Till Mostowlansky is intrigued by the anthropological study of routes, roads and pathways, and the anthropology of infrastructure more generally. This research interest frames his latest monograph, Azan on the Moon: Entangling Modernity along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway (University of Pittsburgh Press 2017).
Constructed in the 1930s in rugged high altitude terrain, the Pamir Highway fundamentally altered the material and social fabric of this former Soviet outpost on the border with Afghanistan and China. The highway initially brought sentiments of disconnection and hardship, followed by Soviet modernization and development, and ultimately a sense of distinction from bordering countries and urban centers that continues to this day. But in the wake of China’s rise in Central Asia, people along the Pamir Highway may reconcile a modern future with a modern past. Weaving together the road, a population, and a region, Azan on the Moon presents a rich ethnography of global connections.
Till Mostowlansky is a post-doctoral researcher at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of Hong Kong. He completed his PhD at the University of Bern in Switzerland. He lectured at the University of Bern and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.
Your book has a great title, and you open and conclude the book with how you arrived at that name. Can you say a little about that?
The short answer is that I often met with my informants on the streets of Murghab: we sat on the benches in front of their houses or strolled through the bazaar. During prayer time, especially toward the evening when the azan (the Islamic call for prayer) emerged from the main mosque, the landscape looked both serene and surreal. I say surreal because the environment of the eastern Pamirs is very barren and dry, almost lunar. Some of my informants would then tell me jokes about them living on the moon — far away, yet somehow still connected with the rest of humankind.
The longer answer is captured in the ethnographic vignette I present at the very beginning of the book. In my fieldwork, I came across a range of Islamic conversion narratives, which are published in popular booklets and more recently have been shared via mobile phone. One of these narratives argues that the American astronaut Neil Armstrong—the first man on the moon—converted to Islam after he realized that he had heard the azan when he stepped on the moon. For my informants, this narrative resonated wonderfully with their own lunar landscape and the rise of public performances of piety along the Pamir Highway. Many people in the region have also been socialized into a world of technology; they are mechanics, engineers, and road constructors. They were drawn to the idea that the finest modern technology, which had allowed humans to fly to the moon, would eventually lead to God.
One interesting aspect of your book is the rich linguistical diversity along the Pamir Highway. How did you navigate this diversity as a researcher? What advice would you give other researchers who work in Central Asia as they encounter linguistical variations in their work?
I entered the field with around seven years of language training in Russian, five in Kyrgyz, and three in Persian/Tajik. In this sense, I got lucky: these three languages are all important for research along the Pamir Highway. However, there are plenty more languages spoken in the region, of which the Pamir languages—Shughni, Bartangim, and Wakhi—are most important in everyday life. While I obtained a passive command of Shughni during my time in the field, it is also clear that no researcher—not even a local one—would ever be able to understand every single conversation.
In the beginning, I felt a lot of pressure when encountering situations in which I could not follow an interaction. I gradually came to understand that this is a normal part of everyday life in the region. Many Kyrgyz have little to no command of Tajik, or even of Pamir languages; Pamiris are often unable to speak Kyrgyz. Shughni speakers often do not understand interactions in Wakhi, and a Tajik from Dushanbe might feel like a stranger in Murghab. My advice is to embrace this diversity, to try one’s best to learn to understand local interactions, and to give up ideas of linguistic purity. Conversations along the Pamir Highway are wonderful examples of lived multilingualism.
As researchers, we go into the field with research questions, but those questions shift and change over the course of our work. What questions did you originally seek to answer, and how did those questions shift?
Indeed, my research questions usually change a lot during fieldwork. If they didn’t, I would suspect I wasn’t not doing proper research. At the very beginning of my fieldwork, in 2008, I was a bit hesitant to acknowledge that, but one of the merits of anthropological fieldwork is its capacity to fundamentally uproot the researcher. I vaguely remember having written a dissertation proposal about ethnic and religious difference. Having spent a long time in thin air along the Pamir Highway, I forgot about this angle, as it didn’t seem like an appropriate way to think about people’s lives there. For my informants, road conditions, infrastructure, access to state services, how to live a good life, and the future of their children were much more important. My informants’ discourse on these themes led them to reason about ethnicity and religion, thus I have also included this element in the book.
Looking back, I think that my initial questions were not irrelevant, but they were not the questions people themselves asked. Ironically, through listening to their questions and concerns, I got statements on issues that I had previously discarded. I don’t see anthropological research as necessarily leading to straightforward, linear results. To me, it’s about finding the right entry into the maze of everyday life and trying to give the reader a sense of that search.
