Stories from Avj: Zevar Davlatmamadova26 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. 

We try to arrange our interview for several days. Either I am too busy or tired in the evenings, same for Zevar. Finally, after laundry day which takes a lot of effort – making fire, carrying water from the spring, pouring out dirty water, and so on, we find time for the interview. We meet after lunch in the library – one of the rooms of the house, full of books. Sometimes, our interview leaves its frame and we just start chatting about this or that. We laugh a lot, and the room is full of positive vibes. Honestly, Zevar seems to me one of the most energetic people I have ever met. 

How are you connected to Avj?

My grandparents Momo [grandma] and Bobo [grandpa] live in this village. Since my childhood I’ve been coming to Avj almost every summer. First, it was only for fun – I came here to meet my relatives, spend some time in nature and mountains, swim, and play. Now I come every summer to help my grandparents.

I remember the first time I met my grandparents. We were in Khorugh visiting Oshur’s [Zevar’s cousin] grandparents from his dad’s side. I was playing with a bottle and water, they called me: “Zevar, Zevar, there is a man waiting for you!”. I was a bit angry that they didn’t allow me to continue playing – why should I go and greet an unknown man? And they said: “Look, this is your grandfather!”. I thought: “Well, fine. He is my grandfather. And what now?”. …she laughs very passionately.

How old were you at that time?

I was five years old.

And you hadn’t met your grandparents before?

No, never. And then we came to Avj. The road which we use now didn’t exist at that time, there were only small paths going up. In some places we even needed to climb! An old lady was standing on the top of the hill, her long dress was blowing in the wind. Instead of a balloon, she had blown a medical glove for me! That was my grandmother. And since that time I started to come to Avj almost every summer.

Did your mom use to leave you here for the whole summer?

In the first years, we always came together, my mom stayed as long as I, and we left together. Later she brought me to Avj, left me here and then returned so we could go back home together. Sometimes she found someone else who was also going to Dushanbe and sent me with this person back home. Of course, now I travel on my own and come to Avj when I have holidays.

Which are the most important places to you in Avj?

I have so many important places in Avj! …and Zevar gets really, really excited. One place we used to call “Afghanistan”. I was there two days ago with Jamshed [Zevar’s cousin], we were collecting and eating akhman berries. When you go outside our fence, you can see that stones are quite similar size everywhere, but when you go down, there are a couple of very big boulders. They are very stable and seem to stand there forever. That is the place we call Afghanistan, Oshur came up with this name. Originally, one of the rocks was called “Tajikistan” and another “Afghanistan”, but somehow Afghanistan came to refer to the whole place. Even younger cousins still call this place Afghanistan. In my childhood, we used to play there really often, especially, when we were looking after our sheep. We were playing there and saying: “Oh, hello from Tajikistan!” and “Hello, hello from Afghanistan!”. That was our place. We also separated it in several areas – we had a kitchen, we had a bedroom, we had a toilet and we even made our own mazor [shrine] there! There are several mazors in Avj, in the past there were even more, and we wanted to create our own mazor too!

Did you use these areas according to their functions?

Yes, yes, of course! For example, we collected akhman berries, washed them in our kitchen, so they were “cooked”.

You said Oshur came up with the name Afghanistan, but who found this place?

We found it together, I think. Sometimes I cannot remember who named something first or who found something first, because in my childhood Oshur and I spent most of our time together. People even used to joke: “Are you married?”. Ha, ha! I remember the first time we met – he was sitting on a red baby potty when we came inside the room and my mom said: “Look, this is Oshur!”, and we started to talk. Now he disagrees with this story and says: “No, it is not true!”, although he knows it is true! It is such a vivid memory!

Which are other important places to you in Avj?

Another important place would be – “Ship”. There is a big, steep stone, and a tree right next to it, so it looks like a ship with a mast. In the evenings, when the wind starts to blow really hard and the field is swaying, it looks like a sea. We still call this field – “field of the ship”. Even Momo sometimes asks: “Do you remember how we celebrated my birthday on the ship?”. Our grandparents have their birthdays in winter and spring, so we are almost never here to celebrate with them. When we were kids we felt really sorry for this, so we used to hide and save candies given to us by our grandparents, and later come up with an idea to celebrate their birthdays on a completely random day in summer. Once, we invited Momo for her birthday celebration on our “ship”. We made some tea and gave her our candies which we managed to hide before. She still remembers this.

