Altyn Saat – The Social Life of Gold Watches in the Afghan Pamirs.

by Tobias Marschall

The “Seiko Panj”, as Afghans renamed the quartz wristwatch produced in Japan, is sold cheap on Afghan markets. “Seiko” stands for the Japanese manufacturer and “Panj”, the Persian word for five, hints to the five years guarantee logos that accompany the product. “It was hip to wear one ten years ago,” as an Afghan friend told me, “now, everybody has a Seiko Panj in Afghanistan.” The watch, sold all around the world, with silver or gold watchband, has also found its way to the Afghan Pamir and is often coined as “Altyn Saat” (gold watch). This story of the “Seiko Panj” from the Afghan Pamir reflects with its own specificities much of the entanglement of timekeepers’ symbolic and functional uses.

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People from the lowland Wakhan Corridor bring watches to the upland pastures along with other objects such as small quantities of tobacco, cigarettes, opium, semi-precious gemstones and pencils. They distribute these objects along the routes they travel and barter them for kurut (a dried dairy product for winter consumption) or sary mai (rancid butter). When they stop at known camps, they are offered a meal or at least milk tea and bread. In turn, it is usually expected that guests do not arrive empty-handed and good manners demand from guests to offer an appropriate gift in return.

Upland dwellers often complained to me about the cost of hosting outsiders, something that was in their eyes never adequately repaid. The exact value of exchanged gifts and services remains an unsettled topic that etiquette rules forbid to discuss directly with guests. While the provision of food and accommodation is indeed considered a matter of course and offered without overt demand of return, the assessment of the gifts’ value can dominate an evening’s conversation that begins once the guests have left a family’s yurt.

Travellers on their part are well aware of the issue. One trader told me that “the more valuable or seemingly prestigious the gift, the more generous the host.” A foreign documentary filmmaker is well remembered for having offered automatic mechanical wristwatches of the luxury brand Officine Panerai to key participants of his films as recompense for their help. Watches are gifts of choice for people on the move because they are situated between functionality, such as pens, and luxury, such as gemstones, and can easily be carried in their bags. Not everybody accepts opium or pencils with the same enthusiasm and one should be careful not to offend hosts with inappropriate presents. I was told that a trader was once swiftly thrown out of a camp because he offered opium to a family that loathes it. Opium addiction is an issue that most prefer not to speak about because of the high consumption rates among the population and the many problems it engenders, state prohibition put aside. Comparatively, watches seem to be more suitable and appreciated gifts as they echo a certain luxury.

Although most activities are arranged over large and flexible periods – and as the Afghan Pamir’s remoteness from the centres’ more sustained rhythm might suggest their futility – timekeepers are not only gifts and objects of pure symbolic use. Indeed, pasture management demands coordination that is facilitated with appropriate timers and walkie-talkies.

Next to this, aesthetics matter. The analogue displays of the “Seiko Panj” or other brands mounted on gold watchbands match well with the colourful decoration of the yurts and dresses. Red, white, black and dark blue are popular colours that contrast much with the rather limited colour palette of the surrounding landscape which favours shades of green, yellow, grey and light blue. Wealthy women often wear several watches on both wrists, along with silver and nacre on their ears or chest. In rich and varied decorations – amalgams of old pieces transmitted through generations and new ones acquired recently – men and women visibly signal their status and wealth to anybody able to decode the symbols’ value. A bride’s headdress, for instance, was made of a melange of old Chinese silver coins, Soviet medals and red coral arranged on a white sheet. “Seiko Panj” watches go along well with the assemblages as the brand is also known elsewhere in the world as producing fashion and luxury products.

Linking industries in Japan, traders coming from the cities of Afghanistan and a documentary filmmaker with the residents of the Little Pamir, watches became the objects of a variety of creative uses that exceed their primary design: displaying time. As orientation instruments, precious presents, symbols of wealth, ornaments, and locally rebranded international commodities, these small gold watches tell another, otherwise unnoticed story of people’s and things’ mobility in the Afghan Pamir.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Tobias Marschall is carrying out anthropological fieldwork in Central Asia since 2012, a camera always with him on the move. Starting from the Afghan Pamir, his ongoing PhD thesis will tap on circulation, conservation and development issues. He collaborates with the ERC-funded research project Remoteness and Connectivity: Highlandasia in the World. More photographic work is displayed on his lensculture profile.

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