Stories from Avj: “although I was born in Rin, my soul will leave my body in Avj”27 min read

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

My Tajik “grandma” Hadicha starts to acknowledge that I have approximately a week left for interviews. Today she is going to the funeral of a young guy in a neighbouring village and is leaving the whole household in our responsibility – mine, Bahti, Adees, Jamshed and little Bibishka’s [Hadicha’s grandchildren]. Surprisingly, Hadicha comes back home around 3:30 PM. She enters the library and tells me that she would like to relax from cutting grass today and is willing to give me an interview. Great! I spent a lot of time thinking about how to approach my Pamiri “grandparents”, because it is hard to ask the people you respect the most.

Momo [grandma] Hadicha sits on the couch, and I sit on the ground. Bahti is listening to our interview. From time to time Bibishka enters the room, sometimes alone, sometimes with the cat. Momo Hadicha often bursts into tears and I don’t know what to do. This is the most heart-breaking of all my interviews. It is really impressive how much one person can withstand and still be a very kind, caring and warmhearted grandma to her actual grandchildren and her foreign ones. Some of Momo Hadicha’s stories I have heard already, but now they take on a more clear order timewise and location-wise. This is a story of a strong and educated woman who still dreams about writing new books, and she does it on a computer, although she is in her 70s. And, yes, she chats with her relatives on Viber and Facebook on her smartphone, and sometimes even sends selfies! 

How are you connected to Avj?

How am I connected to Avj? Avj is the love of my life! While I was studying at the medical college in Dushanbe, during the summer I would go back home and pass through Avj. That is where I saw my future husband for the first time. Of course, I had no idea then that one day we were going to be a married couple. He and his mother were standing on the road in Avj hitchhiking. He was young and handsome. My driver stopped the car and offered them a ride, and they got into our car. My future mother-in-law asked me in Wakhi [a Pamir language]: “Girl, are you from Wakhan?”, I said: “No, I am from Rin, a village in Ishkashim region”. She switched to my language, Ishkashimi, right away. She knew all of the Pamiri languages.

She kept questioning me. She asked who my father was, and he turned out to be her relative. She asked me where I was studying. It turned out that this young man, Shirinbek, was also studying in Dushanbe. Sometimes when we saw each other in the capital city, he would say to me: “Hello, zemlyachka [fellow-countrywoman], how are you?”, but nothing more. I didn’t know yet that my future would be linked to Avj.

In the beginning, it was really hard for me to study in the medical college, because everything was in Russian. When I graduated, I had only 4 and 5 on my diploma [the grading system was from 1 to 5, and 5 was the best grade]. I had good grades, but I didn’t receive the “red diploma” [diploma for excellent grades]. Those who got a red diploma went to the Ministry of Education in order to be enrolled in the medical university without an entry exam or competition. A few girls came back and told me: “Hadka, your name is also in the list of enrollment!”. They called me Hadka. That was unexpected, as I didn’t have the red diploma.

I knew that my father was really religious and quite harsh and most likely wouldn’t approve of this idea. Actually, I started my studies in the medical college only thanks to his brother, my uncle. My uncle was really happy that I got a chance to continue my education in the university without an entry exam. He said to me: “Go for it! This is a great chance for you!”. I was not sure what my father would say about this, but my uncle promised to talk to him and convince him. I submitted my documents to the university and started to prepare myself for my studies. My uncle went back home.

A week later I received a telegram: “Please, come home as soon

as possible, your mother is ill and in serious condition. Assured by Dr. Shirinbek Davlatmamadov”. Assured by my future husband. That was my destiny! My poor mother – when my father found out that I submitted my documents to the university, he started to scold my mother: “This is all your fault! Hadicha already studied for four years, and now six more years? She will do something inappropriate and disgrace our family while living so far from us for so long!” For the sake of peace, my poor mother said: “Ok, this is my fault. I will make it right!”, and she wrote a telegram in which she pretended to be very ill.

