The Tajik Artisans Guarding the Country’s Cultural Legacy

Getty Image
65

While Tajikistan’s history is being hidden behind glimmering new facades, some hold onto tradition with quiet determination.

IN A REGION famous for ancient cities, Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, is new: A hundred years ago, it was only a dusty village between Samarkand and Kabul. Beginning in the 1930s, the Soviets sent architects to transform its scattering of mud-brick structures into a metropolis whose official name, for decades, would be Stalinabad. Today Dushanbe, a city of about 1 million in a country of 10 million, is still known for its wide boulevards lined with old chinar plane trees that give shade to residents taking evening walks during the ferociously hot summers; for neo-Classical architecture in the Stalinist style, like its opera theater, in whose motifs St. Petersburg meets Bukhara; and for the brilliant colors of its buildings’ dazzling mosaics — of Tajik miners, farmers, dancers and weavers, of stylized atoms, cotton bolls and skeins of thread.

Yet over the past decade, the country’s president, Emomali Rahmon, has chipped away at this Dushanbe to build a new city, one that takes its inspiration more from Dubai: glass and steel rising from the dust. In the face of rare public protests, Rahmon’s government has flattened landmarks like the House of Peasants — where the Tajik state was first created in 1929, and the site of the country’s first theater — and razed apartment blocks to create sightlines for new buildings like the National Museum and the National Library, which is famously short of books. “The authorities just want to demolish people’s memory,” the Tajik writer Abduqodir Rustam has said. “For the future generation, history will start from this time, as if there had been nothing before.”

The Kalai Mugh Teppe fortress in the ancient city of Istaravshan, Tajikistan, built on the site where a Sogdian fortress once stood, is an example of the kind of ersatz historical architecture that’s been constructed in recent years in the country.
The Kalai Mugh Teppe fortress in the ancient city of Istaravshan, Tajikistan, built on the site where a Sogdian fortress once stood, is an example of the kind of ersatz historical architecture that’s been constructed in recent years in the country.Credit…Maxime Fossat

Not quite nothing: Much of Dushanbe’s new art and architecture is meant to evoke the glories of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, founded in 550 B.C., which once stretched from the Aegean to the Arabian Sea and which lasted until Alexander the Great invaded in the fourth century B.C. Although Sunnism is the dominant branch of Islam here, Tajikistan otherwise has close cultural and linguistic ties to Iran, which is majority Shia. Most Tajiks speak a variant of Farsi or other Iranian languages, while their northern neighbors have Turkic-speaking majorities. Apart from the Achaemenid references scattered throughout the city, Rahmon’s dynasty (his son Rustam Emomali, mayor of Dushanbe, is widely expected to take his place when Rahmon, who is 70, dies or finally steps down) is commonly portrayed as the successor to the Islamic Samanid Empire (A.D. 819-1005), when “historical Tajikistan” stretched over what is today much of Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, and its courts inspired a Persian literature of great brilliance. All undesirable history between then and now — Mongol invasions, Turkic overlords, Russian colonization, the Soviet empire, civil war, the introduction of Western capitalism without Western European social safety nets — has been elided.

On my first week in Dushanbe, I went to see perhaps the pinnacle of the country’s neo-Persianate architecture, the Navruz Palace. Conceived as the world’s largest chaykhana, or “teahouse,” the palace, completed in 2015, serves as a spectacular stage for visiting trade and diplomatic delegations. Flanking the entrance’s marble staircase, frescoes echo ancient reliefs from Persepolis in Iran, complete with the Zoroastrian winged Faravahar symbol and bearded emperor. There are also scenes from the 11th-century epic “Shahnama,” with the legendary King Jamshid celebrating the first Navruz, or “festival of spring.” The words “National Identity” are painted beneath one of the tableaus.

A view of the Alai Mountains, on the route north to the cities of Istaravshan and Khujand.
A view of the Alai Mountains, on the route north to the cities of Istaravshan and Khujand.Credit…Maxime Fossat

Inside, the official guide threw open door after huge door into shimmering halls so vast that they looked like computer-generated images on a cinematic green screen. “This tiny closet impresses you, does it?” she asked an Uzbek couple as they gasped at its scale and posed for selfies. “But it’s just one little antechamber!”

