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Stories From Avj: Dr. Shirinbek Davlatmamadov, part 111 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.

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!”.

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.

To be continued

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Read more of Solveiga Kalva’s interviews in Avj:

Featured image: View from the White Mountain of Avj, on the other side of the River Panj / Solveiga Kalva
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