Ordinary People and Everyday Lives in Kulob, Tajikistan

kulob house_diana Ibanez

A review of Temporality and Subjectivity in Kulob, Southern Tajikistan: An Ethnography of Ordinary People and Their Everyday Lives, by Diana Ibañez-Tirado

In national-scale studies of Tajikistan the city of Kulob in the south of the republic is often depicted as being part of President Emomali Rahmon’s political heartland and origin of the current political elite. However, little is known about the inner workings of Kulobi society and people’s everyday lives in the city. Diana Ibañez-Tirado’s dissertation provides a welcome and subtle insight into a place that it is often referred to, yet rarely explored. Based on twelve months of anthropological fieldwork, Ibañez-Tirado presents a fascinating and well-written account of how “ordinary” (oddi) people in Kulob engage with complex and multi-layered temporalities that only loosely correspond with linear periodizations which standard historiography has laid out for them.

The dissertation consists of an introduction, six empirical chapters and a short conclusion. In the introduction Ibañez-Tirado integrates a diverse array of issues including the study’s focus, background knowledge on Tajikistan and Kulob, methodology, anthropological theory on everyday life, time and events as well as her positioning in the field and the question of research ethics. As the author states, the main strands that bind together the dissertation’s different chapters are the categories “ordinary,” “everyday life” and “extra-ordinary events” which are tied to time-passing, representations of time and continuously evolving subjectivities in Kulob (pp. 28-32). In this regard, it is important to note that Ibañez-Tirado employs the term “ordinary” to refer to her informants’ self-representation as inhabitants of Kulob who distinguish themselves from the political elite that has emerged in the capital Dushanbe under the label “Kulobi.”

In Chapter 1 the author sets out to explore the situatedness of “disaster” (fojia) in her informants’ everyday lives. Along the example of two extra-ordinary events, she shows that “ordinary” Kulobis attempt to normalize such incidents with the help of jokes and religious piety, but also through the expectation of “suffering” as part of their daily lives. The first example deals with a massive flood that ravaged parts of Kulob in spring 2010 (pp. 67-71) and stands for the impact of sudden, short-term events. As second example Ibañez-Tirado discusses the state-imposed project of the Roghun Hydropower Station for which government agencies pressured people in Tajikistan to buy stock certificates (pp. 73-83). This event took place over a period of six months in 2010 and refers to the consequences of long-term suffering. Strikingly, as the author argues, both of these “big” events became integrated into her informant’s lives “as ordinary elements of […] mundane routines” (p. 73). Thus, boundaries between the extra-ordinary and the ordinary are blurry and disasters occur within a continuum of everyday life.

Chapter 2 focuses on how “ordinary” Kulobis relate to history and historical time. In this respect, Ibañez-Tirado sees limited use of standard periodizations such as Soviet/post-Soviet and socialist/post-socialist for her anthropological analysis. With reference to her informants’ rejection of these categories and by exploring the role of housing, bodies, food and gender, the author argues that Foucault’s notion of heterochrony describes the setting more accurately. From this point of view, people, things and places in Kulob are not simply located in one single post-Soviet time/space. They rather constitute several sites within one place that are heterogeneous, sometimes contradicting and often incompatible (p. 109). Ibañez-Tirado’s ethnography therefore suggests that the grand narratives of historical rupture are not necessarily reflected in Kulob and she highlights the importance of local events for perceptions of social change.

In Chapter 3 Ibañez-Tirado explores the diverse ways of being Kulobi through the prism of wedding celebrations. While to her informants such events mean the opportunity to travel, make conversation, eat and dance, they at the same time provide insights into the performance and enactment of identity. The social importance of weddings in Kulob can be guessed by the author’s attendance rate of forty-four celebrations in twelve months (p. 129). Against this backdrop, Ibañez-Tirado on the one hand seeks to show how “extra-ordinary” events such as weddings are incorporated into everyday life. On the other hand, the sensual aspects of weddings (including hearing, movement, taste and touch) lead her to the conclusion that such celebrations reproduce gender roles and are simultaneously situated within multiple temporalities (p. 162).

