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EER - TAJIK ISMAILIS - 2004-08-05

Thursday, 2004, August 5
Far Eastern Economic Review
John Bonaccolta

THE RECENT DEATH of Ronald Reagan led many in the West to celebrate once again the fall of the Soviet Union 13 years ago. But in Khorog, a town of around 25,000 on the Tajik-Afghan border, that historic event is remembered with less happy feelings. Abandoned cranes, half-finished cement buildings and the hulls of Soviet tanks all hark back to an era when subsidies ran rich to this distant corner of Moscow's empire and supplies were trucked in without consequence of cost. 'Life was very good here during Soviet times,' explains Yorali, a local artist.
No doubt the Soviets were more concerned with creating a subservient local population than with fuelling local culture. Nevertheless, the legacy of Soviet education is striking -- in this part of Badakhshan in the Pamir mountains, almost everyone, it seems, is an artist, a writer or a musician. Over 99% of the population is reckoned to be literate, a level that -- thanks to the centralized Soviet education system -- dates back to the 1960s.

Today, life's much harder. 'Now the only people who live above subsistence [level] work for aid organizations or traffic drugs, and that's only about 10% of the population,' Yorali says. He's one of the lucky ones: In addition to being an artist, he works for the Aga Khan Development Network trying to find new markets for traditional Tajik handicrafts. His salary of $70 per month is far above the local average of $15.

The people of this area are Shia Ismaili Muslims, and they revere their 49th imam, the Aga Khan, as their spiritual leader. To some extent, donations from his foundations have replaced Soviet-era subsidies. Getting Yorali to talk about the network's projects, though, can be difficult. Over vodka and cigarettes, he prefers discussing Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, and of course his art. When you ask him what he does, he replies that he is first an artist, second an aid worker.

'It was difficult to find colour paints after the Soviets left, so I branched out into pencil sketches,' he says proudly while showing off some of his drawings. He speaks six languages comfortably, including English. He's not alone here: As one European Commission worker says, 'I don't know of any colonial power that brought such cultural opportunity to the far corners of its empire, to the smallest villages.'

With such talented workers available, one might be led to think that there is huge potential for development. But the high level of education poses its own problems. 'People do not want to go back to farming the land, and they view commerce as dirty, infringing upon their art, but they realize it's a necessity,' says Sarah Robinson, who works for the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme, or MSDSP, part of the Aga Khan Development Network. 'Teaching such cultured, highly educated people that they need to work to live is a challenge.'

Even if agriculture and commerce were embraced, opportunities remain scarce. Only around 5% of Tajikistan's total land is arable. In the Pamir mountains, the figure is even lower. People plant potatoes on rocky plots of soil next to their homes. They heat their spacious homes -- another Soviet legacy -- with artemis, a local plant that's rapidly being depleted. Once they could rely on supplies of subsidized coal.

Across the border is Afghanistan. There, the soil and the amount of grass available for animals is the same. Indeed, the situation can seem even bleaker than in Tajikistan: After all, the Afghan Badakhshanis never enjoyed subsidized education. Yet they have one advantage: They never gave up their traditional way of life. There, boys ride horses and fields are well-planted.

As for commerce, there is no industry to speak of in this remote corner of southeastern Tajikistan. While the MSDSP, along with an alphabet soup of other international organizations, is evaluating the opportunity for small enterprises, to date only handicrafts seems to really be moving forward. Tourism is talked about, but selling this arid region as a holiday destination in the West won't be easy.

Over lunch, Zebo, a local university student, frankly describes what holds up the economy: 'Without the Aga Khan we would all be dead. There would be nothing to eat.' Just as the Ismailis are turning increasingly to their faith for material aid, they are also, it seems, turning to it for spiritual comfort. Jamaat khanas, or spiritual centres, are cropping up, and proud Ismaili followers express relief that they can now practise their faith openly.

Zebo is quick to offer facts and historical points on her religion, but when asked about the jamaat khanas, she frowns and says, 'We need to build many things in Badakhshan -- but we do what we can.' Then this English-language student interjects to show off her skills by reciting a couple of lines by William Blake. Most students are focused on humanities, something Zebo says is due to lack of funding for technical education and laboratory facilities. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, from 1992-94, financial support for the sciences decreased by a factor of 25.

Building Tajikistan from the ground up will be difficult if what's left of the education system can't teach the latest in practical subjects like engineering and medicine. And though the Aga Khan is making strides to help his people, his pockets are only so deep when compared with the old Soviet machine.

Hazim, an architect reduced to driving Jeeps for the few visitors to the area, voices his frustrations. 'We carried on the Ismaili traditions anyway while the Soviets were here,' he says. 'But at least then we could study in Moscow or St. Petersburg. We could wake up in the morning and just go -- none of these borders and checkpoints. And we always had enough to eat.'

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