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Monday, 23 March 2009

Tajik Spirituality: Saints and Ritual in the Zarafshan Valley

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 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 Watanabedrive 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 Zarafshan mountain range is in the north of Tajikistan, and extends east-west from Samarqand in Uzbekistan, across towards Kyrgyzstan. The river by the same name, flows all the way to Samarqand, which is still the cultural and social center of the region. This even after the Russians politically divided the area between the regions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the 1920’s. On both sides of the border people share a common culture, religious practice and language. The Russian decision to divide the region, and split the Tajik Autonomous Region from its former cultural and political centers, Samarqand and Bukhara was almost entirely arbitrary and based on internal politics. Still, the Tajiks of Penjikent depend on the now-Uzbek cities for health care, education and religious training, because the Tajik capital is a rough seven-hour drive away.

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Village Sarazm: On the Uzbek Border

Salokhiddin’s house was in Sarazm -- a tiny village outside of Penjikent, right on the Uzbek border. His rice fields which are directly behind his house actually sit in Uzbekistan. Poverty is rampant in this area. The river has almost completely dried up over the past few years and there isn’t enough water to irrigate many of the crops. As a result, the town is surrounded by empty, dusty fields. On the other side of the border villagers are able to grow rice as there is more water. The entire area is desperately in need of developmental support, but the UN funds that had begun to establish irrigation programs in the area ended before the plan was in motion. The homes in the village are large and spacious, with plenty of room for the cows, sheep, and donkeys they keep but have no running water and only unreliable electricity.

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Pilgrimage and Shrines

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The Mullah: The Religious Spheres of Differing Sexes

Later in the day I had an interesting conversation with a local Mullah. He was a small wiry man of seventy-six years, with sharp eyes, a well-kept turban, long walking stick and long velvet coat. He had heard that I was interested in visiting shrines and had to come to talk with me about the local sacred sites. Also, he wanted to ask what I thought about that ‘lunatic President Bush?’ I was surprised by how globally savvy this Mullah, who lived in a tiny village with no electricity, was about international politics, thanks to satellite television available in the nearby city.

However, when I asked him about the shrines in the area, he had no idea about them or even where they were. Whereas the women frequently visited the sites and assumed the Mullah to have knowledge about the saints associated with them, the Mullah conversely referred me to talk to the women who went to them. He explained that women and men had different ways of believing -- women believed in the shrines while the men didn’t, but the men were religious in other ways.

The Mullah’s perspective points to an interesting aspect of the preservation of rituals, such as the rituals of Sufism, or mystic Islam, through women’s lineages. While throughout history, attention was often given to the male sphere of religious life and women’s roles were marginalized, it also follows that when periods of persecution and hardship arose, the male sphere suffered more dramatically. Thus the continuity of many traditions could depend significantly on women’s roles. When male religious leaders that were more public were either killed or imprisoned, (by the Soviets for example) women operating in the more private, female sphere were able to continue their practices.


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.

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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.


While the soot makeup ritual was making its rounds, one of the participants had come in with a small pile of cotton, which the rest divided into four balls and then stretched out into little disk-like saucers. Another woman came around to give out handfuls of raisins and everyone began picking the stems off of the raisins and putting them in the middle of the cotton disks. After all the stems were off, someone collected the raisins again in the bowl. They then folded up the cotton with the stems in it, and bunched it up. According to Islamic custom, they would throw it into running water which would wash everyone’s ailments away.

When we finished eating our tarhaula, the bowls that had been sitting on the cowskin were passed around the group. Everyone put their fingers in the bowls and tasted the sugar, salt, flour, etc. three times, wiped some of it on the top of their headscarves, then passed it to the right. We drank and ate from the bowls of milk, yogurt and osh (a Tajik rice dish), and then passed around pieces of a special type of flatbread.

The raisins were redistributed and as Sabohat recited another prayer (she had been reading the whole time), everyone had handfuls of raisins that they were pouring from one hand into the other, over and over again. The woman beside me explained that while we hold the raisins we should make a niyat (intention), and that the raisins would have rewards for these wishes. The raisins are gathered into a bowl again and later redistributed to us for our families.

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Meanwhile, Sabohat was reading in Uzbek and then switched to Arabic to read the one hundred and twelfth verse of the Qur’an three times. She then sang a prayer to which the ladies responded with ‘La Illaha Ila Allah’ (there is no God but God), initiating a call and response song. Then Sabohat continued to read until one of the old ladies made several prayers and everyone made a collective prayer to commemorate the end of the evening. Sabohat finished her reading, then wrapped up the books and made up her eyes with the burnt matchstick.

As the meeting ended, one woman brought in a burning herb and everyone breathed in its smoke for health and protection. All the participants took handfuls of raisins and made little piles of the sweets, fruit and bread to take with them -- It would help everyone to get their prayers and wishes answered.

We said our farewells and set off under the glimmering, starry sky back to our homes. Everyone was cheerful, toting small packets of blessed sweets to loved ones at home.


Religious Transformation and Adaptation

The ladies’ evening incorporated many traditions that had for centuries been handed down from generation to generation. The ritual bore a strong resemblance to Sufi rituals that have long been practiced in Central Asia, while also showing folk devotion to local saints, such as Bibi Seshanbe (a female saint who intervenes specifically to lessen hardship). Interestingly, this ritual was still practiced despite years of Soviet persecution of religious practice in any form.

The ladies meet every week to hold this gathering, either on a Seshanbe (Tuesday) or a Chorshanbe (Wednesday). Sabohat said she had been attending Bibi Seshanbe gatherings since she was a teenager and her mother and grandmother used to do it as well. When she was nineteen and had finished school under Soviet rule, she went to study with the local Mullah who taught her to read Arabic in secret.

Even though it was illegal to study these books, or even to have them (the Soviets killed and imprisoned people who kept books about religion or anything written in Arabic script), Sabohat told me she wasn’t afraid because she knew the risk was for God. She showed me the copies she had of the prayer in both Arabic and Cyrillic, and even Uzbek written in Arabic script. 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 Watanabe The copy of the Qur’an she had was particularly ironic because the pages were held together by stamps that were marked by the insignia of the USSR.

As it turned out, Salokhiddin’s wife was the prayer reader for all the ladies of the village. The knowledgeable biology teacher was the town’s Mullah and Muslim authority. The ‘old lady’ who was the grade school history teacher was also the elder who presided over religious gatherings. And, despite decades of Soviet persecution and control, a ladies tea was a perfect opportunity to practice a religious ceremony that had endured for generations.

© Ai Watanabe

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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