RSAA member, Tajikistan

Landmarks, memory, and a changing Dushanbe

Anna Kellar studied Political Science as an undergraduate at Yale, where she co-founded the Yale Afghanistan Forum, and is currently finishing a Msc in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics. She has conducted research on development aid in Tajikistan,  studied foreign policy in Italy and worked for an anti-corruption NGO in Slovakia. She is the recipient of a Sir Peter Holmes Memorial award from the RSAA. Here, she writes on the changing face of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

Last summer, while browsing through a collection of Soviet kitsch for sale in Dushanbe’s GUM department store, I found a faded set of Intourist postcards of Dushanbe circa 1982. The city they depict is clean and modern – blue skies, few cars, inhabitants in white shirts and sundresses. Though I recognized a few of the landmarks, many were a mystery to me. I assigned myself a mission: locate each place and see what had changed, and what hadn’t, in thirty-two years.

In the years since the postcards were printed, Tajikistan went through major upheaval, yet, despite independence and war, most of the landmarks had survived the 1990s. The statue of Lenin was gone, of course, replaced by the favorite national poet, Rudaki. I expected that; the remarkable thing was that the switch was only made in 2007. Other Soviet heroes linger on – trees have grown in front of Kuibishev, but he still guards the (mostly-inactive) train station. The hotels and department stores still stand, some with new names and new facades, but the same bones.

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Rudaki has replaced Lenin in central Dushanbe

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Sadbarg Department Store and Aini Square

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Rudaki (formerly Lenin) Avenue, and the Zindabod building

Though most of the landmarks I searched for are still there, covered with uglier facades, the surrounding buildings are disappearing. Attempting to imitate the angles of the original postcards, I searched for elevated vantage points, only to realize that the photographer must have stood on the balconies of buildings that no longer exist. Dushanbe changes slowly, but the pace is speeding up.

This scares me when I think about the fate of my favorite landmarks in Dushanbe. The sky blue towers on Pushkin Street are slightly surreal: twelve floors tall and monumental close up, they are somehow hidden, even in low-lying Dushanbe, when you are more than a block away. There are six of them, at corners to each other, the edges softened by vaguely oriental arches and the weathering of time. The balconies are mostly closed in and laundry hangs as tiny bright squares across many of the windows. Satellite dishes cover the roofs like hair on a chia pet.

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For weeks, I would snap a picture whenever my route took me near by. The towers drew me in with their decaying grandeur, their beauty in a city that is rapidly becoming uglier. It also helped that, unlike the slogan-topped towers on Rudaki Ave, of which I was also fond, these were not featured on the postcards that were guiding me around the city.  I felt possessive because I was sure no one else valued them. And as I documented the rapid rise of ugly fiberglass-clad pseudo-post-modern high rises across the city, I became increasingly sure that these relics weren’t likely to last much longer.

Every morning in Dushanbe, I woke up to the sound of construction on the apartment complex rising behind my house. When I came home at night, a single bright light on top of the skeletal framework competed with the waxing moon. The small apartment building I lived in – 2 stories, 8 apartments – was itself on borrowed time. It wasn’t much to feel nostalgic for – overgrown courtyard, broken windows and broken wooden boards in the fly-infested stairwell. But the courtyard also had two-story hollyhocks, and the neighbors shared washing machines, phone chargers, an occasional meal. I started thinking of it as a metaphor for everything good and bad about post-Soviet Tajikistan: existence in the ruins of a grand design, stagnant but made livable through the pacts of the inhabitants.

I visited the inside of the blue towers by accident. I was going to Iskanderkul for the weekend, and my friend was borrowing a friend-of-a-friend’s aquaintance’s sleeping bag from an apartment on the top floor of one of the towers. This was harder than it sounded: its only helpful to know street and apartment numbers if they are also posted somewhere on the building. The only signs I could see, though, were the huge faded numbers painted on the outside of each floor – for what purpose I could only imagine. We made a guess, taking a dark and creaking two-person elevator from the cramped lobby (lit with a bare bulb) up to the top floor. The top landing had four doors, all unlabeled, none of them opening when we knocked.

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But I was immediately drawn to the balcony, the view I suddenly had across the city in the late afternoon haze. From here I could see the detritus clustered on the upper level balconies of the tower opposite, screened by the delicate lacework concrete railings. Looking down, I saw one of the squat buildings nearby had a rug drying on the roof. On the way down the stairs, I read the graffiti – a large ballpoint pen drawing of a car squeezed among the usual declarations of love.

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In the interior courtyard (smelling strongly of the rotting melon rinds collecting at the bottom the trash bins) we pondered which tower to try next, until I noticed the old number sign, well hidden behind a scraggly tree: Pushkin 8. Aha! Into another dim entry, a slightly better maintained elevator, and again we knocked on the door of a random apartment, where a young girl pointed across the hall. We were foreigners; she knew where the foreigner lived. I took a last look from the new balcony: pigeons circled the top of tower I’d just been in, and the twin pastel wedding cake towers of Dushanbe Plaza loomed behind, the new wannabe-Dubai Dushanbe elite’s answer to statement architecture. As we reached the street again, I turned back for a last look, almost running into a young woman with elegant shoes and tight jeans, talking on the phone as she headed out for the night.

