Tuesday, 23 October 2007

An Excerpt From a different part of our Strange World.



ENTER THE PAMIRS: We woke up this morning (last friday) pissed off at our driver for being incompetent and ready to bolt in general. Instead we haggled him down to a pittance for continued travel costs, and decided to spend the day going into the pamirs, the huge mountain range in eastern tajikistan which supplied the USSR with all of its moutains worth boasting about, which still include Peak Lenin and Peak Karl-Marxa. we were bound for a pass at 4000 km where we thought there'd be some good views.a note about pamiri people: they are all ismailis, which is the minority branch of shiism which produced the assassins, built cairo, once stole the black rock from the Ka'aba and presented it to a messianic zoroastrian priest, and were generally the coolest heretics in world history. they were also pretty much wiped out by the Horde in the 1250s when Hulegu reduced Alamut. the survivors fled to remote regions, most notably lebanon, yemen, kashmir, and the pamirs. these people mixed with the native zoroastrians to produce a religion which is about as muslim as porkchops: they have a living prophet in the form of the Agha Khan, and the Agha Khan, direct descendant of the Old Man of the Mountain, runs Badakhshan through his massive humanitarian NGO. ethnically the pamiri peoples are an absolute cipher. the first thing one notices is that they are hawt. the second is that they have stereotypically acquilline feature( hooked hawk-like nose) but also bright bright blue and green eyes. even more awesomely, some people have colors i've never seen in caucasian (yeah, in the eugenic sense) eyes, including a dark blue that straddles the line somewhere between Ashara Dayne and a Guild Navigator. I'm sorry I won't have any pictures of this to show, but I don't believe in making local people pose for my entertainment, so I don't have any straight on shots of these noble spice-eaters. so the first place our driver took us was to a small village on the pamir highway. we walked past a couple of women painting a house with no men in sight who waved at us and proudly displayed their very fetching pet calf. we walked into the hills for about ten minutes, until we came to a small series of waterfalls straight out of a japanese garden. at the top of these falls was a small cave (2x2) that the spring ran out of, along with a brass bowl. apparently this teeny tiny grotto was an ancient zoroastrian shrine, then one day the father of shiite law, Imam Ja'afar as-Sadeq, rode by on his horse. to prove his divine powers he jumped into the hole on horseback, then jumped out again. this made the water holy, and to this day it is the only ground water i've drunk in tajikistan. it was also perhaps the best water of my life. I mean this was really, really bomb-ass water.down the hill from this shrine was a small ismaili temple, outside of which was a ruined black altar with the faintest sign of inscriptions: a zoroastrian fire platform. pretty cool, but to the lay observer it would look a lot like a modest sized pile of rock. onto the pass: at fifteen thousand feet the world is a moonscape. no trees, no animals, a couple purple flowers, but a plateau as far as the eye can see, punctuated only by even higher peaks, merging with the clouds.there were three guys in a broken down watermelon truck at the summit. they didn't want a ride, they didn't need food. they only asked us if we had anything that could help them pass the time. in a highly undemocratic fashion my travel mate closest to the car bartered away our only bottle of vodka for a watermelon, the cur. inside the cab of their truck, the watermelon trasporters immediately whipped out another large melon, cut off the top, and proceeded to pour in the vodka, drinking tajikistan's finest 2-buck vintage from a sculpted bowl of fruit. one can only imagine what this did to them at fifteen thousand feet.that night we slept at our driver's parents' place in a pamiri village, next to a holy river. behind us a single mountain had three waterfalls coming off of it. our driver's brother also spoke excellent english, and explained that he used to have a dog, but it was torn about by wolves the previous winter, which is the season when the packs come out of the high meadows and roam the village streets at night looking for livestock. he also said that snow leopards do the same, as well as tigers.NB: i made sure that there was no linguistic ambiguity surrounding the word "tiger:" in this part of the world, the only possible candidate for a fricking tiger would be the Caspian Tiger, presumed extinct for most of the 20th century. based on the remoteness of this location, as well as the bored matter-of-fact truthiness of the interlocutor, this is a proposition our local scientistas should look into. the remoteness of this location bears more discussion: in this part of the world all of the villages are on the pamir highway, but almost every village is also situated on river which comes out of the hills. several kilometers back, hidden away from view, exist what people describe as the *real* villages, or as the lands of the anscestors. the people who live here have probably gone undisturbed since the time of alexander. one can only imagine what's going on back there, or what crazy cultural coelocanths have remained undisturbed.thought of the day: Ismailism in its pamiri form is the noblest religion i've had the privelege to experience. our driver and his family explained that to be a good ismaili means being a good christian, jew, and muslim. it also means respecting all religions and seeking to erase differences predicated on intolerance and ignorance. to this end the pamiris, the poorest people in the poorest region of the poorest component of the USSR, almost universally (at least as they put it) speak four languages each, of which one is definitely russian and another is almost certainly english. these hillfolk put the tajiks to shame with their fluency in english, and another of our guides described that the reason pamiri people learn english is because life is only worth living if one cultivates an international, universalist view of humanity. this is not hippie woo-woo or some fad like Bahai'i (no offense to any here, but c'mon, the religion started in the 1800s). this is a thousand year old faith consciously founded on a combination of abrahamic morality combined with neo-platonist existentialism, building on a zoroastrian cosmology which did not divide the world into good and evil, but into truth and lies. the pamiris I saw were able to work this sophisticated sense of worldly duty and metaphysical complexity into lives that still involved painting houses, driving cars, and drinking vodka. more power to them.

