Stories from Avj: in that time nobody lived in Avj, the village was empty”8 min read
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.
It is a terribly hot day. The gate of Salim’s house is locked, but Bahti opens the bolt and we enter the yard. Next to the house, a woman sweeps the porch. We greet her, and she invites us inside. Salim recognizes me and says, “Oh! Welcome back! You were here a few years ago, right?” Right! We are warmly welcomed in his home. In the middle of our interview, Salim’s daughter Gulru puts out a tea service – tea, cookies, candies. Salim has very kind eyes. It seems that he spreads wisdom and peace all around him. The wisdom of life and the peace of the mountains.
What kind of personally important events have you experienced in Avj?
Salim: Two or three years ago, soldiers almost shot us! I will never forget that! We came out of the sanatorium, and they started to shoot. Most likely they were on drugs. We called their central office, they sent a division here and they got things in order. Later, those soldiers were fired and sent away.
I remember, once there was a car accident and a woman died. It was in the fall, probably, in October. There was a company of a few people, they went to our sanatorium. The woman said: “What is this hot spring of yours?! This water is cold! I will never come here again!” One of us answered: “Hey, lady! We didn’t create it! It was created by God! It was created in the way it is supposed to be! If you want a warmer hot spring, go to Gharm Chashma!” She just spat on that and repeated: “I will never come here again!” They didn’t go far away – after 500 metres they got in a car accident. All the others in the car survived, but this lady was dead on the spot. I saw all of this with my own eyes. Later people said she had been punished by God.
Could you tell me any legends about Avj?
Salim: It was May, 1975. In that time nobody lived in Avj, the village was empty, people only came here to work in the fields of the collective farm. I was sitting next to the house where Kudrat lives now when I noticed a few girls passing by me; I knew them. They entered the farm’s grain storage. I waited and waited for them to come out, but nobody came out. They didn’t even have a reason to enter the storage! And now they were not coming out… Then I went straight to the farm’s field and saw these girls working there! I’m absolutely sure that I saw them enter the storage and not come out. I didn’t tell this to anyone. This strange event scared me so much that I got sick for three days. My relatives wanted to bring me to a hospital, but I told them everything and they started to heal me using Muslim traditional practices. A lot of people tell stories about seeing apparitions in Avj, but I saw it only once.
Another time, when I was working here, I went to Upper Avj during lunchtime. I entered a house and noticed someone sitting in a metal tub and washing. I closed the door and ran away. I ran away about 30 metres, stopped and started to think what it might have been. I wanted to go back and check again. I didn’t have enough courage to open the door, but I heard some kind of metallic noise inside the house. I got scared and ran away. There used to be a big tree; the farm later cut it down in order to make a road to Upper Avj. I was sitting near the tree and thinking. I knew that people had experienced similar things in Avj. Later I went down to where Asanbek lives now. There was a farm in those times. I was relaxing when I noticed a lady with a white scarf coming down from Upper Avj! I got so scared! I ran to the sanatorium straight away. The senior nurse asked me: “Why do you have such a pale face?” In the beginning I didn’t tell him what I saw, but then I told him about this lady in white who had been washing in Upper Avj. He said: “Don’t walk around alone! You know, there are some spirits…” I stayed in front of the sanatorium talking to the senior nurse. Suddenly, we noticed the lady in white already in Lower Avj! It turned out to be Bozor’s grandma! I told her: “Grandma! Don’t you have anything better to do? Why did you scare me?” In those times I was really afraid of such apparitions. Dr. Shirinbek told me that there once was a spirit throwing stones at him. Nobody has seen this spirit, it doesn’t have a visual appearance, it only throws stones at people in order to scare them.
Gulru: But this spirit doesn’t exist only in Avj, people have experienced it in other villages as well, especially, when you walk alone. Someone just throws stones at you, but you can’t see anyone around. Maybe mountains protect themselves in this way. Who knows… I remember soldier stories. It was in 1993 or 1994. A mystical lady visited soldiers quite often at night. She had long hair and seemed very strange. She was trying to scare them away. Why? Supposedly, they had built their military post in the place that once had belonged to her. Also, soldiers heard a baby crying at night. What baby could be there? No baby! Many soldiers experienced this and were really afraid. This lady came at night, scared and tortured soldiers until they moved their post to another place. Who knows if it is true, but that is what soldiers were telling people.
Salim: Some other beings live in this world besides us, that is for sure. If there are names for all these spirits and apparitions, it means they do exist. Otherwise we wouldn’t have these names in our language. Someone else lives here! Someone created humans. Let’s think about a cow – it looks ugly, but the meat is delicious, and it gives milk, white milk! It is not without reason! I believe in God. A hundred percent. We have to believe in something! What is your religion?
Well, I was baptised as a Christian, but that was my parents’ choice. I don’t go to church. I always say that my religion is nature.
Salim: That is right! It is not important who recites prayers or who doesn’t; who goes to church and who doesn’t. I always get angry at those who blame others for not praying. If someone doesn’t want to do it, it is his own business. Everyone has his own way of living.
Gulru: Everyone has his own beliefs and lives in his own way. Some people spend day and night at church, pray all the time, but actually they are mean, their conscience is dirty and they walk around angry at everyone. While some other people have never been to church, but they are very kind and good. That is what matters.
What does Avj mean to you?
Salim: Avj to me is everything that exists in this world. Everything! I remember, I asked my grandfather: “Have you been anywhere else in your life?” And he said: “I haven’t been anywhere else besides the region between Khorugh and Khargush.” I told him: “At least go to Dushanbe! At least once!” And he said: “Why would I go? Why do I need to go to Dushanbe? Even if someone gave me gold, I wouldn’t go anywhere else!”
Gulru: I remember my dad was 40-42 years old and he said: “I will move back to Avj and build a house there!” My mom said: “Go, go! I won’t go with you! I will never move to a village!” Dad came here, built a house, and in the end mom moved together with him. What else could she do? They lived in a city, but he felt a strong bond with Avj, he wanted to move back.
Salim: Now it’s impossible to live in cities! There is no respect among people! And the youth! Most of them have education…
Gulru: But they don’t have a brain!
Salim: Exactly! On the one hand – an educated person, on the other hand – no understanding of humanity, respect, or kindness. Especially in Russia. I get on the bus, all the youngsters sit and pay no attention to me, an old man, or to women. They sit and they don’t care about the others!
Gulru: It is absolutely normal there. I’m still not used to the savage behaviour in Russia, they don’t respect elders at all. It is hard for me to get used to life in Russia. Maybe one day I will get used to it. I remember, I went to Russia for the first time in 2011. I entered the metro and sat down. When an old lady entered the metro, I gave my seat to her. Later I sat down again. When an old man entered the metro, I wanted to give my seat to him, but he shouted at me: “What?! Do I look so bad that I can’t stand anymore?!” Instead of ‘thank you’, I got this… After this I didn’t try to offer my seat to elders in Russia anymore.