Stories From Avj: Zevar, part 113 min read

 In Central Asia, Civil Society, Interview
Avj – a tiny village in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. Majestic nature, welcoming people, dangerous roads, colourful culture, delicious plov, juicy apricots and sweet mulberries. In 2019, I went back to Avj to interview the locals about their lives and memories. What does the village mean to them? What are the most important places in Avj to them? What legends travel around? While each inhabitant portrays the village in a way, the village is a portrait of its inhabitants.

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.

Akhman berries / Solveiga Kalva

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!

“Afghanistan” / Solveiga Kalva

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.

“Ship” / Solveiga Kalva

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!”.

Observation point / Solveiga Kalva

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.

The second part of Solveiga Kalva’s interview with Zevar can be found here.

Read more of Solveiga Kalva’s interviews in Avj:

Featured image: Zevar / Solveiga Kalva
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