“With Our Own Hands” arriving home

Latofat, a school principle in the most remote valley of the Pamir mountains sometimes wondered if the two foreigners who 4 years showed up at her door unannounced saying they were collecting recipes about Pamiri food would ever return. She was also a bit skeptical about whether there would ever be a book. When she heard on Monday that we were returning to Siponj village, with books in tow, that very day, she said she simply could not wait to see the book.

With Our Own Hands: A celebration of food and life in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan” has arrived back in the Pamirs, and 1500 copies have been started be distributed to every community in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs. The book began as a simple recipe book, to fulfill a promise to a grandmother and to document the rich unwritten knowledge about the unique agricultural biodiversity in the Pamirs. Over the course of 5 years, the book became much more. Nearly 700 pages of English, Tajik and Dari text and many photographs, describe the domestication of the mountains, the influence of the silk road, the importance of wild food, the resilience of transhumance and bring into sharp focus conflicting futures of the region.

5000 kg of book traveled from the Netherlands over land to Tajikistan. They arrived in Dushanbe two days before our own arrival last week. Here, Frederik and I are sitting on the 5 tons of book in storage at the Ismaili centre in Dushanbe.

While this felt like a small victory in itself, the next challenge was to get the books in a Kamaz for the multiple day trip to Khorog over precarious mountain passes. In the meantime, we took off in a taxi-jeep with 20 books on top of the car.

book4Latofat is the Principle of the school in Siponj village in Bartang Valley. The village is often completely isolated in the winter months when snow closes-in the valley. Perhaps because of this isolation, the valley maintains a ‘pure’ Pamiri language and is home to some of the strongest traditions in the Pamirs. The school in Siponj celebrates an annual national food day, where students ask their grandparents and elders how to make traditional foods from the unique agriculture all around them. 4 years ago, we ate many different dishes, like Baht, Khomnigul, and Boj.  We took some photos of the beautiful and proud children, and with those, we conclude the book. This day brought us a lot of hope – that food, tradition and knowledge have a place not just in preserving the past, but also in imagining the future of the Pamirs. Naturally, we decided to return to this village first.

Initial reactions were often of surprise and sheer glee!

Initial reactions were often of surprise and sheer glee!

Why the title, “With Our Own Hands”? First is because the Pamirs would be a desolate wilderness, the way Sir Francis Younghusband described it to the Royal Geographical society in 1892. People make life-giving soil with their own hands. One thing that was never in question was the title of the book.

But another reason became much more apparent as we saw people react to the book. People were reacting to the knowledge that cannot be spoken, but is expressed through ‘doing’, in their own hands. Bobbi, who drove us to Siponj, admitted to us that he thought this was an impressive volume ‘about’ the Pamirs, but didn’t really know what it was all about. He spent the next few days, while waiting for us, going through it page by page, and then told us that this was a great service to the Pamiri people – it captured invisible knowledge.


He asked, how is it possible that two foreigners wrote this book? Why was it not Pamiris?

We often asked ourselves this question while writing the book – why us?

First, it was not just us. It was supported enormously by a group of dedicated Pamiri scientists who collected recipes, verified information and made all the connections for us. And the knowledge of course, is entirely from the Pamirs. All we did was pull it together.

The other answers are maybe more complex. Because we are outsiders, so we have the luxury and distance to observe.

And we didn’t only do it for the Pamirs. We also did it for ourselves. I grew all up all over the place – the Pamirs are as much home to me as the other places I have spent meaningful time. The pamirs are an intensely special place. Yes, intensely. One cannot visit the Pamirs without being overwhelmed by the grandeur of the mountains, the blue of the sky, the force of the rivers… the diversity of seeds, language and culture. From a purely functional perspective, we will need the seeds in the Pamirs as the climate continues to change for human prosperity. But more importantly, I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in a world where the Pamirs exist.

Perhaps my favourite reaction was when Akorbirsho, the father of a good friend and ethno-botanist collaborator, read the first recipe he recognised “Noshkukpa” and started shrieking with laughter. He then went through every page of the book.

