Who lives above the clouds? Discussing Pamiriness and Tajikness with Dr. Dagikhudo Dagiev

The Pamiris are people, referred by some as Tajiks and referred by others as a new evolving ethnicity, speaking different Eastern Iranian languages in the Pamir Mountains. The ethnical identity of these communities, who mostly belong to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, has been a topic for open and closed discussions both within the communities, especially in Tajikistan, and outside. Scholar researches and materials on the Pamirs and the Pamiri communities written by a group of scholars from the region and the West have been gathered in a recently published book titled “Identity, History and Trans-Nationality in Central Asia. The Mountain Communities of Pamir”. The book has been edited by Dr. Dagikhudo Dagiev and Dr. Carole Faucher. Dr. Dagiev, who kindly agreed to tour our readers through identity self-search of Pamiris and through historical and modern Tajikness, was born and grew up himself in the Pamirs. In the beginning we have asked Dr. Dagiev to introduce our readers with recently published book, as well as ethnicities and languages of the Pamirs, both Tajikistan’s geopolitical part and wider Badakhshan and map communities residing there.

The book is the outcome of a conference which was held in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2014. The book presents a variety of lines of argument pertaining to Pamiri identity and identification processes. The book is structured in three parts: i) the first addresses themes relevant to the region’s geography and the recent history of the Pamiri communities; ii) the second section critically explores the rich philosophical, religious and cultural Pamiri heritage through the writings of prominent historical figures; iii) section three addresses issues pertaining to the contemporary diffusion of traditions, peace-building, interconnectivity and what it means to be a Tajik/Pamiri for the new generations of the region. Contributions by experts in their field offer fresh insights into the Ismaili communities in the region while successfully updating the historical and ethnographic legacy of Soviet times with present-day scholarship.

Читайте на русском: Кто живет над облаками? О памирскости и «таджикскости»

Pamiris, or Badakhshanis in popular discourse, form a small group of Iranic peoples who inhabit the mountainous region of Pamir-Hindu Kush, being the historical region of Badakhshan. A careful reading of the scientific literature appears to show that the concept of ‘Pamir’ and ‘Badakhshan’ are separable, as Pamir refers to the geographical landscape, while Badakhshan refers to the territory with historical boundaries and state control.
Pamiri communities are located in the territories of four current nation-states: Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan, who speak various dialects of Eastern Iranian languages. During the 19th century, the region became a battlefield for the world powers of the time: the British and the Russian empires. As a result, the two colonial powers ignited artificial rivalry among the local rulers such as amirs and khans by implementing what is known as the ‘divide and rule’ policy. By the end of the 19th century, the Panj (Oxus) river had turned into a natural border between the colonial powers, and later on in the 20th century the region was divided between four countries.

The Pamiri ethnic self-identity has been politicized in recent century in Tajikistan and has been a sensitive issue, especially after the independence. How this process evolved?

The study has demonstrated that the evidences emerging from the annals of the Russian explorers of the Pamirs, in particular, has suggested that the inhabitants of the Pamir Mountains considered themselves as Tajiks rather than Pamiris. The second part of the study has analysed the factors that have contributed towards an identity shift among some Pamiris.

The contribution of the scholars who studied the Pamir region has been enormous since these were the people who introduced and coined the term Pamir and Pamiris, which later on developed as a marker of identity for the Tajik people of Tajikistan’s Badakhshan. Russian and Soviet scholars played an instrumental role in the development of a Pamiri, and equally Tajik identities and since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the same trend has been pursued by the Western scholars.

During the Soviet era, development became evident in every sphere of life, such as road construction, administrative institutions, hospitals, schools, and a greatly increased level of literacy, which had an immediate impact on the life of the mountain people and saw the population increase from 21,000 to 200,000. Education played a key role in Badakhshan province of Tajikistan, in particular in 1989 with the establishment of the Khorugh Institute for the Study of the Pamir Region, a branch of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan.

From what has emerged in the study, the Pamiri identity is an evolving concept with further developments awaiting. As long as it develops avoiding deteriorating into separatist-oriented movements, it stands good chances of remaining within the confines of a national debate for the Pamiri Tajiks and the Tajik state alike.

