Stories From Avj: Dr. Shirinbek Davlatmamadov, part 211 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 Dr. Shirinbek Davlatmamadov can be found here.


What are the most important places to you in Avj?

Every place in Avj is the best and the dearest to me! I like the view that I see when I go a bit higher than Kudrat’s [a lower neighbour] house – the whole of Avj, the valley of the Panj River, Afghanistan, everything is beneath me! A very beautiful landscape. On a good and clear day one can see thirty kilometers away to the bridge across the river in Ishkashim. ‘Avj’ in Tajik means ‘height’. Another really beautiful place is the mountain pastures with cold spring water and fresh air. In general, I like Avj as a whole.

Is there any place that was important to you in your childhood, but that doesn’t exist anymore?

Such a place is my childhood home, where I was born. That house doesn’t exist anymore. It was located next to the place where Kudrat lives now, you can still see some ruins. In 1964, during the rule of Khrushchev, there was a law passed that small villages had to be joined together in order to improve living conditions and to make administration easier. I was already a student around that time. Everyone from Avj had to move to Mulvoj [a village about 5 km from Avj], their fields were forfeited with no remuneration.

My family built a new house in Mulvoj, the local government found this out and said: “Oh, you have two houses? You have to destroy the one in Avj!”. My relatives were forced to destroy my childhood home in Avj. Such a short-sighted local government! During the rule of Gorbachev there was more democracy and I could obtain the land in Avj again and start building this house. Like this, docha.

Do you miss Avj when you go somewhere else? What do you miss the most?

Of course, I miss Avj! When I lived in Khorugh [a city about 80 km from Avj], every night in my dreams I was in Avj! Every night! Either in the mountains, in the pastures, or in our house… I left my career in surgery, I left Khrough and moved here. I became the chief physician in the sanatorium and started to use the mineral water to heal patients. I even wrote a book about mineral water and its healing effects.

During the Civil War [1992 – 1997] people had nothing to eat, they ate grass. I turned to Mother Nature too, and educated myself about herbal medicine. Today I still use phytotherapy and other methods of folk medicine. I am a surgeon, balneologist and phytotherapist. I was awarded the titles of ‘The Best Healer of 2010’ and ‘The Best Healer of 2012’ and certificates by the Association of Phytotherapy and Folk Medicine of Tajikistan. I am also a member of Russian Folk Academy of Sciences, and I have several publications in their journal. I was also awarded several medals. I have written and published sixteen books.

Herbal medicine products made by Dr. Shirinbek / Solveiga Kalva

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

There are two mazors [shrines]. One of them is near Kudrat’s house, and the other one is in the cemetery. These are holy places to me.

How often do you go there?

Every time I go through the cemetery, I stop by the mazor. Other than that I go to the mazor during Muslim celebrations. When we go to the mazor during a Muslim celebration, we bring buikhush [‘bui’ means ‘smell’ in Tajik, but ‘khush’ means ‘nice’] with us. It is a homemade incense which we prepare from three holy plants – juniper, immortelle, harmel. We ignite this mixture and fumigate it, while thinking about the souls of our ancestors. Two biggest Muslim celebrations are Kurban and Ramzan. Kurban honours the willingness of prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son in order to show his obedience to God. Abraham’s son was already prepared for ritual sacrifice when a sheep appeared and was sacrificed instead of Abraham’s son. Ramzan is a month of fasting and prayer.

Could you tell me some other legends about Avj? Almost everyone in Avj refused to tell me legends, saying that I have to ask Dr. Shirinbek this question as he is the oldest and the most knowledgeable.

Most likely, it was in the beginning of August as we already started to cut our grain. I was coming home with two guys through the cemetery, it was around 11 PM, the night was very dark. Suddenly, someone threw a stone at me, but it didn’t hit me. I didn’t say anything, I understood. Then another stone was thrown in my direction, and another one. Four stones. I asked the guys: “Guys, what are you doing?”. One of them said: “Nothing, nothing, let’s go!”. He understood too. We were almost at home, when the fifth stone was thrown in my direction. Our dog started to bark and didn’t stop. The guys went back down passing by Kudrat’s home. Stones were thrown at them until they reached the road down in the village. Then I started to believe in spirits, I didn’t believe in them before. It was completely impossible for someone else to go parallel to us and scare us. Impossible! It was a spirit.

Rumors of different supernatural experiences circulate around Avj. For example, my father told the following story. My mother was in the pastures, and he was alone with his horse watering the garden. It became twilight and got quite windy. He decided to go inside the house and make some tea for himself. When my father entered the house, he saw a woman in white clothes, she stood up and turned around. My father ran outside and spent the night sleeping on the roof. When he told me this story, I said to him: “Father, if I were you, I would jump on the horse and run away!”, ha, ha!

