Stories from Avj: portraits from the Pamir14 min read

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

When I first met Soyabegim Goibnazarova in 2017, I was afraid of her. She seemed to me a quite harsh lady. No wonder – during this interview it turned out that she had argued even with Mikhail Gorbachev! She has strength of purpose! Even now, when she is around 80. Soyabegim was watching TV when I worked up the courage to ask her for an interview. First, she asked me to help Hadicha to bring the cows to the fields, but I was too late for this; Hadicha had already left, so we agreed to start our interview. Soyabegim didn’t really need my questions; she is full of memories, and the stories roll off her tongue by themselves. Soyabegim speaks with a great love and respect towards Avj, the people around her, and life in general. Each word seems to be well thought-out before it is said.

How are you connected with Avj?

Most of my childhood I spent in Avj, I grew up with Shirinbek and consider him my brother. My mother was from Avj, my father, from Barshor, a neighbouring village. Both villages are still very dear to me. My mom was the first child of her parents, the oldest sister of Shirinbek. His mom gave birth to him, but eight months later my mom gave birth to me. Officially, I’m a niece of Shirinbek, but as we are the same age, we are like siblings; we grew up together and even drank the milk of the same mother. My mom was coming to Avj to visit her mom, and I started to suckle two breasts – my mom’s and my grandma’s, together with Shirinbek. We lived in Barshor, but I often met up with Shirinbek – our families helped each other, visited each other, looked after our livestock together. I always wanted to spend as much time as I could in Avj. I fell in love with Avj in my childhood. This deep love is still alive. When my mom stopped breastfeeding me, she brought me here and I continued to suck my grandma’s breast. Actually, I had a habit of sucking the breasts of any woman I met. I grew up in Avj. Avj for us was a holy place. We loved to walk around the meadows, we loved to swim in the pool. In our childhood there was a beautiful round pool where the sanatorium is now. The pool was under the sky, there was no roof above it. When we got a bit older, we joined our mothers in the pastures. We went to school in Kozidje, it’s a bit further away than Barshor. 

Our forefathers didn’t need to plant any herbs and trees here – Avj was full of wild flora. For example, near the river grew a lot of blackcurrants. We used to play there as kids. Our main entertainment and work at the same time was looking after livestock. Inhabitants of Avj kept a lot of goats and sheep, and a few cows. Goats grow really big here. This environment is too rocky and mountainous for cows, but goats and sheep are not afraid of mountains, they can climb up to any place and find grass to eat.

I remember: when our grandfather, father, uncles and other relatives came together, they spoke of the history of our ancestors, and they told us only good things. It was like a TV or radio for us children. We always sat around somewhere and listened to their stories. All these legends, folktales, and stories stayed in our memories even to today. I’m very thankful to our ancestors that they taught us to respect our elders, work hard, and choose a good path for our lives.

I didn’t have any difficulties at school. When I was in 7th grade, the final grade in those times, four girls from a professional pedagogical school from Khorugh stayed at our home overnight – they were traveling by foot. They suggested that I apply for studies at the pedagogical school right after my graduation. That decided my destiny. I’m very thankful to my family that they accepted my willingness to apply for the pedagogical school in Khorugh. I graduated 7thgrade with excellence, as well as the professional pedagogical school. After graduation, I was sent to Kazidje, my childhood school, to work as a teacher. I taught classes of mixed ages, as the classes were very small. Around that time, my parents wanted to set me up with one man, but I was categorically against getting married to him. It was a socially-accepted norm for parents to choose a spouse for their children.

Did your parents accept your refusal?

