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Everyday Life in Central Asia

Everyday Life in Central Asia: Past and Present

Jeff Sahadeo
Russell Zanca
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Indiana University Press
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    Everyday Life in Central Asia
    Book Description:

    For its citizens, contemporary Central Asia is a land of great promise and peril. While the end of Soviet rule has opened new opportunities for social mobility and cultural expression, political and economic dynamics have also imposed severe hardships. In this lively volume, contributors from a variety of disciplines examine how ordinary Central Asians lead their lives and navigate shifting historical and political trends. Provocative stories of Turkmen nomads, Afghan villagers, Kazakh scientists, Kyrgyz border guards, a Tajik strongman, guardians of religious shrines in Uzbekistan, and other narratives illuminate important issues of gender, religion, power, culture, and wealth. A vibrant and dynamic world of life in urban neighborhoods and small villages, at weddings and celebrations, at classroom tables, and around dinner tables emerges from this introduction to a geopolitically strategic and culturally fascinating region.

    eISBN: 978-0-253-01353-8
    Subjects: Anthropology, History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  4. [Maps]
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Central Asia and Everyday Life
    (pp. 1-12)

    For its citizens, contemporary Central Asia is a land of great promise and peril. Promise, for the end of Soviet rule has allowed new opportunities for social mobility and cultural expression. Peril, for political and economic dynamics have imposed severe restrictions on independent activity and widened the gap between rich and poor. In this volume, we will examine how ordinary residents of Central Asia, past and present, lead their lives and navigate shifting historical and political patterns. Contributors, drawn from a wide range of academic disciplines, will tell provocative stories of Turkmen nomads, Afghan villagers, Kazakh scientists, Kyrgyz border guards,...

  6. Part 1. Background
    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 13-14)

      Events and memories of the distant past continue to weigh heavily on the peoples of Central Asia. Issues of origins, heritage, and lineage pervade everyday life, as several articles in this volume will show. Scott Levi traces key factors that have, over centuries, shaped the region. Nomads and settled populations coexisted in a symbiotic, albeit tenuous, relationship. Invasions, migrations, and resettlements across the steppe and oases continually transformed Central Asia. Levi finds a syncretic process, where new conquerors and arrivals at once altered and adapted to the societies and cultures of previous inhabitants. Ethnic and religious identities underwent continual modifications....

    • 1. Turks and Tajiks in Central Asian History
      (pp. 15-32)
      Scott Levi

      In its modern context, the termCentral Asiais most commonly used to refer to the ex-Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Each of these nation-states was established in the early part of the twentieth century, and each was assigned a name based upon the ethnic group that comprises the majority of the state’s population. Significant numbers of these groups also live in the territory of northern Afghanistan and the Xinjiang province of eastern China. If there is one primary distinction that can be made among these peoples, it is that the Tajiks alone have an Indo-European...

  7. Part 2. Communities
    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 33-36)

      Communal units, in the past and present, have been of critical importance across Central Asia. For pastoralist nomads and settled peoples alike, groups linked by kin, territory, religion, or a shared sense of identity have not only offered camaraderie and shared values, but also provided support vital for everyday existence. In a region endowed with a harsh climate and scarce resources, communities secure food and shelter; arrange marriages and distribute labor and supplies; and defend against unwelcome incursions from outsiders. Communities have also acted as anchors in times of transition. Group loyalties today remain multilayered, even as many residents of...

    • 2. Everyday Life among the Turkmen Nomads
      (pp. 37-44)
      Adrienne Edgar

      The year is 1862, and the scene is the western Karakum Desert near the Caspian shore. In the distance, tiny figures of humans and animals are visible in the shimmering heat. As they grow closer, the blurred images become a colorful procession. The women, clad in embroidered robes and elaborate headdresses, lead a row of grumbling camels with heavy loads piled high on their backs. A number of small, half-naked children, some wearing embroidered skullcaps festooned with silver coins, trot alongside. A group of older boys herds a large flock of sheep and goats. The men, who wear brightly colored...