The Navruz marries the grandiose with the flimsy: 24-karat gold leaf and glitter, Pamiri lapis alongside rendered chipboard and glue. It’s not really a chaykhana, either. Those open-air teahouses are intimate spaces where friends meet, at the market or in neighborhoods called mahallas — mazes of whitewashed mud houses with corrugated roofs and orchards behind high, windowless walls. Each mahalla has its own teahouse.

And yet nothing in the Navruz Palace invites a mahalla’s feelings of connection. “The palace isn’t intended to be a public space,” Tim Epkenhans, the author of “The Origins of the Civil War in Tajikistan” (2016), told me. “Rahmon is reconfiguring the city like something out of Minecraft. These new buildings are theater sets, and they exist to be threatening.”

But one may still find great beauty inside the palace’s halls. While 21st-century Dushanbe is being constructed on a deliberately inhuman scale, it is still being made by humans, and the designers and craftspeople who are making it, known as usto, are heirs to some of Central Asia’s richest — and most culturally resonant — artisanal traditions. The word comes from the Middle Persian ustad, meaning “learned individual,” and refers not only to master artisans but to anyone with exemplary skill; the sociologist Irna Hofman, who has studied Tajikistan’s rural economy, including its textile industries, told me that while a fine tailor might be called an usto, a gifted car mechanic would qualify, too.

The weaver Saidmurod with his 5-year-old granddaughter, Markhabo, at home in the Karatag Valley.
The weaver Saidmurod with his 5-year-old granddaughter, Markhabo, at home in the Karatag Valley.Credit…Maxime Fossat

I HAD COME to Tajikistan to meet some of these artisans. I wanted to know how they told their own stories about custom and innovation in a country whose history is constantly being erased and rewritten. What makes the usto ply their craft when their own culture moves beyond them? Some find work by updating old techniques for new patrons. Others create because that alone is what gives their life purpose. But for each artisan, through lines connect the past, with its deletions and inventions, to an unpredictable future.

Tajikistan is the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics, all of which emerged out of the shatter zone of empires. Since the 1920s, it has been shaped by both the contesting forces of Soviet power and ethnic nationalism, caught in a century-long struggle of creating a new identity for itself (one not so easily declared via fresco). Debates about what the country should become — some Tajiks welcome the glittering modernity of the new Dushanbe, while others view it with suspicion, as they do China’s rising influence in the region — are mirrored by regrets of what the country might have been, if only things had taken a different turn a thousand years ago. Imagine, the artist Hassan Jumaev said to me, if the Mongols had never invaded: “We’d be New York City by now.”

Jumaev, the first usto I sought out, is renowned for his virtuosic skills carving wood and ganch, a gypsum-rich material used since medieval times to create intricately patterned interior walls and ceilings. He spent four years working on the walls of a vast hall within the Navruz Palace, the Guliston, or “garden of flowers.” Two hundred carvers followed his plans, using mostly Siberian cedar.

In Dushanbe, the 1999 memorial to Ismoil Somoni (849-907), a ruler during the Samanid era, which is seen by nationalist historians as a golden age of Tajik history, with the new National Library behind it.
In Dushanbe, the 1999 memorial to Ismoil Somoni (849-907), a ruler during the Samanid era, which is seen by nationalist historians as a golden age of Tajik history, with the new National Library behind it.Credit…Maxime Fossat

He keeps a two-room Soviet-era studio off Dushanbe’s Omar Khayyam Street, where skyscrapers look down on the intimate gardens and walled labyrinths of a mahalla. His workshop was full of unpainted carved wooden panels and, in golden frames, abstract relief paintings called kundal, an art form that developed in 15th-century Samarkand to make flat surfaces look like three-dimensional textured brocade. Jumaev gestured to a kundal he had painted of the medieval polymathic Avicenna, whose image stood at the heart of a starburst of gold, green and yellow. Circling the portrait in calligraphy were the words “I have solved all the universe’s puzzles except for Death.”