Another important place – White Mountain. We used to climb to the top of it and then slide down from the steepest side of it like snowboarding, only it happens without snow – we put on our sneakers and we slide down on the sand and stones. In our childhood it was a great game for us, but when we grew older it became sort of a mission – when we come to Avj, we have to do it at least for once. This year I haven’t done it yet. Actually, I’m quite afraid to do it.

Also, we had an observation point! We were just sitting and observing the surroundings, neighbours passing by and so on. We have our names cut into the bark of the tree there.

Another important place to me in Avj was a “tree of miracles”, but unfortunately, it was cut down, so you can’t see it anymore. It was located next to our spring. You know, there is a tapchan [outdoor furniture unique to Central Asia] on the spring, then there is a place where the spring has a steep turn down and right after that place this tree was located. It was a big, big tree with a lot of branches.

Actually, I wanted to ask you about such kinds of places – places which were important to you once, but which do not exist anymore. Do you have other places like this?

In the field next to the house where we collect chamomile, we had a khonachek – a “house”. We were building it each summer for about five years. Even when other relatives came to visit us in Avj, their kids helped us to keep building khonachek.  When we grew older, we stopped building it, it seemed like a very naïve idea. Later Bobo destroyed our khonachek and built a wall for the field, he started to water it and now it is a very green place with grass and chamomile, but back then it was only stones and sand .

I’m sure you have had a lot of adventures in Avj. Could you share some stories?

Once, we went fishing in the Panj River. First, I was there with Momo Soya’s [Zevar’s relative] son Shavqat. He taught me how to put an earthworm on the hook and how to catch fish. Two days later I got an idea that I can do it by myself! I invited Oshur to join me. As we couldn’t find a hook, we took a paperclip and made a hook out of it. We couldn’t find a proper fishing line, so we took a usual sewing thread. We used a wooden stick as the fishing rod. We brought some candies and apricots with us, went to the river bank and tried fishing. Of course, we didn’t catch any fish, but it was fun! We also “buried” Oshur’s mom Malika under the sand, and did the same with each other. Cool memories!

I think I was around eight or nine years old, I was so brave that I went to the toilet at night alone. I came back and couldn’t get back inside the house as at that time my grandparents had a self-locking door lock – once I closed the door, it was impossible to open it from outside without the key. I didn’t know what to do. First, I thought I could sleep outside, but then I realised it is too cold for that, so I started knocking on my grandparents’ door. Momo asked me through the door: “Who is it?”. Later Momo said I have to wake her up the next time and she will go with me to the toilet.

It was two years ago. I was here with Farangis [Zevar’s cousin], Momo’s sister Lalbegim and aunt Malika. I was sleeping in the same room with Momo and Lalbegim. In the evening we were all watching TV in the winter room. Around 22:00 I went to the toilet, but when I came back five minutes later, Momo and Lalbegim had already gone to bed. Farangis and I kept watching TV, chatting and sharing private girl secrets until 01:00. Around 04:00 I went to the toilet again.

I was still there when I heard Momo screaming in the yard: “Zevar! Zevar!”. Through the gaps in the door I saw Momo in her night dress running towards the toilet. She started knocking on the door: “Zevar! Zevar! Are you alright?”. I was surprised: “What’s going on? I just went to the toilet. Everything is fine!”. Why was Momo so stressed out? It turned out that Momo woke up and noticed that I was not in my bed. She asked her sister where I was, and Lalbegim said that I had never come back from the toilet since I went there around 22:00. Of course, Momo got really afraid that something bad had happened to me…

Oshur’s nickname from his childhood was Charkhabek. Charkha’ means stones rolling down from the mountain, -bek makes it for a name. He was always destroying everything by accident – injuring himself, breaking things around him. For example, if he was bringing the tea pot and piyalas [small ceramic bowls], he usually broke one of the piyalas on his way to the table… If he was playing football, he broke either his leg, either a tree next to the playfield. Always like this! He always had some bruises on his body.

In our childhood, we had an idea to buy bicycles when we will grow up and come all the way from Dushanbe to Avj by bicycle. We saw all those bike travellers on the road and thought it would be a good adventure. So now, when we are old enough for this, I said to Oshur: “Let’s do this!”. But he was: “Are you crazy? First, you don’t really know how to ride a bicycle! Second, you have such an old bike that it will break after one or two kilometres!”. So I put this idea aside.

