet continues on the road energetically until we reach the White Mountain and the ‘drawing’ of a hunter and his dog. 

In the past, the mineral spring came out of the ground from the White Mountain. Long ago in pre-Islamic times the tsar Kakha was ruling over this region. He was a Zoroastrian. His people were located in several places, in Mulvoj and Avj too. They had a habit that whenever they saw strangers, they made a fire to warn the others with smoke.

On one beautiful day, a hunter from Barshor was hunting wild animals with his dog in the mountains of Avj. When he came down to the White Mountain, he ran into people of Kakha. They killed the hunter and his dog. As innocent human blood was spilled, the mineral spring disappeared here and changed its location. Now the mineral spring comes out of the ground down in the place where the sanatorium was later built. See, there is a red drawing on the rock, you can see the weapon of the hunter, the hunter’s blood and the dog’s blood! This is the legend of the White Mountain.

After fulfilling his mission and telling us the legend, Dr. Shirinbek quickly goes down to the village to his pharmacy. Work and patients are waiting for him. I am amazed by his energy and really hope that I will be able to run around like him in my 80s. 

When I want to take his portrait, he wears his best suit with all his medals proudly attached to it. A very representable look. He really looks like the most knowledgeable and respectable man in the village, as so many of villagers had referred to him as before.

Read the other stories from Avj

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