Jumaev, who is 65, first came to prominence in 1984 with a woodcarving inspired by Jack London’s novel “The Call of the Wild” (1903) and stories he had heard as a boy from shepherds in his small mountain village north of Dushanbe. “They told me about wolves they’d seen hunt,” he said. “And when I slept, I dreamed about an eagle chasing a fox who chases a bird.” Jumaev pointed to the panel’s center. “Only here can a bird feed her nestlings. Sanctuary is always elusive.”

The piece caused a furor. Russian observers understood it as a critique of Soviet rule. Some Muslims were offended by its zoomorphic motifs. “I was threatened,” he said. “The deeply religious said it was blasphemy. The politically minded said I’d be jailed. I was criticized so much that I almost gave up.” He finally resolved to destroy the work, but then a well-respected artist in the community called it a masterpiece, making his career.

The Navruz Palace, next to an artificial lake.
The Navruz Palace, next to an artificial lake.Credit…Maxime Fossat

Jumaev’s work includes a luminous 46-foot-long wall of ganch carvings at Toronto’s Ismaili Centre with the 99 names of Allah rendered in precious stones by the artist Minaz Nanji, and ganch panels in Dushanbe’s Istaravshan teahouse, finished in the late 1980s and one of the most beautiful spaces in the city. But despite his prominence, Jumaev has not yet been able to find an apprentice who wants to learn how to, say, match colors in a kundal. “Today, students can only think about cash,” he told me. “They’ll focus on a single ornament, and what they create is somehow off.”

This young generation was robbed, he said. As children, they had smartphones and the internet instead of the wisdom of fairy tales. “I’m still waiting to teach the right student,” he said. “And what’s life, anyway? Only hope.”

LONG BEFORE THE internet, other forces threatened Central Asia’s artistic traditions. The Soviets were suspicious of any hint of individuality; some designers were imprisoned for “unauthorized activity.” After the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991, new borders led to a severing of connections between artisans. The Soviets never intended the boundaries they drew to mark divisions between independent states, and the vagueness of these lines can make for chaos today, sometimes leading to lethal clashes (this past September, more than a hundred people died at Batken, where Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet — almost half of the 600-mile border has yet to be fully defined). Villagers must often cross international boundaries to attend school, visit their ancestral mosques, bury their dead or even collect water. Ethnic enclaves within states of other national ethnic groups — Kyrgyz inside Tajikistan, Uzbeks inside Kyrgyzstan, Tajiks inside Uzbekistan — have led locals to nickname these spaces “chessboard” borders. Central Asia’s frontiers “have no rationality, whether geographic, economic or ethnic,” the French political scientist Olivier Roy once wrote. For Tajiks, perhaps the worst example of capricious Soviet demarcation was the decision to attach Bukhara and Samarkand, which had Persian-speaking majorities, to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan in 1924. Tajiks remained furious about the division for decades, with one historian comparing Tajikistan without Samarkand and Bukhara to “France without Paris.”

A Soviet-era mosaic on a Khrushchevki housing unit on the outskirts of Dushanbe. Many such murals still exist in the capital, even as other buildings from the time of the Soviet Union have been demolished.
A Soviet-era mosaic on a Khrushchevki housing unit on the outskirts of Dushanbe. Many such murals still exist in the capital, even as other buildings from the time of the Soviet Union have been demolished.Credit…Maxime Fossat

I decided to travel from Dushanbe to the southwestern province of Khatlon, which borders Afghanistan: Several of Tajikistan’s finest historical sites are there, like Takhti-Sangin, with the ruins of its third-century B.C. monumental Hellenistic temple dedicated to the Oxus River, now called the Amu Darya, and the remains of a religious complex where archaeologists uncovered what is now Central Asia’s largest surviving ancient Buddha in the 1960s.

