Cultural Implications
Iraj Bashiri
copyright, Bashiri 2000

Socrates used the alleyways of Athens as a forum for his theoretical investigations into the nature of everyday human activities. To observe his subjects in natural circumstances, he buttonholed politicians, scientists, men of letters, and artists and put several simple questions to them. His main aim was to gauge his own knowledge of the world against the answers that his questions elicited from the popularly recognized savants of his age. More often than not he was disappointed at what he heard. After Socrates, his protege, Plato, carefully studied his master's findings and presented them in the form of a series of arguments, observations, and conclusions. The following on the interrelationship among imagery, belief, thought, and understanding is based on Plato's views deduced from the observations of Socrates.

Central Asian and Iran>
Understanding Peoples and Cultures

Plato observes that some human beings are fascinated by the world of images to the degree that they do not allow room for beliefs and thoughts, let alone understanding, to take root in their consciousness. Those photographers, cinematographers, painters, lovers of gardens, flowers, cars, and clothes who concern themselves primarily with the shapes and forms of objects belong to this category.

Some other individuals would rather sacrifice the enjoyment of pristine nature by forming beliefs and opinions about them. Here, simple comparison of images, so characteristic of the first group, gives way to weighted arguments leading to the establishment of categories. There is, however, no real authority to sanction beliefs. Each individual holds his or her opinion to be a measure of his or her own integrity and defends it.

Beyond belief, we enter the realm of thought where values are recognized according to common sense, where snobbery gives way to humility and individualism to conformity. Consequently, opinions espoused are grounded in analytical reasoning and culminate in commonly agreed upon principles. At this level the individual upholds not what he or she believes to be true but that which he or she is convinced to be the truth. Scientists and theoreticians belong to this group.

Finally, out of this latter group, a small select group emerges; the members of this group synthesize the relationships among the previous groups and introduce a degree of harmony and understanding. As the true leaders of society, they have the most comprehensive grasp of the culture of their society.

Understanding Americans and Tajiks

We can view a culture for its outward beauty, we can form an opinion about it on the basis of its ethnic background and we can judge it by the type of ideology it espouses. Our understanding of a culture, however, must be based on an assessment of its identity, i.e., all the elements that unite to present a viable cultural entity to the world. This identity comprises apparent cultural traits, overt and covert relations and interrelations among the constituents of the culture, strategies for creating harmony, mechanisms for conflict resolution, and an overall ability to inspire stability and forward thrust.

Compare, for instance, my trips to the Lowlands Valley near Lyons, Colorado, and Varzob Valley of Tajikistan. During my initial discovery of Lowlands Valley, I was totally overwhelmed by the similarity of the scenery between the two valleys. For a few minutes, I was truly transported altogether to the Varzob Valley of Tajikistan. For me, at those moments, Lowlands Valley was devoid of any cultural content. The best proof of this is that I spent over an hour taking pictures of the place simply to document the similarities that I was observing. Put differently, my understanding of Varzob, Tajikistan, had gained dominance over my low-level, image-oriented appreciation of Lowlands Valley.

The dominance of Varzob was because of my previous exposure to it first through Soviet propaganda and later due to my trips to the valley and recollection of good times there. I returned to Lyons, therefore, to see if I can develop a similar understanding of Lowlands Valley. I did. And it happened quite casually as I took time and walked by the creek. "No Trespassing," a sign said. The mere sign inspired in me a sense of deference and respect for rights and property totally different from the regional and territorial attachment to land on the basis of ethnic right as is the case with Varzob. Another sign announced, "This House for Sale." Again the sign emphasized mobility and a lack of attachment to a particular plot of land or district or town or state; something unthinkable for most Tajiks. Even the most educated among among the Tajiks cringes at the thought of being away from Dushanbe and Varzob for a length of time as short as a week.

When traveling in the National Park, we could go as far into the Rockies as we wanted; in fact, we could go to Utah, California, you name it. In Varzob, I did not feel that I had such an open space in front of me. To begin with, the Anzob pass is a formidable geographic obstacle, one that not many cars or buses can negotiate with ease. Then there are the Tajik insurgents who populate that part of the republic and are centered on Romit. The gorge is closed most of the time so that authorities can regulate the traffic in the region.

