Entangling Modernities in Tajikistan


A review of Azan on the Moon: Entangling Modernities along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway, by Till Mostowlansky.

The dearth of post-Soviet ethnographies of Central Asia is being remedied through the work of anthropologists writing up theoretically sophisticated treatises rich in detail about the daily lives and concerns of their interlocutors.  Till Mostowlansky’s work is an important addition to this genre precisely because he writes about a part of Central Asia where such nuanced portraits are generally not available, that of the Pamir Mountains, which cover much of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in eastern Tajikistan.  This dissertation is about both a place and a road, namely the district of Murghab and the Pamir Highway which connects it to other settlements and stretches from the regional center of Khorog in the Western Pamirs to the city of Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan.  It is the “double-remoteness” of the settlements along the Pamir Highway, the perceived physical and conceptual distance from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and from Khorog as well as Osh, that leads the author to explain how his interlocutors understand and undermine this sense of remoteness (p. 9).  The guiding question in his study is “how do people along the Pamir Highway negotiate concepts of modernity and relate them to their own marginality?” (p. 3).

The dissertation sets out to address this question and is divided into seven chapters, with the first and last being the introduction and conclusion to the work.  Chapters 1 and 2 form the theoretical and methodological frameworks of the study.  Making a methodological remark, the author distances himself from the analysis of a priori differences such as ethnic and religious affiliations in this place of enormous diversity.  Rather, he emphasizes his use of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis to uncover local frames that emphasize the fluidity and situational nature of identity formation.

Chapter 2 offers the main theoretical scaffolding of the dissertation, the concept of “entangling modernities,” which uses Göran Therborn’s similar concept as a point of departure. (Göran Therborn, “Entangled Modernities.” European Journal of Social Theory 6/3 (2003): 293–305).   This concept allows the author to explore the interactions between Soviet modernity with its universalizing discourse, outside influences, including faith-based development programs in the post-Soviet space, and local and ethnographically excavated forms of modernity.  These interactions constitute both the plural and entangled character of the concept of “entangling modernities.”  The scale of modernity on which those living in the Pamir Mountains judge themselves often creates a narrative in which they take central stage.  This is done through the construction of a social space based on the evaluative and relational category of “modern” (sovremennyi), “civilized” (tsivilizovannyi) and “cultivated” (kul’turnyi) against those termed as “uncivilized” (netsivilizovannyi) and “underdeveloped” (slaborazvityi) which, through its very fluidity in application, plays a central role in identity politics in the region (pp. 30-31).  By providing examples of concrete contexts and material manifestations of entangling modernities arrived at through ethnographic explorations, the author proposes that such modernities are “diversely entangling even within entities that are –particularly in the case of Central Asia – often labelled as Soviet, Islamic or western.” (p. 36).  Drawing on the work of Anna Tsing and her polysemic notion of “friction” (Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), the author sees modernity as a “universal which travels the world” through routes where the movement, both enabled and halted, generates its own set of contradictions (p. 39-40). Till Mostowlansky also draws on the anthropology of the road, the Pamir Highway, as a material manifestation of the processes of modernity.  He does not see roads as destructive but rather as material flows that are intimately connected with the processes of the State.  The road serves as a trajectory for modernity and “a powerful and materialized route on which modernity invades space, economy, the state and other intimate spheres of the region’s everyday life” (p. 49).

In Chapter 3, the author takes us through the story of both the construction of the road and of Soviet modernity.  The pre-Soviet period was marked by relationships between Murghab and Kashgar in western China as well as with northern Afghanistan.  However, Soviet border closings and infrastructure projects reconfigured the relationship to one centered on Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan.  Road construction and the narratives surrounding it operated both to Sovietize the locals and localize the Soviet.  If the story of the Pamir Highway as a story of social change is a dynamic one, then the post-Soviet attempts to reestablish the links with China continue to shift the trajectories in the region.  Seeing the road as an assemblage of the human and non-human, the author draws attention to Murghab as part of a network of places and people where the dilapidated condition of the road signals the deterioration of the networks built and cultivated during the Soviet Period.  The latter part of the chapter draws our attention to other ways of constructing space and creating interconnections that rely on both old and new tropes of migration, genealogy, and ethnicity in order to deal with the losses that come from social change.  The author draws on many unique threads in constructing his argument, such as the personal stories of his informants and a key speech by President Rahmon that grounds itself in the epic of Manas to depict long-standing cosmopolitan relationships in the region.  He draws as well upon texts and explores the role of mazars or pilgrimage sites, which privilege an ethno-spatial understanding of Murghab and its environs as Kyrgyz and Sunni.  In bringing together these various threads, the author reveals the fundamental tensions and questions that arise in creating new spatial practices to replace the old.

Continuing in the thematic vein of the previous chapter and taking an eclectic approach, the author arranges Chapter 4 around the concept of time, a popular TV show, and ethnicity, through all of which the author demonstrates the spatial and hierarchical forms of modernity experienced in Murghab today.  Focusing on two ethnic groups, the Ismaili-Pamiris and the Kyrgyz-Sunni, the author shows how these groups, while sharing a Soviet past, nevertheless are grappling with new modernizing influences which play a significant role in creating both separate and co-mingling processes of identity construction.  The dissolution of the Pamir Highway stands in for these processes just as the construction of the road seems to stand for the Soviet past.  Playing with the Russian terms Nasha and Vasha (ours and yours) in a Russian TV show that depicts Tajiks in a negative light, the groups relate to each other and to other Tajikistanis in ways that allow them to redefine the categories of belonging.  An ironic sense of identification emerges with the Tajikistani nation-state in which the groups attempt a kind of distancing from the reality of their lives as Tajikistani citizens.  For the Ismaili-Pamiris, a sense of intimacy with Russian culture and language and their identification with a global Ismaili community led by Aga Khan IV provide a way to centralize their marginality and understand themselves as more modern than those living in western Tajikistan.  The Kyrgyz, on the other hand, draw on their past practices such as customary law, known as salt, and identification with Kyrgyzstan as the ethnic homeland, to fulfill their collective “yearnings for perfection” for a more ordered and just society (p. 116-117).  Both speak of “the Kyrgyz way” as a flexible framework for organizing uncertainty that enables them to deal with the locally difficult conditions but does not allow for long-term planning.  It is the improvising and the imperfection that, while suitable to the local lifeways, leave the yearnings for perfection unfulfilled.

