Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | June 4, 2008


Part III

At this point my personal observations seem to be of scholarly relevance.[1] I noticed that indeed many people who in their daily life identify themselves as Tajiks and speak Tajik might have an absolutely different identity when it comes to officialdom, i.e. passports, statistics. For instance, in my class at school and university all my Tajik fellows appeared to have passports where they were registered as ethnic Uzbeks. This was revealed when the teacher asked all the Uzbeks to raise their hands, then Russians and then followed Tajiks, where I was alone with my hand in the air. Some were utterly surprised and worried for me that I kept my ethnic identity unchanged, trying to convince me that I might have problems with the state. I don’t know if this might prove true, but the majority of Uzbekistan’s Tajiks are convinced that their official Tajik registry can cause harm and prove an obstacle on their career path and life in general. Very often, young Samarkandis aged 16 receive passports with an entry Uzbek, on the line for ethnicity. Tajiks applying for passports receive Uzbek ethnicity by default, even if they in their application identify themselves as Tajiks. This, however, is obviously the case only in Samarkand and Bukhara. My mother is a Samarkandi Tajik and my father a mountainous Tajik. He is Tajik officially, whereas my mother and all her relatives (cousins and aunts) in Samarkand are registered as ethnic Uzbeks.

Bergne shares some very interesting findings on ‘how Tajiks define[d] Tajiks’ back in 1920s. He shows how Pamiri Tajiks[2] distinguished between Tajiks, themselves, and the “Farsigu” (Persian Speakers). Linguistically this was a correct answer, since the Persian language belongs to the western branch of Iranian languages, which is distinct from eastern Iranian languages (such as Yaghnobi, Sogdian, Kurdish and so forth). Bergne’s conclusion on this matter is that mountain dwellers identify themselves as Tajiks whereas city and plain dwellers of, for instance, Samarkand and Bukhara “were more inclined to identify themselves in regional terms”, such as Samarkandi, Bukhor(o)i (Bergne 2007: 11). Tajiks of Bukhara who called themselves Uzbeks replied to Sukharyova’s question of who they considered to be Tajiks, as the “inhabitants of Tajikistan” or the “Fars” – “Persian speaking Shi’i immigrants from Iran or Merv”. Her conclusion in the words of Bergne was that “Muslim Tajik-speakers often thought they were Uzbeks, but, when asked to describe Tajiks, thought they were either immigrant mountaineers, or Shi’i “Fars”” (ibid. 13).

Sukharyova makes a fair point referring to the fact that the first census in Bukhara was conducted after the UzSSR and Tajik Autonomous Oblast being established. “As a result many understood the term ‘Tajik’ and ‘Uzbek’ to mean residents of Tajikistan or Uzbekistan and identified themselves accordingly” (Sengupta 2002: 68). In a number of occasions responses like “earlier we were Tajiks, now we are Uzbeks” (cf. ibid. 65) make it clear that, if it ethnicity ‘Uzbek’ and ‘Tajik’, then people are easily flexible with changing them. Sukharyova reported some of the confessions of respondents saying “we are Uzbeks, but our language is Tajik” and “prior to the revolution they identified themselves as Moslems, neither Tajik, nor Uzbek” (ibid.).

Some more confusing stories recorded by Sukharyova show that while some members of one and the same family identify themselves as Tajiks, others say they are Uzbeks. Sengupta cited such an example, where “the elder brother, 36 years of age considered himself a Tajik, whereas the younger brother 26 years of age, an Uzbek” (Sengupta 2002: 68). An additional factor of Sukharyova’s observation should be included at this point: whereas female members called themselves Tajik, male members opted to be Uzbek. Bergne writes about how Sukharyova tried to explain this phenomenon: “this division might be due to a masculine inclination to identify with the prestigious military caste in the former Bukharan emirate, which was mainly drawn from families of nomadic Uzbek background” (Bergne 2007: 12).

