ALTERNATE NAMES: Mountain Tajiks; Pamirian Tajiks; Pamirtsy
LANGUAGES: East Iranian language variations; Tajik; Russian
RELIGION: Islam (Ismailism and Sunni Muslim)
The Pamiri people, also called the Pamirian or Mountain Tajiks ( Pamirtsy in Russian) are made up of seven smaller ethnic groups. They live mostly in Tajikistan.
The Pamiris have never really had their own country. A tiny independent kingdom existed for a short period during the eighth and ninth centuries, however. Pamiri history is marked by conflicts over territory and scarce natural resources. Afghani and Uzbek rulers fought for control over the region where the Pamiris lived throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Russians and the British fought over their lands too. By 1904, Russia had annexed the Pamiri lands from the emir (king) of Bukhara.
After years of war, the Pamiri lands were brought under Soviet rule and in 1925 as part of the province of Tajikistan. Since 1992, independent Tajikistan has been torn by civil war. The Pamiris have played a major role in the fighting.
Small numbers of Pamiris live in Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan. The vast majority, however, live in a semi-independent area inside Tajikistan. In total, Parmiris number about 120,000. Most live in the high mountain valley of the western Pamirs. These mountains are known as the "Roof of the World" in Persian. They are the second highest in the world after the Himalayas. Several peaks top 20,000 feet (7,000 meters).
Pamiris live close to one another in a small, remote area. On the south side of their territory is the Pyandzh River, separating them from Afghanistan. On the west is Afghanistan, and to the north and east is Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Only two major roads link the Pamiri territory to major centers. They connect Dushanbe and Osh with Afghanistan. Few places in the entire former Soviet Union are as remote as this.
The Pamiris speak East Iranian languages. They are closely related to the modern Persian of Iran, Tajik, and Pashto/Dari (spoken by the majority of Afghanis). Most of these languages are mutually incomprehensible, that is, speakers of one cannot understand speakers of another.
Children are educated in Tajik and Russian. Across international borders, Pamiris communicate in Persian and Dari. Nearly all Parmiris are multilingual.
Some examples of Tajik phrases include: Turo chi lozim ast? (What is it that you need?), and Shumo chi mekhured? (What would you like to eat?).
Pamiri folklore takes the form of tales, legends, proverbs, and sayings. Heroism relating to bravery in battle and in combatting nature's harsh elements commonly appears in the tales and stories. However, most concrete information about Pamiri folklore generally appears within the context of the greater Tajik folk culture.
For Pamiris, national pride is strongly based on Islam. They are members of the Ismaili sect, which was spread by the great mystic poet Nasir-i Khoshrow. Ismailism is a secretive branch of Islam. Believers worship Ali, who was the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Although closely related to Shi'ism, Ismailism broke with mainstream Shi'ism in the eighth century AD .
Pamiris do not believe in the need for mosques or clergymen. There are, however, informal houses of prayer and wandering holy men. These people maintain contact with the principal Ismaili center in the world, located in India, whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan.
Many traditional Pamiri beliefs and rituals relate to agriculture and animal herding. All sorts of beliefs determine when planting and watering may be done. Rituals are connected with the making of bread so that people will be full and satisfied when they eat it. A scarecrow symbolizing an ancient god helps purify the area near piles of wheat. People pour sweets atop the pile and burn sacred grasses around its perimeter. Once the flour is finally made and the first loaf baked, everyone from a given family partakes until they say bas (enough). The bread from the first piles of newly threshed grain is known as basik .
Pamiris celebrate Nawruz. It falls on the vernal equinox (around March 21) and marks the beginning of the Persian new year. Nawruz is celebrated with music, dances, and a great deal of feasting. People generally wear very colorful clothes on this day. They wear new clothes if they have them.
First Furrow marks the beginning of the planting season. People address the saint of farming, known as Bobo-m-Dekhtona (Grandpa Farmer). A public feast is held, and people celebrate the origins of irrigation. Another public holiday marks the time in early summer when women take flocks out to be pastured.
Rites of passage include parties for the circumcision of little boys. Women celebrate a girl's first menstrual period. Other rites include marriages and funerals. Unfortunately, none of these rites are well known. Specific rites of passage for the Pamiris appear to be similar to those of the Tajiks and the people of Afghanistan.
Assalomu alaikum! is the standard way of saying hello. After that, people proceed to ask one another about their families and their work. If told of something unexpected or strange, people are likely to let out a high-pitched "Uhhhhhhhh!" Use of the hands to emphasize and be descriptive is also common. One favorite gesture that all Central Asians use is moving a cupped hand back and forth across the mouth. This signifies going for something to eat.
Spending time with extended family and friends who live nearby is very common. Visiting relatives who have moved away is also routine. Young people do not date. That would be considered immoral. However, young people may meet secretly while out working in the fields or doing chores on behalf of their families. Sex is reserved for marriage.
As in so many other parts of the former Soviet Union, health standards are declining. This, combined with the Tajik civil war, have made it much harder for people to find food, medicines, and medical treatment. Basic health care is now provided by relief agencies such as the International Red Cross/Crescent and the France-based Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders).
Most Pamiri villages exist at the triangle of a river delta. Main houses are not arranged on streets. Instead, they stand in fields and orchards. Doors to houses and other farm buildings open inward toward an interior courtyard. Most homes are made of stone with wooden roofs. The roofs are put together with boards and beams.
The standard of living for all Tajiks has decreased markedly since the beginning of the civil war. Conditions for the Pamiris would certainly have been even worse over the past few years had it not been for international aid.