But few regions in Central Asia have suffered as much as Khatlon over the last century. Here insurgents held out against the Soviet revolutionaries into the 1920s, and here some of the worst atrocities of the 1992-97 civil war occurred. The historian Parviz Mullojonov, whose new book, to be published this month, “The History of the Tajik Civil War,” will be the first comprehensive account of the conflict, which killed 50,000 to 100,000 people (casualty estimates are just some of the facts under dispute), writes that the war began with protests held by those locked out of power and oppressed during the Soviet era: regional elites, religious groups and intellectuals who dreamed of setting up Baltic-style democracies. Many of them hoped for a return to the golden age of Tajik history, as seen by nationalist historians: the Samanid Empire. What happened instead, according to a field commander who was quoted in a 1993 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki report, was a fratricidal war that was fought “without rules, and without wounded, only corpses.” That year, the country’s two most prominent warlords killed each other in a shootout, and Rahmon, who was already head of state, gained the presidency in 1994 after an election marked by “fraud and intimidation,” according to the U.S. State Department. Political figures and journalists were assassinated, and the opposition was shut out of the government. It would take Rahmon another decade to get rid of the network of independent field commanders across the country and truly consolidate power.

The new Istiklol (Independence) square and monument, which opened this year.
The new Istiklol (Independence) square and monument, which opened this year.Credit…Maxime Fossat

During the civil war, there was suddenly intense bloodshed between communities that had lived side by side for generations — southerners versus northerners, the descendants of mountain populations forced to migrate to collective farms versus those already on the plains. John Heathershaw, the author of “Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia” (2017), told me that Tajikistan had not experienced any kind of national reconciliation. Although June 27 is now known as the Day of National Unity, many Tajiks do not treat it as cause for celebration. When Heathershaw asked his Tajik friends why, they told him, “The war was strife between brothers — nothing we want to remember.”

Gray smoke smudged the horizon on the route I was taking through Khatlon; tires were burning near the green seam where the sluggish Vakhsh River flowed south through marshes, on its way to merging with the Panj at the country’s southern border to become the Amu Darya. During the civil war, tens of thousands of desperate people forded that river and crossed into Afghanistan. Tajikistan, by contrast, accepted very few Afghan refugees after the Taliban retook power in 2021, and many of those who did enter the country quickly moved on. Recently, hundreds of Afghan refugees have been repatriated, regardless of whether or not they might be punished by the Taliban.

As I listened to the car’s chassis rattle like a nail caught in a spice grinder, I wondered what would happen if it broke down. Ahead, power lines and road stretched to the horizon; behind, the view was the same. No villages. No people. No animals. Just rocks and sand.

A <em>ganch</em> wall carved by the artist Hassan Jumaev inside the Istaravshan teahouse, which was built in Dushanbe in the late 1980s.
ganch wall carved by the artist Hassan Jumaev inside the Istaravshan teahouse, which was built in Dushanbe in the late 1980s.Credit…Maxime Fossat

“Are you afraid?” the driver asked. “At least around here there’s some traffic! You should see what it’s like to be stranded in the mountains. Sometimes no cars pass for days. Let just a single stone fall and you’ll find yourself stuck where you are. No way out.”

We drove by abandoned gas stations, including one with an A.T.M. that had been dragged out of a wall. On a hill, the skull of a markhor goat was nailed over a graveyard’s gate. My driver told me the poet Rumi was born nearby. Jewel-bright oases occasionally appeared, trees and water in shining colors visible through the haze. At one roadside stop, a brilliant white wedding dress was for sale alongside bags of cement.

“Water Is the Source of Life,” read a placard on a gateway over the road to the Chiluchor Chashma, or Forty-Four Springs. Locals believe that beside these waters lies the grave of a saint, and pilgrims visit daily. Inside the gate, desert dunes rolled away from horizon to horizon, but the Forty-Four Springs flowed through lush greenery, lapping at the roots of old trees and new flowers. Plastic bottles were lined up on one bank, waiting for the faithful to fill them with water they believed to be sacred. Above the stream, an old man beckoned to us. His name was Hakberdy, and he talked about the healing properties of the water, which he claimed could cure every illness from the head to the heart. According to legend, anyone who eats the fish here will die, and so the waters were thick with silvery bodies.

