New East Digital Archive

Anisa Sabiri’s photographs capture the unrushed cadences of life in Tajikistan. As an emigre, returning to a more relaxed pace can be a difficult but fulfilling challenge, writes Sher Khashimov.

31 January 2022

In June of 2020, after the coronavirus-related border closures turned my two-week trip to Tajikistan into a six-month stay, I led a small group of American and German friends through the Fann mountains — a cluster of a hundred snow-capped peaks that stretches across the west of the country. On the third day of the trek, as we headed towards the Mura mountain pass, we met a shepherd at an elevation of over 3,000 metres. When I asked him how long it’d take us to reach the foot of the pass, the shepherd responded with a shrug, followed by the words: ohista-ohista merased. “You’ll get there eventually.”

“Living abroad, I sometimes feel mistrustful of the notion of a stable future that everyone so surely rushes towards”

For a group of exhausted trekkers, wondering how long it would be before we’d need to pitch our tents, the answer was vague, annoyingly so. In retrospect, I’d just returned to my native Tajikistan, after three hectic years studying in the United States — where the fast pace of classes, deadlines, research assistantships, networking events, and study groups, coupled with a job in consulting and its endless carousel of meetings, had turned me into a calendar-always-full busyness junky.

I had cherished this accelerated environment. Scholar Alice Kaplan once wrote that people adopt other cultures “because there’s something in their own that doesn’t name them”. Compared to the US, time in Tajikistan, where I’d grown up, seemed like a frustratingly nebulous and relative notion — tied more to people’s feelings, and not as much to calendars.

Still, the shepherd’s answer stayed with me through that summer. Why was I so hell-bent on escaping Tajikistan’s unhurriedness — all during the pandemic’s new era of slow living, no less? As long as one is headed in the right direction, what’s the rush?

The comfort of home and mindful living is what I think about now that I’m back in the United States, looking at Anisa Sabiri’s photography. Like me, Sabiri is a child of the tumultuous post-Soviet 1990s. Before becoming a poetess turned indie movie director, she worked as a tour guide. It was travelling and cultivating friendships on her trips that made her fall in love with rural parts of the country and its locals. “As a guide, you rarely have time to talk to people or stay in any one place,” she says. “So I used my camera to preserve what my eye was drawn to, so that I could study it more carefully later.”

With that experience grew her desire to capture the life and culture of rural Tajikistan in film, something that she has done to international acclaim with The Crying of Tanbur and Rhythms of Lost Time. But it was photography that set Sabiri on that path.

“For me, photography is a chance to feel out the material I feel instinctively connected to but don’t know yet how to transform into a story,” Sabiri told me. “I don’t think I can do it in filmmaking, which is so tightly bound with preparation, equipment, scheduling, and people. Usually, before making a film, you already know what the story is. What I like most about photography is that there is an enigma in its principle, and that I am given enough intimate space to explore it.”

Despite having produced pre-planned photo series for news outlets such as The Guardian and Novaya Gazeta, Sabiri usually prefers to work by sifting through the photos she has already taken, picking out themes by prioritising her curiosity and the connection with her subjects.

Read more Letter from the Pamirs: dreaming of an impossible garden in Tajikistan’s mountainous hinterland

Not wanting to rush this process is, perhaps, the reason why Sabiri captures so well that sense of unhurriedness across rural Tajikistan. Her photos show the unconscious routines and rituals of everyday life: an old man fixing his car in the middle of a narrow gorge, children playing in the shade of an unused Soviet bus stop, men slowly gathering around a dusty field for a game of buzkashi with no specific start time, young girls laughing as they dye their eyebrows for the spring holiday of Navruz.

“I grew up in a post-civil war country with a crumbling economy and no sense of stability,” says Sabiri. “Now, living abroad, I sometimes feel mistrustful of the notion of a stable future that everyone so surely rushes towards.” On my return trips to Tajikistan, I tune into a state of ‘unhurried now’. I can only describe it as a therapeutic feeling.”

Sabiri’s search for this “unhurried now” brought her to Zarafshan valley in northwest Tajikistan. Home to the Zarafshan river that irrigates Central Asia’s ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Panjakent, the valley holds personal significance to Sabiri, whose ancestors were moved there from Bukhara and Samarkand in the 1920s by the Bolsheviks.

“After being away from my homeland for so long, I could feel every little detail surrounding me: the bright colors of the Tajik dresses, the little adobe houses puffing out smoke clouds into the spring sky, the teahouses smelling of plov and Tajik bread,” Sabiri says of her months-long visit there in 2021, her first in over a year and a half.

What can we say in a few sentences that would hold the attention and curiosity of those who ask us about Tajikistan?

She recalls one chilly, windy evening in the Zarafshan valley, where she and her group had slipped into an empty roadside teahouse for a quick refuel, asking only for some bread and sweet tea. But the owner of the teahouse — a small building improvised out of a lorry attached to a wall – instead brought out a tray with freshly-cooked chicken, salads, and vodka.

“We informed him politely that we were in a hurry, to which he insisted that it was his duty to welcome us. Happy to have guests and relaxed, he sat with us, setting the table and saying that we shouldn’t offend him by offering to pay or by rushing to leave.”

Sabiri and I have known each other for years, in that particular way that two people with shared interests and friends in a city as small as Dushanbe can. Over the years, we occasionally spoke on social media, and were passively aware of each other’s lives. As I turned towards journalism to make sense of my country and my upbringing, Sabiri and I started talking more often online and over the phone. One of the big themes that keeps coming up in our conversations about our rapidly changing Dushanbe and Sabiri’s passion for showcasing the richness of the Tajik culture is an immigrant’s struggle to explain what our country is.

What can we say in a few sentences that would hold the attention and curiosity of those who ask us about Tajikistan? How do we reduce everything that Tajikistan is into a comprehensible and easily-consumed anecdote?

“Unrushed,” I usually tell people in the West when asked what Tajikistan is like. “It takes its time to do things.” But this description never fully registers in places where schedules and ambitious busyness is the way of life. As our conversations with Sabiri have gotten more involved over time, I have been finding myself pulling up her photos on my phone when my friends ask me about my country, hoping the sincerity and simplicity of her photographs will help me explain Tajikistan’s unrushedness to those who ask about it.

There’s one particular photo that I return to most often: it pictures a decrepit bus stop. The unmistakable Soviet brutalism of the architecture and the Tajik flag painted on the bus stop’s central column unobtrusively paint the country’s history, but what feels Tajik about this image isn’t the structure but its protagonists: girls of different ages, who are playing in its shade. The grey of the concrete and the weathered colours of the flag are broken up by the sincere smiles of the children and their mothers, dressed in bright traditional attire. What could have easily been a photo of people waiting around, is a photo of being in the moment. There is no rush to go anywhere — just as it should be.

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