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Southwest in the evening

I don’t know the history of the blue towers; I don’t even know their name, if they have one. I don’t know who owns them, I don’t know if the same families have lived there for decades or if they are all rented out to newcomers. I don’t know their future, but I’ll be sad when they are gone. As an outside observer, I have the luxury to see the towers as a symbol.

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Construction in Azadi Square, with the Somoni monument in the background

Dushanbe is changing, though often these reconstructions only imply a superficial cladding over old foundations. The new forces transforming the city combine a Soviet disregard for the past with a drive for growth that only benefits a select political circle. The same story is everywhere: the drug money; the Chinese construction firms; the countless broken sidewalks and new shopping centers. There is a giant hole in central Azadi Square, where the post office used to be and a new post office has yet to be built. The site is fenced off with a massive billboard for Megafon cell plans. Something old is gone, and whether it’s lamented or not, the future hasn’t arrived yet. Not for the majority.



Iran, RSAA member

In Pursuit of the Jewels of Persia

RSAA members Max Lovell-Hoare and Sophie Ibbotson both recently were privileged to be part of a first in the history of travel – they were guides on the first private train to be permitted to cross from Iran to Europe. Here, Max Lovell-Hoare reflects on an unexpected gem he discovered in Iran during the journey.

Three days before boarding my flight to Tehran, I still didn’t have a visa. The Iranian authorities’ wariness of foreigners with journalist credentials is well-known (and, frequently, justified), but their principle reason given for stalling my own application was that I had reported for the Wall Street Journal from Tehran in 1982. Given that I would have been six at the time and hadn’t set foot in Iran before or since, this did cause me to raise an eyebrow, but the point seemed to have passed over a plethora of bureaucrats, and even once I spelled it out, my application still hung in limbo as no one wanted to countenance the fact that an internal intelligence report might be wrong. Quite whose common sense prevailed I cannot be entirely sure, but I am forever grateful. I was summoned in person to the Iranian Embassy in Dublin, the paperwork was stamped, and 48 hours later I was on yet another flight, this time to Tehran via Istanbul.

Completing the journey under steam in Budapest, Hungary (c) MEP

Completing the journey under steam in Budapest, Hungary (c) MEP

I flew to Iran to join the inaugural tour of the Golden Eagle Danube Express, the first European private train to be allowed into the country. Built in the mid 20th century to transport senior Hungarian officials around the Balkans, this was the train’s first foray east of Istanbul, and its arrival marked both an up-tick in Iran’s diplomatic relations with the West, but also gave the clear message that Iran is once again fully open for tourism. The reception we received from Iranian officials, the media and from ordinary people, was ecstatic.

Figurative bas relief carvings at Persepolis, Iran (c) MEP

Figurative bas relief carvings at Persepolis, Iran (c) MEP

In my mind, it was Persepolis that would be the highlight of the tour. The majestic ruins, set amongst an arid landscape, did not disappoint, but neither did they quite marry with the images I had first seen in National Geographic as a child. Instead, the place which utterly fascinated me, and which I could visit time and again, was somewhere had never even occurred to me might exist. It was the extraordinary Vank Cathedral in Isfahan.

Cherubs in Vank Cathedral, Isfahan, Iran (c) MEP

Cherubs in Vank Cathedral, Isfahan, Iran (c) MEP

Shah Abbas I relocated a substantial number of Armenian refugees from the Ottoman Wars to Isfahan in the early 17th century. He gave them permission to build a cathedral church in their new homeland, and the resulting building is a remarkable fusion of Islamic and Orthodox architectural and artistic styles. The sanctuary is typical of a Safavid-era mosque, but the accompanying dome is very much from the Orthodox tradition. On the walls are finely glazed tiles with geometric patterns and floral motifs, but also exquisite figurative frescos depicting scenes from Revelations, and gilded cherubs with beatific smiles. A faint smell of incense lingers in the air, and throughout most of the day a solitary priest prays unhurried at the altar.

The cathedral, small though it is, is a haven of peace in an otherwise frantic city. Perhaps it is this contrast which made its discovery such an unexpected delight, though I think at least part of the charm was that it overturned my own preconceptions about what I’d find in Iran. Logically, I knew there was still a Christian community in Iran, but it took meeting with it face to face to realise not only does it still flourish, but its cultural heritage is treasured and preserved not only by Iran’s Christians but by the population at large.

RSAA member, Saudi Arabia

The Future for Saudi Arabia – an Ambassador’s view

Sir Harold Walker KCMG is a former UK Ambassador to Bahrain, the UAE and Iraq. He has long-standing experience of the Arab world, and also serves on the Council for Arab-British Understanding. He is an Honorary Vice-President of the RSAA.