Yes, they did. I started to cry. I cried a lot. I argued with my mom and told her: “If you like this guy, go and marry him yourself!” I couldn’t argue with my dad, so each time I met him, I started to cry. Luckily, he noticed my tears and said: “I’m afraid of your tears! I don’t want to force you into a marriage.” I was so happy to hear this! My dad was such a good man! I was in the last year at the pedagogical school, I told my dad that I was planning to apply to university. My dad said: “Finish the professional school, work a bit in your profession, feel the results of your previous education, but after that… do what you want.”. Later my parents found a new fiance and asked whether I would agree to get married this time. I got married to a man from the Shugnan region. He didn’t have any higher education, but later he graduated from a professional technical school for construction. He was a good technician. I’m very thankful to him that he allowed me to continue my education! After the professional pedagogical school I continued my studies as a married woman. I don’t complain about my destiny. Once, I attended a conference where I met my former Russian teacher Martina Vladimirovna Valentina from the pedagogical school. In the break she came to me, took me by my hand, and introduced me to the district committee secretary and said about me: “Look, she can work as a district committee secretary!”. I said: “No, no, I can’t…”. She said: “You can, no doubt! I know you are a very capable person!”. I said: “I have a husband, without his agreement I can’t accept this duty.”. My husband was called by the party and he agreed.

For a while my husband and I lived in different places. I studied in Moscow, but my husband, his mom, and my mom looked after our first son. Then I came back, but later I was sent to Tashkent, Uzbekistan; this time my husband came with me. I studied there for four years, then I was sent to Kurgan-Tyube [in Tajikistan] to work among strangers, so we moved there. They had a different level of development, a different understanding of society and religion. I worked there for 32 years, but I always kept my love for Avj. Every little stone in Avj is very dear to me.

I wonder what is so special in Avj that from this place have come so many highly-educated people. Golruz Navruzovich, my uncle, had a PhD in history. His brother was an esteemed lawyer in the USSR, and his wife was a very smart doctor. Their son Kudrat still lives here; he didn’t choose a scientific path, but he is a good man anyway. Golruz helped the others to apply for the university – Shirinbek became a famous doctor at the national level, and Shogunbek, a great lawyer.

When the Civil War [of 1992-1997] started, destiny scattered us to different sides, we experienced so much horror and sorrow… In the end destiny brought me back to Avj 52 years later. I lost everything in the war but my soul. Somehow, I withstood that all. When it is not your time to die, you keep living. And I ended up in Avj again. I’m very thankful to my destiny for my education and knowledge. 

Which places in Avj are personally important to you?

Very important to me are the pastures where I spent a lot of time with my grandma in summer. I love the mountains. When I had enough energy, I would go hiking and climbing all the time. The higher I went, the easier it was to breathe. I loved it so much! I would always follow Shirinbek and other boys. They tried to get rid of me, but I didn’t leave them alone. In my childhood I was full of energy, like a boy! I used to ride donkeys, climb trees! Once, I even fell down from the very top of a tree, but I didn’t break anything.

Now I enjoy sitting next to the spring where it is very sunny. I love every little stone in Avj! Each of them shines in a different way! We used to look for nephrite, a green semi-precious gemstone, and make jewellery out of it. 

There is a large grain mortar close to Kudrat’s house. It used to consist of a big stone with a cylindrical hole in the middle and a stone pestle, I think the latter is lost now. My mom used grind wheat and millet there. We had really good wheat and millet in my childhood! Mom would put the grain inside the hole, then grind them with the pestle and then sift. She got such fine flour!

During the Soviet times, the local government made a mistake – they ordered everyone to move away from Avj as there was no school there, but kids needed it. Most of the inhabitants moved to the neighbouring village Mulvoj. The worst part was that the government not only ordered people to move away, but even destroyed their houses! It makes me sad to think of that. That was our history! I remember my grandmother’s house, it was a typical Pamiri house. Why did the government destroy it? My grandparents were still strong enough to take care of the livestock. They could have allowed all the elders to keep living in Avj while the rest of the families moved to Mulvoj. But no, they decided to move everyone away and destroy the houses. Our childhood house was very old, nobody knew precisely, maybe even 500 years old. We just knew that once there lived our very, very wise forefathers. In the whole world scholars have not yet found who invented the Pamiri house structure. It can withstand even a very strong earthquake. Even if the walls collapse, wooden columns can still stand and hold the roof. That is something! This is why I say that everyone in the Pamirs has to build a traditional Pamiri house. You can’t find similar architecture anywhere else! Every column, every beam has its own symbolic meaning. If you don’t have a Pamiri house, you’re not a real Pamiri. 

