The incredible hospitality I had just experienced in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan also ties into the curious mentality of the people here, who are very knowledgeable about other cultures. It is in Pamiri blood to host guests who may very well be total strangers and treat them as one of your own. They do not care about your background, ethnicity, or religion and welcome anyone in their country or their home. In fact, religion is very much on the background here, though Tajikistan is a Muslim country. But the Pamiri people also follow a different branch of Islam than their fellow countrymen, namely the Ismaili’ faith.
‘We are Muslims and a lot of people think it is dangerous to come here, because all they know about the Muslim world is war. But in Tajikistan it’s completely different. For us Ismailis, it doesn’t matter what you believe, we respect all religions and are quite open to other beliefs. Personally, I don’t think that there should be any kind of difference between humans. Human beings are all alike. It doesn’t matter what color we are, which language we speak or what we believe in’, said Sabir. ‘For me, the best religion is not Islam, but humanity. That is my religion. Being a good person and doing good deeds, that should be your religion.’
Even Sabir’s brother Haqnazar, who is a lecturer in religion, doesn’t speak about the subject until I ask. After welcoming me into his home, he immediately scurries to the kitchen to fetch tea and sweets, as is common here, and I sit down in the traditional Pamiri front room. Sipping the tea, I comment that he has quite the view here, with dramatic mountains in his backyard. Before I know it, we’re climbing up those very same, and very steep, mountains. While Haqnazar is more than 2.5 times my age, he quickly moves with the flexibility and agility of a mountain goat over the loose rocks — I have to hide my embarrassing panting, and the shameful state of my fitness, when I catch up with him. About every 10 minutes or so he fires off a series of questions in a worried tone to make sure I’m okay: “You cold? Hungry? Tired?”
To which I always reply, “I’m okay, Haqnazar.”
“Are you sure? I think you are cold.”
From the mountain top, we overlook the tiny village below and see all the houses that make up the village. Haqnazar pointed to a soccer field on a patch of land. He has founded and supports the soccer team in the village, buying them equipment and training them on the weekends.
“When I see that my football team is happy, I feel very happy myself”, said Haqnazar when I ask him about what he thinks happiness means. “If you are good for other people, their smile and their happiness will make you happy as well. It has a lot of meanings. Some people see happiness in money, a high position, or a job. Some people consider happiness to mean having peace inside. I think that if you have money, but you have no smile, you are not happy. If you are rich, but your neighbor is not rich, and if you smile but other people are not smiling because they have problems, you may not feel so happy.”
According to Sabir, Haqnazar has never received a thank you from the community for his efforts with the soccer team, but neither is he looking for any. The soccer team might only be a small gesture, but it is a simple and truthful example of the generosity that takes place here without any expectation of giving in return. Gestures like this have intrinsic value.
Sabir agrees with that thought.
’If I can do something for myself, I have to do something for others as well. You see, whenever we do something good, but we don’t receive anything in return, not even a thank you, it doesn’t matter. You have done something good for someone else, that’s enough. We should not work or help for the sake of thanks, for somebody to show us appreciation. It doesn’t matter. I think it is our duty to do something good.’
After a day of teaching English at the local school, Haqnazar’s son Manucher takes me to have tea with his friend Umed. Manucher spoke softly and calmly, while still regularly bursting out in contagious laughter. Throughout conversations he could be heard quoting philosophers like Spinoza, Dostoevsky and Kant. He taught himself to draw to express his affinity for Dutch master painters like Rembrandt van Rijn and Van Gogh, whose works he has saved in a collection of images on his computer.
“I am still in the process of searching for what real happiness is. Maybe I will never perceive the true meaning of it, if there is one. But I can call myself happy because I have my children — my son, my daughter. They give me some meaning of what to do, which makes it okay that I haven’t attained certain things that I might have liked myself to do, like achieve success in a passion or hobby. I always dreamt to be a filmmaker. Now that I’m 40, I don’t think I can do it anymore. There’s too much I need to learn.”
Manucher’s friend Umed is on a similar quest. He says, “I don’t know it for sure yet, what it means to be happy. But I do know that I find my family important. It makes me happy when everybody is healthy, calm and peaceful.” But Umed did find a passion in music: he works as a musician and regularly plays at weddings and parties. While he plays us some songs, I think back about the crazy wedding party I had found myself in the previous year in a tiny village called Bulunkul.
Tajiks are known for celebrating their wedding parties exuberantly, inviting many guests over a number of days that are strung together by great amounts of food and alcohol. Because people were going bankrupt and in debt for the rest of their lives from organizing such lavish parties, the government of Tajikistan has actually placed restrictions on wedding festivities: parties can now only last for a maximum of 3 hours with 150 guests. They even use undercover agents to enforce these rules, if you can picture an extremely sour James Bond-type whose sole mission is to ruin parties. Now, the ultimate act of defiance to the autocratic government is to have the exact kind of wedding party that greatly exceeds these limits — and that happens often, especially here in the unruly Pamirs.
Sabir unfortunately has to go back to his job in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, after a few days, but I am welcome to stay for a bit longer. After he leaves, I realize that apparently everybody in the village is charged with looking after me. Every now and then somebody walks into the house to come check in on me, inquiring if I need anything. On my way over to Haqnazar’s house one day, I receive 3 invitations for a cup of tea in the space of 5 minutes.
And over the next few days, I dive deeper into the ancient and interesting culture of the area, which incorporates aspects of Sufism and Zoroastrianism in it. Being so immersed in the community brings me immensely profound insights and lightheartedness all at once, such as found in the credo: once you open a bottle of vodka, you have to finish it. Clearly, we still have so much to learn from other cultures, and obviously I follow the rules — it would be rude not to.
Haqnazar is busy preparing a lecture he’s giving in the capital when I walk into his house. It feels strange to just walk in through somebody’s garden gate and into his house, without ringing a bell, knocking on a door, or even setting a time to meet, but “the door is always open” can be taken quite literally here. With his characteristic congeniality he welcomes me again.
‘You hungry? You cold?’
He doesn’t wait for an answer, immediately busying himself with lunch.
I spend my last evening with him, Manucher, and vodka (we finish the bottles of course). Haqnazar makes a warm toast expressing his gratitude for me visiting him (shouldn’t it be the other way around?), that the door is always open, and that I can feel part of the family. Never before have I so truly believed people when they say, “make yourself at home.”
I get up at 5 am the next morning for the long drive back to Dushanbe — although in true Tajik fashion, the taxi arrives 3 hours late and then tells me to hurry up — to find Haqnazar already standing in the kitchen, making me a breakfast of eggs and sausage. I feel inclined to say goodbye to him with the kiss on the cheek, as is custom here for men who are good friends or related to each other.
On the way back to Dushanbe, I have ample time to contemplate while stunning views pass by, only interrupted every now and then by the taxi driver receiving several phone calls — which turn out to be Sabir checking in on me.
The fresh mountain air and late autumn sun glistening through the yellow coloured trees lets the warmth of the people I’ve met in Tajikistan linger in my mind for quite a while. I’ve never felt so welcomed as here. The views of the Pamiri people on tolerance, importance of family and community, helping others, selflessness and welcoming and taking an interest in people from across all cultures is inspiring. They reinforced the belief in me that you must give without seeking anything in return, because to do so defeats the purpose of giving in the first place. To have such a state of mind, despite the fact that life is not always easy here and they might not have a lot, is inspiring. I believe that their way of life and mentality can teach something of great value to Western societies. Pandemic permitting, I will return to my second home many more times.
Read Part I of this story here, and visit Thijs’s website for more stunning photos and stories from Central Asia.