So, despite the popular view distinguishing Pamiris from Tajiks, you and other intellectuals from the Pamirs argue that Pamiris are Tajiks. What is your argument based on? Doesn’t this view create other questions – such as, for example, people sharing the same languages or cultures in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan and Pakistan’s Hunza, such as Wakhis and Ishkashimis are Tajiks too? Do they self-identify themselves as Tajiks? Are Farsi-speakers of Iran Tajiks too? What about Persian-speaking people of Afghanistan, like Hazara, and etc.? What do we base to when we call Uygur-speaking Turkic-looking Sarikolis of China as Tajiks? Who is a Tajik in general and how do we define the ethnicity – based on language, culture, geopolitical area of living, and what?

At the same time, some other historians and intellectuals argue about the use of word “Tajik”, saying that, calling Persian-speaking Iranians as Tajiks and naming their language as Tajik language was a political move by the Bolsheviks aiming to cut ties between Soviet and non-Soviet same nations. They say, we are Iranians and we speak Farsi and the word Tajik has been just an antonym to Turkic in creative literature.

As it was already argued, the term “Pamiri” has been generally used in reference to a group of Iranic people in the Mountainous Badakhshan Autonomous Province in Tajikistan and in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. In China, the same people are officially deemed to be Tajiks. Not so long ago the same was true in Afghanistan where they were identified as Tajiks, but more recently the Afghan government reclassified them as Pamiris.

Therefore, currently by “Pamiris” we refer to a particular group of people who speak the diverse indigenous languages in Badakhshan and the broader Pamir region. They share close linguistic, cultural and religious ties with the people of the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan, with the Sarikoli and Wakhi speakers in the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County in Xinjiang province in China, as well as with the Wakhi speakers in Afghanistan and the Upper Hunza-Gojal region of the northern mountainous areas of Pakistan.

The term Tajik can be defined according to two different categories: one is a narrow definition that can only be applied to the Persian/Tajik-speaking people of present Central Asia and Afghanistan. The second definition can be applied to the Iranic people of Central Asia, Afghanistan and elsewhere who speak different ancient languages of the Iranic family, but historically defined themselves Tajiks.

From this perspective, the term Tajik has a historical and contemporary definition that needs to be reflected in its historical context, both of time and space. Certainly, the definition of the term Tajik as an ethnic identity was different in the minds and perceptions of people prior to the establishment of Tajikistan as a ‘nation-state’ in 1929. Whether, since then, the term Tajik has reflected the cultural, social, political and topographical landscape of the region, is a moot question.

Admittedly, eminent scholars have identified the present Tajik people and those people who speak Eastern Iranian languages as Iranic people of Central Asia. Indeed, it was a deliberate policy of the Bolshevik government who divided these people on ethnic grounds by calling their language Tajiki, whereas prior to the Soviet era there was no such a language called Tajiki. Their language for centuries has been known as Persian and the birthplace of modern Persian language has been Balkh and Bukhara and later on widespread all over the territories of the Greater Iran (in reference to Sassanid and Achaemenid empires). One of the best example for the support of this argument is, the fact that so called Pamiri people referred to the Persian speaking people of Darvaz and Qarategin as farsiwan (meaning those who speak Farsi language, but not Tajik).

Persian was a common language for all the Iranic-speaking peoples of Central Asia, but when this language was renamed into Tajiki through an official process completed in 1936, it was then exclusively applied to one group of the Iranic-speaking people of Central Asia – the Tajiki (Persian)-speaking people; as a consequence, other groups of Iranic-speaking people in Central Asia, such as the Pamiri Tajiks (Pamiri-speakers), were viewed as ‘outsiders’.

In one of your recent interviews you call Swatis of Pakistan also having Tajik ethnicity origins. I see an evolving Tajikization movement in that part of the world too, though they don’t speak Farsi (anymore). What’s the history behind this?

With regard to the Swatis, I would argue that even prior to the establishment of Tajikistan as a Union Republic within the Soviet Union, most ethnicities including Wakhis, Shughnis, Rushanis, Yazghulamis, Sarikolis, Hunzais, Gilgities, Swatis, Chitralis, Nuristani, Kalash, Pashais, Furmuli, Yaghnabis mainly referred to themselves or were regarded by others as being Tajiks due to their common Aryan origin. For example, the non-Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan were identified as Tajiks.

Since the emergence of the term Tajik (tāzīk, tāzī, tadžiki, täžik, tazik, etc), which goes back to as early as 9th and 10th centuries, a group of scholars has accepted that the origin of the word is a Middle Persian, or an Iranian (Sogdian or Parthian) cognate word; a reference to non-Arabs and non-Turkic people and an indication of the Persian speaking or Iranic people of Central Asia. Another group of scholars has argued that the term Tajik is a direct reference to the indigenous – Aryan tribes in the region, who have been known by different names such as ārya, airyā, arya, dadik-hā, dahī, dehgān (dehqān), āzādan, āzādagān, pārsiwān or pārsigu over the course of history.