When Jamshed was smaller, we used to teach him what to do and what not, and we told him if he wouldn’t listen to us then Tabaduda would come and catch him. Once we needed to show him Tabaduda. We took a skull of a goat and attached a string to it. We put it through ruzan [glass opening in the ceiling, typical to Pamiri houses] saying: “Look, this is Tabaduda! It will come and eat you!”. Suddenly, by accident the glass of ruzan fell down on the floor. I don’t know if it was my or Oshur’s fault. Maybe it was Oshur’s fault as he is Charkhabek! Momo’s nephew Gulbek was also with us. He helped us to look for the pieces of glass and put them back. Jamshed was around three years old, so he couldn’t speak very well. Later, when Bobo came home, Jamshed pointed his finger to ruzan: “Tabaduda! Tabaduda!”. Bobo looked at the ruzan and said: “There is something strange with the ruzan! The glass was not broken before!”.

Did you get any punishment for this?

No, but we were really scared.

What is Tabaduda? Did you make it up or is it a character of a legend?

My cousin told me that in his childhood his mom scared him with Chudo Yudo, a character from Russian mythology – if he will not listen to her then Chudo Yudo will come and take him. He mispronounced it as Tabaduda, and this name started to circulate among our relatives.

Speaking of legends, I remember Bobo once told Oshur that one of his ancestors confessed on his deathbed that he has a box full of gold hidden under a big stone on the way between Avj and Mulvoj. You can imagine how easy it would be to find it here, ha, ha! Big stones everywhere, literally. Many people tried to find it, though.

If you are interested in scary legends or ghost stories, you should ask Bobo. He has experienced most of the spirits of Avj. I only heard stories. Although, several times when I was in the toilet, I heard someone was coming, so I screamed that the toilet is occupied. Nobody replied to me. When I went outside, there was nobody! But I heard the steps! Really! These kinds of strange things happen here.

Wow. Now I start to understand why people are afraid to sleep alone or walk alone in the darkness here, even if it is only a short distance to the toilet…

Now Zevar remembers another scary story, but as it is a private family story, she asks me to turn off the recorder. Later we continue.

As we started to talk about legends let’s keep this topic. Yesterday evening, when I was filling water in the bucket from the spring, you also came outside and wanted to hang your wet towel. You said to me: “Please, don’t go inside yet, wait for me! I don’t like this side of the house!”. Why don’t you like the backside of the house, especially, in the darkness?

I don’t know why, but I always feel afraid there. Even in daylight I don’t like the part of our yard around the tapchan and across the spring. I’m absolutely fine going to the toilet alone which is on the opposite side, but not around tapchan or the spring. I even remember that in childhood adults always said – hide your hair under a scarf when you go there!

At night or during the day?

At night. I don’t even know why, but I was taught like this – if I go out to that side at night, I have to cover my hair.

Oh, did I tell you how I expressed my gratitude to nature? I found a very beautiful place with a lot of very tall mint – a perfect place for cutting it for herbal teas and medical purposes. After I cut half of the mint, I noticed how my action destroyed the beauty of this place. Before I arrived, it was such a beautiful place with tall mint, but… I destroyed it. The mint left behind me was completely crumpled and ugly. I felt guilty and I thought nature would avenge to me. I put the mint I cut in my bag and then I bowed down and I said: “Thank you very much, nature! And I’m really sorry for destroying the beauty of this place!”. I thought it is better to do this silly thing than to risk injuring myself on my way back. There are several dangerous places on the way back home, so I wanted to express my gratitude and regret towards nature.

In general, people in mountains try to live with a big respect towards nature. It is very important to be respectful. If I cut grass, I don’t do it for fun, I cut it for cows. If I cut mint, I don’t do it for fun, I cut it for medical purposes. And I express my gratitude to nature, but if I do something bad, I express my regret. When we go higher up in the mountains to collect medical herbs, Bobo usually starts a conversation with mountain spirits: “We are here and we are sorry for disturbing you. We came here to collect medical herbs for good purposes. We mean no harm to you. Please, let us go up in the mountains and come back home safely!”. We keep doing this even when we go there without Bobo. Being respectful is the most important thing.

How do you start this conversation? Out loud or in your mind?

Out loud, like calling someone in the mountains: “Hey, we are here!”, so they can hear. We have different customs which people learn from each other and sometimes can not explain why they do it. For example, when the calf was born, Momo took some flour and put it on the calf’s forehead. I asked her why she did this and Momo said: “This will help the calf to grow up strong and healthy, give a lot of milk.”. Rationally, there is no connection between putting flour on the calf’s forehead and a lot of milk later.

