This is an excerpt from a story I wrote about hiking in Badakhshan, the mountainous autonomous region of Tajikistan, and my experiences as a Fulbright Scholar in 2018. The full story is published in the Canadian adventure magazine Outpost:
The air is cool, and I tighten the cords on my backpack and head into the village toward the steep seven-kilometre hike to the top of the mountain in front of me. My goal this morning is to reach the ancient Yamchun Fortress, a third-century BC outpost along the Silk Road, which served the dual purposes of controlling the flow of goods across this region and protecting the area from foreign invaders.
Yamchun is also known as the Fortress of Fire Worshippers, harkening back to the days when Zoroastrianism — one of the world’s oldest religions — had a pervasive influence on this part of Central Asia.
I breathe in the cool air and let my mind wander from the fortress back to my Tajik students and our very first field research project together. My Tajik co-teacher had told me that most Tajik students knew little or nothing about conducting research, and he suggested we add a research component to our course. Most of the research about Tajikistan had apparently been done by international researchers—not by locals, so I happily agreed, eager to do my part to protect this tiny part of the Silk Road from modern foreign invaders. I was not a seasoned researcher yet myself, so we all had to learn the steps and take the journey together. I learned by teaching; they taught me by learning.
The theme of our humanities-based course was “Tradition and Change.” We worked with our students to develop research projects that would give them an opportunity to look back into their country’s past with an eye on how traditions had morphed or changed over time. We encouraged them to develop their researcher identities along the way and urged them to carve new paths for themselves and for Tajikistan.
We asked our students to focus on individual elements of the upcoming Persian New Year celebration Nowruz—a Zoroastrian spring festival that originated more than 3,000 years ago and is still celebrated by over 300 million people across Central Asia and other parts of the world.
Some of our students chose to study traditional and colourful costumes, the symbolic significance of food, or the national sports of wrestling or buzkashi—a raucous rough and tumble competition where hordes of men on horseback aggressively fight to carry a goat carcass over a goal. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen an amazing buzkashi match two months before. Still other students researched the songs, myths and poetry associated with this ancient festival.
Over the following weeks, my students taught me how richly diverse and ancient Tajik culture is. Nestled in the heart of the Silk Road routes, Tajikistan witnessed history unfolding on its doorstep and now continued to embrace those traditions, many of them utterly unchanged for thousands of years.
∞ ∞ ∞
I walk through the sparsely populated village and continue to think about my students — how they developed and practised interviews in class, and then went out and took notes on conversations with family, neighbours and strangers. How they studied the food, clothing and storytelling traditions of this ancient festival. How rightfully proud they were when they presented their original research at a conference we organized for Central Asian educators.
They did presentations and sat on panels where they shared their reflections on the research process—where they had struggled, what they had learned, and how they had learned it. How they wanted to learn more. How they self-identified as researchers. In the process of sharing, they became the teachers, while the Central Asian educators took notes on how to teach their own students how to do research.
I marvel at how much I learned from my students—not only about Tajik culture and ancient traditions but also about their modern families and personal dreams. The teacher becomes student. Tradition and change.
Dr. Cathy Raymond completed a doctoral degree in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education from IU-Bloomington in June 2021. This story is an excerpt from a longer piece about her experiences as a Fulbright Scholar in Tajikistan in 2018; the longer version was originally published in Outpost Magazine in 2020. https://outpostmagazine.com/youve-got-a-friend-tajikistan-raymond/