The death of Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud at the age of about 91 and the succession of his half-brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, formerly the Crown Prince, as King of Saudi Arabia (or more properly Guardian of the Holy Places) has inevitably given rise to speculation about the future stability of the Kingdom, particularly given that Salman, who is 79, is said to be in ill health.

Stripped to essentials, the situation in Saudi Arabia is as follows. Saudi Arabia, the eponymous state of the Al Saud (Saud family), is a family business, with members of the large family placed in strategic positions throughout the state, including the security apparatus. As in any family there are internal disputes, but these are settled by family mechanisms. Already, the Deputy Crown Prince, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, another half-brother, has been smoothly moved up to be Crown Prince.

In a country that is deeply conservative (except in parts of the Hejaz) the family draws much of its strength from its historic alliance with the clerical authorities. King Abdullah saw the need for progress in the directions of secular education, rights for women, and increased political participation by his people; but to preserve the balance of forces within the Kingdom he proceeded at a pace that to outsiders was glacially slow.

King Abdullah showed great skill in manoeuvring between the conflicting pressures in the Kingdom, not to mention the formidably challenging external environment. It may be that Salman will not have the capacity to show the same sureness of touch. But the structure of the state will be strong enough to survive this possibility.

All the statements above are open to debate: are the mechanisms adequate to solve internal family rivalries; is the pace of social change too fast or too slow? However that may be, in the opinion of this writer there is no short-term threat to the stability of the Saudi state. What will force significant change upon it in the longer run, in ways that cannot be foreseen with precision, is one of King Abdullah’s major achievements, namely the Scholarship Program that now sees as many as 100,000 young Saudis studying in the United States.

23rd January.

Central Asia, Kazakhstan, RSAA member, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

Sufism and the State: Saints’ Shrines in Central Asia

Fitzroy Morrissey is an Oriental Studies Graduate of Oxford University. He has travelled extensively in the Islamic world, and is the author of A Sufi for a week. He is currently studying Persian as a graduate student. Here, he discusses the relationship between Sufism in Central Asia and the post-Soviet states.

For over half a millennium, Islam in Central Asia has revolved around three poles: (Hanafi) Sunnism, Persian culture and Sufism. These three are not separate but rather overlapping elements of Central Asian religious life, such that one scholar has recently declared, “Orthodox Islam and Sufism are very mingled in Tajikistan and the majority of believers are not able to make out the difference.” (Arabov, 2010, 346)

Often dismissed by observers of Islamic societies – as well as by Muslim fundamentalists – as a “heterodox” or “folk” form of Islam, Sufism has in fact long been an integral part of the religious orthodoxy of Central Asia: the clerics (ulema) who guard and define that orthodoxy have traditionally enjoyed close ties to the local Sufi orders (tariqas). The Naqshbandiyya order, which arose in the Transoxanian city of Bokhara in the late-13th, early-14th century, and is the most popular order in Central Asia, is particularly well known for its sobriety and emphasis on upholding the sharia.

Unsurprisingly, Sufism – and Islam more broadly – experienced a major decline as a public presence in Central Asia during the Soviet period, which saw Sufi lodges (khanqas) forcibly closed and the widespread banning of the practice of visitation to saints’ shrines (mazar) – a ritual traditionally practised even by those with no formal connection to the Sufi orders. Yet the survival of Sufi practices and beliefs among certain groups, especially the Naqshbandis, has allowed for a Sufi revival to take place since independence in 1991/92. Since then, many Sufi shrines have been renovated, visitation of saints’ tombs has once again become an important part of religious life, and several Sufis have taken important positions in the religious hierarchies of the Central Asian republics.

The issue of saints’ shrines is a particularly important one, for it gives us an insight into the extent to which the state has been prepared to patronise Sufism and promote it as an integral part of their state’s national identity and history. In Uzbekistan, where the state’s relationship with the Sufi orders and their leaders, post-independence, has flitted between support and suspicion, the two most important shrines are those of Baha’uddin Naqshband, the 14th century sheikh after whom the Naqshbandiyya is named, and Khoja Ahrar Obdayollah, another prominent Naqshbandi sheikh, who lived in the 15th century. These two sheikhs are key figures in the history of the development of Naqshbandi thinking and practice. Baha’uddin is said to have introduced the so-called “silent zikr” (zikr-e khafi) into Naqshbandi ritual, which still distinguishes the meditative practice of the Naqshbandis from the more extravagant, musical rituals of other orders. Khoja Ahrar, meanwhile, perhaps more than anyone else embodied the key Naqshbandi doctrine of “solitude in the crowd” (khalvat dar anjuman), which meant that Naqshbandi disciples could and should play a prominent role in the economic and political life of the community, while constantly remembering God. This latter doctrine helps partly to explain the traditional prominence of Naqshbandi Sufis in Central Asian politics – Khoja Ahrar himself was involved in the Timurid administration, and is said to have accrued considerable personal wealth as a landholder. (For Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah’s life and political and economic role in the community, see Gross & Urunbaev, 2002, Ch. 1.)

