Muslims in Siberia

Uzbek man in the Central Market.

Muslims here in Irkutsk are observing Ramazan (Ramadan), an annual month long period of fasting and prayer. In coordination with that, I thought I would try to shed a little light on the numerous Central Asian peoples who live and work here. I will be doing short stories about or interviews of people representing (hopefully) each people group. Many people know next to nothing about Central Asians, here is a chance to get in the know!

There are large communities of Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Azerbaijanis, Tajiks, and to a somewhat lesser extent Kazakhs and Armenians here in Irkutsk. You will find this true in most cities in Russia. All of these groups are predominantly Muslim excepting Armenians who are historically Christian.

When I first came to Irkutsk, my encounters with these peoples were rare. As I have come to know Russian, and become familiar with different regions of the city, I recognize them often. Taxi drivers, fruit and vegetable merchants, construction workers, sellers of all things sellable at the local bazaar. They lay cable, dig ditches, lay sewer lines, paint buildings and make street food. They work long, hard, cold hours, and are rewarded for their toil with the pleasant opportunity of monthly payments to the “powers that be” in order keep legal status here. As a foreigner here my self, I have stood in tiny rooms, in long, long “lines” along with them waiting for my chance to be brow beaten by some Russian official. I feel their pain, but you know, they usually have a smile on their face. :)

Tajik Crown Jewel

Unbeknownst to the world,  ancient Tajik mountain mines are the source of opulent jewels, such as the Timur ruby, and the Black Prince ruby, both now part of Britain’s Crown jewels.  I have chanced upon another Tajik gem, his name is Hurshed (pronounced Hur-shed). Hurshed hails from Dushanbe, Capitol of Tajikistan.  I met Hurshed stepping into the restaurant he works at for a cup of tea. I got on so well with the staff, that they treated me to a pot of tea, (and an espresso to boot!), typical of Muslims, who are possibly the most gracious hosts the world over. Tea in Tajikistan is made with lots of lemons and sugar, a sweet nectar, it is like sipping hot lemonade, with a few tea leaves sprinkled in for flavor.

The first two things you will immediately learn from any Tajik is: 1. The Tajik people are Persian, from the same stock as Iranians. (In fact Tajik means “Persian speakers” in old Turkish!) 2. 93% of Tajikistan is mountainous terrain. The Pamir mountains dominate the entire country, leaving little room for agriculture or settlement.

Spending several afternoons in Hurshed’s company, I found him an earnest and friendly young man. He continued my education on Ramazan (Ramadan), specifically explaining how the end of Ramazan in celebrated in Tajikistan. Referred to as “Idi Ramazan” in Tajik, more commonly “Eid ul-Fitr” in Arabic, it is a joyous holiday, marking the end of one month of fasting to draw closer to Allah. Excited children rise early, knocking on doors to wish people a happy “Idi Ramazan”. Their efforts are justly rewarded with cakes, candy, and balloons. Adults also go visiting, gathering with relatives and friends, they place a fine “table-cloth” upon the floor, and cover it with a sumptuous celebration feast. Typically people sit on pillows on the floor for meals in Tajikistan. You may greet one and all with a hardy “Idi Ramazan Muborok!” Which means roughly “Congratulations to you on the holiday of Ramazan”.

If you continue hanging with Tajiks, you will come to learn that Samarkand and Bukhara are Tajik cities! (Both in present day Uzbekistan.) Looking them up on Wikipedia, I found they are predominantly inhabited by . . . you guessed it, Tajiks. Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, actually means “Monday!” Hurshed explained that historically people from mountain villages would descend to the valley to trade goods on Monday, which is how Dushanbe came to be named.

Hurshed works long hours, from 10 am to 2 am, often later. Last Thursday, we took a free afternoon to stroll along the Angara river. With the savory assistance of ice-cream, he wove me the tale of how a young man in Tajikistan might find a bride. When a potential maiden is discovered, the women of the family, with Mom taking point, go and inquire about our maiden’s character, especially from her neighbors. If the neighborhood ladies give good report, they return, often the next day prepared to bargain for her bride price.  A basket full of thirty loaves of flatbread, a kilogram of sugar, sweets and fine white material, is presented to the young lady’s family. Thus begins a three-hour cultural dance, where the potential brides mother and aunties inform themselves about the young man in question, and if pleased accept the presented basket. Through out these events, the young maiden does not show herself. If the basket is again filled with goodies and returned it is a sign that the pairing has been agreed upon.

At this juncture, the mother of our now official groom, presents a gift worthy of the bride to be. The women of the grooms family come prepared with gifts, and after some combination has been agreed to, the girls relatives accept the gift. Issuing forth from the recesses of her family’s home, the young woman now “shows her face”  to the grooms mother, who takes the white material recently presented, uses it to measure the girl from her shoulder and cuts it off at her ankle. Thus having obtained the young ladies measurements, she pledges to sew the bride ten beautiful dresses and accompanying head wear. After this, the families agree on what the bride will be given by the grooms family, budget and date for the nuptials.

