Reviews

In 1991 the former Soviet Central Asia opened itself to the outside world.  Besides politicians, financers, servicemen and journalists, an influx of foreign anthropologists from the most varied countries dashed to the region after a long period during which they had enjoyed no access to it, which for long obliged them to work through secondary sources—newspapers, books, official documents.  The newly published book Everyday Life in Central Asia introduces to the readership a series of young scholars from the USA, Great Britain, Germany, and France, who have made intensive fieldwork in the region during the past decade.  Not all the authors of the book are anthropologists, by far.  Nevertheless, all have been united in their respective paths by at least one anthropological issue: the populations’ everyday life, looking at times and change through ordinary routine and concrete people, through the latter’s own interests and representations.  As the Editors have been writing in their introduction (“Introduction: Central Asia and Everyday Life,” 1-11), “our goal in this book is to give our readers a grounding in how Central Asians live lives both immersed in the events of the day and very much consumed by doing a good job of making into the next day (3).”

The book itself consists of twenty-three papers, distributed into six thematic parts.  The first one, “Background”, is represented by a unique though substantial contribution (Levi Scott, “Turks and Tajiks in Central Asian History,” 15-31, see the review in supra 349), which introduces the complex episodes of the region’s history, and the cultural sources of its modern civilisation.  The second part is devoted to “Communities.”  In the first paper of this section (Edgar Adrienne, “Everyday Life among the Turkmen Nomads,” 37-44), the author reconstructs through written sources the everyday life of a Yomud Turkmen household in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Another author (Yu Morgan Y., “A Central Asian Tale of Two Cities: Locating Lives and Aspirations in a Shifting Post-Soviet Cityscape,” 66-83) recalls personal travels to the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan, along the multiple inner cultural boundaries of this city in the Fergana Valley, that he has been trying to identify and to qualify at the same time, shedding light on the domains in which traditions and ideas mix up.  The same part is host of two contributions by Robert L. Canfield (“Recollection of a Hazara Wedding in the 1930s,” 45-57; “Trouble in Birgilich,” 58-65), both based on fieldworks of the 1960s in Afghanistan.  Besides its specific materials on a country with a contemporary history sensitively different from that of former Soviet Central Asia, these papers are also interesting by their author’s methodological reflexions, in this case his attempt at showing, through his informer’s memory, paradoxical and constructed realities, deeply conditioned by the struggle of interpretations and changing interests.

The book’s third chapter, “Gender”, is opened by two contributions by historians who have recently devoted books to the “solution” of the women’s question in Uzbekistan.  Each of them preserves a distinct opinion on this issue.  Douglas Northrop (“The Limits of Liberation: Gender, Revolution, and the Veil in Everyday Life in Soviet Uzbekistan,” 89-102) evokes the power of the model of the “liberated woman,” and the contradictory process of assimilation of this model by the Uzbek society—not devoid of an active resistance against it.  Marianne Kamp (“The Wedding Feast: Living the New Uzbek Life in the 1930s,” 103-14), through her analysis of this same model, tries to show that it was not only an invention of the imperial/Bolshevik Centre, but was formed with a large participation of Uzbek women.  The following study (Constantine Elizabeth A., “Practical Consequences of Soviet Policy and Ideology for Gender in Central Asia and Contemporary Reversal,” 115-26) assesses the results of the Soviet policy of emancipation of women and, comparing it with post-Soviet initiatives, recognises the large success and achievements of the endeavours of the late 1920s-1930s.  The conclusive contribution of this part (Uehling Greta, “Dinner with Akhmet,” 127-143) astutely depicts tentative male domination and gender differences experienced by the author in her attempts at implementing fieldwork in the Tajik society.

The following part, on “Performance and Encounter,” begins with an analysis of the historical dynamics of Kazakh hospitality, the author of which casts light on the possible impact on them of practices of the Soviet and present periods (Michaels Paula A., “An Ethno-Historical Journey through Kazakh Hospitality,” 145-59).  It continues with a comparative analysis of the emergence of gender differences in the Uzbeks’ and Kazakhs’ everyday life, through case studies in the villages of Guliston and Aq-Jol (Sancak Meltem & Finke Peter, “Konstitutsiya buzildi! Gender Relations in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,” 160-78).  In the following study, through an expert analysis of the gastronomic preferences of the Uzbeks and the Kazakhs, the author tries to understand their evolution (or lack of evolution) in the context of a nationalising state and of the global market (Zanca Russell, “Fat and All That: Good Eating the Uzbek Way,” 178-97).  In a study of festivals in present-day Uzbekistan, the following author evokes the way they are now celebrated, and the meanings that the population puts in them (Adams Laura L., “Public and Private Celebrations: Uzbekistan’s National Holidays,” 198-212).  A last paper is devoted to the meaning of musical interpretation in the everyday life of former nomads (Rouland Michael, “Music across the Kazakh Steppe,” 213-27).