Because of the special importance of Baha’uddin and Khoja Ahrar within the history of Central Asia’s most important Sufi order, it is no surprise that their shrines are still significant today, on both the religious and political levels. In Soviet times, the shrine of Baha’uddin Naqshband, located near Bokhara, was closed, and used by the authorities as a storehouse for fertiliser, indicating the extent of Soviet disregard for Central Asia’s religious heritage. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the shrine was reopened in 1989. The post-Soviet government of Islam Karimov (with financial support from Turkey, where there is a large Naqshbandi community) subsequently paid for the renovation of the shrine in 1993, to mark the 675th anniversary of Baha’uddin’s birth. The government also sponsored a number of initiatives in celebration of the anniversary: Uzbek President Karimov, along with the then Chief Mufti, Mukhtarkhan Abdulayev, himself a Naqshbandi Sufi, attended a commemorative ceremony at the shrine, an academic conference dedicated to Baha’uddin was organised, a Naqshbandi cultural foundation was founded in Bokhara, and the main street of the city was renamed after the saint. (For these measures, see Louw, 2007, 55-6)

According to the imam of the mosque adjoining Baha’uddin’s shrine, the Uzbek government’s patronage of the shrine complex, and its broader support for the country’s indigenous Sufi institutions, has been motivated by a desire to counteract what he called the “Wahhabi outlook”, referring to the puritanical form of Islam that has gained a foothold in Central Asia (particularly in the guise of the Hizb ul-Tahrir movement) and other parts of the Islamic world over the past half century, and which is widely seen as the ideological basis for Islamic radicalism. Certainly, the imam’s comments give a strong indication of the thinking behind the Central Asian governments’ often supportive approach towards Sufism. Sufism represents a more peaceful, tolerant and less political version of Islam than the Wahhabi interpretation. Furthermore, the Naqshbandiyya, and Sufism more generally, is an important part of the region’s cultural and religious heritage, and can thus be presented by Central Asian states as the indigenous form of Islam, in contrast to “foreign” Islamic fundamentalism.

Yet, turning to the shrine of Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah, which is found near Samarkand, we also get a sense of the ambiguity of the Uzbek state’s relationship with Sufism. As in the case of the shrine complex of Baha’uddin Naqshband, the Uzbek government provided funds for the renovation of the shrine and for celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the saint’s birth in 2004. However, according to a report on Sufism in Central Asia authored for the Carnegie Endowment by Martha Brill-Olcott, the Uzbek government has become increasingly concerned about some of Obaydollah’s political teachings, particularly his call for a society governed by sharia, and for Naqshbandi disciples to involve themselves in political affairs. This concern led to the Uzbek authorities delaying the scheduled anniversary celebrations on two occasions and limiting a planned conference on the life and teachings of the sheikh to a small, local affair. Such suspicion on the part of the state towards Khoja Ahrar’s political views not only demonstrates the continued relevance of the teachings of famous Sufi masters in Central Asia, but also gets to the heart of the state’s ambiguous relationship with Sufism and the Sufi orders. On the one hand, the Uzbek government celebrates and supports Sufism as an important part of the country’s cultural and religious heritage and a potential bulwark against Islamic radicalism. On the other, it seems suspicious of the organisational capabilities of the Sufi orders, especially the more politically active Naqshbandiyya (the Qadiriyya is currently the only other major order in Uzbekistan), fearing that those capabilities might one day be translated into political action against their rule.

The issue of saints’ shrines is also relevant to the Central Asian states of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Located in these two countries are the tombs of two extremely important figures in the history of Sufism: Seyyed Ali Hamadani, a contemporary of Baha’uddin Naqshband, originally from Hamadan in Iran but buried in Kulab in southern Tajikistan, and Ahmad Yasavi, a 12th century Sufi who gives his name to the Yasaviyya order, and whose tomb lies in the Kazakh city of Turkestan. Seyyed Ali Hamadani was a sheikh of the Kobravi order, which was historically one of the most important tariqahs in Central Asia, before it died out at the end of the 16th century, its place being taken by the Naqshbandiyya. Hamadani is credited with bringing Islam to the Kashmir region, where he is celebrated as a saint, and was also a prominent thinker in the school of Ibn ‘Arabi, which is famous for its elaboration of the doctrine of vahdat-e vojud or “the oneness of existence”.

In the case of the cult of Ali Hamadani, we witness the same kind of state involvement that we saw in the Uzbek state’s patronage of the shrine of Baha’uddin Naqshband and Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah. Following the civil war in the country (1992-97), the Tajik authorities, with support from Iran, funded the renovation of Hamadani’s shrine and the construction of a museum dedicated to the Sufi at the shrine complex. At the same time, the government declared Hamadani a national saint – his face subsequently appeared on the 10 somoni banknote. At the beginning of 2014, meanwhile, to mark the 700th anniversary of the saint’s birth, it was announced that the Tajik state, again in conjunction with Iran, would provide funds for the reconstruction of the park where Hamadani’s museum is located and for celebrations connected to the anniversary, while the Iran-Tajikistan Friendship Society announced plans for a Seyyed Ali Hamadani Foundation. Meanwhile members of Tajikistan’s political elite are said to frequently visit the shrine. As in the case of Uzbekistan, the Tajik government’s decision to patronise the legacy of Seyyed Ali Hamadani can best be understood as part of a broader policy to promote a more tolerant, politically quietist – in a word, Sufi – interpretation of Islam as the country’s indigenous religious tradition, as a bulwark against the imported threat of fundamentalism.

