POPULATION: More than 5 million
LANGUAGES: Tajiki; Russian; Uzbeki
RELIGIONS: Islam; Judaism; Christianity
The Tajiks are an Indo-European people who settled the upper reaches of the Amu River (territory of present-day Uzbekistan). During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Tajiks were divided. Most of the population occupied what would become the republic of Tajikistan in the former Soviet Union. The rest became a large minority in Afghanistan.
During the 1992–93 civil war in Tajikistan, thousands lost their lives. More than 10 percent of the population (100,000) fled to Afghanistan. More than 35,000 homes were destroyed, either in battle or as a result of ethnic-cleansing actions. Today, the country is still at war, although it has calmed down considerably.
Tajikistan is slightly smaller than Illinois. Geographically, it can be divided into two regions, north and south. The Zarafshan mountains and their lush valleys and flat plains form the northern kulturbund (boundary of their traditional homeland). Here, Tajik and Uzbek cultures have become fused. The Hissar, Gharategin, and Badakhshan mountains form the southern boundary of their ancestral homeland.
In 1924, the Soviet Union redrew the maps of its Central Asian republics. In doing so, the centers of the old Tajik culture (Samarqand and Bukhara), were given to Uzbekistan. Restoration of these cities to Tajikistan is one of the goals of the Tajiks.
During the 1980s, the population of Tajikistan grew from 3.8 million to more than 5 million. In addition, many Tajiks live in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and China.
Tajiki is an Indo-European language. It is closely related to Farsi, the language of Iran. In 1989 Tajiki became the sole official language of the country, replacing Russian and Uzbeki. The act boosted Tajik pride, but it failed otherwise. It scared away many foreigners, including Russians, who had helped the country's economy grow. Since 1995, Russian has regained its previous status alongside Tajiki. Uzbeki, too, is allowed to flourish in regions predominantly inhabited by Uzbeks.
Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan enjoy a unique cultural heritage. The major contribution to this shared heritage is the magnificent Shah-nameh (Book of Kings) , written by the eleventh-century Persian poet Firdawsi. This book is an account of the prehistory of the region. It tells the story of the cosmic battle between Good and Evil, the development of the "divine right of kings," and the history of the Iranian monarchs.
Lesser myths include the story of Nur, a young man who, to attain his beloved, tamed the mighty Vakhsh River by building a dam on it. There is also the story of a sacred sheep that was lowered from heaven to help the Tajiks survive.
In ancient times, present-day Tajikistan was a part of the empire of the Achaemenian Persians. The religion of that empire was Zoroastrianism. After the Arab conquest in the eighth century, Islam was introduced. It remained unchallenged until the rise of atheism in the early years of the twentieth century. Today atheists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians live together.
Tajiks observe three different types of holidays: Iranian, Muslim, and civil. The most important Iranian holiday is the Nawruz (New Year). It begins on March 21 and continues for several days. This holiday dates back to Iranian mythic times. It celebrates the victory of the forces of Good (warmth) over those of Evil (cold). It also marks the beginning of the planting season and commemorates the memory of departed ancestors.
The Islamic holidays are Maulud al-Nabi (the birth of the Prophet Muhammad), Eid al-Adha (celebrating the ancient account of Abraham offering his son for sacrifice), and Eid al-Fitr (celebration of the end of the Ramadan fast). These celebrations had to be observed in secret during the Soviet era. They are now held in the open. Their dates are not fixed due to the rotating nature of the lunar calendar.
Civil holidays with origins in the Soviet era include New Year's Day (January 1), International Women's Day (March 8), Labor Day (May 1), and Victory Day (May 9). Tajik Independence Day is celebrated on September 9.
There are both traditional and Soviet rites of passage. After marriage, Tajik women traditionally pluck their eyebrows and wear special ornate hats and distinctive clothing. Married men and women both wear their wedding rings on the third finger of the right hand. A ring on the middle finger indicates separation or the death of a spouse.
The Tajiks recognize three privileged groups: children, the elderly, and guests. Children, like adults, participate in most gatherings and contribute to the life of the party. The elderly, often referred to as muy sapid , are highly valued. They are consulted and obeyed in important affairs. Guests fall into various categories depending on the nature of relationships.
Family visits and visits by colleagues and friends require the preparation of a dasturkhan , a tablecloth spread over the floor or on a low table. On the dasturkhan are placed bread, nuts, fruits, various types of preserves and homemade sweetmeats. The guest of honor is seated at the head of the dasturkhan, farthest from the door.
The Tajiks have many interesting customs and superstitions. For instance, certain items such as keys, needles, and scissors should not be passed from hand to hand. Rather, they are placed on a table for the other person to pick up. It is believed that standing in a doorway will make a person go into debt. Spilling salt in the house will cause a person to get into a fight. A person who whistles in the house is likely to lose something valuable. A person who twirls a key chain on his or her finger becomes a vagabond. If someone sneezes during a departure, he or she should wait a while before leaving. If one returns home for a forgotten item, one should look in a mirror before leaving the house again.
Living conditions in Tajikistan, especially in Dushanbe, are difficult. Housing in Dushanbe, the largest urban area, consists of many high-rise Soviet-era apartment complexes. In these complexes, which are usually surrounded by large courtyards and common spaces, elevators rarely work and water pressure is weak on the higher floors. There has been no hot water in Dushanbe since 1993 (except for ten days before the presidential elections). Cold water is usually available, but electricity is sporadically shut off. Cooking gas is provided for only four hours in the afternoon.
Telephone service is also deficient. International calls must be made through a centralized office, which requires a two-day notice and advance payment. Express mail reaches Dushanbe in twenty to thirty days. Regular airmail takes three to four months.