Gradually the images that I had been dazzled with began to take a somewhat different shape. They formed the basis of my growing belief that I was in a more secure place and a in a more free environment than I had imagined myself to be. In other words, I began to see Lowlands Valley as the home of a free and enterprising people who does not take refuge in regionalism to sustain its existence. I was traveling without fear of someone jumping out from behind the next rock and rob or kill me.

It is not my intention here to analyze the full import of the events outlined but to make a point. There is no real correct way of appreciating a culture in the same way that there is no unitary entity that can be called a culture. It all depends on people and their interests at a given time. Some are happy with merely watching different costumes, dances, rituals, and ceremonies. A visit to the teahouse or a look at the photos in this study would satisfy their curiosity. Others might want to know more so that they can comfortably place the Tajiks somewhere on their invisible belief spectrum of the peoples of the world. Talking to the people in the teahouse over tea and casually questioning those who might know about the Tajiks and their culture would satisfy their needs. The harder group to satisfy comprises those who seek food for thought. They want concrete information on Tajiks so that they can go into business with them, exchange personnel, guide them in the ways of democracy, and the like. They need materials on Islam, Communism, Sufism, and the like as well as on ethnicity, regional relations, and nuclear capability. Fortunately, since the fall of the Soviet union, there has been an abundance of materials on these subjects both in Tajiki and in English. A good portion of the English materials is available online.

Tajiks relate to their culture not so much in terms of capital investment, rule of law and individual rights, although they talk about these aspects as eloquently as anyone else, but through a complex maze of ancestral lore, advice, guidelines for proper behavior, ground rules for social interaction, and the like. All these are encoded in couplets (bayts) of verses that have come to them from Rudaki, Farrukhi, Firdowsi, Khayyam, Hafiz, Sa'di and many other sages of medieval times. Every couplet, every stanza, every sonnet or ode or epic has its own message and is used extensively by the people, almost daily, as measure for gauging the knowledge, worldview, and understanding of those they come into contact with.

Without understanding the intricacies of Tajik literature, it would be impossible to understand the values according to which Tajiks encode their cultural messages. And without an understanding of those messages, it would impossible to react or properly reciprocate their actions. Consider, for instance, their incorporation of Nizami's thoughts on the subjects of internationalism, need for mutual trust and cooperation and, indeed, of generosity and openness into a forum that by necessity finds itself at the crossroads of civilizations, a teahouse. Teahouses are, as far as the Tajiks are concerned, where discussion and appreciation of life's fundamentals occur. Within the structure of the teahouse are incorporated some of the most potent symbols of Tajik culture, like the Persian garden, a reminder of Paradise, the number seven, Sufic flights of fancy, and expressions of unity in multiplicity. Each of these facets is a gate to a set of values nearest and dearest to the hearts and minds of the Tajiks.

The Tajiks have been, are, and will continue to be the promoters of peace, love, civil society, urbanism, and coexistence in Central Asia. With their gift of a teahouse, a synthetic symbol of their most cherished values, they have extended their reach beyond the oceans for understanding and cooperation. Their hope is that the people of the United States would allow Tajik culture to grow on their soil with the same type of understanding and support that Prince Bahram received at the court of the Yemenite king Nu'man. They further hope that their gift of a teahouse would grow in the United States, as did Bahram in Yemen, and that it would be returned with a hallmark of American culture, whatever that might be, reflecting American generosity.

A Worthy gift for Dushanbe?

When I was in Boulder, the main subject of our discussion was the $5,000,000 gift that the Tajiks had bestowed on their sister city. We wondered what the Boulderites could contribute to the enhancement of the culture of the Tajiks. We were looking for something with similar portent in space and time as the teahouse. My advice at the time was that it should not be something that can easily be taken over by individuals or groups, especially during hard times and that it should be something representative of American values. Others were of the opinion that it should be that but they did not feel that they should feel responsible for the permanence of the gift. That's something that the Tajiks should work out among themselves, they thought. Our obligation is to reciprocate their gift.

Since that discussion, and while writing the article, I have come to an idea; maybe a traditional American courthouse would be an appropriate gift for Dushanbe. A chamber, built on the model of early American courthouses using Colorado masonry. The Tajiks have advocated tradition, why should not we reciprocate with our most sublime ideal, democracy? Would not a traditional American courthouse showcase our genuine and heart-felt dedication to bringing democracy to Central Asia?

Top of the page

Home | Tajikistan Update