The fifth part, “Nation, State, and Society in the Everyday,” is opened up with a comparison of common representations on the Soviet and current periods, and an attempt at understanding the reasons of the current nostalgia for a state with strong social potentialities (McMann Lelly M., “The Shrinking of the Welfare State: Central Asians’ Assessment of Soviet and Post-Soviet Governance,” 233-47).  In the same field, the following paper offers a description of the metamorphosis of the education system in Central Asia, from the nineteenth century till our days, following the formation through it of the Uzbek national identity (Keller Soshanna, “Going to School in Uzbekistan,” 248-65).  This assessment of the role of educational systems in the formation of collective macro-identities is still enriched by a study of the history of alphabet change, and of educational skills in Turkmenistan through the ‘long’ twentieth century, focusing on the coexistence and superimposition of varied experience and knowledge (Clement Victoria, “Alphabet Changes in Turkmenistan, 1904-2004,” 266-80).  This theme is concluded by a narrative of a foreign researcher’s personal experience of crossing boundaries in Central Asia, in the company of a local inhabitant of her acquaintances (Reeves Madeleine, “Travels in the Margins of the State: Everyday Geography in the Fergana Valley Borderlands,” 281-300):  This case shows that boundaries not only do not disappear in a period of global triumph of liberal politics, but do become even less penetrable than in the Soviet past.

The sixth and last part on “Religion” contains contributions on extremely varied aspects of religious practice now observable in the Central Asian area.  Characteristically, the first contribution focuses on the everyday dimension of Islamic resistance in Uzbekistan (McGlinchey Eric M., “Divided Faith: Trapped between State and Islam in Uzbekistan,” 305-18).  The following study enhances the significance of the pilgrimage to holy places as a fundamental dimension of religiosity in Central Asia (Abramson David M. & Karimov Elyor E., “Sacred Sites, Profane Ideologies: Religious Pilgrimage and the Uzbek State,” 319-38).  Then comes an analysis of demonstrations of religiosity and ethnicity among the Uighurs of Almaty, Kazakhstan, during the hayit ritual, nuptial celebrations, and the inauguration of a football field (Roberts Sean R., “Everyday Negotiations in Islam in Central Asia: Practicing Religion in the Uighur Neighborhood of Zarya Vostoka in Almaty, Kazakhstan,” 339-54).  The author of the following paper brings the reader back to the city of Osh, and introduces him/her with its population, through the analysis of varied forms of religious representations (Montgomery David M., “Namaz, Wishing Trees, and Vodka: The Diversity of Everyday Religious Life in Central Asia,” 355-70).  The volume’s last paper is a very short summary of the author’s previous publications on the present status of different kinds of Christian confessions in Central Asia (Peyrouse Sébastien, “Christians as the Main Religious Minority in Central Asia,” 371-84).

It is of course very uneasy to give an overall estimation for such a complex and diverse work.  The circle of researchers involved in its implementation is too large, as well the spectrum of the issues that they have been tackling.  At the same time this diversity is probably a result of the Editors’ will, since the latter have obviously intended this volume to a large audience and to students.  The book unquestionably provides a representation of the kinds of subject and issue now relevant for Western researchers, of the way the image of post-Soviet Central Asia is formed in their eyes, and of the materials that they have been using during the past decades for drawing their conclusions.  What I have been missing in this collection of papers is a correct exposition of the main questions, a definition of the key issues.  On this basis debates could have arisen between specialists, and perhaps even a new orientation could have been sketched in anthropological studies, independent from the modes and languages of other disciplines.  Unfortunately, the big chapters defined for the distribution of the papers appear as mere attempts at contouring tendencies and preferences.  It appears out of this that one of the most productive issues is that of the “women’s question” in Central Asia—a question complex enough for having generated here diametrically opposed treatments by different authors.  As in the past, Central Asia’s complex cultural mosaic continues to bring the attention of specialists—a mosaic in which are superposed the Soviet experiment and its nostalgia, national and traditional forms of cultural practice, as well as the more or less direct impact of the global world.  Anthropology and political science continue to look into the varied forms of Muslim religiosity in the Central Asian societies.  How will develop the themes dealt with in this volume, time will show.

Sergei Abashin, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Moscow
CER: I-7.4.A-631