Hurshed finished explaining the proper form of Tajik engagement as we arrived at the bus stop. We stepped into the crowed jockeying for position at the bus’ door. Hurshed, out of habit, allowed two young Russian ladies to board before him, and seeing an old Russian woman struggling with her cane, grabbed her arm, lifting her into the bus. He singly, thought to help her. Shaking my head, I walked away thinking, “Hurshed, a gem of a young man.”

Melon Merchant of Azerbaijan: Rafael

Dealing in melons is a sweet business. Rafael, merrymaking merchandiser of melons, carves a cream yellow mottled melon in two. Juice pours onto cement. Rafael sells two types of melons, watermelons and torpedoes, yes, that’s torpedoes. So named, I assume, because of their length. Despite the name, torpedoes are full of flavor, and when I eat them, my elbows always get wet.

Rafael shows his sweet torpedoes.

Rafael, from Ganja in Azerbaijan has spent much of his life in Russia. He has lived in Novosibirsk, Yakutsk, Chita, Sverdlovsk, Khabarovsk, Moscow and the last seven, in Irkutsk. At -64 F, Yakutsk was too cold for Rafael, and in Moscow, after a several day stay at a hospital courtesy of the heavy hand of Moscow law enforcement, he moved on again. Khabarovsk and Irkutsk, those are the cities he likes. “In Irkutsk, the police are my friends, so I like it here.” When I asked why he chose to move from Azerbaijan, a relatively warm country, to Siberia, he told me that he felt free here, unconstrained by family tradition and expectation. And so here he stays. Rafael likes to have fun, and as we chat, he carries on a running exchange of jokes with Bunavsha, a Tajik woman who sells kvass.

Making his first sale of the day, he brushes his melons with the bank notes to bring more sales, as if the bills are magic. (Very common practice here.) “Tell me about Azerbaijan Rafael” I ask. “Sometimes I call Kolya, my uncles horse. He comes running to me,  I mount and ride him up into the Caucus mountains. In the morning the flowers smell a certain way, Oohhh! Everything is quiet except for singing birds. It is insanely beautiful!”

Rafael has a friend in Kazakhstan who grows and supplies him with melons. “Have you been there Rafael?” “Of course!” he responds. “The fields are huge, it is like Lake Baikal covered with melon plants!” How long does it take for the melons to get from there to here I ask him. A week he informs me, by train or truck.

We speak of his family, wife, teen age daughter, son back in Ganja, of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan (’88-’94), of who the Azerbaijanis are, Turks, and of Ramadan. “How do you congratulate someone at the end of Ramadan?” Rafael responds, “Uaroh%v5nco<iahv;ns3@zrxx! You’ll break your tongue on that one!” he laughs. “How do you congratulate one-another when Ramadan ends?”  “People make cakes and other sweets to give as gifts.” When Ramadan is finished, I will go see Rafael again . . . and I’ll bring him some sweets.

Zarina: Uzbek in Her Vegetable Stall

Zarina laying out her fare.

Imagine glowing red stacks of tomatoes next to gleaming white onions row on row. As Zarina Mukhitidova stacks fresh green cucumbers one on another, she tells me about her life as a Uzbek immigrant here in Siberia.

Zarina is on her own here. Her young son lives in Tashkent with her mother, her husband was killed in an accident several years back. She has worked here selling fresh vegetables for three years. Her hope is to work five more, move back to Uzbekistan and open a shop in Tashkent.
“Zarina, don’t you miss home?” I asked. “Of course! But when I get lonely, I go give my son a call, so it’s not so bad.” She continued, “Life in Uzbekistan is hard, there is no work, no way to make money, people have to go somewhere else to find work.” And go they do. As I stand in the sun at the central marketplace and look around I see central Asians everywhere, talking on cell phones, hauling carts full of produce, hawking Chinese peppers and watermelons from Astrakhan. A young Tajik man I met yesterday walks by, greeting me with an “Asalaam alaikum” (peace be upon you) and a handshake.

The whole Muslim community is observing Ramadan (or Ramazan as they refer to it here). Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, a month-long fast. It is a time for extra prayer and drawing closer to Allah. Rising before the sun, they eat breakfast and after prayer, begin their day. They neither eat nor drink anything again until after sunset.

Zarina is reorganizing her egg plants.
“Why do you observe Ramadan Zarina?” “It is a sin not to observe it.” I purchase two light green zucchini, and a bag of lovely cucumbers. Thanking Zarina, I weave through the multilingual jabbering of the thronging crowds. I breathe deeply to savor the sultry scent of sun warmed tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, dill, and cilantro, the marketplace flavor of Russia.

The scent of vegetables warmed by the sun is heady.

3 thoughts on “Muslims in Siberia

  1. Dear Leslie, Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, named for the Tatar people, who are predominantly muslim. If your student is Tatar, (many ethnic Russians live there also), then it really depends on the family they come from as far as spiritual beliefs. Some are cultural muslims, some are very religious. Like many muslims, they may put up a serious defense of the faith but inside they will take what you tell them into serious consideration. They may suprise you with a rapid turn around if they find what you tell them convincing. It is a cultural norm here among all different peoples, to spend time together. An American friend stateside who isn’t in a hurry and can spend hours drinking tea, or having dinner will be of great value. Tatars are proud of their contributions to science, culture and history here, of which they have made many, many.

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