This telegram needed to be approved by a doctor. She went to a hospital and met with Dr. Shirinbek. It was his first year working there. At first, he refused: “No, lady, I cannot approve this. You are in good health!”. My mother went there a second time, he refused again. When she went there for the third time, there was a nurse too. He said to Shirin [Shirinbek]: “Why can’t you approve this telegram? Look at this poor mother!”. In the end Shirin approved the telegram. After I received this telegram, I went to the dean’s office and explained the situation. They said: “Sure, go and visit your mother! You still have time to go home and come back before the semester starts”. But later my family didn’t let me go back to Dushanbe… My father was completely against my studies. I started to work in Ishkashim [a city about 30 km from Avj] in the same hospital where Shirin was working. I had a colleague who used to joke: “You two will get married one day!”, I was still angry at Shirin for his fake approval of the telegram and I told her: “If you want you can marry him yourself!”. She was married already, though.

Slowly but surely, our relationship began. I mean, you can feel if you have a special bond with someone. Once, the chief physician sent Shirin and me to Namadgut [a village in the region] for a while. After Namadgut, I started to feel that he was paying more attention to me than to the other girls, and I was all shook up when I saw him too. I avoided Shirin all the time. He would want to talk to me about something, but I would escape. Then Shirin wrote a letter to me, how romantic! Another guy gave it to me and said: “Read it and reply!”. I said I won’t. He said: “I’m older than you, you should listen to me!”, so I took the letter and read it. Shirin wrote to me in Russian: “I have serious plans and I want to talk to you about them, but you avoid me all the time. I would like you to be my sputnitsa zhizni [life partner]!” 

…Hadicha and Shirin several times have wished for me to find my sputnik zhizni. I love this expression. It means so much more than formal “wife” and “husband”, especially in Russian and translated to my own language Latvian. They both seem to be real sputniki zhizni to each other…

At the end of this letter Shirin wrote his name. Guess what? Right on that day I received a similar letter from another guy too! I told my colleague that an unknown guy wants to marry me and is ready to go to my parents. I was acting weird that day, so this colleague later asked me: “Is this all because of that letter?”. I told her: “Oh, if there was only one letter of this kind!”. I gave her the letter from Shirin, but I ripped off his name. She tried to guess who the author could be, but couldn’t guess the right name. When I told her that this letter was from Shirin, she was really surprised, as he always seemed so serious, hardworking and strict. Later I wrote him a letter too. I explained that this decision is not up to me, but up to my parents. They didn’t even allow me to go to the university, who knows what they will say about this. And our exchange of letters began! How stupid of us, we worked together, but instead of talking we exchanged letters. All of Shirin’s family came to my parents to ask for my hand. I was still very young – only seventeen, but I told my mother I would like to get married to this young man. My mother somehow persuaded my father to allow this marriage.

Once, Shirinbek and I were sitting and working in the same room – he was working on his papers, I was working on my papers. We were not married yet. Then my brother came. He brought me food, or at least pretended that this was the reason for his visit. He had a very harsh demeanor, but he didn’t say anything. He went home and made a scandal there. My poor mother, she always got all the rage and complaints! It was planned so that his wedding will be first and then mine, but he screamed at my mother: “You know what your daughter is doing? Hadicha has to get married first! Otherwise she will disgrace our family very soon!”. When I arrived home in the morning, my mother told me about the scandal, and I said: “What do you all think about me? Why would I disgrace our family? Shirin is not going to rape me! What are you afraid of?”. But my brother was very strict and insisted that my wedding would happen first. He was afraid that I would lose my virginity before the wedding which would be a terrible shame to the whole family. Finally, I succeeded in calming him down and convinced him that nothing like that is going to happen. His wedding was in November, and ours was on 5 December.

