From October to December 2019 I stayed in Dushanbe/Tajikistan, supported by the Institute for Foreign Relations (ifa). I stuck to my writing practice there and did extensive research.
The texts are written from a personal perspective, not with a journalistic approach. The selection was edited in August 2020.
One day I happen to walk across Dushanbe’s sports ground, here the football stadium, there the tennis stadium, and oh, what kind of building is that? I had seen this in a video months ago but then an acquaintance said no, zurkhaneh would not really exist in Dushanbe. This building was financed by Iran and inaugurated in 2006, the International Zurkhaneh Sports Federation is in charge of the associations in other countries. Zurkhaneh, which translates as House of Strength, is a sports ritual from Iran which, unfortunately, is reserved for men until this day.
The main room has a hexagonal sunken area about one meter deep in which the exercises take place, with the auditorium around it. There is an elevated seat for the morshed, the guide of the ritual who plays a big tonbak made of clay and a very special bell hanging above it. His singing directs the sportsmen both physically and spiritually, since the lyrics stem from Persian poetry and Sufism.
In Tajikistan, the songs to zurkhaneh are not dedicated to Ali but to Allah, because Sunnis don’t praise Ali. That’s why this association is also named after the poet Ferdowsi. Nevertheless Iran, according to Navruz, the director of this place, tries to enforce the Shiite songs also in other countries. The Iranian Federation keeps the Tajik team small, and all members of the professional team who could practice the ritual here are currently working in Moscow.
But why do the relationships between Iran and Tajikistan seem so complicated at the moment? One reason goes back to the civil war. Tajikistan has accused Iran of supporting the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) in the civil war and then welcoming supporters or officials of the party in Iran. A few months after the IRPT was banned in 2015, the chairman Muhiddin Kabiri was invited to the International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran, where he met Seyed Ali Khamenei, what Tajikistan immediately perceived as an affront and took countermeasures. Tajikistan voted against Iran’s admission to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the alliance that is concerned with security, economic and trade issues and stability in the region spanning from Russia to India and China. http://eng.sectsco.org/about_sco/
Tajikistan then approached the Gulf States and expelled Iranian businessmen from the country. The story of Babak Zanjani sounds like material for a veritable movie, most informations about it cannot be verified. The businessman is said to have handled oil deals for the Iranian government in order to circumvent the sanctions. He deposited the billions in profits (state money) on banks in Tajikistan, but the country asserts that not any cooperation between Zanjani and Tajik banks existed. I was told that he founded one of the main taxi companies in Dushanbe and invested in two major high-rises that I have seen. Zanjani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran, he is in detention. The money never seems to have appeared again. Allegedly he determined what to do with it in case of his death and who to give it to.
However, there are currently no direct flights between the two countries, and the Mashhad-Dushanbe service, which started earlier in 2019, has been discontinued. It is said that there are talks about a new route between Dushanbe and Tehran. The small Iranian trade fair that took place in Dushanbe in December 2019 can only be subsumed under friendly but trivial gestures.
I was instructed in zurkhaneh a couple of times, it was fun. Even the morshed came once, dressed in a sweatsuit, and played, but due to the lack of a heater, which is necessary to warm the tonbak for playing, the instrument is in a rather poor condition. He’s only been playing for zurkhaneh since two years, the association also has no financial means to pay him. His main instrument is the harmonica, with which he seems to travel around the region to give concerts.
Since in late fall the zurkhaneh room, without a heating system, gets colder and colder, one could only hang in there when moving a lot, like the young boys are doing in the afternoon lessons. But they are learning wrestling and have no idea, what zurkhaneh is.