For 17 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin and a poet fought each other in the streets and parks of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe. First, Lenin Avenue was renamed in 1991 for legendary Persian poet Rudaki, considered the first major literary genius to write in the Persian alphabet even though only 1 percent of his work has survived. But Lenin’s name and statue remained on the city’s central park until 2008, when both were replaced by Rudaki again.
Twenty-seven years ago this month, Tajikistan became — for the first time in its modern form — an independent nation. Its borders had been drawn by the Soviet Union, but now Tajikistan could control itself. As with any nation, it needed a way to honor both its Soviet fathers and the history of the region without getting too political. That’s where the poets come in. Since 1991, two universities have been named for poets as well: Rudaki again, and Sadriddin Ayni, whose artistic oeuvre is credited with holding his nation’s identity together, whether under Soviet rule or not. Ayni and Soviet politician-poet Mirzo Tursunzoda both have prominent mausoleums in the capital as well. Tourists can stroll through Khujand Park, named for another poet born in Tajikistan, where loudspeakers blare poetry at passersby — but not until they’ve paid their driver with banknotes emblazoned with, you guessed it, poets.
“Poetry is in the blood of the Tajik people. They just can’t live without it,” says Sultonali Khudoyberdiev, a professor at Khujand State University. Even Avicenna, an 11th-century Persian polymath remembered for his contributions to mathematics, physics, psychology and astronomy, wrote about half his books in verse. Born in present-day Uzbekistan, he’s now claimed as a Tajik icon.
I’ve been everywhere in Tajikistan, and I’ve found poetry everywhere. … They keep a tradition which requires you to know poetry if you want to be a full-fledged member of society.
Sultonali Khudoyberdiev, professor at Khujand State University
The coins of Uzbekistan are plastered with the face of warlord Tamerlane, while new banknotes in Afghanistan are emblazoned with structural landmarks — and, in the case of some notes issued in the 1990s, images of a game of buzkashi, in which players on horseback attempt to throw a dead goat into a goal. Not so in Tajikistan: The 5 somoni coin features Rudaki, while the 1, 5, 10 and 500 somoni banknotes also feature poets. Of all the countries in the world, only Bosnia features more poets on its currency. But it’s not just money that commemorates Tajikistan’s poetic legacy: Poetry still plays a significant role in Tajik society.
“I’ve been everywhere in Tajikistan, and I’ve found poetry everywhere,” explains Khudoyberdiev. In mountainous regions, he says, people “could communicate using rhyme. They keep a tradition which requires you to know poetry if you want to be a full-fledged member of society.”
The poetic is also political. Linguists have pointed out that changes to the Tajik spoken language under Soviet rule rendered Persian poetry clumsy and imprecise, filled with lines and rhymes that no longer scanned. That’s changed since 1991 and the adoption of Tajik, or Tajik Persian, as the country’s official language. At the time, it was difficult to find typewriters designed to write in the Tajik language. Now one of Dushanbe’s quirkier tourist attractions is the wall of the Writers’ Union building, which is dedicated with statues of 11 Tajik literary giants.
Modern poets in Tajikistan are trying to keep that fire alive. “These days I mostly write abstract pieces — verses about the meaning of life, about what I see around, about globalization and loneliness. But my poetry is always impregnated with a smell and a rhythm of our culture,” says Anisa Sabiri, one of the country’s most popular young poets.
She complains that naming streets and monuments for classic poets cannot preserve and develop old traditions, and that people should pay more attention to creating a friendly environment for modern poets. That would mean state support, which would also be in Rudaki’s tradition: He was a court poet, sponsored throughout his career by ruler Nasr II, though he died blind and impoverished after a political uprising.
Poets may be on the money, but a focus on the latter may endanger Tajikistan’s traditional focus on the literary arts. Rural Tajiks, whose livelihoods were devastated by a civil war in the 1990s, are still struggling. “My friends and I aren’t really into poetry. We know a few verses of Omar Khayyam or Shirazi and use it sometimes,” says Daler Shayimov, a cybersecurity professional in Dushanbe. “Tajiks love and value our poets, but we just don’t have time for it.” In order to feed the soul, it turns out, most people need to know where their next actual meal is coming from.
Video and Photographs by Nikita Makarenko
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