Later, there was a sanatorium built in Avj, and Shirinbek worked as the chief physician. I worked as a district committee secretary. I used to visit Avj and the sanatorium. They had a guest book and once I wrote: “Avj has a host and he is the one who is native here.”. I meant Shirinbek, of course. I continued: “He who rebuilds Avj will be supported by God”. I asked Shirinbek where this guest book is now, but he doesn’t know, he thinks it was destroyed. When he left the sanatorium, he gave all the documents, including the guest book, to the next chief physician. The next leadership of the sanatorium was very chaotic. Sometimes, when Hadicha gets tired of the household and says: “Oh, I wish we lived in Khorugh, it would be so much easier!”, I always tell her: “In that case you and Shirinbek wouldn’t be so famous!”. Shirinbek was a well-known surgeon, he came back to Avj and became the chief physician here. Later he started to explore folk and herbal medicine and now is famous in the whole country. It’s only thanks to Avj and the fact that in the Pamirs you can find almost all of Mendeleev’s table! 

A woman once said to me: “You’re not allowed to be happy for too long.” Hadicha and Shirinbek lost Jamshed, I lost Shavqat, but life goes on. Avj is reborn again, my dream is fulfilled. The leadership is making mistakes again; they want to plant trees and bushes everywhere, but we need sunny places too! The Pamirs are not supposed to be all green! They say we don’t need these stones, but we do need them! Nature created a good balance, we have to maintain it! We strive for “civilization” and technologies, but with that we destroy ourselves. They don’t think about their children, grandchildren, future. I really respect Avj and nature. Avj has been reborn, but I’m absolutely against overpopulation here. It has to stay within a certain number of houses and inhabitants in order to preserve the clean air, water, environment, and healing properties of the sanatorium.

How many houses would be a good amount?

I would say – no more than 15.

How many houses are there now?

I think there are eight houses with permanent inhabitants, and around eight new houses under construction. One minister, he is not an Ismaili, not even really a Pamiri, is building a big house here as well. He is a bad person, not an honest one. We don’t need such people in Avj, they not only spoil the physical environment, but our community as well. We need honest people who achieve everything in a respectful, honest way using their wisdom. This is my personal opinion.

If someone is going to build a small town here, he needs to be very smart and come up with a solution for wastewater, as right now everything goes into the river. Right now the approach is very primitive – “if it works for me, it’s good enough!”, and nobody cares about the others or the environment.  Unfortunately, there is a tendency to move towards the destruction of nature, but the laws of nature never forgive.

I’m writing down my thoughts, although, nowadays it’s even dangerous to write some things, but nevertheless, I have to leave this information for the future. I hope I will have enough time to finish and publish it. If I don’t manage to finish it before I die, anyway, someone will come here and find my manuscripts and read them.

Do you have any holy places in Avj?

Yes, there are several mazors [shrines]. One is called Bibisabzpush. In translation it means “lady in green clothes.”. I don’t know if she was buried under the mazor or if she only visited Avj for a while. This mazor is located close to Kudrat’s house. There is also a mazor in the cemetery, called Hodjarabon. In translation it means “the road guard”.

What kind of rituals or traditions are linked with mazors?

In olden days, people used to sacrifice sheep at mazors. Nowadays, people bring candles and light them, or leave candies or money as a sacrifice.

Could you tell me any legends connected with Avj?

There is a white hill close to the soldiers’ post. I haven’t been there for a while so I don’t know if you can still find it, but I remember from my childhood that on this hill there was a painting – a hunter with his rifle and dog. All dark red. Was it painted by a human or by nature, only God knows. The legend says it was the site of a murder where innocent blood was spilled. Either the hunter killed someone, or someone killed the hunter, I don’t know. There used to be a spring coming out of the hill, but after this horrifying event, the spring disappeared and sank under the hill. That is only a legend, I don’t know if it is true or not.

When I want to shoot her portrait, Soyabegim asks Hadicha’ if she looks good enough. Soyabegim poses like a real model. It is more than clear that this is not her first time in front of the camera.

After the interview, she shows me pictures of her grandchildren on her smartphone. Yes, she has a smartphone! And she works on a computer as well – she is writing her second book about her life, Tajikistan, and the civil war. Later she says that despite all the great places she has visited, all the great people she has met, the dearest memories she has are from Avj and her childhood there. That was the happiest time in her life.

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