Chapter 5 deals with the author’s interlocutors’ perception of  a linear Soviet past as a point of a reference to a much diversified non-linear present.  One organizing principle of this present is religion.  As the author points out, while the Soviet period witnessed many expressions of religious commitment, it firmly equated modernity with secularism and backwardness with religion.  It is this equation that is called into question in the post-Soviet context.  Picking up on the themes of reconnection with the pre-Soviet past, albeit by way of modern technology and the Pamir Highway, as well as the traveling universals of terror and development, the author shows how the Kyrgyz-Sunnis and the Ismaili-Pamiris generally aspire to “being secular on the basis of Islamic ethics and being religious within the limits of a secular state” (p. 157).  For the Kyrgyz-Sunni the need for religious guidance coming from the Tablighi Jama’at, known locally as the daavatchys, was welcome initially, but the connection to a pre-Soviet past never materialized.  Instead, they became associated with the traveling universal of terror and the State clamped down on them, leaving them with little local interest.  In contrast, the Ismaili institutions and the development they bring is welcomed by the Pamiris and others, and are seen as a natural extension of Soviet modernity.  The Tajikistani State has both promoted and suppressed religious sentiments, becoming an arbiter of what belongs and does not belong in the religious sphere based on the aspirational model noted earlier.

Chapter 6 delves further into the role of the State. The play on Badakhshan as the “golden gate” of Tajikistan alludes to both its significance and marginality vis-a-vis the State.  Addressing first the role of language, the author relays encounters in Murghab that brings into sharp relief the displacement of Russian with Tajik as the official language of the State, thereby marginalizing those with many years of professional and personal investment in Russian fluency.  The case the author lays out is one of too little control in the form of illegible edicts and documents, which becomes a problem for those relegated to the margins of the State but who consider themselves historically close to its center.  The present circumstances and experiences of marginality are thus seen as threatening the modernity achieved during the Soviet period.  Problems in implementation of laws such as the law on religion served to bolster such feelings of marginalization, of the inability to participate in a cosmopolitan space.  While the Kyrgyz and Ismaili-Pamiris in Gorno-Badakhshan long for a strong state or state order, the illegibility and marginalization it introduces makes it unlikely they will be part of it.  A sure sign of the State, the movement of goods and trucks along the Pamir Highway, and its disappearance were another such sign of legibility turning into illegibility.  This has led to a confusion of categories, between legal and illegal, between the State and criminal enterprise, among other contradictions.  The rise of the bazaar economy and trade as a central activity again led both Kyrgyz and the Ismaili-Pamiris to feel that they were in some ways too modern and therefore unsuited to trade, unlike the Uzbeks and western Tajikistanis.  Furthermore, the restrictions in place and regulations on trade with China made this a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing both the centrality of the Pamir Highway in facilitating trade and the marginality of those who live along it.  The author’s work demonstrates that along the Pamir Highway modernity can be perceived in a way that ties it neither to capitalist institutions nor to democratic ones, something he alludes to in the closing lines of the chapter, but to different economic and political ideals altogether.  These ideals are the final piece of the puzzle provided in this chapter.  The State is connected to the family, where a paternalistic leader is the ideal type of person to lead the family and the nation.  This desire for a real khan has been both a way to critique the leadership of President Rahmon, and in light of more recent events, such as the disturbances in Osh, the Arab Spring, and the internal conflicts between ethnic groups, as well as the history of the Tajik civil war, to bolster his standing.  It is both in seeing modernity as the patrimony of those living along the Pamir Highway while hoping for a real khan, a caring and strong leader who could provide material benefits to realize that modernity fully, that the entanglement of modernity with marginality becomes apparent.  The author demonstrates that for now it is in the play between their ideals and lived reality that we see how the people of Murghab are carefully negotiating and adapting to their present circumstances.

In the conclusion to the work, Till Mostowlansky presents a summary of what he calls it the three cornerstones of this study of a road and place: temporality, spatiality, and materiality (p. 198).  While the work presents a staggering array of ethnographic details, the theoretical framework that the author lays out serves those details well.  He manages to deploy them successfully in order to demonstrate the reality of such “entangling modernities” which mark life along the Pamir Highway.  This means taking seriously the relational aspects of these different modernities, whether Soviet, global, or Western.  The contradictions these modernities introduce are not simply messy or colliding, but rather creatively encounter each other in fulfilling what is seen as a desirable future of a perfected modernity: a universal aspiration and an aspiration of the universal.

Zohra Ismail-Beben
Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program
College of William and Mary

Primary Sources

Ethnographic field research including participant observation over a period of four years (2008-2011) in the region of Murghab, along the Pamir Highway (Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Khorog, Tajikistan)
Semi-structured and unstructured interviews with key informants as well as ongoing interactions via e-mail and the phone
Accounts of cultural and political events including official visits and celebrations
Locally published books and pamphlets as well as local features including signage

Dissertation Information

University of Bern. 2013. 238 pp. Advisors: Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz and Madeleine Reeves.

Image: A stretch of the Pamir Highway. Photograph by Bernd Hrdy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like