6 comments:

Aiz said...

It is not unusual for westerners traveling in the region, partly due to poor understanding of culture and Ignorance of Ismailis to perpetuate their notion of preconceived romantic fantasy surrounded by myths, rarely does a person take the time to take a scholarship approach, in the process the truth is sacrificed, I would recommend those who are interested in facts look up, a well researched book "The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma‘ilis"

Since the 12th century fantastical tales of the Assassins, their mysterious leader and their remote mountain strongholds in Syria and northern Iran have captured the European imagination. These legends first emerged when European Crusaders in the Levant came into contact with the Syrian branch of the Nizari Ismailis, who at the behest of their leader were sent on dangerous missions to kill their enemies. Elaborated over the years, the legends culminated in Marco Polo’s account according to which the Nizari leader, described as the ‘Old Man of the Mountain’, was said to have controlled the behaviour of his devotees through the use of hashish and a secret garden of paradise. So influential were these tales that the word ‘assassin’ entered European languages as a common noun for murderer, and the Nizari Ismailis were depicted not only in popular mythology but also in Western scholarship as a sinister order of ‘assassins’.


In recent decades new scholarship on the history of the Ismailis has established the extent to which older Western accounts have confused fact and fantasy. In view of the very different picture of Ismaili history that has now emerged, Farhad Daftary’s book considers the origins of the mediaeval Assassin legends and explores the historical context in which they were fabricated and transmitted. How did they persist for so long, and in what form did they come to exert such a profound influence on European scholarship? Daftary’s fascinating account ultimately reveals the extent to which the emergence of such legends was symptomatic of both the complex political and cultural structures of the mediaeval Muslim world and of Europeans’ ignorance of that world. The book will be of great interest to all those concerned with Ismaili studies, the history of Islam and the Middle East, as well as the mediaeval history of Europe. Also included as an appendix is the first English translation of the French orientalist Silvestre de Sacy’s famous early 19th century “Memoir on the Assassins and the Etymology of their Name”.

Publication ContentA Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community

Dr Farhad Daftary


Islamic Surveys Series. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998, pp. viii + 248.

