Somewhere in the midway between political science and political anthropology, the author delivers the testimony of a field experience acquired between December 1999 and November 2000 in the Samarqand region, where he attended during that year a great many celebrations, public and private. In an overall preamble, A. Ruffier recalls the history of the political and matrimonial practices of Uzbek society as they have been described by pre-Soviet observers; he underlines the significance of kin ties and client strategies implemented on the occasion of festive events by the Emir of Bukhara and his representatives from the Manghit tribe, in order to better establish their authority upon vernacular populations. A. Ruffier then depicts the change brought about by the Sovietisation of Uzbek society and by the latter’s ongoing transformation till the present. Developing on the celebrations described by Russian observers of the late Tsarist era, he notes that the client-based tribal organisation that had prevailed till the establishment of Russian dominance in the organisation of the toys was succeeded by a system of solidarity networks made by groups of relatives and friends often composed among the latter for strengthening the authority acquired by the new administrative, economic and political élite.
The second part of the monograph is devoted to the typology of three types of celebrations: (1) the to‘ys that gather relatives, colleagues and friends during the last phase of marriage ceremonies and the public sequence of the circumcision ritual; (2) the bayrams celebrated by the whole community, such as Nawruz, the ‘Ayd, Independence Day, etc.; (3) the ziyofats or gaps, occasional private banquets assembling groups of friends. The toys are introduced as passage rituals intended to fuse together the “community of real-life experience” of those, men or women, who happen to organise them. If the author properly underlines the role of these celbrations as a staging of the social organisation, the description of these rituals could have been more rigorous, and their analysis considerable deepened.
For instance, the author writes that the cradle setting ritual (toy beshik) is organised during the year following the child’s birth (pp. 137-8). Beside the difficulty of putting into cradle a ten- or twelve-month old child, this ceremony is actually realised in two distinct rituals. The first is implemented seven days after the mother’s return from the maternity home, in the house of the newborn baby’s paternal grandmother, in which the parents and the child are do live; an old woman from the mahalla, renowned for her traditional knowledge, recites the fatiha, cuts off the crest of a rooster, and coats with blood the mother’s breast and the baby’s body in the face of some children of the neighbourhood—symbols of fertility—to whom are distributed walnuts and candies before the baby is finally set in the cradle. During this time, the khodim (a woman appointed by the inhabitants for assisting them in family rituals) prepares doughnuts that are dispatched in the houses around; a dozen of women — neighbours, the baby’s maternal grandmother, friends and colleagues of the young woman’s mother-in-law — are invited to a meal during which they receive a piece of fabric that is set down on their heads. It is during the second ritual, the toy beshik quickly depicted by the author, implemented several months after the first one, that the women symbolically mimic the cradle setting ceremony, in the house of the young mother’s parents.
The author then tries to cast light upon the symbolic system of toys (pp. 165 ff.): If in urban milieus, the only remaining imagination of community ties is that of patrilineal lines, this sense of belonging to a lineage shows actually less meaningful than in a recent past. A. Ruffier also examines the form taken by the exchange of donations and counter-donations, notably at weddings — even if in Samarqand the bride’s price or qalin is not paid anymore to her family. “However, underlines the author, the donation appears as a circulatory and ostentatious logic,” in which it is an “assertion of a social position,” or renown and prestige, that is searched more than the very fact of giving or receiving. A. Ruffier then confirms that gaps and ziyofats constitute the “affirmation of friendship and transversal solidarities” (pp. 181 ff.) — which stands to reason, these celebrations being defined as banquets between friends — before tracing the evolution of community festivals. As to bayrams, the author’s conclusion is that in post-Soviet Uzbekistan these festivals have become an “imaginary theatrical stage on which ideas are expressed and debated,” whilst personal relationships with men of power are rather established during political meetings and elections.
In all, the author often discovers interesting ethnographic data on present-day (male) sociability in Central Asia. It is all the more regrettable that his materials remain insufficiently exploited from an analytical viewpoint, and often discredited by lack of precision. Such shortcomings may be attributed to the very method adopted by the author for his inquiries, as it is exposed in his introduction: rather than being immersed in local families, he has preferred to resort exclusively to interviews through questionnaires, the problem being that his overall approach is of an anthropologist, not of a sociologist. From this viewpoint, it is difficult to refer in this case to “participating observation,” a key principle of anthropology, since the author has been “attending” the celebrations, but never “participated” in them, which according to his own admission was a “disadvantage” and should have driven him to modify his methodology. This would also have spared him to deplore (p. 13) a big amount of answerless questions, because asked by an inquirer perceived as a simple guest among others, in the parties’ hubbub. Last but by far not least, this would have saved him the annoyance of multiple trips to ceremonies the organisers of which he did not know personally, depriving himself of the attendance of sequences that he initially ambitioned to study.
Yet what happens in a t‘oy is merely what is “given to be seen” to people from the outside, including foreign tourists, invited for the occasion. On the other hand, what is going on behind the scenes, between women and between men, during preparations and in the families’ intimacy (before the fatiha, the wedding, the cradle setting, etc.) is significant too, and would have deserved more developments. Besides, too many pages devoted to socio-economical and political considerations, indeed relevant in political science, do not seem so indispensable in a Ph.D. in anthropology. Last, numerous stylistic inaccuracies — orthographic as well as syntactic mistakes, in French as well as in the erratic transcription of Tajik and Uzbek terms —, to say nothing of sentences deprived of a verb, still contribute to make more difficult the reading of the present monograph.