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How Do Yaghnobi People Live? A Report from the Remote Area of Tajikistan

There is no hospital in the Yaghnob Valley, and the elementary school is only up to the fourth grade. In October, the roads already are covered with snow and communication with the “big land” is lost for six months. The Yaghnobi people live here. They have preserved the ancient Iranian language, a direct descendant of Sogdian.

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In the morning, after waking up in the Piskon village of the Yaghnob Valley, we headed to the bank of the river, which flows at a little distance from the village. Suddenly, we heard a mother calling her son.

“Hey, Sughdmehr (translated as “Sun of Sughd- Ed.), where are you, it is too late already, take your cattle to pasture!”

The boy, about ten or twelve years old, stuck his head out from the wall and answered his mother:

“In a moment…”

We washed our face with cold mountain water and returned home. On the way back, we met Sughdmehr, who drove several cows and sheep with a stick to the pasture.

В долине Ягноба есть школы только с 4-летним языком обучения. Фото: CABAR.asia
There are only schools up to the fourth grade in the Yaghnob Valley. Photo: CABAR.asia

On our way, we met the mother of the child who was walking to bring some water.

“Auntie, will your son not be late for school?” asked one of us.

“He has already graduated from school, he has nothing else to do,” the mother replied.

“He is a child still, how could he graduate from school?”

“Apparently, you are not locals and do not know that in our and in the neighboring villages, there are only schools up to the fourth grade.”

The child’s grandfather, 84-year-old Inoyatullo Atovulloev, who hosted us, said that this problem worried all the villagers.

“There are only seven villages in this valley, but just one school that has modern teaching equipment. Other schools have no conditions; lessons are taught at home. During Soviet times, kids studied for 10 years at schools of the Yaghnob Valley,” said boboi (grandfather) Inoyatullo.

According to him, today, those who have opportunities to do so, take their children after the fourth grade to the places where there are secondary schools.

“However, most Yaghnobi residents do not have such opportunities,” says Atovulloev.

The high school absence is not the only problem of the Yaghnob Valley.

“We do have any modern medical units, not speaking about hospitals. We do not know where to take sick people, especially pregnant women. It gets even harder during the winter,” Atovulloev complained.

Nature of the Yaghnob Valley. Photo: CABAR.asia

Atovulloev’s grandson has been sick for two months now, and relatives cannot take the child for treatment due to impassable road.

“It seems that time is frozen in the Yaghnob Valley,” added the 84-year-old man.

Inoyatullo Atovulloev with his wife, children and grandchildren lives in the Piskon village of the Yaghnob Valley. In 1970, his family, along with other residents of the valley, was taken to the Zafarobod district by decision of the government of the Tajik SSR. However, there were no conditions for the settlers in the district, and the devotion to the birthplace prevailed. In 1978, Atovulloev secretly returned to the village of his ancestors. Today, seven more families live along with him in this village.

Winter Isolation Lasts Six Months

The village where Inoyatullo lives is located at an altitude of 2500 meters above sea level. The road from the Ayni district center to the Piskon village is approximately 150 kilometers long. There are no guarantees that the car can get to the doors of Inoyatullo’s house, since the roads and bridges leading here are obsolete.

Уже в октябре дороги в долину Ягноб перекрываются. Фото: CABAR.asia.ru
The roads to the Yaghnob Valley are blocked already in October. Photo: CABAR.asia

Therefore, family members bring home food supplies for the winter on foot or on a donkey once or twice a year. Already in October, it snows in the valley and avalanches occur: the roads are blocked; no one can go anywhere and only reserved supplies help to live until May of the next year.

There are no shops or shopping centers in this valley. The only store is in the Anzob village, but the road on foot or on horseback is 50-60 kilometers long.

Residents of the valley store supplies of flour, butter, sugar and rice. Other locally produced products are mainly dairy and meat.

In recent years, Yaghnobi people have mainly been living off livestock and farming. According to Atovulloev, wheat was sown here earlier. The grain was ground in a watermill that still exists. Recently, residents have shifted to growing potatoes.

Mountains as a Natural Fortress

The Yaghnob Valley lies between 2,500 and 3,000 meters above sea level; there are mountain rivers, springs, underground minerals and astonishing nature.

Tajik philologist Saifiddin Mirzozoda has published several books that are devoted to the language and culture of this people, in particular, “Yaghnob language” and “Yaghnob-Tajik dictionary”. According to him, the Yaghnobi people are “descendants of the most ancient Sogdian civilization”; they arrived to these places fleeing the Arab conquerors.

