Iconic Places in Central Asia. The Moral Geography of Dams, Pastures and Holy Sites explained by Jeanne Féaux de la Croix


Dr. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix

Dr. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix is a social anthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany. She specializes in environmental issues and development in Central Asia. Together with colleagues in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, she leads research on the “social life” of the Naryn and Syr Darya rivers.

Dr. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix currently leads a number of projects researching environmental anthropology and cultural history of Central Asia at the University of Tübingen, Germany. During her travels in Central Asia, she discovered special relations between people and places: people value the places as icons of hopes and values.

What exactly do you mean by “moral geographies”? Is that your own term?

Geographers have long talked about “moral geographies” in different ways. I use this idea to describe places that people in the Toktogul valley find precious: their holy sites (mazars), the huge Soviet hydropower dam, and mountain pastures (jailoos). They are precious not only because they produce electricity or fat sheep for people, but also because they are icons of hopes and values. Toktogul citizens can, for example, feel proud of a very old way of life on jailoos while simultaneously feeling proud of being modern citizens with access to hydropower, for which there were many sacrifices of land and labor. I argue that people in Toktogul are able to interact with these different places in radically different ways: it is no problem to treat a mazar almost like a person that can really respond to you, but the dam reservoir purely as a resource, a passive thing to be used and manipulated. This kind of flexibility is actually quite common among humans, but we have trouble understanding it, because we tend to think that humans have one complete and closed worldview—for example, that of a “nomad,” “capitalist,” or particular kind of “Muslim”. What I do in the book is show how people use each of these places to feed their bellies and dreams, as beacons of hope. They move between these places to secure their individual and collective survival, with all the tensions and conflicts that belong to social life.

Examining archival photos of Toktogul dam with a former dam worker

What is so interesting about the Kyrgyz “moral geography”?

It is fascinating that places like mazars have the power to inspire quite different kinds of behavior and ways of thinking than a mazar visitor perhaps engaged in the night before (in, say, an urban café). It is as if iconic places like these allow us to switch between different modes of being human. Not everyone does this in the same way, of course: some people reject mazar visits completely or reject the Soviet heritage completely. Despite many everyday injustices and much suffering, Central Asians are lucky, in some ways, that they have access to such a “flexible” landscape.

We spend most of our time focusing on the myriad problems and stories of decline or new threats, but I wanted to tell the equally true story of resilience: how people take pleasure in places and express their enjoyment and appreciation of beauty in poetry and song. I discovered an aesthetic of places that is not only about seeing, but is also, to a significant extent, about invoking a place in praise poetry, in song—something that is acted out through different kinds of work or events like a pilgrimage. So my book looks both at the struggles of living as a livestock herder or in a run-down dam-workers’ town and at what keeps people going—where they find dreams of a good life—whether they work as a daughter-in-law or a taxi driver.

Toktogul reservoir in March 2009

While leading a nomadic life, people in Central Asia had particularly close relations with nature. Do you see it in modern life? Is there anything that suggests a revival of or appreciation for that past lifestyle?

This is a complicated question. Because nomads are so idealized (and sometimes hated), I prefer to talk today about mobile herders. There are many ideas about nomads that have to do with a dream of a “golden past” when everything was harmonious and balanced. It is true that Soviet and capitalist ways of seeing nature purely as a resource that we can exploit at will have had more disastrous consequences than any other way of life we know. Like their ancestors, indigenous Central Asians rarely think of “nature” as something separate, but rather understand themselves in a world full of all sorts of powerful forces. That means that “nature” is not always “nice”—if you can, you might seek to kill some of those dangers (e.g. elephants that threaten your crops). I think many Central Asians and people around the world are attracted to the idea of “harmony with nature” because we know that the world is much more than a pile of resources. In Iconic Places, I discuss how pastures are treated in all sorts of government and NGO planning exercises. In these documents and policies, jailoos are nothing but spaces that can feed X number of cattle and people. But to people using (or even just dreaming about) jailoos, they also signify beauty, a home and even a refuge when the next wave of radical economic or social change comes. I argue that the idea of jailoos as “eternal” is one reason why jailoo users may find it hard to recognize whether they are badly damaged. It is also important to note that not every Kyrgyzstani citizen has access to this imagined home: these places are thought of as the property of ethnic Kyrgyz, even if the history of their use and settlement is much more complicated.