Yesterday, when we finished putting cow dung on the top of the barn’s roof, Momo left some flour inside the barn as well. I asked her: “What is this for? Will it help the cows to poop a lot?”. She said: “No, of course not! This will ensure that there will be enough of the dry cow dung for the whole winter, and it will bring warmth.”. I think, the most important is the energy and your good thoughts which you put in such rituals, that is what makes them work. The flour, for example, is just a symbol, it doesn’t really help anything, but your good and sincere thoughts and doing these rituals from your heart is what actually helps. When Bobo talks to mountain spirits, maybe nobody hears him, but it is his energy, his good will and genuine respect towards surroundings that helps him.

Yesterday, during the “cow dung mission” when you and Bahti were on the roof, but Jamshed and I were in the barn, Momo came inside to give us some candies and started to cry: “I’m so sorry that you are suffering here! I hope that once we die, you will not suffer like this anymore!”.

What? This cow dung mission is nothing horrible! Personally, I felt very thankful for being able to experience the local life on its fullest. It is just one of the countryside works, nothing special. …It felt to me that their gratitude in the evening, making a special dinner and giving us a lot of candies as a thankful gesture for this work was way too much. This work is really nothing that bad or hard. I didn’t think we earned such gratitude. And the fact that Hadicha even cried thinking we are suffering… unexpected.

We tried to explain to her that we don’t see it as suffering, it is a job that needs to be done. Of course, it is hard, but it is not a problem! So, speaking of the flour ritual, I think that the most important part of it was her true and genuine gratitude towards us. The flour is just a symbol, the energy is what matters.

What do you miss from Avj the most when you go back to Dushanbe and spend most of your time there?

What I miss the most is fresh, clean water and air, oh my God! The water is so delicious here and the air is so fresh! When I breathe in Avj, I can feel how this air enters my body, it is a delight! Of course, I miss Momo and Bobo too! If we speak about Avj as a place, then it is water and air for sure. Maybe the energy too – Avj gives me energy, it recharges my batteries. Each time when I come here, I work very hard, there is no time for relaxing, but when I go back to Dushanbe, instead of feeling tired from the hard work in Avj, I feel full of energy.

When you are here in Avj, do you miss something from your life in Dushanbe?

There is nothing I miss, since we put the white toilet seat in our toilet! Before that it was painful for my legs to use the hole in the ground. Now, there is really nothing I miss when I am here, only my mom. If I were to spend a month or two, maybe I would start missing the fast pace of life, all the hustle and bustle of the capital city, crowded streets.

What do you bring home from Avj?

Each year I bring some nephrite with me. I have pieces of it everywhere at home, in every corner! I don’t even do anything with them. Momo made a nephrite necklace for me. She made it using a needle! Impressive! I am even afraid to wear it, I don’t want to break it! I wore it just once or twice. Momo also promised to make necklaces for Bahti and Anais [Zevar’s cousins], but I don’t think she will succeed, because it is so difficult! It is not so easy to find nephrite, then you have to polish it and then make holes with a needle!

Also, I try to make apricot kernel necklaces and bring them home too. Later we eat these necklaces. Momo always gives dried apricots for the apricot soup and several kulchas [flatbreads]. Always! Recently, I started to ask Bobo for some herbal teas or infusions – my friends discovered Gulu Giyoh [NGO runned by Dr. Shirinbek, Zevar’s grandfather] and sometimes ask me to bring them some herbal medicine. So, in short – I bring home stones, Bobo’s medicine and Momo’s products.

What do you bring to Avj when you come here?

Usually I bring products, because almost nothing grows here! Paprika, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage and so on. Also, I bring some gifts, clothes, candies. Candies – always! They are so appreciated here! Usually those are hard candies, because chocolate candies would die on this long road from Dushanbe, but in Khorugh [a city near Avj] they are too expensive. I know, when my uncle Olim comes to Avj, he brings to his parents books about medicine, philosophy, and religion. It is kind of his mission to fill the library of this house.

Which are the most important objects to you here? I know you don’t live here, but do you have something with you or something here that is important to you?

What comes to my mind – traditional baskets. I have seen a lot of traditional baskets in my life – in exhibitions, at home, at my relatives’ places, but I have never seen baskets similar to those found here. Momo has two small baskets for needles and other little items, then there is one for bread and several big baskets on the barn’s roof for carrying grass. Basket weaving is the disappearing traditional art of the Pamirs. Nowadays, only a few people weave baskets.