The central hall of Dushanbe’s Mehregon Market, which was completed in 2014. Many merchants were forced to move here after some of the city’s storied older markets, such as the Shohmansur, were torn down.
The central hall of Dushanbe’s Mehregon Market, which was completed in 2014. Many merchants were forced to move here after some of the city’s storied older markets, such as the Shohmansur, were torn down.Credit…Maxime Fossat

Hakberdy was born in 1937, but even he knew of no usto nearby. The civil war had uprooted families in this region, many of whom were here in the first place because their relatives had been relocated in mass deportations from the north beginning in the 1930s. Heat exposure and polluted drinking water killed many settlers who were made to farm cotton. “My family was sent here from Ayni, in the mountains. When I was 10, both my parents died,” he said. “I am an orphan.”

THE DIRECTOR OF Dushanbe’s Ethnographic Museum told me that very few master weavers remained in the country, though she knew of one, a man who built his own looms and knew how to make cloth the old way. His name was Saidmurod, and he lived in a remote village west of Dushanbe, in the Karatag Valley. I set out for the gorge where Saidmurod might be found.

In the late 19th century, a German traveler to Bukhara recorded 96 dyeing workshops near Samarkand and 270 in the Ferghana Valley, where the borders of modern Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan interlock. When the Soviet Union took over, however, dyeing cooperatives almost went extinct. Guilds were dissolved and artisans put to work paving streets. After independence in 1991, Uzbekistan began reviving its own weaving tradition through economic incentives and partnerships with organizations like UNESCO and the British Council. Tajikistan, however, has not had the same success. Dushanbe’s famous textile collective — a city within the city that once employed several thousand weavers — was damaged during the civil war, its looms later sold as scrap metal.

Tajiks in Dushanbe on Sept. 9, 2022, the day marking the country’s independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Tajiks in Dushanbe on Sept. 9, 2022, the day marking the country’s independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.Credit…Maxime Fossat

We passed a small cotton gin, where people took old mattresses to be fluffed back to life, before leaving the main road for a narrow track that followed little canals lined with sycamores and willows. Eventually, we stopped in a village where a shepherd directed us to the compound in which the weaver lived with his children and their families. In preparation for a wedding, a bull had just been slaughtered underneath a fig tree; blood darkened the gnarled roots. Saidmurod invited us to sit on a dais in his inner courtyard, in the shade of pomegranate trees and grapevines, and told us about his fabrics, such as the atlas cloth, a satin weave, with a silk warp and weft, that his mother had taught him to make. Its designs and colors can have endless variations, from multicolored stripes to ikat patterns that are popular for robes. He passed me a bolt of undyed ivory fabric streaked with indigo, the last that he had woven. It had the nacreous sheen of an oyster shell. Yet these days, most of the fabric sold in Tajikistan comes from factories across the Chinese border. Most of the cushions on Saidmurod’s dais did, too.

Before industrial colors became widespread, flowers and plants were ground into dyes. Walnut skins could create a vibrant green; a plant called hiri, a rich yellow. Saidmurod, 84, said a special black shade, made from an herb called zabonigov, or “cow’s tongue,” was his favorite “because it has so many possibilities. You can’t make anything without using black.”

The comb maker Karim Saidov shows where he keeps a toolbox, which was inherited from his father, in his workshop in Istaravshan.
The comb maker Karim Saidov shows where he keeps a toolbox, which was inherited from his father, in his workshop in Istaravshan.Credit…Maxime Fossat

When Saidmurod was a boy, weaving families filled the valley. “Once, you would adapt the fabric to match the person,” he said. “You would think about who they were, and only after that would you sit down at your loom.” Today, he is alone, his eight-harness handmade loom sitting dismantled in the attic of the house of one of his grandsons — the only other family member who could weave perfectly. But the grandson, along with his father and uncles, trained as an electrician in order to work in Russia. Saidmurod was not nostalgic; he himself had wanted to be an engineer. He was proud of his grandson for rising in the world.

ON THE STEEP road that leads north toward the ancient cities of the Ferghana Valley, green mountains blocked out the sky, and the air smelled of diesel and wild fennel. Just before we entered the 3 1/4-mile-long Shahriston Tunnel, which a Chinese construction company completed in 2012, a bulldozer was backing up slowly toward the abyss. The ravine lay more than 9,000 feet below, and no guardrail lined the road.