Chapter 4 focuses on processes and effects of divorce and therefore thematically ties in well with the previous chapter. Throughout the chapter, Ibañez-Tirado shows how “ordinary” Kulobis engage with concepts of separation distinguishing between the “Islamic,” short-track taloq-divorce and the slow, expensive and bureaucratic civil divorce (judo). Through reference to concrete examples from her informants’ family lives she emphasizes that, contrary to local expectations, any sort of “un-matching” (p. 168) consistently results in time-consuming and emotionally challenging work. In this respect, “Islamizing” processes play an important role since the very legitimacy of taloq is based on a religious foundation and juxtaposed with secularist state law. As she shows, such differences are not merely negotiated between religious representatives and state actors. “Ordinary” Kulobis themselves take part in these interactions and draw on an array of different resources including television, soaps and other media technologies, as well as speeches and teaching contents from mosques and schools. Ultimately people’s engagements with these resources go well beyond a “coming-to-terms” with changing social relations. The author highlights that it is in such sites that one can observe the making of persons, emerging subjectivities and gender roles in their transforming and transformative states.

In Chapter 5 Ibañez-Tirado explores the temporal aspects of migration, sufferings that emerge in migration and the strategies that “ordinary” Kulobis employ in order to re-establish “their subjecthood as moral and human persons” (p. 222). With Tajikistan providing few job opportunities to its citizens, labor migration to Russia has been consistently important for people’s livelihoods in the country. In this regard, “ordinary” Kulobis are no exception and the absence of men is part of their everyday lives. Ibañez-Tirado provides detailed ethnographic facets of this economic situation, ranging from the waiting-game for traveling migrants to return to the migrant’s suffering, whose “world-weariness” (ziq) can turn into sickness. She thus highlights migration as a process which is variously dealt with. While one of her informants decides that the only way to overcome his “sadness” and “world-weariness” is to permanently return to his family, others accommodate to the migration cycle and find happiness in far away Russia by re-positioning themselves towards the world through irony.

In the final Chapter 6 Ibañez-Tirado discusses the often-assumed (inherent) connectivity between body, clothing and Islam. She shows that this is in fact a multi-layered thematic complex towards which “ordinary” Kulobis position themselves in ways that go beyond stereotypical takes on Muslim societies. Without drawing fixed boundaries between “body and external world, between the surface and the inner self” and “between one’s true intentions and one’s false appearance” (p. 259), Ibañez-Tirado analyzes her informants’ bodily practices through the prism of timely orientations. One such timely orientation places “tradition,” represented by the Tajik national dress, in a “timeless past” (p. 229) and in relation to current political efforts of defining Tajik culture. Yet in a quite fascinating way, practices of handling clothing, hair and teeth also reach out into the future by having an impact on the afterlives (akhirat) of “ordinary” Kulobis. In this respect, Ibañez-Tirado’s informants envisage the future under constantly changing conditions of being humans, Kulobis, Muslims and Tajiks.

In the short concluding section Ibañez-Tirado provides a helpful set of key themes which she deems central to her work. In this regard, it becomes evident that the dissertation greatly contributes to several fields of study at the same time. First, Ibañez-Tirado’s dissertation is firmly situated in the anthropology of time/temporality and provides fine-grained observations of how the example of Kulob could contribute to existing bodies of literature. In addition, her analysis of the transformative influence of Islam on the everyday lives of “ordinary” Kulobis provides an excellent contribution to study of Muslim societies more generally. In this regard, gender relations feature in this work in unexpected ways and thus shed light on the topics of “gender” and “body” in connection to Islam. Finally, Ibañez-Tirado’s dissertation provides a rich ethnographic exploration of Kulob. By showing that the term “Kulobi” is not just representative of the republic’s political elite, but also refers to “ordinary” people far removed from political power, she provides an important contribution to the understanding of contemporary Tajikistan as a diverse and complex place.

Till Mostowlansky
Asia Research Institute
National University of Singapore
till.mostowlansky@gmail.com

Primary Sources
Ethnographic field research including participant observation in Kulob (Tajikistan):
14 months of ethnographic field research
Qualitative interviews as well as ongoing interactions via phone
Recorded speeches from mosques

Dissertation information
University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. 2013. 298pp. Primary Advisor: Trevor Marchand.

Image: Photograph by Author.

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