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Monday, 23 March 2009

Tajik Spirituality: Saints and Ritual in the Zarafshan Valley - Page 3

Written by Ai Watanabe
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I left for Zarafshan from Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, at about noon. Not the best idea to leave then -- I ended up traveling through the hottest part of the day and arrived after dark in Penjikent, a northern city along the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border. Despite the heat, the drive was spectacular. I felt consumed by the beauty of the deep, crystalline blue of the rivers that sliced through the dusty mountains and snow-capped peaks. The sparse trees were showing hints of autumn, with the aspen leaves tinged yellow. Almost every rooftop of the mud-brick village along the road was dotted with rust-colored apricots drying for the coming cold season.

The Ladies’ Gathering and Bibi Mushkil Kusho

Later that night I went with Sabohat to her ‘ladies meeting,’ where she got together once a week with the other women of the village. I had no idea what to expect, and thought it would be a simple ladies’ tea, as I had attended many times before in Tajikistan. In contrast, it ended up being a unique evening, in which the women performed a practice reminiscent of a variety of Central Asian traditions in a ritual form. The ceremony, devoted to the female saint, “Bibi Seshanbe,” or “Bibi Mushkil Kusho,” has been secretly practiced for many years throughout the Soviet period, and endured to the present day.

When Sabohat and I arrived, twelve ladies were already gathered in a long room at the front of the home. There was a long tablecloth set up on the floor, and tea, sweets, fruit and bread were served for everyone. At the far end, which was the side for the elders and guests, sat three much older women. Tajik Spirituality, Saints and Ritual in the Zarafshan Valley, travel Zarafshan, travel Tajikistan, Dushanbe, Penjikent, Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border, Village Sarazm, Tajik saints, pilgrimages, shrines, Bibi Mushkil Kusho, Bibi Seshanbe, Auliya Baba Shahid, womens rituals, mystic islam, Ai WatanabeOne in particular was regarded with special respect by the others, and seemed to be presiding over the gathering. She was round and wrinkled, jolly and personable. Her name was Istat, but everyone referred to her simply as, ‘the old lady’.

Everyone was sitting around chatting, laughing and drinking tea. More and more participants were gradually arriving, and after greeting one another, took their seats around the tablecloth. After the group had fully gathered, the hostess brought in an old cow skin and unfolded it in front of the old lady and Sabohat.

Tajik Spirituality, Saints and Ritual in the Zarafshan Valley, travel Zarafshan, travel Tajikistan, Dushanbe, Penjikent, Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border, Village Sarazm, Tajik saints, pilgrimages, shrines, Bibi Mushkil Kusho, Bibi Seshanbe, Auliya Baba Shahid, womens rituals, mystic islam, Ai WatanabeThe cow skin was covered with flour, and they began to set it with an assortment of bowls - a bowl of milk, a bowl of yogurt, a bowl of a brown, sweet flour soup called tarhaula, small bowls of sugar, salt, grapes, raisins, sweets and herbs, and also two candles, a stack of bread and a few fried pastries. Following the set-up, Sabohat opened a scarf that had a stack of books in it. Some were written in the Arabic script, and others written in Cyrillic. In front of her, other ladies piled new headscarves and money.

Sabohat opened one of the books and started to read from it. She recited Qur’an, prayers, and mystical poetry in Arabic, Tajik and Uzbek. She read poetry and prayers devoted to Bibi Seshanbe, asking her for the relief of their burdens. Once in a while, everyone would stop and make a collective prayer and then go back to their eating and chatting.

While Sabohat read, another woman sat beside the cow skin and began setting up the two candles burning in a little dish. Sabohat then held a couple of pieces of fabric over the flames and circled them above it a few times. After awhile the lady with the candles came back with a spoon, which she held over the candle till it was black and singed. She then burned of the tip of a match, and passed the black spoon, the matchstick and a little mirror to the jolly old lady, who proceeded to use the matchstick to apply the blackened soot to her eyes like black eyeliner. The spoon, the matchstick and a mirror were then passed around the entire circle, and everyone made up their eyes for protection from the evil eye and health problems.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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