Reading Dostoyevsky in English: A Who Dunnit in Khorog, Tajikistan

by Brook Bolander

picture for blog You meet people in Khorog who read Dostoyevsky in English, and others who barely speak a word of English. Nestled in Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains, just over 2000 metres above sea level, the city of Khorog is home to a population of approximately 30,000 people, the majority of whom are native speakers of Shugni. Other predominant languages are Tajik and Russian, both of which used to be official languages. Yet since Tajik was made the country’s sole official language through President Emomali Rahmon’s 2009 law “On the state language of the Republic of Tajikistan”, it has been gaining ground at the expense of Russian, at least in official institutions.

During the month I spent in Khorog researching English language use, I quickly saw how mixed attitudes towards the various languages spoken by people in Khorog are. While the majority of the people generally views Shugni favourably, it also constitutes a barrier for those minorities who have a different mother tongue, for example Kyrgyz-speaking people from Murghab. Attitudes towards Tajik and Russian are more complex and mixed. Conversations with local Pamiris highlight such varied attitudes nicely: many stressed their own difficulties learning Tajik, their perceived lack of competence, and their preference for Russian, while also, often in the same conversation, highlighting the status of Tajik as the language of the nation and thus of national unity, a status which they believe justifies its official presence in schools and the media. While I did not actually have the chance to converse with Tajiks in Khorog, it seems fair to assume that many are likely to prefer Tajik over Russian.

So where does English fit in? Generally speaking English has gone from a language associated with the enemy during much of the Cold War to a language of possibility. The possibility of English has long been recognised by the current Aga Khan IV, spiritual leader of the global Ismaili community, consisting of roughly ten to fifteen million people living in over 25 countries around the world, and the religious majority in Gorno-Badakhshan, of which Khorog is the capital. The current Aga Khan’s grandfather, Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, was the first of the Aga Khans to explicitly encourage Ismailis to learn English, in a firman (or religious decree) broadcast via Delhi radio in 1940 to Hunza, Northern Pakistan, where there were just two radios at the time. In his firman, he encouraged his followers to learn European languages and English. Today English is the community’s lingua franca and official language, although empirical research on the degree to which local communities are competent in English is lacking.

While Ismailis just over the border in Hunza were being encouraged to learn English, those in Gorno-Badakhshan and in other parts of Central Asia were tightly embedded within the Soviet Union, and thus within a strongly Russian linguistic landscape. Moreover, there was a lack of ties between the Aga Khan and the Ismailis of Central Asia until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Aga Khan first visited Gorno-Badakhshan in 1995, and the first Ismaili institutions in the region were established shortly after. During his 1995 visit, the current Aga Khan encouraged the Ismailis to learn English, a factor which I was made aware of in conversations with my interlocutors in Khorog; some of them even trace their motivation to learn English back to this very event, which they either witnessed themselves or were later told about.

Paralleling the heightened emphasis on Tajik in the region, we thus also find a heightened emphasis on English, which is likely to be partly due to the efforts of the Aga Khan and his institutions, and partly due to the increased global spread of English and the commodification of the language as having a high market value. Thus to return to our young Dostoyevsky reader: His dream to know English in order to be able to go abroad and to study is both intrinsically tied to his wish to help his own community (a cornerstone of the Ismaili religion) and his positive evaluation of English and of the opportunities it offers (a belief he may, too, have come by as a result of Ismaili teachings).

And yet despite this increased importance of English, for many people in Khorog, Russian and Tajik are likely to remain more valuable. For the young men who seek employment in Russia, Russian is likely to continue to be the dominant language, and for those who wish to become a part of the country’s bureaucratic elite, it will be Tajik that they will strive to learn and know. Over time, English may emerge as the language of a small local elite for whom neither employment in the Tajik civil service, nor work in Russia are viable options, but who strive to fill seats at English-speaking universities (and who may or may not come back after completing their studies).

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:

Brook Bolander is a post-doctoral research and teaching assistant in the Department of English, University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her research interests include the role of English as a global language, particularly with respect to questions of nationalism and transnationalism, and in connection with power and identity. Currently, she is researching the role of English in Northern Pakistan and Gorno-Badakhshan.