    • 3. Recollections of a Hazara Wedding in the 1930s
      (pp. 45-57)
      Robert L. Canfield

      From late fall 1966 to summer 1968 I was doing field work in the Bamian valley and its environs in Afghanistan.¹ As part of that research I collected a number of statements by people in the region that provide clues to the nature of social life and affairs in previous decades as well as during the period of field work.

      Of course statements like these have a number of problems: people have evident limitations in their knowledge; they indeed convey misinformation, often unintentionally, because they are biased by their vantage points and interests and, with respect to their recollections of...

    • 4. Trouble in Birgilich
      (pp. 58-65)
      Robert L. Canfield

      Anthropologists today see “culture” as reproduced, constructed in social interaction. It is not so much received ready-made from the past as it is a fund of meaningful forms—words, images, gestures, monuments, etc.—that actors may deploy or invoke (or ignore) according to their interests in defining situations. “Reality” in this sense is constructed, piecemeal, as people engage socially (Barth 1993). In this interactive process people may even deliberately, consciously, construct a “reality” that no one believes in—what Fredrick G. Bailey calls a “collusive lie” (1991:34, 35). Collusive lies are the public conventions that groups agree to live with,...

    • 5. A Central Asian Tale of Two Cities: Locating Lives and Aspirations in a Shifting Post-Soviet Cityscape
      (pp. 66-84)
      Morgan Y. Liu

      This is a tale about an old Silk Road city called Osh, the second largest city in the Kyrgyz Republic with a quarter million people today.¹ This tale is recounted as a virtual walking tour through the urban landscape that will divulge the city’s remarkable ethnic mix, colonial past, and rapidly shifting present. Within its crowded limits, Osh harbors contrasting life worlds: different districts, livelihoods, lifestyles, and aspirations that appear to diverge even more since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and independence of the Kyrgyz Republic in 1991. Osh is a tale of two cities because, like many other...

  8. Part 3. Gender
    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 85-88)

      Gender and studies interested in gender concentrate on the roles played by both sexes in society, as well as what members of both sexes feel are appropriate and desirable roles for each throughout various phases of an individual’s life. Generally speaking, twentieth-century gender studies have focused on the positions of girls and women in culture and society rather than boys and men or more complicated issues of homosexuality and transgender identities. A new generation of scholars in gender studies is now broadening the approach of the field.

      Gender has occupied an important place in the historical and social science literature...

    • 6. The Limits of Liberation: Gender, Revolution, and the Veil in Everyday Life in Soviet Uzbekistan
      (pp. 89-102)
      Douglas Northrop

      Banners waved, music played, and local newspapers reported an “unceasing hubbub of girls’ voices, happy songs, [and] infectious dancing” among the crowds in early October 1935, when the First All-Uzbek Congress of Laboring Female Youth opened in Tashkent.¹ Amid triumphal Stalinist pageantry, several hundred young women arrived in the Uzbek capital city to discuss the issues and problems faced by indigenous women in Soviet Central Asia. The delegates came from throughout Uzbekistan and across the region, and a few hailed from farther away, from Moscow and other Muslim areas such as Azerbaijan. Most were young, married Uzbek peasant women who...

    • 7. The Wedding Feast: Living the New Uzbek Life in the 1930s
      (pp. 103-114)
      Marianne Kamp

      Rural Uzbeks began to experience rapid change in the 1930s, when the Soviet Union initiated collectivization of agriculture. Collectivization ended private ownership of land, and it destroyed much of the traditional village hierarchy as the state arrested and exiled many wealthy landowners and members of the Muslim clergy. More broadly, farmers became farmlaborers, while collective farms began investing in institutions such as schools and clinics to benefit their members. Modern, Soviet education started to become widely available, and it spread new ideas and new life goals among rural Uzbek youth. Girls in Xorazm [Khorezm] province (in Uzbekistan’s northwest), who ten...