“Unreachable and impassable for the enemies mountains saved a small group of Sogdians from misfortunes and misery,” Mirzozoda writes.

Another Yaghnobi scholar, candidate of philological sciences Bahriddin Alizoda says that mainly legends about the resettlement of Yaghnobis to these places live on; certain scientific sources are missing.

However, Alizoda refers to a research conducted at the Center for the Study of the Yaghnobi Language, which operated at the Institute of Language and Literature of the Tajik Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan. This research states that when the Panjakent ruler Divashtich was defeated in the battle with the Arabs, he sent all those who could not fight, the elderly and children to the upper reaches of Zeravshan (currently Ayni, Kuhistoni Mastchoh districts and Yaghnob Valley). That is, in 722-723, these people fled from the Arab conquerors to these inaccessible places.

“Another popular legend says that when Devashtich took refuge in Qalai Mug, he sent his people to three regions: Falgar (currently Ayni district), Kuhistoni Mastchoh district and Yaghnob, and they began to live there permanently. This version seems to be true, since the first settlements in Yaghnob appeared 1300 years ago, which coincides with the Arab invasion,” Alizoda added.

Карта сел долины Ягноб, в том числе заброшенных: Изготовлена по заказу CABAR.asia
Map of Yaghnob Valley villages, including abandoned. Created for CABAR.asia based on Saifiddin Mirzozoda’s data

Before the resettlement in the 60s of the last century, there were 32 villages in Yaghnob, where about four thousand people lived.

Now, according to Mirzozoda, there are no official data on the Yaghnobi population. However, according to Mirzozoda’s research, 18 Yaghnob villages now are more or less maintained, there are about 65 families with a total number of about 400 people. 8 to 10 families live in each village. Other villages look abandoned, and roads and paths to them have become impassable. The villages are located in two areas, the distance from the first area Khishortob to the last area Kiryonti is almost 100 kilometers.

Bahriddin Alizoda specified that he also took part in this research. He and Mirzozoda, as employees of the Center for the Study of the Yaghnobi Language, made the lists of residents of Yaghnobi villages.

Violent Uprooting During Soviet Times

According to the Yaghnobi scholar Saifiddin Mirzozoda, in March 1970, the valley residents were forcibly relocated to Zafarobod district on helicopters. In total, 3194 Yaghnob residents were resettled to a new place. He documented it in the book “The Yaghnobi Language” and referenced the list of settlers from the Yaghnob, which is archived in the Main Archival Directorate under the Government of Tajikistan.

According to his data, some Yaghnobis followed the instructions of the leaders of districts, regions and republic of that time and resettled their families beforehand to Dushanbe, Hisor and Varzob districts.

In the aforementioned book, he noted that administration of Aini district stated poor living conditions in the valley to be the reason for resettlement.

However, Inoyatullo Atovulloev himself believes that they were resettled as a labor f0rce for cotton fields, and the authorities were going to turn their valley into a pasture. Atovulloev said that after the resettlement, many highlanders died, having failed to adapt to the new hot climate.

Yaghnobi scholar Bahriddin Alizoda also believes that back in those years, a manpower was required to develop the Zafarabad district.

He also confirmed the mass death among immigrants who failed to adapt to the new climate.

Alizoda believes that the resettlement had both positive and negative sides.

 “From a social point of view, it was positive, but from the point of view of protecting the language and culture – it was negative,” he said.

In 1978, according to Atovulloev, part of the Yaghnobians secretly returned to the lands of their ancestors using mountain paths.

84-year-old Inoyatullo Atovulloev claims that two representatives went to Moscow on behalf of Yaghnob residents to clarify the situation to the Soviet authorities.

According to him, the instructions that came after read not to resettle the inhabitants of Yaghnob, since this would lead to the disappearance of the descendants of the Sogdian language. He says that the issue of the resettlement of the Yagnob people was no longer standing after this, and many people returned to their villages.

How Many Yaghnobis Live In Tajikistan?

According to a 2019 study by the Yaghnobi scholar Saifiddin Mirzozoda, today the following number of families and residents live in the Yaghnob Valley.

Карта населенных сел долины Ягноб: Изготовлена по заказу CABAR.asia на основе данных Сайфиддина Мирзозода
Map of the populated villages of the Yaghnob Valley.  Created for CABAR.asia based on Saifiddin Mirzozoda’s data

According to the book of Yaghnobi scholar Saifiddin Mirzozoda, in addition to the Yaghnob Valley, a number of Yaghnob families live in Dushanbe, Varzob, Rudaki, Yavan, Shahrinav, Hisor, and Vahdat districts.

