Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | June 11, 2008

rejecting one’s identity

In a Turkish shop

Me: Bonjour, un melon

Her: 1,95 euro

ME: teshekkurler (thanks)

Her: Turkmisin? (are you a Turk?)

Me: No, I am from Uzbekistan

Her: Ah Uzbaekistan, Uzbek?

Me: Evet, amma, Tajik (Yes, but Tajik)

Her: Tajik? (puzzled)

Me: Fors (Persian as language)

Her: Fors…? (pause) Non. Turk

I smiled. She is sure all the people living on that part of the world are Turks. No matter what you say, you are a turk for her. It was amusing. I think she was never there, and she has never seen how ‘colourful’ and diverse we are, even among Uzbeks, Tajiks and others.

But no need to go to a Turkish shop in Europe to hear people rejecting your identity, plenty of them do it in Uzbekistan too, even on TV, in pseudo-scientific books too. I met a couple of fellow Tajiks, non-accidentally, i assume, they all have been through Turkish-brainwash-lyceums, who believe there is no such an ethnicity as Tajik, that identities based on it are false and based on ignorance. Since they are the ones who know the truth, their brother from abroad shared this truth with him. They tell me: We are just Turks who lost their language, as we lived under oppression of Persian rulers, moreover Persian was more fashionable those days. But in the last six centuries the rulers of Central Asian city-states were members of various Turkish tribes, and they spoke perfectly Persian to communicate with their peoples. Why should ‘we’ be forced to speak Persian under the Turkish rulers? If you traveled a lot in Uzbekistan and have seen many towns and villages, you must know that one can find some villages in the middle of nowhere where people still speak their Persian language (very often it is their first and only language). They have various dialects in different villages and different cities. When Bukhrian Tajik and Samarkandi Tajik come together they laugh about differences and dialects of each other. The same can be said about diverse dialects of Uzbek, (Kazakhi dialect in Tashkent, Turkmen dialect in Khorezm, Tajik dialect in the south, and pure or high-Uzbek in Fergana Valley, but this is just a general division, there are many more dialects, Uzbeks in Dzhizzak speak a different dialect than the Uzbeks of Kashkadarya).

Part VI

Bergne, in his two page-long accounts on Sarts, shows how uncertain Russian ethnographers were regarding the origins of the Sarts. They were divided according to their assumptions. Noteworthy features of Sarts are: they are settled, urban dwellers and bilingual. Some called themselves Tajik, some Uzbek, but spoke both languages. But the term Sart remains unclear. Here is how Bergne describes Sart identity:

“In this Islamic Central Asian environment, where ethnicity was of little consequence, the process of assimilation between the later arrivals, the Uzbeks, and the Iranian/Persian/Turkic/Arab cocktail of peoples whom they found, produced in due course a composite identity of mixed ethnic make-up. In terms of language, its representatives were usually bi-lingual, but eventually preferred a Turkic language strongly influenced by Persian in both vocabulary but also in vocalisation. This composite identity became known as ‘Sart'” (Bergne 2007: 7).

Bergne in his endnotes (p. 136) writes about Bartold’s view on the origins of the word Sart. According to him, Sart is a Hindi word used by Mongols to refer to all Central Asians involved in trade. This, indeed, is a very vague description, given that Mongolia very often is seen as part of larger Central Asia. And who are ‘Central Asians’ for the Mongols?