The Tajiks are family oriented. Families are large but do not necessarily live in the same part of town or even in the same city. In fact, the more widely the family is spread, the more opportunities it has for amassing resources. This allows outsiders to become a part of a family and thus expand it into a clan. There are at least four or five major clans in Tajikistan.
Women's roles vary widely. Soviet-influenced Tajik women participate in all aspects of society and a few are even members of parliament. Muslim wives, on the other hand, stay at home and take care of the children.
Most marriages are arranged. After negotiations, the father of the groom pays most of the expenses for the tuy (celebration). Women can initiate divorce procedures and receive half of the family's assets.
Men and women, especially in urban centers, wear European clothes. Farmers and herders wear a special heavy boot over their usual shoes. Older Tajik men wear long Islamic cloaks and turbans. They also wear beards.
Students, especially during the Soviet era, wore uniforms with kerchiefs and other distinctive decorations. In recent times, traditional clothing is preferred.
The generic word for food is avqat. As is the custom elsewhere in the world, various courses are served. Pish avqat (appetizer) includes sanbuse (meat, squash, or potatoes with onions and spices wrapped in bread and either deep-fried or baked), yakhni (cold meats), and salad.
Serve the rice with the carrots and meat.
The avqat is either suyuq (broth based) or quyuq (dry). Examples of the first include shurba nakhud (pea soup), kham shurba (vegetable soup), and qurma shurba (meat and vegetables sautéed in oil and then simmered in water). The main national dish is ash, a mixture of rice, meat, carrots, and onions fried and steamed in a deep pot, preferably over an open fire. Pilmeni (meat and onions in pasta and cooked in water or meat stock) and mantu (meat and onions in steamed pasta) are examples of dry avqat. Following is a recipe for ash (stew).
The Soviet education system had both positive and negative effects on the Tajiks. On the positive side, it essentially eliminated illiteracy by 1960 and acquainted the Tajiks with Russian literature. On the negative side, it alienated most Tajiks from their own culture and language.
Today, the English language and American culture are finding their way into Tajikistan. English is stressed in schools because many people, including those who intend to emigrate, want to learn English for its role in international business.
Tajik music varies by region. In the north, especially in Samarqand and Bukhara, the shashmaqam is recognized as the chief musical system normally played on a tanbur . In the south, falak and qurughli music predominate. The national hafiz (singer) is respected by all.
Various regions have reacted to Western culture differently. The Badakhshanis, for instance, have adopted Western musical innovations. The Gharmis have not.
A recurring theme in Tajik literature is the harsh measures of a bai (rich man) who "helps" an orphaned boy meet the expenses for his father's funeral. The young man ends up working for the bai for the rest of his life to pay the debt.
The makeup and circumstances of the work force in Tajikistan have changed drastically in recent years. Many youth who would traditionally have worked on cotton plantations have migrated to the cities and have become involved in trade. They import goods from Pakistan, Japan, and China and sell them in makeshift shops or in stalls alongside the street.
A large number of Tajiks work in industry. Primary industries include mining, machine-tool factories, canneries, and hydroelectric stations. In general, about 50 percent of the population is under twenty. Over one half of those are not in the labor force. There is a growing population that is neither employed nor in school.
The national sport of the Tajiks, gushtigiri (wrestling), has a colorful tradition. When the towns were divided into mahallas (districts), each district had its own alufta (tough) who was the best wrestler. The position of the alufta, usually an upright and respected individual, was often challenged by those of lower rank.
Buzkashi (which means, literally, "dragging the goat") is a sport involving strenuous bodily exertion. In this game, the carcass of a goat is dragged by horsemen who grab it from each other. The aim of the riders is to deposit the carcass in a designated circle in front of the guest of honor. Buzkashi is usually performed as part of the Nawruz (New Year's) celebrations.
In recent years, many European sports have also found their way into Tajikistan. Soccer is so popular that many believe it rivals buzkashi.
During the Soviet period, special attention was paid to the arts. The result was culturally stimulating. The Tajik cinema, for instance, produced a number of worthy films based on Firdawsi's Shah-nameh . There were also stunning productions on the lives of other poets, including Rudaki (c. 859–940). With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the arts lost their primary means of support. Producers, directors, actors, and writers either joined the ranks of the jobless or became involved in business. Many left Tajikistan.
Today, television occupies some of the Tajiks' time. Programs are telecast both from Moscow and locally. Maria (a Mexican rags-to-riches soap opera), and the American program Santa Barbara are favorites. Local broadcasting is very limited in scope, dealing mostly with regional matters, especially agriculture. Videos allow Tajik youth wider choice of programs.
Traditional Tajik crafts include the embroidered Bukhara wallhangings and bedcovers popularized in the nineteenth century. The Tajik style of tapestries typically has floral designs on silk or cotton and is made on a tambour frame. Woodcarving is also an honored Tajik craft.
The social problems of Tajikistan are too numerous to list. Perhaps the most important social problem has to do with authority and control. Since the tenth century, the Tajiks have been ruled by the others, mostly Turks and Russians. Taxes imposed by Russia have driven the Tajiks to revolt a number of times. One such revolt, the Vaase uprising of the 1870s, was put down mercilessly.
The 1992 Tajik attempt at independence was also severely repressed. The civil war that resulted nearly destroyed the country. There is a 25 percent unemployment rate, a high rate of population growth, and a lack of skilled workers. Ethnic tension and regionalism often bring the country to the verge of disintegration.
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Soviet Tajik Encyclopedia (Vols. 1-8). Dushanbe, Tajik S.S.R., 1978-88.
Wixman, Ronald. The Peoples of the USSR: An Ethnographic Handbook . Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1984.
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