Figures 1 and 2: A feature of Tajikistan, expressed by this country’s spectacular landscapes, was in the short twentieth century the staunch opposition between lowlands gradually exposed to cotton monoculture and urbanisation and, on the other hand, mountain areas often brutally emptied of their population and neglected by the planners of ‘integrated development’. The ‘electrification of the whole country’, a key slogan of state planning in the USSR, reached lately many upper valleys, where mechanisation remains exceptional. Since the 1970s, gradual state failure and the increase of ecological issues have turned progressively, everywhere in the USSR, the deserted countries – and their uplands for the Tajiks – into a reservoir of myths for the return of each Soviet nation to its lost origins. Within Tajikistan, the longstanding opposition between the Mountain and the Plain also referred to the alleged preservation by the former of the Tajiks’ Sunni Persian identity and traditions. No surprise if most of the holy figures of Islam who are venerated in the country since the late twentieth century have been coming out of these uplands.
Hold in contempt during Perestroika again nowadays, the aluminium plant of Regar is the symbol per excellence of the brutal transformation of the Tajik flatlands and of the alienation of the country’s assets by an oligarchy linked, since 1991, with the presidential ‘Family’. Reviled in the late 1980s for its reported ecological impacts on the region and neighbouring Uzbekistan, it had become a factor of conflict between the two countries. Tajik imagination iden- tifies the plant with the overall corruption, natural and political, that still prevails in the country’s open flatlands.
Figure 4: Few scenes of Tajikistan’s everyday life, in the country’s lowlands towards late summer time, are more evocative than the daily return of schoolchildren from their cotton fatigue, a quarter of a century or more after the dissolution of the USSR. It is still the done thing to show content and mobilisation means – here, an old ZIL 130 truck – have not evolved since the Soviet period. The element of change, here, in the northern economic capital of the country, is the computer centre around the corner, with the ironic ad (‘Free!’) for a mobile phone company.
Figure 5: The multifaceted imaginations of open–market society
Khujand, September 2004
Figures 5 & 6: Stripped of its industries and of its European white–collar population, the city of Khujand, a former major caravan crossroads of continental trade and a centre of Soviet mechanic industries, strived to survive after the 1980s as a regional marketplace. Built during Stalin’s reign, the monumental ‘Monday Bazaar’ quickly welcomed consumer goods imported from Turkey, the Middle East and China – opening local minds to kaleidoscopic representations in which desire became identified with exoticism. In these importation my- thologies, coloured-print trade played its part too, in which divas of Indian pop and short-skirted Russian starlets used to neighbour with aerial views of Mecca Iran–made Sulpician bills with the imams of Twelver Shia Islam.
Figure 7: Two different generations of delicatessen traders and a pickles seller
Thursday Bazaar, Khujand, September 2004
Figures 7 and 8, cover page: Early post-Soviet Central Asian markets used to maintain such professions as pork butchers (a legacy of the food–processing trade of the previous period) in remote nooks of the bazaars. However, this did not prevent delicatessen merchants to emerge rapidly as champions of retail trade such as those posing, on this gallery’s front page, with the self-assurance of fifteenth-century Bruggean traders posing for Jan van Eyck. Colonising a stall in a shady passage, a couple of junior entrepreneurs also seem to have fixed a date for the final triumph of small enterprises. At the turn of the century, extending bazaars became the place where young traders, women – as the ruddy pickles seller next page –, ethnic minorities could find their place. Host to neo-fundamen- talist trends hostile to the ruling oligarchy, many were closed or fully reorganised during the following decades.
Figures 9 and 10: Urban mosques had become, in the meantime, major places for sociability. Major sanctuaries related with the mediaeval history of Islam in Central Asia (such as the fifteenth – century graves of Mawlana Ya‘qub Charkhi in Dushanbe and of Shaykh Muslih al-Din in Khujand) had been restored in the 1980s, sometimes with active participation of the Tajik SSR’s main Sufi brotherhoods. For men of all generations, they became the place of multiple initiations, of the discovery of new solidarities and of the self-assurance of quantitative strength.
Figure 13: Lateral entrance to the heavily restored tomb of Shaykh 'Ali Hamadani
Kulab city, August 2005
Everywhere in the country, however, especially in small cities and villages, holy sites have been multiplying, linked with the life and deeds of modern holy men (much more rarely women) of Islam. Turning into objects of pilgrimage of varying significance – witnessed by the custom of cloth knotting (Taj. rumal–bandi) on the branches of sacred trees – the houses, hermitages and tombs of these modern–day Muslim saints bring sanctification to the local com- munities in the middle of whom they often lived a discreet life. Some had become an object of veneration in their lifetime, as wardens of holy sites such as Khalifa Hasan, the hereditary keeper of a sacred source in a suburb of the thousand-year-old city of Pendjikent, in the Zerafshan Valley. Inseparable from the cult of these places is the action of families of tomb keepers: among the sons and grandsons of the saint are recruited the main storytellers who will supply with edifying narratives the vita of their heroic forefathers. Still often unwritten and rarely printed, these tales (riwayat) are conveyed towards wider circles through a complex hagiographic process in which the assemblies of Sufi brotherhoods, under guidance of a master who is often the son of his predecessor, have shown instrumental. In so doing, these religious leaders endowed with sacred genealogies and traditional pedigrees have been trying to oppose, since the fall of the Wall, the irruption into Central Asia of Middle–East–educated professional preachers.