Identity along the Pamir Highway is linked to ethnicity, religion, and language. How does multiplicity of identity play out in everyday life?
I would even go a step further and argue that identity along the Pamir Highway is linked to ethnicity, religion, and language—but it is also linked to gender, place, modernity, generational issues, socio-economic situation, political orientation, and so forth. In my book, I try to look closely at the different factors through which people enact identity. There is no doubt that questions of ethnicity, religion, and language are important to understanding Central Asian societies, but these factors have also sometimes become default positions through which researchers and journalists tend to perceive the region. This is not particularly surprising, given that people in Central Asia often highlight these questions in their self-representations.
The point that I make in the book is that these self-representations matter a lot, but that it is also important to acknowledge the complexity of everyday life, in which a Kyrgyz is not always a Kyrgyz, a Tajik is not always a Tajik, and “being Muslim” is influenced by many factors we do not conventionally associate with religion.
To give you two examples from my fieldwork: the situation of Pamir language speakers who are Ismaili Muslims in Tajikistan is incredibly complex. While they are often stigmatized outside the Pamirs for being linguistic and religious “others,” my informants’ identity as Tajiks could become very important during trips to Kyrgyzstan. For instance, an elderly Pamiri lady would explain to people in Kyrgyzstan that the “original” Tajiks came from the Pamirs and that she was more Tajik than Tajiks in Dushanbe, whom she thought were closer to Uzbeks. It is important to note that this lady’s language skills do not include Tajik and that she speaks mostly Russian when she is outside the Pamirs.
A second example concerns internal diversity along the Pamir Highway. A good friend of mine, a Shughni-speaking Pamiri who grew up in Dushanbe, told me how as a young man in the capital he and his street gang would specifically beat up non-Pamiri people. One day, when they encountered a group of Kyrgyz walking down the street, they got ready to give them a proper hiding. Just before they could start, one of the Kyrgyz said, in fluent Shughni, “Hey, brother, we’re from the Pamirs.” My friend and his gang were completely startled, shook hands with the Kyrgyz, and bought them pirozhki.
You discuss how marginalization and modernity are not dichotomous. Why is this important?
Debates about modernity are frequently informed by the assumption that modern places and people can be found in proximity to urban centers, economic hubs, and seats of political power. This is the case for debates in the West, but also increasingly in Asia and the Middle East, where the accumulation of wealth has given rise to new ideas of the city. If one operates with an institutional definition of modernity that foregrounds capitalism, I see why one would choose that path.
The question is: what about all the historical and contemporary settings that we need to ignore to make this definition work? In my book, I choose an approach to modernity that seeks to avoid such hidden a priori assumptions. I follow sociologist Göran Therborn, who suggests looking at modernity as consisting of time orientations that are expressed in specific social settings. These time orientations surface in intersecting and competing master narratives and through social forces, which form entanglements that can be locally specific, but which are often also linked to global processes.
People in the region look back at the large-scale modernization projects of the Soviet Union, of which the highway itself is an example.
They also look back at state-provisioning and services that framed their everyday lives, and a political discourse that depicted them as an integral part of a whole and as modern citizens of the Soviet Union. In contrast, contemporary life along the highway is marked by a sense of being on the margins of the state, not only territorially, but also politically and socially. At the same time, different actors—NGOs, religious reformists, nationalists, local scholars—offer a range of promises to people along the Pamir Highway: to reconnect them to a modern past, to leave the past behind and join a bright future, or to strive toward a modernity perfected by tradition. All these processes happen within a context of marginality, that is, amid ongoing processes of economic and political exclusion.
You discuss the significance of the Aga Khan. What importance have you seen the Aga Khan and the Aga Khan Foundation play in development and spirituality in the area?
The Aga Khan and the institutions that are chaired by him are hugely influential in much of the Pamirs. The majority of people in the Pamirs are Ismaili Muslims, which is a sub-branch of Shia Islam, and the Aga Khan is the contemporary Ismaili Imam, part of a long line of succession leading back to the Prophet Muhammad.
There is a lengthy history of Ismailism in the region that also includes people in the border territories of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan
As research on Ismailism shows, there is a lengthy history of Ismailism in the region that also includes people in the border territories of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. This history involves interactions with Ismaili Imams in Bombay and their envoys dating back to pre-Soviet times. Unsurprisingly, the Soviets had no interest in allowing interaction with a spiritual leader loyal to the British Empire. Then, in 1992, a bloody civil war broke out in Tajikistan and the Pamirs were on the brink of a famine. The region had largely been dependent on supplies from the outside during the Soviet era, and while the international community was busy with the war in the former Yugoslavia, the Aga Khan Foundation stepped in with a large-scale humanitarian intervention. There were international partners involved in this intervention, but to this day many people in the Pamirs attribute their survival to the work of the Aga Khan institutions. After the initial humanitarian crisis was under control, development projects followed, as well as a religious administration that linked the Pamirs to larger Ismaili networks in Asia, Africa and the West.