From Bergne’s chapter ‘Central Asian Identities before 1917′ one can draw two conclusions. First, the term’s meaning changed throughout the time. As Bergne suggests, during the Timurid dynasty (14th century) Sart used to denote ‘Tajik’, or any non-Turkic peoples, i.e. Iranians. As the only non-Turks in the region were mainly Iranians: “[A]t the end of 14th century, the language and literature of the Sarts was described as being what wasn’t Turkish i.e. Iranian”. But what meant ‘Tajik’ during the Timurid period? Did it really mean the same as now? The term Tajik used to mean different notions in different times. It was generally meant to refer to the non-Turkic sedentary population of Central Asia, earlier it was used to mean Arabs.[1] In Tibet (China), all Persians are known to be called Tajiks, in the courts of India, Tajiks were the ones who spoke both Persian and Arabic. In this context, Bergne, probably, refers to ‘Tajik’ as to the Iranian sedentary population of Central Asia. He notes that a German traveller, J. Klaproth in the 19th century, mentions the Bukharan people referring to themselves as Tajiks, whereas Turks would call them Sart. In the nineteenth century the term Sart acquires somewhat “derogatory connotations”. According to Bergne, the word Sart derives from Turkish ‘‘sari it” i.e. “yellow dog” (cf. Bergne 2007: 7). My observation in this regard is that the word Sart is mainly used [in the 20th and 21st century] to refer to Uzbeks primarily by the Kyrgyz and Kazakh. As I have asked my Kyrgyz and Kazakh fellows on a number of occasions of what the term “Sart” means, they first were embarrassed, saying that was a very offensive word to call Uzbeks. Not all of them could really explain what literally the word means. But according to some of the responses Sart is referred to nomads who have dismounted their horses (the horse being an important symbol of nomadism) and settled down, by doing so they betrayed their life style.

The second conclusion is that several records of Russian orientalists show them having difficulties identifying ethnic affiliations of the peoples of Central Asia. The shared view in this respect was the fact that Sarts were a mixture of Turkic and Iranian people. But as who they were, more Uzbeks or Tajiks, this was largely disputed. Grobenkin, a Russian ethnographer classified them as Uzbeks due to their preferred use of Turkic languages. Andreev “identified them as a mix of various Turkic elements”. He also noted that “Uzbek-Sarts” live in all the settlements together with a small admixture of an assimilated Tajik element, who have lost the conception of any sort of division into tribes and no longer remember their ethnic origins, but who do not consider themselves to be ‘Turks'”. Skvartskij, however “called them Tajiks, albeit turkicised” and confessed that they deny being Tajiks and consider themselves to be Sarts. Bartol’d, one of the most cited scholars, called a Sart an “Uzbekised urban Tajik” (cf. ibid. 8). Zarubin, however makes it clear that “they do not really know what they are. They call themselves Turks. But their Turkmen and Kyrgyz neighbours call them “Sart” which word they also use for Tajiks” (ibid.).

Sarts, according to Sengupta, in Khorezm, Ferghana and Tashkent were primarily Turkic speaking, but sometimes bilingual. Whereas in Transoxiana they were called “Tajiks or Chagatais, and were Tajik speaking or bilingual” (ibid.20). She believes Sarts remained distinct from both Tajiks and Uzbeks (ibid.).

This uncertainty about ethnic/national identities of Central Asian people shows how difficult it was to separate these people along the ethno-linguistic line. Alisher Ilkhamov, according to Bergne, argues that “the traditional image of the “Sarts” did not accord with the social engineering embarked on by the new communist regime” (Bergne 2007: 8). By the 1920s though, the designation ‘Sart’ was replaced by ‘Uzbek’, and so they were all counted as Uzbeks in all censuses, regardless of, as Zarubin puts it, the “lack of clarity as to the term’s meaning” (cf. ibid. 9).


[1] On the word Tat, see for more information Sengupta 2002.

