It was on 11 September 2002, the first anniversary of the 9/11 that I travelled for the first time to Central Asia.
It was a conference in Tajikistan which had become independent in September 1991 from Soviet Russia.
Entitled as ‘The First Biennial Convention of Association for the Study of Pcrsianate Societies (ASPS)’ it was scheduled to take place in Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan between 15—18 September, 2002.
This conference was to be held with the cooperation of the Academy of Science of the Republic of Tajikistan, the Rudaki Institute of Language and Literature, and the National Commission ofUNESCO, Tajikistan. Over 60 participants from Armenia, China, India, Iran, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan ultimately presented papers covering a broad range of topics that included folklore and oral studies, pro-Islamic culture, literature, Sufism, social change and cultural development, economic history, historiography, modernity and its challenges, historical linguistics, and art and architecture.
There was a team of around half a dozen scholars who were supposed to attend from India: Professor Azhar Dehlavi, Professor Azarmi Dukht, Professor Ishtiyaq A Zilli, Dr Najaf Haider, Dr I G Khan, Dr Muhammad Sharfe Alam and Dr Asif Naeem Siddiqui. Then there were scholars from US, UK, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan etc
Programme Brochure for the Conference
During that period there was no direct flight to Dushanbe. We had two options: either go via Moscow or via Tehran. In fact from Tehran too there was only one flight per week! The flight we chose was an Emirates flight to Dubai and then to Tehran. At Tehran we had a stay of two days before heading to Dushanbe.
I remember two or three things about our journey to Tehran via Dubai. We were flying on the exact anniversary of 9/11. We expected much security checks, and our expectations were not belied! I remember that after I had checked in and handed over my suitcase, I committed the mistake of calling out Professor Zilli who was wearing a Sherwani and sported a beard. Soon after, both of us were summoned, taken to a cordoned off area, asked to identify our respective suitcases which then we were asked to open for a check! Later poor Zilli Sahib had to remark that when we would reach Iran, no one would pester him! He was to regret his words on landing! At Mehrabad Airport the poor man had to face intense checking once again while I, along with others were spared the ordeal! However what we found unique was that most of the airport counters were occupied by Iranian girls!
At Tehran we were taken good care of. We were lodged in the Guest House of Danishgāh-i Noor, an Open University in Tehran. I can never forget the Iranian breakfast comprising of many types of breads, specially nān-i sangīn, the jams and spreads and the roasted meats! And the constant flow of black-golden tea accompanied by snacks. I still remember that almost all tv channels had a Mulla or two giving religious sermons!
On the night of the second day we boarded the flight to Dushanbe! Oh what a craft it was! It’s seats would fold in the front and as dirty as any rickety Indian Roadways Bus! As we boarded, a woman who appeared bulky, all wrapped up in chador came and sat beside me. She to me appeared a middle aged but hey presto! As soon as it was announced that we had left behind Iran and were flying over Trans Oxiana, the Māwrā un Nahr, the region of river Oxus, she started shedding her layers of coverings, and soon I discovered a very modern young Iranian girl sitting next to me!
Being a day flight, we encountered some enchanting views from the windows: the multi coloured rugged hills, and the river which played a great role in shaping the history of this region! The river Oxus, known as Amu Daryā, demarcates the Iranian lands from Central Asia! And it was a marvel to see the meandering river from my window seat!
Reception at Dushanbe
Our arrival at Dushanbe Airport was quite dramatic. The plane was still taxiing when an announcement was made that we were supposed to cooperate with the Tajik security. When the door was opened, in came a stern looking officer with a Russian military cap. He barked at us to come in a cue with our passports in hand. As each of us passed by him out of the aircraft and ascended to the tarmac, our passports were whipped off our hands. On getting down we saw just an airfield with a high security wall pierced by a locked iron gate. No building no structure, just a tree besides the gate. All around on three sides we could see nothing but the mountain ranges, on the fourth was this menacing wall.
We were made to stand for almost an hour near the tree. And then with a clang the gate opened. Out marched a number of sombre looking officers. We are asked to fall in a line and await our name to be called. As each name was called, the person called had to approach the officers who would look at his face, then the photo on the passport before handing it back. With passports in hand one had to pass on beyond the iron gate.
Once outside the gate, we encountered two shed which probably were the airport buildings: the new airport building which now stands there was yet to be built.
Actually we had no clue where to head. From where would we get our luggage? We enquired from a solitary old man who appeared before us and he pointed to the shed at some distance. We all trudged there, and were met by another set of security who after checking our tags handed our luggage to us. As we came out, by now our hosts had arrived with a spectacular Red Volvo Bus which took us to our hotel.
The Hotel Tajikistan where we were lodged was a 4-star hotel and built in 1975 and reconstructed in 2002. The renovations were on when we reached there. Half of it was at that moment occupied by the US marines and allied forces which had be to sent in the region to fight against Bin Laden and his Talibans in the War against Terror. One of my distinct memories of this hotel is bumping into American marines whenever we would come out to the lounge or the dinning areas of the hotel.