Keeping to talk about ethnic identity of Tajiks. Probably, many of grandchildren of those who used to speak Farsi in Samarqand and Bukhara and other Persian-speaking area of current Uzbekistan, now might speak Uzbek and self-identify Uzbek. Their grandfathers identified themselves by cities of origin, such as Samarqandi and Bukhari. Scientifically, can we still call them Tajik taking into account that they and their ancestors have never identified themselves as Tajiks?

Of course most of the people living in different modern-states such as Uzbekistan, as you referred, may no longer speak Farsi (Tajik) but still ethnically they are not Uzbek or Pakistani. In particular since the dramatic events at the end of the last century of disintegration of the Soviet state and its Communist ideology, and according to Samuel Huntington’s book Clash of Civilization, many younger generations are very keen to know or learn about their predecessors’ history, identity, culture and language, and of course, the language in which their thousand years of history and culture has been written used to be a Persian language. This is the main reason that many of these Iranic people of Central Asia, came out and have spoken out about their language and identity, which can apply to the Tajiks of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China.

You live in Europe for a long period, which is also home to different ethnic identity discussions, both in the UK and other parts of the continent. How popular are ethnic-based discussions there among general population, like do German-speaking people in Switzerland or Austria care about self-identity or it has already been settled up in general geopolitically – I have passport of Austria, I am Austrian, I am not a German?

Of course, in this part of the world things are slightly different. Although you cannot forget a terrible experience of two world wars. However, ever since they have moved on and one of the biggest achievements so far has been respect to other cultures, traditions and languages. I could argue that these identities are less politicised, and on these bases, they have been trying to create Confederation of the European nations by arguing that the Europe is the home for all the people who live in this continent.

Let’s return from Europe to our Badakhshan. Whenever we talk about Badakhshan, we mostly talk about either Pamiris or Tajiks or Ismailis, etc. Frequently we forget about Turkic nations residing there. For example, Murghob district of Badakhshan covers more than 30% of total Tajikistan’s territory, but mostly inhabited by Kyrgyzs.

It’s a very important question and we have tried to address it in the Introduction of the book. It is also important to note that other groups inhabit the Pamirs too, including the Kyrgyzs who live in the eastern part of Tajikistan’s Badakhshan. This book does not aim to encompass all communities living in the Pamirs but instead focuses on the groups whose members call themselves loosely Pamiris and are united on the basis of their religious confession, Ismailism, a branch of Shiʿa Islam whose presence in the region dates back from as early as 10th and 11th centuries and is associated with the activities of the Ismaili daʿi and hujja Nasir-i Khusraw (1004–1088). Furthermore, Pamiris speak heterogeneous languages, all included in Eastern Iranian group of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family.

In the age of globalization and when economy stands first and money play the main role, what is the importance of learning and promoting these kinds of questions? To consolidate Tajikistan from political identity point of view? To earn image among certain populations in neighbouring countries and gain political weight in future in these countries?

I would argue that never as before it is important to be self-aware of our own identity in the age of globalization. This does not mean closing the doors to otherness, rather the contrary: only by being sure of who you are and where you come from you can open yourself to tolerance. Indeed, tolerance is not a precise word: embracing diversity in its variety of aspects: cultural, political, linguistic, religious. Globalization or internationalization processes should not trigger homogenization but aperture to the other-than-us.

Dr Dagikhudo Dagiev is a Research Associate in the Department of Academic Research and Publications in the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. He obtained his PhD in the Department of Political Science from the University College London (UCL). His PhD thesis was entitled The Process of Transition in Post-Soviet Central Asia and its Challenges: A Case Study of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. His research area includes contemporary societies in post-Communist Central Asia, their history and religion, the re-emergence of Islam as a faith, the appearance of Islamist ideologies, and nationalism.

Dr Dagiev received his Bachelor’s Degree from Khorugh State University (Tajikistan), Department of Humanities on Classical Tajik-Persian Literature and Languages. He is also an IIS Alumnus from Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities (GPISH 2000-2002) and recipient of the IIS scholarship for an MPhil Degree in Eurasian Studies from the University of Oxford (2002-2004).

In 2013, his first book has been published, Transition in Central Asia: Stateness, Nationalism and Political Change in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with Routledge.

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