Perhaps my favourite reaction was when Akorbirsho, the father of a good friend and ethno-botanist collaborator, read the first recipe he recognised “Noshkukpa” and started shrieking with laughter. He then went through every page of the book.

What next?

The books arrived in Khorog by Kamaz on Thursday. I was already on my way to Dushanbe by car. Frederik and a Dutch film maker were there to capture it! Supposedly a line human chain of 30 people formed from the back of the Kamaz to a basement where 5,000 kg of books were passed from hand to hand.

Everyone who has seen the book, whether in the police, the bus stop or bazaar, has immediately asked how to get one. The Mountains Societies Development Support Programme will help distribute them to every community, to ensure that at least one copy is accessible in a public space.

The book should live, it is not a monument set in stone. Already we have received critiques: mistakes in spelling, which differs from valley to valley based on pronunciation; differences in recipes from grandmother to grandmother, village to village and certainly valley to valley; and discontent about showing some of the less appealing sides of the Pamirs (like the opium addiction especially on the Afghan side). We would love to find a way to facilitate the making of the book into a live forum for discussion, to capture these differences and nuances – to open up a space for imaginings.

Death by hospitality

I really have no idea where to begin.  I am in Khorog, and the helicopter ride here was definitely one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  I actually enjoyed the helicopter ride itself, really quite smooth, I could hardly tell we were taking off.  The scenery from the roof of the world is too hard to put into words. The peaks were so close I felt that I could touch them at some moments.  Coming out of Dushanbe, I saw a water reservoir  which was extremely beautiful. After leaving the flat, fertile lands of Dushanbe behind, we quickly entered the more mountainous regions of the already mountainous country.
The mountains were all so different. Beginning with some highly patterned sand-dune-like structures—to giant glaciers. On some of the mountain sides were attempts of cultivation, but they were all very small scale.  So many streams were trickling from the glaciers to the river in the valley below (I think the Panj—which means five). We flew over Afghanistan for quite a while, which seemed much more cultivated and populated than the Tajik side. I took over 150 photos, and I’m not usually that compulsive, it was truly mind-boggling and the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Arriving in Khorog, I was met by some unfriendly officials at the airport, who were extremely concerned that my permit to enter GBAO had the wrong passport number on it. The officials copied down Denise’s passport number instead of mine. So they kept trying to tell me that I had to be sent back to Dushanbe, but I put my foot down. I traveled with a police escort to the police station, where the matter was cleared up with the help of the financial manager of MSDSP—an awesome and funny man.
After being held in the police station for a while, I arrived at MSDSP, people seemed rather surprised that I was there.  The NRM department had no idea that I was arriving. I also feel rude because I never made it back there today because I spent the rest of the day hunting for apartments.
Allison and I looked at 6 different houses/apartments… and only 3 were in our price range.  The one was a house in UPD. It was a traditional Pamiri house, with one really really large room. It was a square room and had sitting room all around.  It would have required a long way to walk though… and was poorly insulated.  We by chance stopped at the AKF hotel, which was $30 a night, and a woman told us that there was a house she could show us.
So here we are, in the house of a local Ms. Doctor. It’s a beautiful new house, two bedrooms, living room, bathroom and small kitchen.  The house is nestled into the mountainside, on the outskirts of the small city, right under a high altitude graveyard.  We have a nice view and a potentially nice patio, if the pile of gravel is removed.  The host was extremely hospitable. Her sister and daughter prepared cookies, tea, chocolates and eggs and sausages (maple leaf hot dogs) for us.
The sister, Lola, is a nurse, secretary at the court and university professor.  She and Sofia said that doctors and other such professionals are severely underpaid. Sofia now works for AKF health services in Afghanistan because the local hospital didn’t pay enough to get by.  While we were having tea, some neighbours came by to be checked up by her.
The family is moving out of their humble home, so that we can move in.  We are extremely grateful, and hope that the monthly rent will help them out.

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