I am in Qurgon Teppe, a small town in the south of Tajikistan, near the Afghan border. It is a land of awesome mountains and sudden fertile valleys, harsh deserts and ancient cultures. It is the late 1990s and Tajikistan has just been through a devastating civil war. For 70 years this was part of the Soviet Union, whose institutions dominated all aspects of life. Then that suddenly imploded, war broke out, the economy collapsed.
The Tajiks I am working with reflect in themselves the complex history of this society. Their grandparents lived through traumatic changes — mass deportations, famine, Stalin’s worst excesses, the tragedies of war. Many of their parents came from the mountains, forcibly relocated here to provide labour on the cotton-growing collectives, deserts turned productive by Soviet irrigation schemes, under constant pressure to fulfil production targets set in Moscow. The women my age and younger grew up through an education system that gave them opportunities they would previously never have had. Until things fell apart they worked as teachers, youth workers, administrators. With the sudden end of the Soviet Union people who had long been critical hoped for democratic reforms, but when the new state of Tajikistan held its first independent elections, the same ex-Soviet rulers were returned to power through rigged elections. Mass protests filled the centre of the capital, Dushanbe. The panicky government armed its supporters and played on regional loyalties. When state structures crumble and violence is at your door, people retreat into clan and family, and attack out of fear of being attacked. Hundreds of thousands fled, into the mountains, across ice-bound rivers, to exile or death.
Being here confronts me with aspects of human experience beyond any I have previously been exposed to. The survivors have been coming back, to find their homes taken over by others. Often it is just women and children — their men have been killed in the conflict. Save the Children, the organisation I work for, is here in the districts most affected, has channelled international funding to support women with the means of starting again: seeds, tools, cows. Now the programme director, Bronwen, and her team of Tajik staff are considering how to support recovery of the part-devastated school system, and I have been asked to help.
I am lodging along with a couple of other colleagues in the Save the Children staff house, with carpets on the walls and low bolster-cushions to sit on as we are served delicious Tajik dishes by the woman who manages the house. She bustles around in her highly coloured long dress, a confident, sociable woman in middle age, with a surprising number of gold teeth. She chats vigorously, apparently with no concept that I do not understand. I do a lot of smiling, and soon we are laughing together.
Outside, the wounds of war are still raw. There are bullet holes in the walls of buildings. Government officials tolerate, but only just, an international agency being here because the need is so extreme, but they are tense in their dealings with the programme staff. In a workshop I am facilitating through interpreters things suddenly come to a halt when the (male) education officials stand up furiously and threaten to walk out. The interpreter gives up and it is only afterwards that I learn what sparked the fracas. The (all-female) Tajik Save the Children team were reporting that they have been consulting children in the district to discover what stops them from coming to school, and among the many reasons one is that they have no shoes. It’s a long cold walk in winter. A life-time’s experience of the Soviet system has made it impossible for the officials to admit that things are not going well, and besides, they are outraged at having their reports challenged by the opinions of children. Bronwen uses all her diplomatic skills to persuade them to stay. They stalk back from the door, take their seats again, their body language eloquent. Their return is a major concession and we had all better behave with due respect now. Stiffly we continue.
I am in some degree of shock. Without understanding a word I had fully expected to see Bronwen marched off and put on the first plane out of the country. After the workshop is over and the officials have departed, the Tajik women gather round, explaining it all to me. Their own body language is pretty expressive too, of disdain. Those stupid men, not willing to listen to children, pretending there are no problems.
But the ice is thin. Just a year ago people here were killing each other.
I have been here so brief a time, but already I feel close to the Tajik women who run the programme. They make it so easy. They are outgoing, confident, and those who speak English interpret relaxedly for me with those who don’t. Some are in western clothes but most wear the traditional highly coloured dresses and headscarfs. All are proud of being Tajik and its cultural history. Despite everything they have endured, they still have the energy to draw an outsider in to the generous embrace for which Tajik society is famous.
They have one other thing in common: they have all themselves been widowed by war. They have deliberately been recruited from both sides of the conflict, yet so soon after its traumas they are here working together to prevent more children from becoming destitute. Bronwen tells me a story about one of them, a woman called Zainab whom I will later get to know. She was challenged by a man from her own clan, angry that she was working with families from the other side of the conflict.