    • 8. Practical Consequences of Soviet Policy and Ideology for Gender in Central Asia and Contemporary Reversal
      (pp. 115-126)
      Elizabeth A. Constantine

      Whether the Soviets succeeded or failed in their efforts to transform Central Asian societies is one of the central questions that continue to preoccupy scholars of the region. The Soviets manipulated the position and status of women to meet their ideological and economic goals, sought to undermine traditional Islamic patterns of life, and attempted to create new, Soviet patterns instead. Western social scientists, journalists, and developers have devoted great attention to the transformation of Central Asian societies. However, in most of these evaluations of the cause, course, and outcome of social change, gender has been neglected.

      Contrary to general belief,...

    • 9. Dinner with Akhmet
      (pp. 127-140)
      Greta Uehling

      This article explores post-Soviet gender ideologies in Tajikistan by unpacking a series of encounters, especially my dinner with “Akhmet,” in northern Tajikistan. I traveled to Tajikistan from my home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where I was conducting anthropological fi eldwork. A Tajik family I met through mutual friends in Uzbekistan had invited me to visit, and it seemed like an ideal opportunity to expand my knowledge of the region. The husband of the family, “Enver,” had invited me to stay and offered to introduce me to a number of informants for the project I was completing. The trip would draw me...

  9. Part 4. Performance and Encounters
    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 141-144)

      As enduring or timeless as a local musical performance, the delicacies of a meal, or the domestic division of labor may seem from an outsider’s perspective, these aspects of cultural life are usually just as constructed, contested, and changeable as all others. Timelessness and the oft-vague notion of tradition often come apart not just through a careful examination of works of history, but also via consultations with people of different generations in a single household. Consultations among people of different generations are yet another benefit of careful ethnography, of scholars always reminding themselves not to take things for granted.


    • 10. An Ethnohistorical Journey through Kazakh Hospitality
      (pp. 145-159)
      Paula A. Michaels

      The apartment was located in one of Almaty’s hastily built, pre-fabkhrushcheby, or “Khrushchev slums,” thrown up in the late 1950s and early 1960s to alleviate the USSR’s dire housing shortage. Not much to look at, it was clean, comfortable, and a short walk to Almaty’s main shopping drag, such as it was. A half-mile long pedestrian mall that connected the bazaar with the central department store, the street had been recently renamed Silk Road (zhibek zholi) to underscore its commercial orientation. In the spring of 1992, I had been studying in Almaty, then capital of the newly independent republic...

    • 11. Konstitutsiya buzildi! Gender Relations in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan
      (pp. 160-177)
      Meltem Sancak and Peter Finke

      It had been one of those hot spring days that make living in Bukhara a challenge for people unaccustomed to the climate. Meltem had been washing clothes and Peter, who was visiting her, had helped to hang them on the line. In less than an hour all would be dry; the hot temperatures are accompanied by great aridity. As there was neither washing machine nor running water in the village, laundering required getting water from theariq, the irrigation channel, heating it on the oven, and then mixing in cold water until it had the right temperature.

      A few days...

    • 12. Fat and All That: Good Eating the Uzbek Way
      (pp. 178-197)
      Russell Zanca

      In many parts of the world where people have known hunger from time to time, foods rich in calories, e.g., fats, and flavor enjoy pride of place in daily diets. Whereas ancient and contemporary peoples almost always have aspired to procure as much meat as possible, many of our archeological and ethnographic data confirm that hunger cannot be satisfied by protein-packed meat alone; animal fat often becomes more sought after, since it delivers so many tasty calories (Richards 1948; Harris 1985; Mennell 1996). Uzbeks and Uzbekistan are no different, especially in the post- Soviet present with most people living poorly....

    • 13. Public and Private Celebrations: Uzbekistan’s National Holidays
      (pp. 198-212)
      Laura Adams

      Holidays are an important part of any national culture. The significance of national holidays lies in the way that their celebration personalizes abstract ideas about the values of the nation. However, holidays are also spaces for the “practice of everyday life” (de Certeau 1984) where groups of people are free to create their own meanings, which they attach to collective celebrations. For most people in Uzbekistan today, holiday activities are part of a private realm that (unlike during the Soviet period) is no longer of much concern to the government. Although the government of Uzbekistan (much like its Soviet predecessor)...