A spontaneous visit to a mazar dedicated to Cholpon Ata, the keeper/guardian of sheep

How do you analyze the Soviet and post-Soviet periods in this context?

The most interesting question is how Central Asian citizens themselves think and talk about the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. What is striking is that these two “blocks” are often used as the basis for judging governments and even people: sovietskii chelovek can be a compliment or a derisive remark. I found that people rarely differentiate between the 1950s and the 1980s, despite how very different life was at these times. This is because the comparison between Soviet and post-Soviet life is often really a way of discussing what life should be like—and how people and governments should act. In my book, I discuss other ways of dealing with history, for example how Central Asian ideas about heroes mesh fairly well with ideas of Soviet leadership and values. I found that change in Toktogul was often described as a massive weather system passing through, caused by excellent or terrible leaders. I also describe people’s techniques for remembering what they want to hold on to, and how they manage their collective forgetting.

Snow receding from Bel Aldy village

You have worked a lot on the water question in Central Asia. As Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan contemplate adding to their dams, what effect might this have on the region? How do you see water in people’s attitude and relations? Can a water deficit produce conflict, and is there a breeding ground for such conflict already?

People can fight about anything, given the right amount of tension. It is not scarcity itself that creates violent conflict over any resource. It is true that global projections of climate change and discussion of a dwindling fresh water reserve amid an exponentially growing population have fed concerns about “water wars” in the region. But apart from some very specific “hot spots” of scarcity, there really is enough water for everyone in the region. There are far drier areas in the world that manage their water fairly successfully. More often, the problem is one of fair distribution. And there is also the problem that the existing water infrastructure is extremely leaky. It is quite common for 40 percent of the water a concrete canal is carrying to leak away before it reaches any fields or households.

A skilled woman works on felts for a herding shelter

Unless you are actually trying to host lots of people in an extreme desert, whether we think water is “scarce” is a matter of how we use it: cotton, for example, needs X times more water than wheat. Worldwide, we know of only a very few violent conflicts in which water scarcity was the primary cause. There are indeed conflicts between different groups, particularly between neighboring villages in the Ferghana Valley, over access to drinking and irrigation water. But from the Soviet and pre-Soviet periods, we know that while water access was always precious and occasionally conflictual, there were workable methods and recognized sources of local authority—such as the mirob in each village—charged with dealing with such conflicts. While they probably rarely guaranteed complete “fairness” between more or less wealthy and influential families/villages, these disputes hardly ever led to more widespread or violent conflict. This is because people had other ties with each other, such as marriages and trading partnerships. The real trouble starts when upriver and downriver communities (and states) no longer have any such “extra” ties and their communication and inter-dependence is reduced to such things as the water supply. That is when the question who gets how many cubic kilometers of water becomes a zero-sum game in which there can only be a clear winner and a clear loser, prompting people to try and simply safeguard what they have. Where there are very serious water conflicts in Central Asia, there are always other factors driving the dispute, for example strong nationalist feelings or difficulties created by complicated and militarized borders.

Celebrating the May holidays by the river

The title of your book is appealing to tourists. What is your honest opinion of tourism in the region? What attracts foreigners and how do locals view this foreign interest?

I would be very happy if travelers to Central Asia read Iconic Places. Except for the special section on theory, I really tried to write it in a way that any reader could enjoy. We see different kinds of people coming to Central Asia. There are big hotels in cities along the Silk Road and on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. There are yurt camps in the mountains and deserts where people want to ride horses or camels. There are people interested in meeting Central Asians and curious about such things as plov or the spectacular architecture of Soviet-era Tashkent. And then, just like anywhere else in the world, there are people who just want a cheap place to swim and rest away from their lives at home. I have heard some shocking stories of backpackers taking advantage of Central Asian hosts and their understanding of generous hospitality: this is often a real misunderstanding of expectations and politeness between hosts and guests. There is a good saying that I often tell my students: “Exoticism is the excuse you may need to get to know people.” If people have stereotypical ideas of a region, at least if they visit there is the possibility to actually meet people and be proved wrong—or to find something much more interesting than “pure nomads” or “oriental bazaars.”

All photos by
Jeanne Féaux de la Croix

Marat Kuhm

Climbing toward the highest pastures, above a tiered landscape with reservoir, agriculture and holy sites

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