‘Why do you help these people?’ he demanded. ‘It’s they who killed your husband.’
She said, ‘We’ll probably never know who killed my husband, but I know it wasn’t these children.’
Here are stories, asking to be told.
When conversations are going on around me in Tajik, I listen to the sounds, the patterns they make, and how they fit with people’s facial expressions and body language. A strange thing is happening. Words I half-recognise fly past me, too fast to catch but familiar. I have the illusion that if I could stay for a few months I might begin to understand what everyone is saying.
The language is Persian. Here it’s called Tajik; in northern Afghanistan, Dari; in Iran it is Farsi, but I am told that they are essentially the same language, with no more than regional differences. They share the same historic culture, from the centuries when Persian influence extended from the deserts of what is now Iran to the mountains of Azerbaijan in the north-west, and north-east to the medieval cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and the mountainous lands where Tajiks lived. Tajiks are proud that many of the great Persian poets were from Central Asia. During the Soviet era the authorities feared the Sufi-mystic influences that pervade Persian poetry, and banned the Persian script, but people’s memories kept the words of the poets alive. My friend Zainab tells me that in her family when a child is born the parents hold against its forehead a divan — a book of the collected poems — of Hafiz, the great 14th century Persian poet. In the centre of Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, is a statue of the man regarded as their national poet, Sadruddin Ayni.
I do not know Persian but I know Urdu, a language that is culturally related. After successive rulers from Central Asia crossed the mountains to the north Indian plains and set up kingdoms in Delhi and beyond, Urdu emerged as a language of communication with their Indian subjects. At a basic spoken level it is very close to Hindi, but it uses the Persian script and its vocabulary draws heavily on Persian, especially its poetic vocabulary. And Urdu speakers share with speakers of Persian everywhere a passion for poetry.
The words that I keep hearing around me in Tajikistan, which give me the illusion that I am on the brink of understanding, are words I have heard in Urdu poetry.
I started learning Urdu when I was teaching English to people settled in Britain who had come from India and Pakistan. My teacher, Ralph Russell, was a scholar and translator of Urdu poetry. By now he was 80 years old, a short, comfortably round man with white hair, a huge laugh, and a vivid interest in everyone he met. Back in Britain after my first stint of work in Central Asia, I asked Ralph to teach me something about the great Persian poets. He did more. From his bookshelves, a never-ending store of surprises, he brought down a small pile of books, among them an autobiography of Sadruddin Ayni himself. He had picked it up when visiting Tashkent once, on his way to India, an Urdu translation from the Tajik original. It’s told in a simple, straight-forward style but the Urdu vocabulary was beyond me so Ralph read it with me. Ayni, a remarkable man who survived the excesses of two dictatorial regimes, started life as a child of a poor peasant family in the feudal Emirate of Bukhara. Orphaned young, with the support of an older brother he received a traditional Persian and Islamic education and became a leading intellectual and modernist reformer. He challenged feudal authority, was imprisoned by the Emir, and supported the Bolsheviks to win control. In the new society he applied his energies to developing an educational system that for the first time brought literacy within reach of most people. He wrote educational books, was a journalist, a novelist, and above all a poet. He walked a political tightrope but his stature was such that the authorities could not risk eliminating him. He died in 1952, a year before Stalin.
Ayni’s story led me to others, writers and dissidents who did not survive. Ralph and I talked about what it would have been like to be a poet steeped in the Persian poetic tradition, yet caught up in the constraints of Soviet Central Asia. Someone whose inner eyes caught, and whose words mirrored, the pressures of a deeply troubled history.
I was imagining the secret life of a fictional, forgotten Tajik poet.
I began making notes, finding people to inhabit the first glimmers of a story.
(The novel which grew out of the experiences told above is Uncertain Light, published in India by Speaking Tiger Books. Experience the author’s journey on www.marionmolteno.co.uk)
(Journeys Without A Map: The Book Depository: https://www.bookdepository.com/Journeys-Without-a-Map/9781800463394)
Photos from Marion Molteno’s blog