The mausoleum of Ahmad Yasavi in the Kazakh city of Turkestan is one of the oldest surviving examples of state patronage of a saint’s shrine in Central Asia. The Yasaviyya order, which looked to Ahmad as their founder and guide, played a key role in bringing many of the nomadic Turkic (and later Mongol) tribes of Central Asia into Islam. Known as a popular order of wandering dervishes, the Yasaviyya are said to have incorporated many of the traditional shamanistic practices of the Turkic tribes into their rituals, thus easing the conversion process. As a bridge between the Islamic and Turkic worlds, therefore, the cult of Ahmad Yasavi was especially appealing to the 14th century conqueror Timur (known in the west as Tamerlane), a Turkic-Mongol warrior who sought to depict himself as the heir to the universal empire of Genghis Khan, yet also a Muslim who defined his rule in Islamic terms. For this reason, Timur patronised a major reconstruction of Ahmad Yasavi’s shrine, which was already an important site of pilgrimage. By linking his rule to the cult of Ahmad Yasavi, Timur was able to tap into the power of the cult of saints that was widespread throughout Central Asia, and thus to acquire religious legitimacy for his rule. This policy of patronising shrines as a means of gaining legitimacy in Islamic terms was continued by his Timurid successors, who also renovated and expanded the shrine of the famous 11th century Sufi Abdullah Ansari at their capital Herat, as well as the ‘Alid shrine at Balkh and the mausoleum of the Shi’a Imam Reza at Mashhad. Clearly, Timur and his successors understood that, if they were able to present themselves as protectors and patrons of the saints, the baraka (spiritual power) of those saints that the pilgrims sought might rub off on them. (For the Timurids’ patronage of shrines, see Subtelny, 2007, Ch. 6.)

Today, the shrine of Ahmad Yasavi is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an undoubted source of Kazakh national pride. As in the Uzbek and Tajik cases, following independence the Kazakh state was quick to identify the shrine as a point of reference in its efforts to construct a new national identity. Once again we find that state funds were provided for the renovation of the shrine, and 1993 – the same year that the Uzbeks celebrated the life of Baha’uddin Naqshband – was declared the year of Ahmad Yasavi in Kazakhstan. Like Baha’uddin and Ali Hamadani, Ahmad Yasavi has thus become something of a national saint. (see Low, 2007, 49-50)

The relationship between Islam and the state in the republics of Central Asia remains a contested issue. In providing state support for the cults of their nations’ most famous medieval mystics, the governments of these republics have sought to define this relationship. The message seems to be that the state is the guardian of the nation’s religious heritage, and that Sufism is an integral part of this heritage. In so doing, the governments are drawing on an ancient precedent – even before Timur, rulers sought legitimacy through the patronage of Sufi saints’ shrines (the Seljuks’ patronage of the shrine and cult of the famous Sufi Bayazid Bastami being one notable example). The policy of supporting saints’ shrines therefore seems to have two major goals, namely: helping to construct a new national identity through the appropriation of the past, and promoting a more tolerant form of Islam as a counterweight to Islamic radicalism. In the long run, the success of this policy will be determined by whether long-held traditions such as visitation to saints’ shrines are able to survive the onslaughts of secular modernism and radical Islam, both of which are critical of the cult of saints. If the survival of the practice of visitation during the Soviet era – and its subsequent revival – is a good indicator, then the shrines will continue to play a prominent role in the religious and cultural life of Central Asia for many years to come.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Ann-Gross, J & Urunbaev, A, The Letters of Khwajah ‘Ubayd Allah Ahrar and His Associates (Brill, 2002).

Arabov, O, “A note on Sufism in Tajikistan: what does it look like?”, Central Asian Survey, 23:3-4 (2010), 345-347.

Brill-Olcott, M, “Sufism in Central Asia: A Force for Moderation or a Cause of Politicization?”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2007).

Louw, E, Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia (Routledge, 2007).

O’Dell, E, “The Teaching, Practice, and Political Role of Sufism in Dushanbe”, NCEEER Working Paper (2011).

Roy, O, The New Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Birth of Nations (I.B. Tauris, 2007)

Subtelny, M, Timurids in Transition: Turko-Persian Politics and Acculturation in Medieval Iran (Brill, 2007)

Trimingham, J, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Weismann, I, The Naqshbandiyya: Orthodoxy and activism in a worldwide Sufi tradition (Routledge, 2007).