    • 14. Music across the Kazakh Steppe
      (pp. 213-228)
      Michael Rouland

      Since independence in 1991, music has flourished in the everyday life of Kazakhs. With the combination of new commercial opportunities and the quest for a post-Soviet cultural identity, Kazakh music has occupied an es sential place in the public sphere. Shifting from Soviet tautologies and en gendering new patterns of self-discovery, music has remained the key medium of Kazakh national consciousness and self-expression. Kazakh society has broadly supported the undertaking to preserve traditional Kazakh music from the past and to support increased production of new music.

      Although these efforts fill a vacuum left by the failed Soviet experiment, using music...

  10. Part 5. Nation, State, and Society in the Everyday
    • [PART FIVE Introduction]
      (pp. 229-232)

      Popular and scholarly conceptions of the everyday direct us towards the personal, the private, the mundane. Broader and larger concepts and institutions nonetheless intervene in almost all aspects of daily life. As across much of the world, nation and state have emerged as two of the most important structures in modern Central Asia. Both evolved from a complex interplay of local traditions and international innovations. Central Asian intellectuals began to imagine national communities in the late nineteenth century as a result of contacts with philosophies and practices across Europe and Asia. Moscow imposed a highly invasive model of the modern...

    • 15. The Shrinking of the Welfare State: Central Asians’ Assessments of Soviet and Post-Soviet Governance
      (pp. 233-247)
      Kelly M. McMann

      A farmer in Kazakhstan summed up life before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union as follows: “We are freer now. Before the KGB monitored with whom we spoke. Freedom is freedom, but people need to live and we have not reached a good level yet.”¹ The farmer’s comment suggests that the political liberties many people of the former Soviet Union have acquired do not compensate for the greater economic hardships they now face. New governments have emerged from the Soviet state and introduced political and economic changes; however, these new governments have not necessarily improved everyday life. As...

    • 16. Going to School in Uzbekistan
      (pp. 248-265)
      Shoshana Keller

      June 20, 2003 It’s a warm graduation night at the Alisher Navoi Humanities Lyceum, an elite liberal arts high school (grades 9–11) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.1 The school’s outdoor courtyard is decorated with lights, red carpets on the walls, and a banner saying “Oq yol, aziz birodarlar!” (Bon voyage, dear friends!) There are tables and stools for the hundred or so graduates and their families, and a sound system blasting pop music. The girls have spent days selecting their long ballgowns and getting their hair and makeup just so, complete with liberal amounts of glitter. They won’t dress this way...

    • 17. Alphabet Changes in Turkmenistan, 1904–2004
      (pp. 266-280)
      Victoria Clement

      While visiting with a Turkmen friend in Asgabat in 1997, I asked her to write her address for me. Even though we had been speaking her native Turkmen language, my friend, Ogulbibi,¹ wrote in the “Russian alphabet.” Turkmen had used the Cyrillic, or Russian, alphabet for more than fifty years, but when the country gained independence in 1991, it adopted a new writing system. As an elementary school teacher, Ogulbibi used the new “Turkmen National Alphabet”² every day in the classroom. The change in script had been an important symbol of Turkmenistan’s post-Soviet independence, marking Turkmen identity in opposition to...

    • 18. Travels in the Margins of the State: Everyday Geography in the Ferghana Valley Borderlands
      (pp. 281-300)
      Madeleine Reeves

      “You see, then we werefree. You could travel anywhere you wanted, get on a train and ride to Moscow if you wanted without even taking your passport with you! Now you just try! Now I become a criminal every time I want to visit my mother. What kind of freedom is that?” Saodat-opa thumbed her green Uzbek “citizen’s passport” nervously as she spoke.¹ The pages, full of the stamps that traced her movement through the newly bordered routes of the Ferghana Valley, were soft at the edges from frequent checking.

      We were waiting for the pages to be scrutinized...