For a while we lived and worked in Ishkashim, then Dushanbe, and then Ishkashim again. In 1971, I experienced an offensive situation in the hospital. I was insulted for no reason. I was working for a midwife in the hospital in Ishkashim. I often needed to work at night, for some strange reason, childbirth usually took place at night. If the childbirth was difficult and a surgeon was needed, Shirin was also called. He would also stay in the hospital overnight if there were people who underwent difficult surgery. Basically, Shirin and I spent days and nights in the hospital. Shirin’s mother was angry: “Why did you study medicine? I can understand if you have to work during the day, but at night? You have children!”. She was looking after our children: Jamshed, Malika, and Nozim.

One time I was called at night to the hospital two times. I went to the hospital, then back home, then again to the hospital, then back home again. In the morning when I went to the hospital for my usual working day, the chief physician blamed me for being fifteen minutes late! It felt so unfair! We had a dispute and I left crying – after all, I went to the hospital twice at night and now I was blamed for being fifteen minutes late! I had spent days and nights in the hospital not counting the hours, but now this…

On my way, I met Kudrat’s [Hadicha’s neighbor] uncle, a brother of his

mother, who was the head of a weather station in Ishkashim. He asked me what happened and why I was crying. I asked him: “Please, can I work in your weather station?”. Surprisingly, there was a free vacancy! I left the hospital and started working at the weather station. They sent me to study in Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was hard to leave my children. Jamshed was six years old, Shirin brought him to the kindergarten. Nozim was four years old, his grandma in Mulvoj [a village about 5 km from Avj] agreed to look after him. She was happy that I finally left my work in the hospital: “I will look after your children while you study in Almaty, only if you leave your job in the hospital!”. Later, Shirin brought Malika to Almaty, it was too hard to live without her as she was only one year old at that time.

Shirin visited me in Almaty and told me that he is getting a new job in Khorugh [a city about 80 km from Avj]. When I finished my studies and we moved to Khorugh, I went to their weather station and asked for a job. They said they don’t need a radio operator, but they need an aerologist, so I had to retrain again. No, thanks. I went to Shirin’s coursemate who worked in the hospital. Once when he was in Almaty for qualification courses for doctors, he visited me and got angry: “You studied for four years and worked for six years in medicine, but now you are coming here to study in the school of hydrometeorology? Are you stupid?”. When I went to him in Khorugh, he recruited me right away. First, I was a medical statistician, then I worked in the ambulance, but in the end I was back in my field again – consulting women, until we moved to Avj.

After Malika’s wedding, Shirin moved to Avj. He was working as a chief physician in the sanatorium and was building our house. I was still in Khorugh and I decided to stay there until our youngest son Olim graduated from the eleventh grade [final grade].

When the Civil War began, Mobegim [Hadicha’s relative] came to Khorugh. She told me about the guy who was the last to see our son Jamshed. I was in shock: “What do you mean – he was the last one who saw Jamshed?”. We had no idea he had disappeared without a trace! Mobegim arrived on 15 December, but he was missing since 4 December. After work, Jamshed had arrived back home and then had gone grocery shopping, and since that time he was missing. On the day I found out about the disappearance of Jamshed, I called Shirin and asked him to come to Khorugh, but I couldn’t tell him what had happened. When Shirin arrived later on that day, I served him some tea and then told him that Jamshed had gone missing.

They were recruiting people from all over Badakhshan [an autonomous region in Eastern Tajikistan], in order to go to Dushanbe and help search for missing people and so on. Shirin, as a doctor, was also included in this group. Shirin spent all of January in Dushanbe, but didn’t find Jamshed. They found bodies of many others from Badakhshan, but not Jamshed. When Shirin came back, I told him: “No, you didn’t search carefully enough!”. I went to one seer, people used to say he is really good at foreseeing the future. He told me everything about Jamshed starting from his childhood, he said Jamshed had some difficulties at the age of six, at the age of nineteen and right now. If he could survive the current difficulties, he would live until the age of eighty. I had a feeling that I could help him to survive these difficulties. I am very thankful to my colleagues, they collected money for me so I could go to Dushanbe and search for Jamshed. Everyone was running away from Dushanbe, but I was going to Dushanbe. I was completely fearless, I told everyone: “You can kill me if you want, you already killed my son!”.

