Stories From Avj: Zevar, part 214 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.

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


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!”.

Basket / Solveiga Kalva

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.

Column in the living-room / Solveiga Kalva

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.

Mazor / Solveiga Kalva

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. 

Zevar in “Afghanistan” / Solveiga Kalva

Read more of Solveiga Kalva’s interviews in Avj:

Featured image: Basket / Solveiga Kalva
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