  11. Part 6. Religion
    • [PART SIX Introduction]
      (pp. 301-304)

      Faith in the supernatural and the communitarian rituals that form a key part of worship are elements as universally human as feasting and marriage. Attitudes towards and practices of religion form an essential part of our investigation into everyday Central Asia. In approaching religion from the perspective of the people living in these authoritarian countries, where governments and, now, militant religious organizations seek to channel and control spiritual thought as well as practice, our authors illustrate, through careful and empirical research, that the citizens of such countries are, far from unquestioning automatons, people who may conduct themselves cautiously or covertly...

    • 19. Divided Faith: Trapped between State and Islam in Uzbekistan
      (pp. 305-318)
      Eric M. McGlinchey

      Though I had been working with Islamic activists in Uzbekistan for several months, I had yet to accompany any of my colleagues to Friday prayer. It was not that I was avoiding prayer services out of principle. I study religion and politics and am a frequent visitor to mosques, churches, and temples in the United States. And although mine is more an intellectual than a spiritual pursuit, I have always felt welcome by the American Muslim community. Islam in Central Asia, however, is not Islam in the United States. I feared that, here, moving from outside observer to inside fellow...

    • 20. Sacred Sites, Profane Ideologies: Religious Pilgrimage and the Uzbek State
      (pp. 319-338)
      David M. Abramson and Elyor E. Karimov

      Islam has been a defining aspect of life in Central Asia, and sacred places, most predominantly saint shrines, have played a key role in the everyday spiritual life of Muslims for much of the region’s history over the last twelve centuries. After many decades of life under Soviet socialism, Islamic rituals, such as pilgrimages to sacred sites, are gaining popularity in Uzbekistan and in the region. While many of the ritual practices observed today have centuries-old roots, they also have new, contemporary meanings for the region’s Muslims, who are struggling to make sense out of the remarkable social, economic,¹ and...

    • 21. Everyday Negotiations of Islam in Central Asia: Practicing Religion in the Uyghur Neighborhood of Zarya Vostoka in Almaty, Kazakhstan
      (pp. 339-354)
      Sean R. Roberts

      To the person unacquainted with Central Asia, the religious life of its people appears filled with contradictions and is difficult to comprehend. Most indigenous Central Asians will proclaim that they are Muslim, but the ways in which they practice their religion are extremely varied and often seemingly contradictory. This phenomenon emerges from the post-Soviet context in which the Muslims of Central Asia are torn between multiple tendencies influencing their attitudes toward religion.

      Firstly, the Muslims of the region are in the process of rediscovering their religious roots in Islam, a tendency that is also interconnected with their nationalist revival, since...

    • 22. Namaz, Wishing Trees, and Vodka: The Diversity of Everyday Religious Life in Central Asia
      (pp. 355-370)
      David W. Montgomery

      Two years ago, Murat began praying. This is not to suggest that two years ago he “found” religion, for he never questioned the idea that he was Muslim. For him, as with most ethnicities indigenous to Central Asia, being Kyrgyz meant being Muslim.1 It is only that two years ago he began to seek out more about how to practice Islam. His neighbors were going to mosque on Fridays and, not wanting to be left out, Murat started attending. In reflecting back, he is quick to speak of how little he knew about Islam and exceedingly proud to overemphasize what...

    • 23. Christians as the Main Religious Minority in Central Asia
      (pp. 371-384)
      Sebastien Peyrouse

      Christians in Central Asia constitute a unique case, having been subject to Soviet state atheism and constituting a religious minority in a Muslim region. I will analyze the stakes in the post-Soviet era, when Christians face the challenge of newly independent states that recognize Islam as their main religion. Has independence resulted in changes in Christians’ everyday life? Has it provoked new relations between political and religious authorities on the one hand and religious movements on the other? What is Christianity’s current place in Islamic Central Asia, and how do denominations plan to develop?¹

      The five post-Soviet Muslim republics of...

    (pp. 385-388)
    (pp. 389-394)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 395-401)