Figure 20: Photo album on ‘The Mosques of the Republic of Tajikistan’ distributed by the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Central Asia, Karamishkar Mosque
Dushanbe, November 2005
At the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, religion in Central Asia became inseparable from commemo- ration and key in the reconstruction of relations to the collective past – local, ethnic and/or national. An essential actor of the process, backed by the government, was the religious bureaucracy that had been set up during WWII for facili- tating the mobilisation of the Muslim populations of the USSR. The Tajikistani section of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Central Asia, created in 1943, showed particularly active after independence in the defence of Hanafi Sunni Islam as the sectarian standard of the country. Minority groups, however, did not remain outdone: for the Ismaili Shias of Upper Badakhshan, for example, endowed with a rich manuscript literary tradition in Persian, the cultural history of Islamicisation had already become part of the national past during the last decades of the Soviet period. At the same time, Turkic-speaking populations such as the Laqay former pastoralist nomads of the southern plains of the country were rediscovering the religious and gnostic poetry of the ‘Hikmat’ (Sapience) of Shaykh Ahmad Yasawi, a twelfth– century Sufi master and poet of the Steppe. In parallel, sacred dynasties of spiritual masters and tomb keepers were trying hard to reconstruct genealogies going back to Prophet Muhammad – and to impose themselves as the authori- ties of reference in a religious field suddenly made more competitive in the decades that followed the fall of the Wall.
Figure 21: The fall of the Wall, the Tajikistani civil war and its settlement have permitted the emergence of a variety of religious leaders, officially accredited or not such as the Naqshbandi master Ishan 'Allama of Regar (the aluminium plant), renowned for his active implication in the conflicts of the early independence period (Regar, September 2005)
Figure 22: A major propagator of Ismaili Shia Islam in the northeastern part of the Persian world, Nasir Khusraw had joined the pantheon of Upper Badakh- shan already during the last decade of the Soviet period (Khorogh, July 2006)
Figure 23: Manuscript libraries detained by families of religious leaders permit- ted them to be instrumental in the process of rediscovery of the Tajik and Ba- dakhshani national past, as for the descendants of twentieth–century Ismaili gnostic poet Shah-i Kalan (Khorogh, Upper Badakhshan, July 2006)
Figure 26: Disciples of the defunct Sufi master Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja (on the left: Damulla Habib- Allah Laqay) listening to stories about the holy man by his youngest son Ishan 'Abd al-Quddus, Qizil-Qal'a cotton-growing township, Qurghan-Teppa district, October 2005
Qurghan-Teppa district, October 2005
Rarely, however, does the presence of written documents, ancient or modern, allow the reconstruction of remote pasts and for the dissemination of holy stories beyond the circle of the saints’ families. In a number of cases, the libraries preserved by the latter, after the destructions and the auto-da-fes of the 1930s, are made of manuscripts and lithographs purchased on the confidential religious book market of the late Soviet period – at a time when the war of Afghanistan (1979-89) intensified contacts and exchanges between the two shores of the Amu-Darya River. The assembly (in Arabic and Persian majlis or mahfil) held by the descendants of a holy man and their capacity to accommodate, on a daily basis, numbers of guests remain crucial, in the early twenty-first century, for the strengthening of a lineage’s pretention to sainthood. Here, the visit of a Western scholar, perceived as a possible hagiographer, often appears as an unhoped-for means for a saint’s family to reach a much wider public.
Figure 27: The book chest of Naqshbandi Sufi master Ishan Malih Askalani (d. 1957), composed in fact of manuscripts and lithographs purchased during the laste Soviet period after the destruction of the family’s library in the 1930s, Askalan, Qarategin Upper Valley, September 2005
Figure 28: Sufi piety: closure of a loud dhikr at Ishan ‘Abd al-Khalil Jan’s, Hisar, October 2005
Hisar, October 2005
The Sufi ceremony of invocation (in Arabic and Persian: dhikr) of divine names is the moment when a master strengthens the ties between his personal disciples (Ar. & Pers. murid) and a wider network of personal clients (Ar. and Pers. mukhlis). In the order of succession of Sufi assemblies, the dhikr, especially when at daybreak, is also the ritual by which the community of disciples of a master punctuates and sanctifies the tales and narra- tives on the group’s leadership that constitutes part of the material of discussions in the evening get-togethers.
The photographs exposed in this album have been taken during summer fieldworks in different regions of Tajikistan between 2004 and 2011. I was trying to understand how post-Soviet societies adjust their relationship to power, authority, interpersonal relations and the collective past – notably through the new cult of Muslim saints active during the Soviet era, and through the role played in this cult by different socioeconomic actors.