[1] I lived in various towns of Uzbekistan, but grew up in Samarkand and worked in Bukhara. I worked a lot with people, as well as with minority groups, such as Central Asian Roma

[2] Pamir is a chain of mountains in mostly Tajikistan, inhabited by Iranian people, who speak various Eastern-Iranian languages, which just like Tajik belong to the Indo-European family; the biggest difference between Pamiri Tajiks and Tajiks from elsewhere is religious – Tajiks are mainly Sunni Muslims, whereas Pamiri Tajiks are either Shi’i Muslims or Ismailis.



  1. Assalamu alaykum,

    Well written! I enjoyed reading. Some parts seemed a bit biased though. As a Muslim, a religious identity is more important for me. That’s why ethic problems between us (Tajiks and Uzbeks) are superficial, in my opinion.

    I lived and worked in the Northern Tajikistan for a while. There I came across some interesting facts: in Qarshi we call the traditional Uzbek/Tajik skull-cap ‘kallaposh’ but in Hujand people use ‘qalpoq’. We say ‘bolish’, Hujandis say ‘yastiq’. I can bring tons of examples of Uzbek people using Persian/Tajik words and vice verse.

    So, in my opinion, we are really one nation. There are no other two nations that are closer than Uzbeks and Tajiks. Just leave out language and you see a single nation with the same culture, tradition, religion, …, cuisine and history.

    Thanks again for the interesting blog,
    Uzbeki Qashqadaryogi

  2. Thank you for your comment! Most appreciated!
    I agree with you Tajiks use a lot of uzbek words, just like the words ‘uyla kardan’ (to think), where uyla is an uzbek word for thinking or thought, by adding ‘to do’ (taj. kardan) we create a word ‘to do thinking’. Tajiks in different regions have their own dialects, and a different level of absorbtion of Uzbek terms. Hujand is again a very interesting region where so called ‘Sarts’ were the majority, Tajiks and Uzbeks are very tightly intermingled with each other and make up a new entity of Khudjandis.

    However it is interesting to note, that use of Uzbek words in Tajik language is mainly a characteristic of a colloquial speech, whereas in Uzbek use of Tajik words is a main characteristic of a literary/official language.

    Tajiks use Uzbek words in combination with Tajik nouns or verbs in an unofficial speech. Uzbeks use Tajik words when writing poems, songs or on TV.

    • I grew up in an Uzbek-speaking family in outskirts of a small town, Gijduvan, Bukhara region. As noted above they were Tajik-speaking villages not far from where I grew up. After taking some classes of Uzbek grammar, literature and learning the history of the language I found out some interesting things about how I use my own language. It is true that in formal Uzbek language we tend to use some Persian/Tajik and Arabic words. In fact, my Uzbek teacher back in village school told me that approximately 40% of Uzbek vocabulary has Persian/Tajik and Arabic roots. These loanwords are mostly used in formal Uzbek. When I speak Uzbek for example I use very few or no Persian/Tajik words but when I am writing I use some Persian/Tajik words to give my writing some academic aura. One theory that tries to explain this phenomenon is that is that prior Uzbek language became the medium of communication for scientific, cultural, and religious information in Central Asia; it was Persian/Tajik and to some extend Arabic, that played this role. So Uzbek was spoken at home but scientific achievements were published in Persian/Tajik or even Arabic and religion was studied in Persian/Tajik or Arabic. That old association has survived to this day which is why our formal language differs from our spoken language. To make it easier to understand: you can see the same dynamic between written English and spoken English. Before English Latin was the language of science and religion for English-speaking peoples. That history still lingers in modern formal English vs spoken English. When speaking native English speakers tend to use less or no Latin words like when they say “my eyesight is getting bad.” However, when using formal English such as in academic writing the same speakers tend to use words with Latin roots and write “My vision is deteriorating”. The meaning is the same in both sentences but the first one uses all Germanic words and the second sentence 2/3 of words have Latin roots. The same exact thing happens to native Uzbek speakers when it comes using the Uzbek language as a medium of communication.

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