A Soviet-era housing block in Dushanbe. At left is a portrait of Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan.
A Soviet-era housing block in Dushanbe. At left is a portrait of Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan.Credit…Maxime Fossat

On the other side of the tunnel, we pulled over in Shahriston. A ruined citadel stands here, part of an eighth-century network of fortifications built by the Sogdians, an Iranian-speaking population whose descendants still inhabit Tajikistan today, to protect themselves against Arab invaders and other roaming bands of raiders. Sogdian trading networks once stretched from Samarkand into ancient China and India. Soviet archaeologists excavated frescoes in the region (now in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum and Dushanbe’s National Museum) depicting scenes from Aesop’s fables. Other tableaus feature hunters, heroic tales and harvest festivals.

Across the country, the Tajik state is building replicas of strongholds from the same era: miniature fortresses waiting for phantom armies. Most are tourist follies or serve as the backdrop for weddings and — in one case — an ostrich farm.

Less than an hour away from the Sogdian ruins was Istaravshan, famous for its many medieval mosques. One usto still worked in the city’s vast market: Karim Saidov, who specializes in carving combs. The courtyard of his family home, deep within a mahalla district, was a quiet place composed of austere geometries — a tree, flowering vines on the walls, a drying house for grapes, an old well. “The smells and feelings of the 19th century are here,” Saidov, 56, said. He picked up a grandchild and kissed him. “You’d never know that the internet had been invented.”

Another view of the Navruz Palace.
Another view of the Navruz Palace.Credit…Maxime Fossat

Saidov studied winemaking in Tashkent but, just as he graduated, the Soviet Union came apart. Tajikistan’s state winery, founded under the czars, folded, too. So he fell back on comb making. “When I was a boy, combs paid for my life,” he said. The Soviet authorities never closed those workshops: Capitalist counterrevolutionaries and proletariat hero workers alike needed to brush their hair. “My uncle made 10 combs a day and got a ruble for each one,” he continued. “We felt so rich! I sometimes still find those combs in the market. I can immediately recognize our family’s work. When I was growing up, Istaravshan had 12 comb makers. But after 1991, when the river of plastic started flowing into our country, all the other workshops shut.”

He wakes up each morning at 4 a.m. to carve a few. “Every year, I choose the trunk — never branches, never roots — of a great tree, apricot or walnut, that villagers have chosen for felling. When I slice it, I have to work fast. If you wait longer than three days, the wood spoils,” he said. “I scatter the pieces to dry in the sun for a few days and then age the slices for 14 years. Look how hard they are!”

Saidov whacked two combs against each other forcefully and then spun one on his palm. The blows left no mark. The apricot wood, in particular, had a rich luster that softly reflected light.

BEYOND ISTARAVSHAN LIES Khujand, a city some 2,500 years old. It was my last stop in Tajikistan and, the morning I left, crowds were milling around a new citadel with its faux crenelations, built two decades ago upon the ruins of the fortress that once stood there. The city’s history was on sale at a market on the pavement — old coins, samovars, a Ural bike, spinning bobbins and pocket watches.

The Turkestan Mountains in the Sughd region of northwestern Tajikistan.
The Turkestan Mountains in the Sughd region of northwestern Tajikistan.Credit…Maxime Fossat

A slender bridge traces out a long arc toward Konibodom-Patar, one of the checkpoints between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. We drove through old apricot groves. Beyond a fountain left dry in an empty hotel courtyard, a few tesserae glittered on a Soviet-era bus stop; it was impossible to tell what the original mosaic would have been. Then we hit a stretch of road where, in 2021, clashes between Tajiks and Kyrgyz had left gas station after gas station burned out. The petroleum fires had warped the road’s asphalt.

I got out after Konibodom and dragged my suitcase toward Uzbekistan. The border was an obstacle course. Each level required its own set of papers, its own rehearsed lines, its own choreography.

As I waited for the final official to beckon me forward, I remembered something Jumaev had said when we were in his atelier, looking at a map of the region. He had pointed to the enclaves where one group of human beings was walled off from another group, where the green lines between countries doubled back on themselves and looped into zeros, into nooses. “What the hell is this?” Jumaev asked, tapping one of the artificial islands. “Thousands and hundreds of divisions! This is our sorrow.”

Source : The New York Times