Карта заброшенных сел долины Ягноб: Изготовлена по заказу CABAR.asia на основе данных Сайфиддина Мирзозода
Map of the abandoned villages of Yaghnob Valley: ordered by CABAR.asia and based on data from Saifiddin Mirzozoda

Overall, according to the book of Yaghnobi scholar Saifiddin Mirzozoda “The Yaghnob-Tajik Culture,” there are approximately 1,704 Yagnob families with a total number of 8972 people in Tajikistan.

Only a few elderly people call themselves Yaghnobi and speak Yaghnob language. The younger generation speaks Tajik and does not know the language of their ancestors.

The Yaghnob Language Was Studied In Schools

The Yaghnob language, being the heir or one of the branches of the Sogdian language, belongs to the group of East Iranian languages. According to the electronic edition of “Encyclopædia Iranica”, this language is considered a direct descendant of the Sogdian language and is often called New-Sogdian.

The Sogdian language is one of the East-Central Iranian languages that were once spoken in Sogdiana (the north of modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) before the Islamization of the region in the X century.

In their expedition to Iskanderkul in 1870, Russian scientist Alexander Kun and his Tajik companion and translator Mirza Mullah Abdurahman from Samarkand became the first to record the Yaghnob language. Subsequently, a number of other researchers began to study the Yaghnobians, and numerous works and monographs were written about Yaghnobis and their language.

According to Mirzozoda, the Yaghnob people fully use the Yaghnob language, and use Tajik only to communicate with native speakers of the Tajik language. The author of these lines witnessed this phenomenon.

To save the Yagnob language from extinction, 84-year-old Inoyatullo Atovulloev suggests that people from Yaghnob return to the valley and improve the lands of their ancestors.

“If they do not want to return for a long time, then they can build cottages and come to rest in the summer. This will protect the Yaghnob language, allow their children and grandchildren to at least know that their grandfathers spoke this language,” Atovulloev said.

He proposed another way to preserve the language – to introduce the Yaghnob language into the Yaghnob schoolchildren’s curriculum.

Textbooks of the Yaghnob language and a book on the traditions of the Yaghnob people: Photo: CABAR.asia

The Yaghnobi scholar Saifiddin Mirzozoda several times wrote letters on this subject to the Committee on Language and Terminology under the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan. However, there is no answer to this day.

Meanwhile, according to the data of Yaghnobi scholar Saifiddin Mirzozoda, in 2005-2006, the Yaghnob language was taught twice a week in schools of the Yaghnob Valley and in the Yaghnob-speaking mahallas of Zafarabad district.

Moreover, the textbook and other manuals for this course he composed himself. However, under the pretext of increasing salaries for teachers of other subjects, the lessons of Yaghnob language were canceled later.

Mirzozoda added that the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan is trying to print books about the Yaghnob language.

“But it is impossible to preserve the language if it is not taught in the schools of Yaghnob. To protect the language, it is necessary to reintroduce the Yaghnob language into the curriculum of local schools,” says the linguist and Yaghnobi scholar.

At the same time, Mirzozoda referred to paragraph 4 of the Law “On the National Language”, which states the need to protect the Yagnob language.

The Law of the Republic of Tajikistan “On the National Language of the Republic of Tajikistan”, Article 4: “The Republic of Tajikistan creates the conditions for the free use, protection and development of Badakhshan (Pamir) languages and the Yaghnob language”.

According to Mirzozoda, the Yaghnob language has similar elements, including similar vocabulary, with other languages of the group of East Iranian languages – Pamiri, Ossetian and Pashto. Nevertheless, according to him, these languages are less similar to Tajik, which is part of the Western Iranian group.

“Although some words of the Yaghnob language are similar to Tajik, from the point of view of phonetics they are very different. In general, these languages are related. It so happened that many Yaghnob words entered Tajik. In the development of the Tajik language, the role of East Iranian languages, including Yaghnob, is very important,” Mirzozoda says.

The scientist clarified that the Yaghnob language is similar to Avestan. If the Avestan language is close to Middle Sogdian, then Yagnob belongs to the group of New-Sogdian languages.

– They are essentially all from the same root, but over the centuries, they have been divided into different branches, – Mirzozoda said.