Photos of Jamshed and Zevar along with the box made by Hadicha’s brother.

Before I went to Dushanbe, Shirin’s coursemate wrote a letter and gave it to me as I had helped him several times before as well. He knew someone in the sovkhoz [a state-owned farm in the USSR] “Varzobe” where Jamshed disappeared, he wrote in the letter that they should help me search for my son, alive or dead. I went to the man, to whom this letter was addressed. That was in March. He read the letter, looked at the photo of Jamshed and said that I had to come back on 8 March. He knew a place where hostages from Badakhshan were being kept, he promised to check it and give me an answer on 8 March. This gave me hope.

On 8 March, Galia [Jamshed’s wife] with little Zevar in her arms, Malika and I went to meet this man again. Galia was afraid to let me go alone, wherever I went she and her baby came with me. The man told us that there are no men from Badakhshan, only some from Gharm. This meant that there were men from Badakhshan before, but most likely they had been killed already. He destroyed my hope. Then I went to the radio station. I explained everything, talked about Jamshed, read some of his poems. I was crying the whole broadcast. One lady suggested that I go to Sary Kishti, a territory with a quarry. Apparently, all those hostages that were killed, were transported there and thrown in the quarry. I went again to the man, to whom I gave the letter. I gave him the photo of my son and asked him to ask around. Of course, it was nearly impossible that someone would recognize him, as so many people were taken hostage, so many people were killed. The man asked me to come back on the next day.

The next day he took me in his car and drove around, stopped in a few places and asked around about Jamshed. In the end, we arrived at the quarry. All the bodies were desecrated already, they were under the ground and nothing was visible. The man was showing me that a hundred bodies were here, two hundred bodies were there. Only later I started to think, how could he know this information unless he was a participant of this massacre? I, stupid woman, even gave him jurabi [traditional Pamiri socks] as a present! Even though he was potentially my son’s killer…

I had an ex-colleague, Tania, who lived in Dushanbe. I called her and told her about the disappearance of Jamshed. She asked me where he lived. When I told her, she said: “I don’t want to hurt you, but most of the horror was happening right in that part of Dushanbe…”. She invited me to come over and cry together. Her son was dead too. When I went to her apartment and she opened the door, Tania said: “You know, Hadicha? Jamshed is alive! I went to a fortune teller and she said he is alive!”. We drank some tea and went to this fortune teller, a Russian lady. She used cards for divination. The fortune teller said to me: “Oh, poor woman! You have experienced so much sorrow that your heart has turned into a stone!”. Sorrow, my brothers died one by one. First, my mother and then two of my brothers. …And Hadicha bursts into tears again… And then the fortune teller said: “He is alive. In the government house. He would come back, but very late.”. I thought, five years, ten years, fifteen years… Soon it will be thirty years, but I’m still waiting for him! …Hadicha bursts into tears again… The fortune teller was very convincing, she gave me hope.

I didn’t find Jamshed and went back home. I suggested organizing a funeral rite for Jamshed. Others said: “No, no! Why do you say this? Jamshed is alive, he will come back home!”. After what I saw in Dushanbe, I didn’t have much hope, only the hope given by the fortune teller. I felt horrible, and to leave Jamshed without a funeral rite in case he was dead, I couldn’t do that. We organized a funeral rite. After that, Shirin said: “Please, move to Avj! We cannot live separately anymore. Otherwise, you will be alone in your sorrow in Khorugh, and I will be alone in Avj!”. I cooked a plov [a traditional rice dish] and brought it to my colleagues, said goodbye to them. It was very unexpected for them. I went to the parents of Ozod [Malika’s husband], to arrange it so Olim could live with them until he graduated from school.