The floor on which we from India were given accommodation was quite luxurious but some peculiarities were observable: As we entered to occupy our respective rooms, the hotel girl who accompanied, switched on the tv, tuned in to a porn channel and smilingly announced, if we needed live room service, she and others were available, of course on charges! And yes she would accept Indian currency! Of course she knew we came from the land of Amitabh Bachchan! Some of the people who had accompanied us on this trip were quite mortified!
The Central Asian food on offer was spectacular. It was on the breakfast table the first day itself I realised the cravings of Babar for the water melons and musk melons of Central Asia! Never in my life had I tasted such sweet and tasty melons before! Not even in Iran!
The City and its Sites
Two or three other things worth mentioning about Tajikistan of those days were that though reeling in economic problems and political unrest, you could never find a beggar on the streets; every citizen had a roof over his / her head; and all schools, whether in the capital or in the suburb, had the same kind of uniform! The roads were wide and lined with beautiful trees. One of the most beautiful roads I remember was the Rudaki Street.
Covered markets with their dry fruit sellers and vegetable merchants with their merchandise spread on the floors, the spic n span meat sellers shops selling all type of meats, from pork to chicken, fresh and frozen, and clean roads are all still fresh in my memories: they were such a contrast from my own town markets those days!
But one thing which gave out that we were in a dictatorship with severe controls over personal liberties was the fact that telecommunications was under strict control. There were no unmanned phone booths, and if you had to make a call, all sorts of details were to be given to the officers manning the booth, and tolerate there listening to your conversation through the call! To make an international call, you had to register and then wait for ages to get through.
But then these suffocations were lessened by the sights this small country offered!
Of special notice for me was the fact that their schools had a similar uniform, whether they were situated in a city or a village, and each citizen had a proper house to be sheltered in. I found not a single person sleeping on the roadside with out a roof on his / her head. Probably this was reminiscent of their Soviet past!
And how can one forget the massive and grand monument raised to commemorate Ismail Somoni!
The Mini India at the Museum
Another place which I remember visiting was the State Museum of Archaeology! As one enters it, one forgets that you are in Central Asia! Buddha images, idols of gods and goddesses, bodhisatvas and the remains of chaityas and viharas abound! After all it was this place where Buddhism had spread and it were these images of Buddha, which provided the name but (from Budh) for all idols!
The Plight of Islam
On the final day we had a grand banquet in which wine flowed like water! One of my senior colleagues from Aligarh, after observing, adviced that we should sit next to the Imām-i Juma of Dushanbe, for that way we would be safe from wine! How was he to know that the most wine which flowed was on that table! The Tajik grand Mulla turned to my colleague to enquire: “Agha shuma musalmān nīst? Chera sharāb na khurī“, Sir are you not a Muslim? Why are you not drinking? You can imagine the look on our man’s face! How he survived that I don’t know!
Yet another episode I remember was going into a glass paned shop selling varieties of meat. One of my accompanying colleague was fascinated by a beautifully laid out tray of pork: as he was trying to read what it was, the meat seller said: “Agha īn halāl ast!”
Trip to Hisor
During our stay in Dushanbe we were also taken for a day trip to a site of an old city Hisor. It has the ruins of a fort, a madrasah and a few tombs. This ancient city was once an independent Khanate, and then the winter residence of the governor of East Bukhara. The large fort situated on a hill above the city is said to date back to Cyrus the Great and to have been captured twenty one times.
Just in front of the gate of the fort, below the hill is the madrasah which has since been converted into a museum. What hit me straight was that the architecture and the ground plan of this madrasa is such that it instantly reminded me of a carbon copy of it at Thanesar in India, the Madrasa of Shaikh Chilli!
Behind the madrasah are two tombs which are said to belong to some Naqshbandi saints, whose names I now forget.
The Site of Miracle of Imam Ali
Just in front of the gate of the fort, is a square platform with a tree and a spring. We were told that they were Shajar-i AliSher and Chashma-i Ali Sher. Today a hujra (chamber) has been constructed there.
Initially I thought that this place has something to do with the great poet, Ali Sher Navoi. But later realised, Ali Sher was none else than Imam Ali! A local Tajik told us that Imam Ali once appeared here, rested at the spot where the platform is, and kicked the ground when he was in need of water. Where he struck a spring came forth. He is also said to have plucked fruits from the tree growing nearby!
Thus what I saw in 2002 was that people come to this spot, take off their shoes, go to the spring, drink it’s water, apply it on their face, munch a leaf or two of this plant and pray for their wishes to be fulfilled!
It was a real surprise to find a miraculous spot of Ali in the land of Naqshbandis! Naqshbandis are the only silsila (chain of sufis) who do not claim their origin from Imam Ali.
What I found interesting was that people go to the tomb of Naqshbandi saints situated nearby wearing shoes, but take them off before climbing on the platform popularly known as “Shajar Ali Sher” where as per the myth Imam Ali appeared!