North Korea, RSAA member

Assassinations, cyber attacks and sanctions: North Korea in the limelight

Dr Jim Hoare was chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy in Pyongyang from 2001 to 2002. He is also an academic and historian specialising in Chinese and Korean history, and is a member of the editorial board of Asian Affairs. Here, he gives a point of view on the recent confrontation between North Korea and the United States over the censorship of Sony’s The Interview:

It would have been hard to miss the furor over the Sony Pictures film, “The Interview” over Christmas. “The Interview” is a comedy – their description, not mine – about the assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Earlier in the year, North Korea protested at the subject and demanded that the film be withdrawn. Sony refused. Then Sony Pictures, which is a U.S. based corporation, was hacked. Not only were unreleased films, including “The Interview”, made available on line, thus costing the company large amounts in lost revenue, but embarrassing e-mails about company affairs were made very public. As the hackers added unspecified threats about what would be done if the film was released, Sony seems to have panicked and announced that the film’s premier would be cancelled and that its general release in the United States, due on Christmas Day, would not take place.

Given the background and the continued hostility between the United States and North Korea, inevitably the finger pointed at the later as the perpetrator. The FBI announced that there was no doubt that the North Koreans had carried out the attack, although it produced no evidence. President Obama took up the theme, indicating that Sony was wrong to cancel the film’s release, as this was giving into a terroristic attack on free speech and promised that appropriate action would be taken. No definition was given of what would be appropriate action. North Korea rejected the allegations and demanded a joint enquiry into the issue. The US predictably rejected this- though the US had supported the South Koreans in a similar demand for a joint investigation in 2008, when a North Korean guard shot dead a South Korean tourist for allegedly failing to stop when ordered.

Sony then had a change of mind and announced that the film would be shown in selected, if minor cinemas – the big chains would not handle it. It was duly shown with no untoward incidents, while filmgoers boasted that they were defending free speech – and presumably the right to suggest that it is OK to encourage the assassination of leaders you do not like.

The North Koreans continued to denounce the film but seem to have done nothing more. Meanwhile, a massive cyber attack was launched on North Korea’s internet facilities – yes, they do have them – which were knocked out for a day or so. Was this President Obama’s “appropriate action”? We do not know and the US authorities have refused to comment on speculation to that effect. Formally, the “appropriate action” was a set of sanctions imposed after New Year, directed at a number of agencies and senior officials. In explanation, government officials indicated that none of the organizations or individuals names were necessarily involved in the hacking. As the former State Department official, Joel Wit, now at Johns Hopkins, noted, the sanctions were unlikely to have much effect given the relatively little travel carried out by North Korean officials and the absence of vast bank accounts that can be targeted.

Not all are convinced that the case against the North Koreans is proven. Most non-governmental cyber experts in the US have cast doubt on the government’s claims, pointing out that the attack has many of the marks of an inside job by a disgruntled Sony employee – the material posted from the company’s records indicated a somewhat unhappy state of affairs. The rest of the film industry has kept silent about the affair; given Hollywood’s well-known record of appeasing dictators, this should come as no surprise.

Whoever did it, it is unlikely that the US reaction will change North Korea’s behaviour or have much effect – though “The Interview” looks as though it might prove more of a success than at first seemed likely. What we seem to be seeing is evidence of the continued US frustration at its inability to persuade North Korea to behave as it wants it to and the lack of interest in the Obama administration to try to engage with the North. This may began to run counter to South Korean policies, which seem steadily to be edging towards some form of rapprochement. But it would not have been the first time that South Korean and US policies towards North Korea have been out of sync.


Afghanistan, RSAA member

Afghan Marble Trade – interview

Matthew Leeming is an RSAA member who works in Afghanistan with Milio International to develop Afghan marble mines and the country’s capacity to process and export the stone. He is also co-author of the Odyssey Companion and Guide to Afghanistan. Here, he answers questions from the Asian Affairs Weblog: 

  1. What is the state of trade for marble in Afghanistan? Is there the infrastructure and capacity to mine it, and if so, can it actually be processed in Afghanistan?

Well, there is now a factory in Herat which was recently sold for $20 million. It is equipped with Italian machinery and can apparently cut to western standards.

  1. Herat is well known for tile-work (we only have to think of the Friday Mosque and Gazergah). What has it got to do with marble?

Nothing (at the moment). My only knowledge of Herati marble was a carved pillar I saw in the Art Institute in Chicago years ago, a beautiful floor in the Herat Transport Department and a piece of carved white marble at Gohar Shad’s mausoleum which could have been originally the same piece as the Chicago carving that I assumed was a grave marker. It was presumably broken in 1885 when the British blew up the madrassah and minarets at Herat to give a better line of sight against invading Russians – who never came. There certainly was a tradition of stone carving in Herat – the mausoleum of Gohar Shad contains five stunning calligraphy panels which someone tried to steal that were originally used at the bottom of the minarets, according to Jolyon Leslie.