The residents of the Yaghnob Valley consider their geographical position – high and impassable mountains – as one of the reasons for preserving the language. According to them, it was forced displacement that paved the way for the gradual disappearance of the language.

One Modern School, One Nurse and One Policeman

While visiting the Yaghnob Valley in 2011, the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon instructed to build a boarding school in Anzob village with a dormitory for Yaghnobi children so that they could continue their education after primary school (after grade 4). However, despite the fact that more than eight years have passed, the construction of the boarding school is still ongoing.

There is only one medical center with a single nurse in the whole valley. The first-aid post is located in the building of the branch of Tagi Chinor village school No. 30, the only modern school in the valley built in 2016.

Школа в ущелье Ягноб. Фото: CABAR.asia
The most modern school in the Yaghnob Valley. Photo: CABAR.asia

The office of a local policeman responsible for the whole valley is also in this building.

A Valley without a Mosque

According to Mahkamboi Aslamzod, a native of Yaghnob, all the inhabitants of the valley live according to the canons of Islam and are adherents of the traditional in Tajikistan Hanafi madhab.

Класс в самой современной школе №30 в ущелье Ягноб. Фото: CABAR.asia
Class in the most modern school No. 30 in Yaghnob Valley. Photo: CABAR.asia

In the abandoned village of Sokan, there is a holy place – the tomb of Hatti Mullah and his followers, which remains a place of pilgrimage for Yaghnobis up to this day.

Every year, many people from different parts of Tajikistan visit the Yaghnob Valley. Many foreign travelers come to these places as well. The travelers note the exceptional hospitality of the locals.

There Is No Limit on Electricity in Yaghnob

The valley’s electricity needs are fully covered by the small hydroelectric power stations, which all residents installed independently. Thanks to a satellite TV, residents are up to date with all the news.

According to the Boboi Inoyatullo, in 1996, a resident of Piskon village of Rahmathon used car parts to build a water wheel, with which he lit his house.

“Imitating him, the people built themselves a small hydroelectric station. Now you can find small water stations everywhere in Yagnob,” said Boboi Inoyatullo.

Yaghnobis Do Not Accept Daughters-In-Law and Grooms from Outside

Another curious peculiarity is that the Yaghnobis do not marry the residents of other regions of the country. Bobo Inoyatullo explains this by the fact that it will be difficult for relatives to visit each other.

“If such marriages happen, our girls or daughter-in-law from other places cannot live in new conditions. In the past, such situations could be counted on the fingers,” he said.

The weddings in Yaghnob, in contrast to other regions of Tajikistan, are less costly. Due to the absence of roads, the bride and groom, accompanied by melodies of doira (musical instrument – tr.) and vestibule, are transported on horses or donkeys.

Yaghnob-Styled Navruz and Other Holidays

Evening meal in the Yaghnob house: Photo: CABAR.asia

Navruz holiday in Yaghnob is called as “Sari Sol” (“beginning of the year”). The population of the shade-covered part of the Yaghnob Valley celebrates Navruz on March 10-12, and the population of the sunlit part – on March 17-18. At this time, the local national dishes such as ‘kochi’ (sumanak – paste made from germinated wheat – tr.), ‘dalda’ and ‘qashk’ are cooked here. Unlike other regions, the inhabitants of the valley share cooked dishes with neighbors and relatives in the evenings.

A distinctive holiday dish of the valley is ‘qashk’. As Aunt Umrimoh said, they cook meat and peeled wheat. Then they put half-raw food in pots, which they put on a slow fire. The qashk is ready in the morning. Until the morning, women mix the food with a special wooden stick – ‘tirak’ – so that the ingredients do not stick to the bottom. The guests are treated to a cooked dish in the morning.

Another distinctive dish of the area is ‘changoli’, made from warm flatbread and drawn butter. Cooking does not take much time and residents have long been eating this dish. In the morning, Yaghnobis treat guests with this dish.

“No matter how complicated life is in this valley, we will continue to live here and keep the light in the candle of the memories of our ancestors. This is our homeland, the place where we were born and our home. We will not leave it, ” grandfather Inoyatullo Atovulloev says poetically.

Having finished all business in Piskon village, we are leaving. The sky is bright and clear, a pleasant breeze blows. Having loaded our things on donkeys, we headed down the valley along a broken road.

On the way back, we saw Sughdmehr together with other children, he drove cattle. His mother was waiting for him with a bucket to milk the cow.

Boboi Inoyatullo returned to the bed of his sick grandson after seeing us off.

The life in Yaghnob valley continues the same way…

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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