Pamiri women traditionally enjoy fewer restrictions than do Tajik women. They participate in public gatherings just like men. They work both outside and inside the home. They were never forced to wear veils, nor were they ever restricted to a particular part of their houses. Still, their work in the household is difficult. Among their specialities are pottery (without potter's wheels) and all aspects of milking and milk product preparation.
In a typical Pamiri household, several extended families live together and cooperate economically. Often all married sons and their families would live in their father's house. Pamiris traditionally married a first or second cousin.
Modern marriages are increasingly based on Koranic law. Members of the groom's family provide all sorts of gifts to ensure an easy start for the newlyweds. Most young women do not marry before the age of eighteen. Weddings are always accompanied by huge parties. According to tradition, the groom goes to the bride's family home to pick her up for the wedding. He is accompanied by a lively band with a flute, clarinet, and drum. The band plays loud music outside the bride's house while they wait for the bride and groom to come out of the bride's home.
Pets are not kept, and even shepherds have no dogs to help them protect their flocks from wolves.
Pamiri clothes today are mostly Western. Headwear is important to both men and women. Men wear Central Asian skullcaps (toki). These are often wrapped with thin wool turbans. Women wear either light or heavy woolen kerchiefs and shawls. Summertime kerchiefs are either all white or full of sparkling gold thread. Most clothing is made from cotton or hemp, but Pamiris who can afford to wear white silk.
Until recently, bread was the central food in the Pamiri diet. They ground whatever was available for bread, including peas, millet, and wheat. Pamiris also ate noodle dishes with occasional pieces of mutton, beef, or yak meat. Milk products were common in the form of sour cream and butter from cows and yaks.
For feasts and holidays, the main specialty is boiled meat, which people tend to eat in large quantities because it is so rare. Meat and other dishes are ordinarily consumed with one's fingers. Soups and porridges made from peas or mung beans are eaten with spoons or pieces of bread. A typical breakfast includes bread and butter, and tea, occasionally with honey. Today, Tajik foods are a regular part of the Pamiri diet. Following is a recipe for a typical Tajik dish, "Beef and Peas."
Most children finish high school, but very few go on to university or technical schools unless they leave the homeland. Those who do attend university must move to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. Although parents encourage both boys and girls to finish their required education, they rarely encourage university training. It has little bearing on their lives. Nearly all Pamiris are able to read and write Tajik. A far smaller percentage know Russian. What Russian they do know is from television and radio.
Singing accounts for the bulk of Pamiri musical culture. Several types of poetical songs are popular among the Pamiris, including the lalaik and duduvik . The zhurni is a common kind of comic love song.
Pantomime dances accompanied by music, and bobopirak satirical dances also take place from time to time. The most common instrument is the guitar-like rubob . Literature does not exist, but storytelling is a common pastime.
Pamiri work is dominated by collectivized agricultural chores. There are few tasks that are solely the domain of either men or women. One notable exception is that only women shear sheep and only men shear goats. Women also tend to all of the milking, whereas men act as the shepherds. Women initially take the animals out to pasture.
Serve, arranging the peas on top of the meat. Garnish with chopped green onions and red pepper. Serve bouillon separately.
The few non-agricultural jobs that do exist relate to town life and transportation. Some men and women work in clerical and administrative professions and some as gold miners, power-plant workers, and as long-distance truckers.
The elaborate systems of terraced agriculture practiced in the Pamirs require constant maintenance. The canals must be cleared of rocks and debris, especially after the winter thaw. Farmers must work fast after the snow has melted. People help one another clear the fields of rocks as they dig up and turn the soil over twice.
Soccer was introduced to the Pamiris relatively recently, along with other sports, such as basketball and volleyball. Traditionally, women play a ball game with a roll of tightly wound wool. Slingshots, tag, bow and arrow competitions, and polo are all favorites. Polo is played by two teams with up to forty people total. Players use long makeshift sticks and a wooden ball.
A relatively small number of these isolated people own televisions. Those who do are exposed to world culture via Russian television stations. Movie theaters exist in all of the major settlements, including Khorog and Ishkashim. These serve to broaden people's perspective on the world "below them." Much of popular culture today is dominated by grade-B karate movies and violent American films.
Pamiris historically produced textiles made of wool and imported cotton. Vertical looms were employed for crafting the palas —a local rug. Smiths and metalworkers made decorative jewelry. Millstones were another craft item made by the Pamiris for their water-driven grain mills. Pamiris are respected for their wooden containers and pots, particularly for large serving plates. Women make fine pottery from a unique gray clay that they strengthen by tempering with goat hair. Men create textile threads by spinning and weaving yak and goat hair. Women make heavy socks from camel and sheep hair.
The Tajik civil war has destroyed thousands of lives and ruined any chance for national economic growth. Social problems are substantial. The human rights situation of the Pamiris has deteriorated greatly. They are often suspected of being criminals from organized gangs. The Tajik and Russian armies have dealt with many Pamiri communities severely. Civil rights have also become a casualty of war. Social problems involving drugs and alcoholism have become prevalent. The vast majority of the Pamiri population is poor and in desperate need of international food relief, medicine, jobs, and reconstruction. This area was always one of the poorest in the Soviet Union.
Friedrich, Paul, and Norma Diamond, ed. Encyclopedia of World Cultures . Vol. VI, Russia and Eurasia/China. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1994.
Olson, James S., ed. An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires . Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
World Travel Guide. Tajikistan. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/tj/gen.html , 1998.