  1. What is so special about the marble coming out of Afghanistan? Are there any special artistic or craft traditions on top of the quality of the marble itself to be aware of?

It is very high quality. The stone for the Taj Mahal was apparently quarried near Jalalabad and we have just had two 25 tonne blocks quarried there that we are getting cut in the Gulf.

  1. What are the challenges facing people in the trade? Is it really worth the bother of trying to excavate and export it, when one might just stick to somewhere safe like Italy?

The major problem is getting orders in a foreign market. I am going to Baku in Azerbaijan in the New Year to look at a processing plant there that Milio may invest in. The figures for the Azeri economy are mind-boggling: there was 35% economic growth in one single year; they have loads of money from oil (even down to a crude price of $50 per barrel); they are building on an Old Testament scale including a new Tower of Babel 3,500 feet tall; and are decorating the buildings in onyx and marble. I am currently in Dubai trying to sell marble for four hotels and a palace and we are just about to take on a salesman to do this properly.

  1. What’s the export market for Afghan marble? Who wants it outside the country? Can it compete?

The economics are driven by the cost of transport which can cost as much as the stone itself. So you want to be selling it near Afghanistan which means central Asia and the Gulf is the best market. Plus marble is very heavy and you lose 20% of it in cutting so you want to cut near the quarry. To begin with, at least and despite its high quality, Afghan stone is going to have to compete on price.

The obvious export market is Turkmenistan which is very close to Herat and is building new ‘white cities’ from white marble to honour the former President, Turkmen-Bashi. Afghanistan did one shipment but did something so depressingly familiar to anyone who works with Afghan export industries that it has its own name: the Idar-Oberstein trick. Idar-Oberstein is a town in Germany which is the centre of the European emerald trade. The Afghans got an order for emeralds from the Panjshir and shipped them. The first lot were excellent but the subsequent ones complete rubbish, so bad that the Germans now refuse to look at any stones from Afghanistan.

  1. How are you going to prevent a repetition of the Idar-Oberstein trick?

By rigorous scrutiny of the process at every step. We are not just supplying Italian Fantini chain saws to improve the rate of extraction but also cutting the blocks into slabs with Italian machines and rejecting anything sub-standard. That is the only way that we can establish Afghan stone in foreign markets.

  1. What impact is the trade having on Afghanistan and/or Herat?

According to Melissa Skorka, an ISAF counterinsurgency adviser, it is having a beneficial effect already: Afghans in and around Herat are now so usefully employed making money that they are not interested in blowing up themselves and ISAF convoys. This is apparently such a major new discovery that they are trying to repeat it in other places. We just did two 25 tonne loads of onyx from Lashkar Gah to Verona and Lash is of course one of the Taliban hotbeds in Helmand and I haven’t heard of any insurgent attacks there since, but correlation is not the same as causation.

Afghanistan, RSAA member

Afghan Boundary Commission 1885 – quest for photographs

During the work of the Anglo-Russian commission, which, with the agreement of the Amir, settled Afghanistan’s north-western border with the Russian Empire in 1885-6, a series of photographs were taken. Paul Bucherer, the Director of the Afghanistan Institute in Switzerland, has compiled a catalogue of these photographs, with copies displayed on the Institute’s Phototheca Afghanica website: A printed volume of them has been donated to the Society’s library. In spite of extensive searches, such as in the British Library archives, some of the 167 photographs, that are known to have been taken, are missing.  He would like to hear from anyone who has knowledge of the existence of any complete copy of the album of photographs from that Afghan Boundary Commission:  / Afghanistan-Institut, Brühlstrasse 2, CH-4416 Bubendorf, Switzerland.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, RSAA member

The Peshawar School Attack

Dr Robin Edward Poulton, an RSAA member who has lived amongst Afghan villagers, offers a heartfelt response to the recent Taliban attack on the Peshawar Army Public School in Pakistan:

Taliban butchers are Pashtun cowards

by Robin Edward Poulton[i]

If you sit of an evening beside a fire in the Pashtun heartlands, you will hear tales of bravery, honour and generosity. You will hear stories about how the Pashtuns were never defeated: not by Alexander the Great, nor by Genghis Khan the Mongol, nor by the British Empire, nor even recently by the Soviet and American imperial armies despite their fighter bombers and their helicopter gunships. All these great military conquerors passed through the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan into Pakistan, but they never ruled the mountain passes where the Durrani and the Ghilzai Pashtuns herd their goats and fight their blood feuds. Just as NATO forces are pulling out in 2014, so too the Soviets pulled out in 1989 and the British pulled out in 1842, and in 1880 and in 1919: the 1st and 2nd and 3rd Anglo-Afghan wars all ended with retreat by the exhausted invading army, like the Anglo-American invasion we have been watching since 2001.

