Julie Ershadi is a third-year graduate student in Iranian Studies at UCLA. She earned a Bachelor's degree in linguistics from Bryn Mawr College and has previously worked as a journalist covering Congressional politics, lifestyle, and Iranian-American issues. She lives in Los Angeles.
About “Visualizing Central Asia”
During the summer of 2020, the UCLA Program on Central Asia invited students to create short videos about the Central Asian region. These projects explore the students’ connections with the area, drawing on relevant courses, study abroad, research, and/or issues of personal concern. The videos cover a range of topics including politics, society, language, food, architecture, and gender. Together, they offer a portrait of Central Asia from a variety of perspectives, contributing to our understanding of a region that is often overlooked.
Tajikistan is a place that everyone seems to think they understand better than anyone else.
“It’s a landlocked country in Central Asia that’s the size of Wisconsin and 93% mountains -- what more do you need to know?” Or...
“It’s a former Soviet Union state with the lowest GDP in the region and the same president since its civil war in the 1990s. What more do you need to know?” Or...
“It’s a Persian-speaking country with a mix of ethnicities and a majority-Muslim population, often overshadowed by similar countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. What more do you need to know?”
And so on. Everyone seems to know better than anyone else what Tajikistan is, and everyone seems to sense a quest for cultural authenticity and national unity after centuries of influence from Russia to the north and, more and more recently, from China to the east.
I can’t tell you what Tajikistan is or isn’t; I can only say what I experienced, and what visiting this beautiful, ancient land in the summer of 2019 meant to me as a student of Persianate culture. I have been studying Persian poetry for two years here at UCLA, where I have nourished my mind with the verses of Rudaki, Daqiqi, and Kamal Khujandi, masters of fine speech who all hail from regions within the borders of modern-day Tajikistan. It is in this place’s green meadows and indomitable mountain peaks where the fathers of Persian verse first displayed their gifts to humanity.
Many things have changed here since the medieval period that I study, but what I experienced in my travels is that the eternal plains, cliff faces, and ice-cold rivers of Tajikistan, as well as the benzene-scented city streets and half-empty mosques, are the home of an incredibly strong people who demonstrate immense resilience in the face of history’s cruelty, quiet reverence for their cultural heritage, and magnanimous hospitality toward their visitors.
Everywhere I went, I wasn’t a “tourist” or a “foreigner.” Instead, everyone called me a mihmān, which means “guest” in Persian, placing the focus not on the fact that I was an outsider so much as on locals’ sense of responsibility to help me feel welcome and protected in an exciting but unfamiliar land.
Indeed, Tajik people seem to be aware that adjusting is difficult for mihmāns. My first two weeks there everyone said to me: “You’ll get used to it.” To what? To the unusual food, to the intense weather, to the smog in the streets -- but also to things like thrashing rivers overflowing with glacial ice melt beneath a west-facing mountainside painted purple and red by the setting sun, gentlemen spontaneously reciting 11th century poetry on a gondola ride, and children shouting “Hello, my name is so and so!” from across the street as you pass. And in my last two weeks, I heard constantly, “You’ll be back.” Back to what? The ancient ruins, the poets’ shrines, and the distinctly Central Asian cities that crown Tajikistan’s sparse roadways.
And they are right, I will be back, because just one summer is not enough time to cherish the legacy of a millennium of literary and cultural tradition as it lives on in the hearts of the people of this country. We are all stewards of humankind’s humanity, and we cannot afford to forget where we come from, and Tajikistan is the often-overlooked treasury of this valuable global heritage.