In 1993, I moved to Avj, and I’ve been living in this village until now. They opened an ultrasonography cabinet in the sanatorium of Avj, and I started to work there. In addition to ultrasonography, I was consulting women about gynecological issues. Shirin and I founded and created a library in the sanatorium, so I was working as a librarian as well. Most of the books were ours, but a lot of them were gifts to the sanatorium. I was also helping Shirin prepare herbal teas and tinctures. I don’t even understand how I managed to do all of this! When we both left the sanatorium, we took most of the books with us, nobody needed them there. Now you can see books all around our house. Sometimes people in the sanatorium asked me: “Did you privatize the sanatorium?”, because I was everywhere doing everything, ha, ha! I just had this attitude about work that if I am responsible for something, I do my best. In 2004, I retired.

Could you tell me some legends about Avj?

There is a belief that Avj doesn’t accept everyone. If Avj doesn’t like someone and is not willing to accept this person, he will have nightmares all the time, spirits will throw stones at him and so on. In the first year, we lived in this room [the library], as it was the only one which was ready. I was sitting here and knitting, when I had a feeling that someone was pulling my yarn, playing with me. I was looking whether it is our cat, but no. Also, I would often lose things here. In the first few years I was losing my things, keys very often. It seemed to me that someone is testing me. Later it got better. Maybe it was the hasmon that was testing me. The hasmon is the guardian spirit of home, it helps the home and its people, but sometimes it likes to play with them and to test them. When I do something, for example, when I bake bread, I think about the hasmon, I think about the spirits of our ancestors, and everything goes smoothly. If I do something in a hurry and forget to think about spirits, some small accidents occur, either I hit my head against the doorway, or I twist my ankle, or something else.

What are the most important objects to you in Avj?

The photos on the wall in the living room are very important to me. Photos from our younger years, photos of our relatives. These photos are connected with memories.

I have a wooden rolling pin that reminds me of my father, I still use it for rolling dough. Also, a bowl for salads. I had two bowls, but one got broken. My father bought these bowls. Those items, which were left to me by my relatives, they are important to me as they remind me of people dear to me.

Another important object – a box made from different magazines and postcards made by the oldest of my brothers, Khabib. Inside the box, right in the centre is a picture of Hadicha from when she was fourteen years old. There is also a photo of her son Jamshed, six months old. Among all the other photos and documents, Hadicha finds a photo of Zevar, six months old too. She places both photos right next to each other – Jamshed and Zevar, his daughter, both six months old.

Khabib made another box for me when he was in the hospital. He made a lot of boxes like this one, but they all were broken or disappeared. That was a horrible time. My brother was in the hospital, they prepared him for surgery, Shirin also had some health issues, my mother was sick and later died. She called me and asked my brother and me to come, but when I arrived, it was too late, she was already dead and buried [in the Pamirs they bury people on the day of their death before the sun goes down]. I didn’t manage to be on time and see her alive for the last time. …Hadicha starts to cry again… As Khabib was waiting for his surgery, I didn’t tell him anything about our mother’s death. When I visited him, I was just crying. The doctors were wondering: “What a young woman! She is crying and crying all the time!”. Only a month later, my brother found out about our mother. He was very angry at me for not telling him right away. Khabib was in the 9th grade [15 years old] when he had this surgery.

Later, he graduated pedagogical school and became a teacher, he got married, and had children. Once, the whole class got poisoned with carbon monoxide, because they were heating school with coal. A teacher ran to my brother and told him that all the children were dead. His son was also in this class. She exaggerated – they only had lost consciousness, later they all were fine, but this statement hit my brother really hard. That night he got ill. Some mental problems occured, psychosis. We went to different psychiatrists, several mullahs [Muslim healers]. For four days, my youngest brother Zurbek was taking care of Khabib in my flat in Khorugh, his heart was beating so fast, so fast! Apparently, Khabib had a heart attack caused by the teacher’s exaggeration, and the psychosis was only a side effect of the heart attack. We thought it was a mental illness and didn’t come up with an idea to bring him to a cardiologist! After four days we decided to bring him to our father. On the road, Khabib was hitting his head with his hands and repeating: “Two of us will die! Two of us will die!”. And he said to Zurbek: “It won’t be you! It won’t be you!”. He predicted the future…

I had three brothers in total. Khabib, Zurbek and Gulbek. Gulbek was quite a hooligan. While he was studying in Dushanbe, he got into an argument with his professors or something, and for that he had to sit in jail for four years. Later, he had a girlfriend and they were in love. Our family went to her family to ask for her hand, but her parents disagreed, because Gulbek was such a hooligan. Gulbek kidnapped the girl and married her without the blessing of her parents! 