In the Pashtun evening light, you will drink your tea flavoured with cardamom and suck sugared almonds, while lounging on your tushak thick mattresses or lying on your charpoy wooden bed on the veranda of the guest house: for the first rule of Pashtun life is hospitality, melmastia. If you listen under the silence of the stars, you may hear young girls singling inside their qala, the fortified house inside which no stranger can ever venture. They will sing ballads about the bravery of their young warriors, recite poems calling their heroes home for a wedding with their sweet and loving bride, or to see their first-born son who will one day take the place of his valiant father to defend his family’s honour, nang. Like their ancestors before them, young boys take their turn in the watchtower built above the qala, watching for enemies and strangers: in these wild mountain passes that have seen so many aggressors, the assumption is always that a stranger may be an enemy. Hindus came in the 1700s and decapitated Pashtun warriors; conquering Persian armies came from the West; and countless Turco-Mongol hordes swept down from the Steppes of Central Asia.

But after the Taliban attack of December 16th 2014 on a school in Peshawar, what will the Ghilzai ladies be singing this New Year inside their fortified qala? Will they be singing glorious bravery of the men who slaughtered 7 and 8 and 9-year-olds in their classrooms – or will they keep silent in face of this cowardly butchery of innocent infants?  Will they compose ballads to praise the honour of the Taliban Ghilzai who shot unarmed and elderly teachers in front of their students – or will the Ghilzai women feel shame?  Pashtun women remember those brave warriors who defeated the British armies of the 19th century, but how can they compare battles in the mountains to the butchery of 100 children in a school in Peshawar?

Ah! How are the Ghilzai fallen!  Most Taliban are Pashtuns – and many, like Mullah Omar, are Ghilzai jealous of the Durrani presidents Hamid Karzai and Abdul Ghani. How did Pashtun warriors shrink to become the butchers of small children? What Pashtun maiden will compose poems for the coward who shot an unarmed, 15-year old called Malala Youssoufzai, and her friends in a school bus? Aiyee! Alas! The noble Pashtun have crumbled into a state of dishonour! While Malala (now 17) has been elevated to the status of Nobel Peace Laureate.

The Pashtun tribes have been Muslims for twelve centuries. The Arab expansion reached Afghanistan within 50 years of the death of Mohamed the Prophet (Peace be upon Him and upon all the Prophets). Afghanistan and Pakistan are 99% Muslim. If you sit for hours – or indeed for months, as I have done – in an Afghan village, talking through the evenings with your village neighbours, you can pretty well know that 40% of the conversation will concern the economy (the price of wheat, the value of sheep, the quality of karakul Persian lamb skins); 10% will be gossip about the village or about stuff that someone heard in the weekly market; and 50% of the conversation will be related to religion. Village life is dominated by Islam. Not that Afghan villagers are very knowledgeable about their religion: most of the rules that govern Pashtun life come from the ancient Pashtun Code of Honour, the Pashtunwali, and have nothing whatever to do with Islam: but villagers will assure you that these are the rules that the Prophet (PbuH) followed.

And where, you may well ask, did the Prophet recommend that Muslims should kill school children? Indeed, He did not. One of the Prophet’s most famous – and most profound – sayings was this: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  The Prophet was in favour of education, including education for women. Most Taliban do not know this, because they are profoundly ignorant of the meaning of Islam, Very few of them can read or write, and most of them have no idea of the meaning of the Arabic sentences they recite in their prayers.

If you remind the Taliban about surats from the Holy Koran that tell Muslims never to kill another Muslim, how will your brave Pashtun slaughterer-of-children reply? He will get angry, because he has no answer. He will tell you that the people he killed were infidels. But he is wrong: it is the Taliban who are infidels, for they no longer respect the religion they profess to practice.

And if you remind them that a brave Pashtun warrior is committed to defend children and not to slaughter them? Then your Taliban will become angry again, because they know that they have violated the sacred Pashtun Code of Honour, the Pashtunwali.

They will try to justify their attack on a military school in Peshawar, by calling on the rules of blood feud and vengeance: for badal is a sacred Pashtun duty, to avenge any insult to your family’s honour. But their speech will be weak, for they know that there is no badal in the slaughter of school children – they will speak lies, and they will know it.

The Taliban have sunk so low on the scale of humanity, that they are no longer Pashtuns: for a Pashtun respects the the Pashtunwali and will die for the honour it implies. The Taliban have no honour.

Worse, the Taliban are no longer Muslims. Everything they do is so alien to the religion of the Prophet Mohamed (PbuH), that these are men without religion. The Taliban have brought the Pashtun lands back in time to the jahiliya, the pagan days when tribal elders worshipped idols and there was no One God in their lives. The Taliban have no God. They worship only idols: their Kalashnikovs and their RPG rocket launchers, and the religion of Violence. Never in the history of this great warrior people, have Pashtun men sunk so low. They and their Arab and Chechen fellow-jihadis have become ignorant  butchers who know neither honour, nor God.

[i] Dr Poulton is President of V-Peace, the Virginia Institute for Peace and Islamic Studies, and an Affiliate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He co-Chaired a peace conference at VCU in September 2013

Dr Poulton wrote his PhD thesis on village economic systems in Afghanistan.