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Everyday Life in Central Asia: Past and Present

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For its citizens, contemporary Central Asia is a land of great promise and peril. While the end of Soviet rule has opened new opportunities for social mobility and cultural expression, political and economic dynamics have also imposed severe hardships. In this lively volume, contributors from a variety of disciplines examine how ordinary Central Asians lead their lives and navigate shifting historical and political trends. Provocative stories of Turkmen nomads, Afghan villagers, Kazakh scientists, Kyrgyz border guards, a Tajik strongman, guardians of religious shrines in Uzbekistan, and other narratives illuminate important issues of gender, religion, power, culture, and wealth. A vibrant and dynamic world of life in urban neighborhoods and small villages, at weddings and celebrations, at classroom tables, and around dinner tables emerges from this introduction to a geopolitically strategic and culturally fascinating region.

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Introduction: Central Asia and Everyday Life

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For its citizens, contemporary Central Asia is a land of great promise and peril. Promise, for the end of Soviet rule has allowed new opportunities for social mobility and cultural expression. Peril, for political and economic dynamics have imposed severe restrictions on independent activity and widened the gap between rich and poor. In this volume, we will examine how ordinary residents of Central Asia, past and present, lead their lives and navigate shifting historical and political patterns. Contributors, drawn from a wide range of academic disciplines, will tell provocative stories of Turkmen nomads, Afghan villagers, Kazakh scientists, Kyrgyz border guards, a Tajik “strongman,” and guardians of religious shrines in Uzbekistan. These and other narratives of ordinary citizens and their everyday lives will intertwine with important questions and relations of gender, religion, power, culture, and wealth. Moving tales of personal struggle mix with those of success as Central Asians confront, adapt to, and seek to influence global movements and trends as well as increasingly strong and invasive states. We expose a vibrant and dynamic world of everyday life in urban neighborhoods and small villages, at weddings and celebrations, and around classroom tables as well as the dinner tables of the peoples of Central Asia.

 

Part 1. Background

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Events and memories of the distant past continue to weigh heavily on the peoples of Central Asia. Issues of origins, heritage, and lineage pervade everyday life, as several articles in this volume will show. Scott Levi traces key factors that have, over centuries, shaped the region. Nomads and settled populations coexisted in a symbiotic, albeit tenuous, relationship. Invasions, migrations, and resettlements across the steppe and oases continually transformed Central Asia. Levi finds a syncretic process, where new conquerors and arrivals at once altered and adapted to the societies and cultures of previous inhabitants. Ethnic and religious identities underwent continual modifications. Levi describes how Turks became known as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uzbeks, and how Iranians became Tajiks. The lines between ethnic groups shifted due to socioeconomic, political, and demographic factors. Islam, spreading across Central Asia from the eighth century to the eighteenth, also continually evolved, adopting beliefs and practices from older religious systems and adding those from new arrivals. Empires and invasions wreaked violence and destruction but provided Central Asians with memories of great civilizations that produced global achievements in philosophy and science. Peoples of the region today can recount in detail the accomplishments of the great historical figures such as Chinggis Khan, Amir Timur (Tamerlane), and Babur. Many trace their own lineage back centuries, with relations to past dynasties still a source of prestige. Of all the invaders to Central Asia, Levi finds the Russians most disruptive of patterns of culture and everyday life. New technologies and administrative methods subjected the local populations to a distant ruler, fixed national identities, and isolated the region from the influences elsewhere in Eurasia. Millions of ethnic Russians joined the peoples of the region, further complicating social relations.

 

Part 2. Communities

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Communal units, in the past and present, have been of critical importance across Central Asia. For pastoralist nomads and settled peoples alike, groups linked by kin, territory, religion, or a shared sense of identity have not only offered camaraderie and shared values, but also provided support vital for everyday existence. In a region endowed with a harsh climate and scarce resources, communities secure food and shelter; arrange marriages and distribute labor and supplies; and defend against unwelcome incursions from outsiders. Communities have also acted as anchors in times of transition. Group loyalties today remain multilayered, even as many residents of Central Asia identify themselves as Afghans, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen, or Uzbeks, or, in a larger sense, as Muslims. Extended joint families, tribes, clans, villages, and urban neighborhoods (mahallas) are central to individual and group identities and relations, as described in the articles written by Adrienne Edgar, Robert Canfield, and Morgan Liu. Edgar discusses kin-based communities among nineteenth-century Turkmen nomads as vital sources of political and economic solidarity in regions where police or courts were virtually nonexistent. Resource scarcities and power imbalances perpetuate village solidarity in twentieth-century Afghanistan, according to Canfield. Even in contemporary urban Kyrgyzstan, Liu finds a high degree of identification with the centuries-old mahalla, where residents share common courtyards, work, socialize, and pray together. Communal loyalties are less evident, however, in mixed, new districts constructed following the British and Russian conquests.