Early on, Aga Khan institutions took over a series of functions that the Soviet state had previously performed. For instance, Khorog’s electricity is supplied by a company that was founded in the context of these development projects, high-quality education is largely the domain of Aga Khan institutions, and even the region’s only high-end hotel is part of that complex. Access to transnational religious institutions brought Pamiris into closer contact with their Imam, while also putting them into the orbit of centralized institutions that seek to administer and streamline religious practices, for instance prayers and marriage ceremonies. The vast majority of Ismaili people whom I encountered support these institutions. However, it should also be mentioned that there are critical voices who see them as a threat to local practices and as too bureaucratic to serve common people. Then again, in the eastern Pamirs, on which I focus in my book, the majority of people are not Ismaili and the Aga Khan institutions’ investments and influence visibly thin out.
While doing research, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
I have always been genuinely touched by the degree of love and pride that people from the Pamirs’ high-altitude places express for their homeland. Despite all the difficulties and disadvantages they face at home, many of my informants long for the serenity and quiet of the region when away. It’s beautiful to observe, and it counters the idea that people would take the first opportunity to leave, which is quite often repeated in media coverage on the region. This attachment to the land is also reflected in a great love for Murghabi food, a diet consisting mainly of carbs, fats, and meat, which made me occasionally fall asleep during interviews. It takes outstanding strength to digest and talk in thin air at the same time. I also fondly remember the moment when I asked a Murghabi friend who had traveled abroad what she missed the most. Despite having been offered the finest European cuisine and Indian curries, she replied “shorpo”—soup with a usually chewy piece of meat and a lone potato.
What are you working on now?
In 2012, after a decade of fieldwork in the mountains of Central Asia, I began to pursue fieldwork in Pakistan. However, I soon found out that northern Pakistan is definitely part of Central Asia, culturally and in terms of culinary practices. There are plenty of under-researched historical and contemporary connections between the Tajik Pamirs and what can be vaguely described as “Greater Badakhshan,” which includes parts of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. In my ongoing research project, I look at these connections through the prism of the charitable and development institutions that have emerged from Muslim networks over the course of the twentieth century. The Aga Khan Development Network, which I mentioned earlier, is one of them, but there are also a range of Twelver Shia institutions that have shaped social and physical landscapes in the region through infrastructure investments, healthcare projects, and educational mobility.
Everybody talks about how Chinese investments are going to change the region. With my project, I would like to challenge this quite pervasive and future-oriented master narrative. There is a longer social history to all this, and I plan to write about how mostly unknown institutions and individuals have long linked this area on the fringes of Central and South Asia with other places in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
How did you come to Central Asian studies and decide to study the Pamir region?
As a teenager, I was fascinated by the work of Swiss author and journalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach, who traveled extensively through parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran in the first half of the twentieth century. While her writing influenced me, by the time I had to decide what to study I wasn’t really thinking about her books. So, as often happens in life, all things Central Asian came to me in a series of fortunate events. As an undergraduate student in Vienna in the early 2000s, I studied Russian and became interested in Russian-speaking places outside Russia. I met a young ethnic German from Bishkek at a conference who invited me to Kyrgyzstan, and I decided to improve my Russian there. Soon afterward, I found myself joining a Kyrgyz class, and back in Vienna I was able formalize this combination at the Institute of Oriental Studies, where Persian was part of the package.
My interest in the Pamirs is a different—but not unrelated—story. During my studies in Vienna, I read about the Kyrgyz of the eastern Pamirs and thought this might be a good topic for research. After completing my studies, I had the opportunity to work for a project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Tajikistan in 2007–2008. Living in Tajikistan enabled me to travel to the Pamirs, where I was lucky enough to meet different people from the region, who offered me insight into the complexity of the Pamirs long before I decided to pursue a PhD. I’m still profoundly happy with this pathway. The people and places of the Pamirs are an integral part of my day-to-day life, and even when I am not in the field I interact with them very frequently.
Marintha Miles is a PhD student at George Mason University, where she researches the intersections between society, politics, and religion in Tajikistan. She previously earned a MA in Anthropology from George Washington University.
All photos by Till Mostowlansky