Also, very important to me are columns in the living room as they are the heart of a Pamiri house. When I enter this room and see the columns, I feel at home.

You said you can “recharge your batteries” here. Is there a specific place you go for it?

I can recharge my batteries almost everywhere in Avj. Two years ago, I came to Avj in the fall, it was so boring here! There was nothing to do, even Momo and Bobo were mostly watching TV or in the best case – working on their books. I needed to change my way of thinking and accept it as a meditative experience – being in Avj when there is no work to do. I didn’t even talk much, only “good morning” and “good night”, we spent days in different places inside the house, as it was too cold to be outside. We just cut medical herbs or did some other small works. This meditative and calm experience also recharged my batteries. I realized it is nice to be in Avj in the fall too, although, it is an absolutely different experience than in summer. Now I chat with Bobo and Momo all the time, but in the fall something weird happens to them and they don’t talk much. Anyway, I discovered that I can restore my energy in Avj even only by cutting herbs and having a very peaceful time.

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

Almost everything in Avj seems a bit holy to me, but if I have to name a certain place then the mazor in the cemetery.

How often do you go there?

I don’t go there often, I don’t go there for fun. When I go there, I go with a deep gratitude and respect towards this place and my ancestors. I think the cemetery itself is a holy place to me. I feel very thankful to my ancestors, because without them I wouldn’t exist.

What do you do in the cemetery? Do you have any specific rituals?

I don’t have any rituals because I am not praying there. I don’t really practice religion in general. Momo and Bobo would be very upset hearing this as they consider me an Ismaili. They don’t know that I am really far away from religion. Of course, in Avj I practice all the rituals, it would be impossible to escape them.

Even I take part in some of Ismaili rituals here!

Exactly! Here it makes sense and feels natural. The rituals here are the only way to express your gratitude to nature, for example, for your dinner. But in general I don’t consider myself a religious person, I’m really far from that. In the city religion, especially, Sunni religion, feels like oppression. I don’t see a point of building mosques or churches. Nobody needs a special place where to be with God. You can be with God wherever you are and at any time. Also, I don’t think it matters to God what you wear. You can be naked, it doesn’t matter.

But really religious people create problems out of it, they think it is very important to dress in a certain way, they don’t understand it doesn’t actually matter to God. Also, the strange rule that women and men cannot enter mosques together and pray in the same room, why? Of course, it is important to follow the basic principles of the society, to be kind and helpful, to respect others, to not kill, but it has nothing to do with religion. If you would ask me, do I believe in God, yes, I believe. If you would ask me, do I practice religion, no, I don’t.

Still, Ismailism seems to be a religion which is the most connected to nature and the most liberal one.

Yes, it is definitely the most liberal branch of Islam and the most connected to nature. I think it is like this because Ismailism is a mixture of ancient local traditions and religion. For example, the columns in the living room I mentioned to you – they are older than Ismailism, in the beginning these columns symbolised the elements of nature, such as water, wind, fire, earth, but later they were renamed according to Muslim traditions – Mohamed, Ali, Bibi Fatima, Hassan, Hussein. What is nice – Ismailis can pray at home, our home is our shrine, we don’t have mosques.

Speaking of the cemetery – I don’t have any religious rituals in the cemetery, but I remember from my childhood that Momo and aunt Malika always left candies on the mazor, so I also try to do that. It is like saying “thank you” to my ancestors.

Do you leave candies only on the mazor?

Mostly on the mazor, but sometimes on the grave too. This practice

really comes from my childhood observations. Other than that, I don’t really do anything else in the cemetery, people don’t take care of cemeteries here. In Dushanbe, we go to the cemetery every spring, we clean everything, we repaint something if it is needed, but not here. Anyway, my mom asked me to go to the cemetery in Mulvoj [neighbouring village 5 kms away] and repaint the fence this year.

What does Avj mean to you in general?

It is a place where my power comes from. It doesn’t come from a special place or a mazor, it comes from Avj itself. At the bus stop, I don’t feel anything, but as soon as I go pass the bus stop, I feel so much energy!

After the interview we go to explore Afghanistan, the ship and the observation point. Zevar seems truly sad that some of these places don’t look as good as they looked in her childhood. Later Zevar expresses gratitude for asking her to think about Avj and her relationship to this village as she hadn’t really thought about these questions before, although Avj is very dear to her. 

Read the other stories from Avj

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