Hadicha’s memoir along with one of her poems.

He was very upset, as he wanted to solve this situation in a polite way. Gulbek said: “I will graduate from university and I will put my diploma on her father’s desk!”. He was a smart guy, he even received a scholarship while studying!

Shirin called Gulbek and said that Khabib was ill. Gulbek was angry at me: “Sister, why didn’t you tell me? My brother has helped me so many times!”. Gulbek asked me to send him a telegram approved by a doctor. It was Sunday. On Monday I sent him a telegram, but in the evening a car was sent for me. Khabib was dying and was calling for me. When I arrived, he was already dead. When Gulbek arrived, he was angry at me that I didn’t tell him earlier, and he couldn’t even try to help Khabib. And Gulbek said: “Oh, brother, I won’t leave you alone!”. Since our mother died, my three brothers were very close and had a strong bond with each other.

Less than two months after Khabib’s funeral, Gulbek was hit by a car and died too. On the day of the accident, I went to Khabib’s grave, I sat and cried there and had no idea that my other brother was hit by a car and was now in the hospital in a very critical condition. The next day he died. All the relatives looked really sad, I thought they also missed Khabib, but they already knew about the death of Gulbek, they just didn’t tell me yet. Uncle told the sad news to Shirin. We went back to Khorugh. Somehow, I had a bad premonition… The next morning, my uncle called Shirin to tell him that they are sending a car with Gulbek’s body. Shirin was speaking on the phone quite secretly. I asked him what had happened, but Shirin didn’t know how to tell me about the death of Gulbek. Finally, he told me that Gulbek got ill. I asked him: “What do you mean – got ill? Most likely something bad happened to him! Did someone kill him?”. That was my first thought – someone killed him, as he was a very fair and righteous person, and always got involved in disagreements and fights. Shirin didn’t answer… I’m very thankful to Shirin. I have experienced so much sorrow in my life, but Shirin always has been very supportive and protective. When I found out that Gulbek was hit by a car, I couldn’t believe it! Gulbek didn’t leave Khabib alone as he said he would at Khabib’s funeral…

Hadicha remembers she has another box made by Khabib, she goes to the wardrobe and looks for it. Later she shows me the rolling pin and salad bowl as well.

What does Avj mean to you in general?

Avj is our beginning and Avj is our end. I have a poem in Ishkashimi, the main idea of it – although I was born in Rin, my soul will leave my body in Avj. In my memoirs I have another poem dedicated to Avj, it is in Russian. The main idea of it – wherever we go, whatever we do, the spirits of our ancestors are together with us, and we are very thankful to them.

Avj unites my grandchildren, despite them all living in different places – Khorugh, Dushanbe, Moscow. Even those who live in the same city, don’t meet very often. Here in Avj they all spend their time together, they are very friendly, they help each other. I remember, Oshur and Zevar started to organize concerts at our home. Malika and I even invited neighbouring children to join. Several times they performed in the sanatorium. That was really nice! They come here every summer, spend some time together and help us. Avj plays a uniting role among our relatives. Also, thanks to Avj we have “grandchildren” from other countries, for example, you. If no Avj… we wouldn’t have all of this. When we were building this house, I asked Shirin: “Why do we need a house here?”. I was still not ready to spend my life in the countryside village. I wanted to live in the city, to have a comfortable life. Shirin asked me: “If we live in the city, where will our children and grandchildren come together and visit us? They should have their father’s home!”.

A bowl that Hadicha received from her father.
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