Part V

Sengupta argues that language ‘was never a barrier’: “Various Turkic groups lived in intense symbiosis with non-Turkic groups without fully assimilating with them” (ibid: 64). She further notes that in some areas “assimilation was inevitable” and that they intermixed with each other to the extent that it was difficult to discern any difference whatsoever (cf. ibid. 64). Further she cites S. K. Olimova and M. A. Olimov who claim that “Uzbeks and Tajiks were multilingual by norm” (Sengupta 2002: 64). Sengupta, however notes, that is was “the minority group that became bilingual” (ibid.). I would opt to believe Sengupta rather than the Olimovs. Having lived together with Uzbeks both in cities where Tajiks were non-existent and where Tajiks were predominated, I can confirm that it is mainly Tajiks that are bilingual, since they have to adapt to the Uzbek environment. Of course, there are more Uzbeks who speak Tajik than Germans or English, but it seems to be an overstatement to claim that Uzbeks are bilingual ‘by norm’ apart from Tajikistani Uzbeks, who are usually bilingual, again, because they are a minority. Most Tajiks from mountainous areas are neither bilingual nor multilingual. Most of them learn Uzbek only when they first go to the army, university, or if they have TV sets, they may understand Uzbek and even Russian. I think it is even an overstatement to confer that all Tajiks even in cities like Bukhara and Samarkand speak perfect Uzbek. I grew up in various towns of Uzbekistan, but then my family decided to move back home, to Samarkand, and there my Uzbek skills worsened, because it was almost unnecessary.

Another example shows clearly that censuses failed to identify correctly the ethnic and linguistic affiliations of peoples of Uzbekistan. The inhabitants of Qamishi village of Sukhrandarya region submitted a request to build schools for their children:

“Altogether 500 villagers (khajagi), we are all Tajik and Fars people and we do not have a school. The Volost Executive Committee wants to open a Turkish school, but since we are all Farsi (Tajik) speakers and according to the Directive of the Communist Party, every people can freely speak in its language, we request from the Soviet National Minorities that a Tajik school be opened in our village.” (Sengupta 2002: 114)

The response to this request stated the statistics, according to which all the population of the village was Uzbek, and there was no single Tajik speaker. Furthermore, if they wanted to discuss schools then those “must be about Uzbeki and not Tajiki” (cf. Sengupta ibid.). Situations like this resulted in high numbers of bilingual Tajiks, which, in my view, is their advantage. The only problem is that the knowledge of Tajik among Tajik speaker is deteriorating. Tajiks of my generation (even older) and younger possess only oral knowledge of the Tajik language. Because, officially, the Tajiks are so few in number, there seems to be no need to cultivate the language or have Tajik schools.

But in case of Bukhara, Bergne raises an interesting point, reminding that Bukhara was a large and famous city. One of the characteristic features of such cities is that they are attractive to people from the ‘countryside and beyond’, due to which the urban population was reported to be mixed. Not just they resided and shared the space of the city among each other, but also intermarriages were common. Only religion could prove a sound obstacle for intermarriages, whereas nationality, ethnicity or race were not seen as such (cf. Bergne 2007: 12).

As mentioned above, the terms which define Tajiks and Uzbeks are in no way homogenous and remain unclear. To make the story even more complicated, another identity was discovered, which was difficult to locate, and classify, that of ‘Sart’. Identities like Sart, provided a tough time for the Russian ethnographers to delineate ethnic groups on the basis of language use and self-determination.

Part IV

The question remains what was the role of language in the whole delimitation process? It was recorded (by ethnographers, travellers, and officials) in what languages people spoke, widely either Turkic or Iranian (Persian or Eastern Iranian). For the Soviet bureaucracy language was an important signifier in determining ethnicities and drawing boundaries to separate them, Sengupta suggests (cf. Sengupta 2002). But how is this possible in a region where people live intermingled with each other and more than often are multilingual. The Central Asian territory witnessed many feudal states and empires where indigenous population spoke one language, the ruling elite spoke another, and the intelligentsia used a third language to exchange their thoughts. Namely in the 19th century, Persian was the administrative language in courts and among the urban folk, Turkish was the language of the Uzbek elite, who were multilingual, and the intelligentsia wrote in Persian and Arabic and later also in Turkish.