My mother worked on the kolkhoz’s farm [a collective farm in the USSR] in Avj. Early in the morning around 5 AM, mother came to wake me up, but I didn’t want to wake up and go anywhere, so she had no other choice but to wake up my younger brother, Akimbek. They went to the barn. They went through the first room with cows and entered the second one with sheep. Mother said to Akimbek: “Wait here, I will go up on the roof and give you grass through the opening in the ceiling, distribute it to the animals!”. In those times we didn’t have electricity, we used kerosene lamps for light. Mother left a lamp inside the barn. Right when she closed the door, a woman in white clothes suddenly appeared between the sheep. My brother started to scream. Mother was afraid to go through the room of cows without the kerosene lamp as she could run into cows by accident in the darkness. She ran on the roof and pulled out my brother through the opening. My brother then told this story.

Grandfather Kurbon told me that he has seen a jindik, a gnome with shaggy red hair, twice in the mountains. Something exists in a parallel world. For sure, docha.

Others told me that Avj doesn’t accept everyone.

This is true, this is true! Avj doesn’t accept everyone, especially bad people. I told you about the spirit who threw stones at me and the two other guys. Once, one of them stayed overnight at our home. During the night, he wanted to go to the toilet, so he went outside in the yard. Right away, someone started to throw stones at him, he didn’t even manage to pull his pants back up as he got afraid and ran back home. Avj didn’t accept this guy.

Do similar things happen in other villages too?

Yes, yes, each village has its own spirits that protect it.

Which are the most important events of your life connected to Avj?

We have experienced so much happiness and so much sorrow in Avj! The most important events for parents are raising their children and organizing weddings for them. We organized weddings for our sons Olim and Nozim here, those were very important events in my life.

Which are the most important objects to you in Avj related to memories?

All the ancient items which we have exhibited in our museum [they have a pharmacy and a museum down in the village] are important to me, those are our traditions. Mostly household items, different baskets and wooden dishes. In the olden days, they were made and used by everyone.

Other types of important objects are all the medals and diplomas which I have received for my work in medicine. I have done some surgeries even in our yard on the tapchan [a type of outdoor furniture for sitting, eating, relaxing]. For example, when half of Asan’s [a neighbour] finger was cut off, he came here and I managed to sew it back on, and it healed successfully.

Herbal tea mixture made by Dr. Shirinbek / Solveiga Kalva

What does Avj mean to you in general?

Avj is my homeland. I was born in Avj, and I think I will leave this world in Avj.

On 29 August 2020, a surprisingly windless day, Dr. Shirinbek brought my boyfriend Valdis [he came from Latvia to visit me] and I to the White Mountain to tell us another legend. When I wanted to go there together with Bahtbegim [Shirinbek’s granddaughter], Dr. Shirinbek didn’t allow us to go alone as there is a soldier post really close to the White Mountain and they could threaten us. Once, they started to shoot at Dr. Shirinbek’s granddaughters who were only playing there. 

A very narrow mountain path goes from Dr. Shirinbek’s house to the White Mountain. He huffs about tiny burdocks falling all the time into his shoes, yet continues on the road energetically until we reach the White Mountain and the ‘drawing’ of a hunter and his dog. 

In the past, the mineral spring came out of the ground from the White Mountain. Long ago in pre-Islamic times the tsar Kakha was ruling over this region. He was a Zoroastrian. His people were located in several places, in Mulvoj and Avj too. They had a habit that whenever they saw strangers, they made a fire to warn the others with smoke.

On one beautiful day, a hunter from Barshor was hunting wild animals with his dog in the mountains of Avj. When he came down to the White Mountain, he ran into people of Kakha. They killed the hunter and his dog. As innocent human blood was spilled, the mineral spring disappeared here and changed its location. Now the mineral spring comes out of the ground down in the place where the sanatorium was later built. See, there is a red drawing on the rock, you can see the weapon of the hunter, the hunter’s blood and the dog’s blood! This is the legend of the White Mountain.

Painting of blood in the White Mountain / Solveiga Kalva

After fulfilling his mission and telling us the legend, Dr. Shirinbek quickly goes down to the village to his pharmacy. Work and patients are waiting for him. I am amazed by his energy and really hope that I will be able to run around like him in my 80s. 

When I want to take his portrait, he wears his best suit with all his medals proudly attached to it. A very representable look. He really looks like the most knowledgeable and respectable man in the village, as so many of villagers had referred to him as before.

Dr. Shirinbek Davlatmamadov / Solveiga Kalva

Read more of Solveiga Kalva’s interviews in Avj:

Featured image: On the way to the White Mountain / Solveiga Kalva
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