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Central Asia > Tajikistan > Tajiks

Tajikistan officially the Republic of Tajikistan is a mountainous landlocked country in Central Asia. Afghanistan borders it to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, and People's Republic of China to the east. Tajikistan also lies adjacent to Pakistan's Chitral and the Gilgit-Baltistan region, separated by the narrow Wakhan Corridor.

Most of Tajikistan's population belongs to the Persian-speaking Tajik ethnic group, who share language, culture and history with Afghanistan and Iran. Once part of the Samanid Empire, Tajikistan became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, known as the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic (Tajik SSR). Mountains cover over 90% of this Central Asian republic. Tajikistan means the "Land of the Tajiks". The word Tajik was used by medieval Turks to refer to Iranian-speaking peoples. From the 11th century, the term referred to East Iranian people, but by the 15th century came to be applied to Persian speakers. In medieval Persian literature, Tajik appears as a synonym of "Persian". The territory of what is now Tajikistan has been inhabited continuously since 4000 BC. It has been under the rule of various empires throughout history, for the longest period being part of the Persian Empire. It was originally called Neb for a short period of time, before being given the name Tajikistan.

Ninety-three percent of Tajikistan is covered by stones.

High up in the mountainous North, in the Ayny district of Sugd, the ancient Sogdiana, is the mountain Navrouzgah, that is, a mountain designated the Navrous place. Since ancient times, as one of the locals told me, every year the local people knew the exact date of the spring equinox: on the day when the sun at dawn comes up between the two peaks of the mountain Navrouzgah, which has two humps like a camel.

The people of the village of Darg in the Ayny district consider themselves the descendants of Zoroastrians, worshippers of natural forces. Islam couldn’t eradicate the celebration of the rebirth of nature by a majority of mountain Tajiks on the arrival of spring. On March 21, villagers start plowing and sowing a small patch of land, to start the season's work, and the days in which to celebrate, wearing their multicolored new clothes.

By the day of Navrous, the aqsakal, or "white beards", respected village elders, get together to decide the distribution of duties among villagers for a proper celebration of Navrous. Normally several families, about 20 at least, are chosen to cook the sumalaq, a symbolic, festive Navrous meal. The Sumalaq is cooked for about 24 hours. Its ingredients are flour, water and germinated seeds.

The aqsakal also decide the amount of yarma needed for the entire population. Yarma is a hot food of meat, oil, crushed grain and onions; to feed the whole village and its guests, seven or eight kozon (big iron cauldrons holding about 200 liters) have to filled.

The elders also get the women to bring cookies and sweets for a communal dastarkhan ("tablecloth", literally). They work all day kneading and baking breads, kul’cha (small bread loaves with oil and milk), non-i-tandury (bread baked in a tandur oven), chaboty (round thin unleavened bread), then the different sweets with oil and nuts and seeds, like khalvo-i qandin, khalvo-i pashmin, khalvo-i safedaq. Other items are present too, like peshord (roasted pastry with drawn butter), non-i bakhalvo (a pie with halva), hudurky (bread baked on a stone), changoly (hudurky with drawn butter). The dry fruit is also a must, including apricots (guling), mulberry (tout) and raisins (kishmish). Fresh fruit, mostly apples and grapes, is also brought to the common meal.

The men play different games during the Navrous celebrations. These include mainly wrestling (gushting) and collective games like kila zané, a team game where sharpened javelins are thrown, Zou-zou yak, a peculiar race run while making a humming sound, or buzkashi, in which horsemen fight for a goat's carcass. Competition is not limited to men, though; girls will select a big tree to hang a cord on for a swing called "argunchak", and she who can swing higher wins.

As soon as the games end, all villagers are called to gather at a field to attend a symbolic plowing, marking the start of the peasant's work season. The communal meal follows, opening with yarma, the symbolic dish for Navrous.

Even though the Zoroastrian roots of the celebration are older than anything and the villagers are conscious of it, the more recent Muslim tradition has enforced the separation of public space for women and men. Men, allowed by their station in society, sit at the dastarkhan and eat, after the games' winners have been praised and thanks are given to God for allowing the people to survive. Women and children, on the other side, have their portion of Yarma delivered at home. Several families, though, will celebrate eating together at home rather than sending the men to the dastarkhan and music will be heard coming from their house.

The games go on for several days after the communal meal, moving from one neighborhood to the other. Agreements to have a game held in a given neighborhood are, by the same token, an invitation to the Navrous meal for the men of that neighborhood.

Occasionally a wedding will take place during the Navrous celebrations, and that means more fun and more dining for the villagers. This also holds for births. The child born on Navrous day will be called "Navrous" for a boy and "Navrousmo" for a girl. Those born on the eve, or soon after Navrous, will receive names that are different combinations of "Gul": Gulmahmad, Gulbek (boys); Gul'ru, Gulnoza, Gulyafshon (girls.)

In fact, each new day is also quite literally Navrous, "new day" for Tajiks. Every day they hope for a better future; they also hope to be better known and understood by the rest of the world, to share the beauties of their handicrafts, their colorful embroideries, their music and dances, and their easygoing tolerance.

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