Regarding the role of language, many authors agree that the lingua franca in the region before the Soviet invasion for centuries was Persian and (academically) Arabic. Sengupta’s findings on language use, namely Persian and Turkic in the Bukhara emirate (18-20th century) are worth to mention here. It is however important to make it clear that the ruling elite in Bukhara consisted of Turkic speaking Uzbeks whereas the indigenous population was largely Persian speaking which was also the case in previous empires (of the Arabs, Mongols, Timurids, and Sheybanis):

“Tajiki was the official language of the Emirate. As the language of administration, it was spoken at the court by the Emir, and his mostly Iranian officials. All foreign correspondence was in Iranian as were all official decrees to the citizens. At the same time being a Turk, as the leader of the Turkish chieftains and tribesmen, the Emir addressed his chiefs of Ils (tribes) and Ulusses (appanages) in Turkish” (Sengupta 2002: 49).

Again, language in a multilingual region is not the indicator of ethnicity and can’t be used to delineate groups along linguistic or ethnic lines. Many scholars speak of so called Turkified Iranians and Persified Turks, the evident example of the latter is the Persian speaking Hazara people in Afghanistan, who are believed to be Persified Mongols i.e. having somewhat Mongol physical features they speak Dari/Persian.

Since this section is about Uzbeks and Tajiks the reader might ask about the differences between them. Uzbeks are one of the most, to my opinion, Persified (at least linguistically, but also culturally[1]) Turk people in the region, who preserved their language, but with an enormous influence of Persian language and settled down earlier than other nomads. As Sengupta writes about increasing influence of the Persian language on Central Asian Turkish languages: “Whereas Central Asian Karakhanid (11th century) contained 1.6 percent of Persian loanwords in its texts, early Chaghatay[2] (14th century) contained 26 percent and classical Chaghatay (15th century) 50-60 percent” (Sengupta 2002: 91).

According to Bergne’s findings, Andreev (in ‘The Ethnography of Tajiks’ 1925) studied physical and linguistic differences of Tajiks in the mountain areas and in plains. He and several other Russian military officers noted that Tajiks in the mountains looked more ‘European’ than the ones “who had succeeded in keeping their position in the plains” (Bergne 2007: 11). Further Bergne adds that Lt. Colonel Snesyarref of the Russsian General Staff in his description of Eastern Bukhara (1906) describes Tajik plainsmen as being “mixed with Turkic stock”, the latter remained unexplained and undescribed by Bergne. When it comes to differences in the way of life, Bergne notes that Tajiks are “mainly settled and engaged in agriculture” whereas Uzbeks “were still at least semi-nomadic and engaged in stock-raising” (ibid.).

What is understood as the Uzbek nation nowadays was constructed by the Soviets, according to Sengupta. “The designation Uzbek, for instance, is being used in the Soviet sense to mean nation, whereas previously it had been used to mean a tribal classification of a dominant dynastic tribal tier, the Shybanids. Similarly, prior to 1924 there was no single Uzbek language that was prevalent in the region” (Sengupta 2002: 104). Just as we have seen with the term Tajik, the ‘so called’ Tajiks themselves had various other criteria as whom to consider Tajik, on the basis of religion, or origin (location-wise). This again shows how unclear the terms were at those years of delimitation and are indeed still. But still is language a determinant of ethnic affinity?


[1] One of the examples of Persianisation of Uzbeks is elopement or bride-kidnapping which was popular among nomad Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Turkmen, and also among Tajik-speaking Roma of Central Asia. Kyrgyz and Kazakh believe it to be their cultural heritage and tradition, whereas among the sedentary population elopement is regarded as the worst offence and socially unacceptable. This attitude to elopement is largely shared by settled urban Uzbeks too. This assumption of mine doesn’t have any scientific proof whatsoever, but obviously this custom could be an interesting subject for future research.

[2] Chaghatay is one of the Turkic languages, claimed by Uzbeks to be ‘early Uzbek’. Sengupta reveals that “historically Turki was not a single language but a combination of dialects” (ibid. 90). Some pan-Turkist leaders, such as Gaspirali, strived to create one common Turki language, which could serve as a lingua franca among Turkic Moslems of the Russian Empire, but apparently he failed (cf. Sengupta 2002: ibid.).

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