 

Part 3. Gender

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Gender and studies interested in gender concentrate on the roles played by both sexes in society, as well as what members of both sexes feel are appropriate and desirable roles for each throughout various phases of an individual’s life. Generally speaking, twentieth-century gender studies have focused on the positions of girls and women in culture and society rather than boys and men or more complicated issues of homosexuality and transgender identities. A new generation of scholars in gender studies is now broadening the approach of the field.

Gender has occupied an important place in the historical and social science literature of the lands of the former Soviet Union. This stands to reason because a major part of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 dedicated itself to the liberation of all women throughout the former tsarist empire. If women’s liberation were to play a key role in the radical restructuring of society and the types of functions that people play within it, revolutionary changes that would transform gender relations had to begin in early childhood. Both within home life and in the Soviet educational system, girls had to be taught what their possibilities could be, and whether or not they would have to clash with patriarchal figures and values or the religions to which they belonged if they were to achieve new social statuses, from major cities and provincial towns to collective farms. As the articles by Douglas Northrop and Marianne Kamp display, the Soviet establishment sought to transform gender roles through a restructuring of many of the most mundane features of everyday life in Soviet Central Asia, seen as potentially the most resistant region to women’s “liberation.”

 

Part 4. Performance and Encounters

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As enduring or timeless as a local musical performance, the delicacies of a meal, or the domestic division of labor may seem from an outsider’s perspective, these aspects of cultural life are usually just as constructed, contested, and changeable as all others. Timelessness and the oft-vague notion of tradition often come apart not just through a careful examination of works of history, but also via consultations with people of different generations in a single household. Consultations among people of different generations are yet another benefit of careful ethnography, of scholars always reminding themselves not to take things for granted.

Because so many of us began our research after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, we witnessed how Central Asians assessed many of the shifts taking place around them even as they themselves became willing or unwilling agents of change in terms of artistic expression, feasting, hospitality, and housework. Soviet ideology permeated or at least impinged upon virtually every aspect of social life, from child rearing and housework to wedding feasts and choral spectacles, no matter how “traditional” or “hybridized” these practices appeared. Now, as Central Asian states chart their courses as sovereign countries, citizens from all walks of life are caught up in competing ideologies, across broad spectrums, from individualistic to communitarian, from secular to religious. In this regard, both national fortunes and individuals’ socio-economic status and gender affect the degree to which continuity or changes are welcome or grudgingly accepted.

 

Part 5. Nation, State, and Society in the Everyday

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Popular and scholarly conceptions of the everyday direct us towards the personal, the private, the mundane. Broader and larger concepts and institutions nonetheless intervene in almost all aspects of daily life. As across much of the world, nation and state have emerged as two of the most important structures in modern Central Asia. Both evolved from a complex interplay of local traditions and international innovations. Central Asian intellectuals began to imagine national communities in the late nineteenth century as a result of contacts with philosophies and practices across Europe and Asia. Moscow imposed a highly invasive model of the modern state on the region. Both legacies permeate Central Asia today. Ordinary citizens at once support, accommodate, and resist policies, initiatives, and identities imposed by national and state agents. The divide between public and private, the extraordinary and the everyday, emerges as extremely blurred in the contributions that follow.

Before the arrival of tsarist troops, the peoples of Central Asia identified themselves with their religion, kin group, neighborhood, or village. Such affiliations confused Western observers, who sought to apply nineteenthcentury models of European nationality, based on a common language, culture, and broader territory. Clusters of Central Asian intellectuals, many of whom became known as Jadids, or “new-method thinkers,” saw European nationhood as a source of strength for a region that had been so easily conquered. Jadids sought to blend Western-style education, knowledge, and philosophies with local practices and reformist ideas circulating across Asian and Islamic regions in the late nineteenth century. As Shoshana Keller and Victoria Clement show, Jadids sought radical changes in everyday life, from the way people communicated to the way they educated their children and considered themselves part of the wider world. Jadids remained a small minority, however, distrusted by imperial authorities and condemned as impetuous youth by Islamic religious leaders.

 

Part 6. Religion

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Faith in the supernatural and the communitarian rituals that form a key part of worship are elements as universally human as feasting and marriage. Attitudes towards and practices of religion form an essential part of our investigation into everyday Central Asia. In approaching religion from the perspective of the people living in these authoritarian countries, where governments and, now, militant religious organizations seek to channel and control spiritual thought as well as practice, our authors illustrate, through careful and empirical research, that the citizens of such countries are, far from unquestioning automatons, people who may conduct themselves cautiously or covertly but who nevertheless choose to worship or not in myriad ways that often have little or nothing to do with positions advanced by governing or spiritual elites.

Two primary issues motivate our desire to convey religion as viewed and engaged by Central Asians in everyday life. First, we want to engage popular and scholarly views that Islam, in the Soviet era, was either essentially neutralized, on the one hand, or driven underground, where it galvanized a sense of opposition to modernization and sovietization, on the other. Our authors discover a far more complicated dynamic. Second, we want to confront the role of religion in the wake of an upsurge in international Islamist terror activity, which has led to violence in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

 

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