ISBN (Hardback): 0 7486 0904 0
ISBN (Softback): 0 7486 0687 4
Synopsis
Contents
Bibliography


Synopsis

The Ismailis represent the second largest Shi‘i Muslim community after the Ithna‘asharis (Twelvers) and are today resident as religious minorities in more than 25 countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. Despite their long and eventful history dating back to the formative period of Islam, the Ismailis were studied until recently primarily on the basis of the accounts of their opponents and detractors, including Sunni polemicists, European travellers and Crusader chroniclers. As a result a host of legends and misconceptions were disseminated on the teachings and practices of the Ismailis. The character and place of Ismailism in general Islamic history was further obscured by the community's traditional practice of concealing their own writings as a precautionary measure against religious and political persecution to which they were often subjected. However, from the 1930s the study of Ismailism began to be radically revised with the discovery of a large number of Ismaili texts preserved in private collections. Since then, modern scholarship in the field has made great strides in distinguishing fact from fiction in many aspects of Ismaili history and thought.

A Short History of the Ismailis brings together the results of this scholarship on the highlights of Ismaili history and doctrines within the broader contexts of Ismaili history and Shi‘i thought. After critically examining historiographical and other relevant source materials in the first chapter, this book covers the main developments in all the major phases of Ismaili history, including the early formative period in the 3rd/9th century when Ismailism arose as a revolutionary movement of religious and political reform in Iraq, Iran and Syria; the Fatimid ‘golden age’ when the Ismailis ruled from Egypt over a vast state extending across North Africa and southern Arabia; followed by the Aga Khans. In the course of his study, the author also discusses the major schisms that occurred among the Ismailis and subsequent developments among the Musta’li–Tayyibi and Bohra communities of Ismailis.



This work does not represent a condensed version of the author’s earlier more comprehensive account of the same subject, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge, 1990), as it is addressed to a wider readership and contains additional information, especially on the modern period. It is also organised quite differently, with the discussion of each major phase in Ismaili history commencing with doctrinal and historical overviews and leading to a discussion of important themes and developments. Among these themes, the book concentrates in particular on the intellectual traditions and institutions elaborated by the Ismailis, as well as their responses to the challenges and complexities they have encountered in the course of their history. The book does not presuppose any specialised knowledge of the subject on the part of the reader, since the author's account of the Ismailis is contextualised within the broad historical panorama of Islam from its earliest period. The task of the reader is also facilitated by a helpful glossary of technical terms and a select bibliography of published sources and studies which can be consulted for further studies.



The publication of this book makes it possible for the first time for scholars, students and the general public alike to have access to a concise and authoritative introduction to Ismaili history and thought, based on the findings of the most recent scholarship on the subject. By consolidating the accumulated research of modern scholarship on the Ismailis dispersed in numerous specialist sources in diverse languages, while at the same time cutting through centuries of hostility and polemics of their enemies, as well as the misconceptions and prejudices of western Orientalists, the author has been able to arrive at the most informed and balanced historical summation of the Ismailis that is available today for the general reader. The overall view of the Ismailis that emerges from this account is of a highly organised and energetic Muslim community with a progressive vision of Islam who, in spite of their minority status and almost uninterrupted persecution throughout their history, were able to make significant intellectual and cultural contributions to Islamic civilisation, a tradition which they have continued to maintain to the present day.

Vest said...

Aiz: Thank you for your illuminating comment, it is rare for someone like yourself to take the time and trouble to expand my knowledge.
It is true when you say; westerners have preconceived notions in their approach to Eastern cultures, more is the pity that the reversal can be applied.
Apart from persons likened to yourself, the ratio of informed people in Eastern communities is much less than that of the west, meaning they have shortcomings within their education programs.
The problem lies with the propagators of slanderous untruths perpetuated by the miriad of unsubstantiated religious beliefs offered by the world faith industry in order to maintain order and bring succour to ignorant believers that the non idyllic life hereafter is indeed fact.

Please call again. It seems I have no access to your blogsite.

lower deck lawyer said...

Vest old mate , that was short sweet and brilliant, vest at his best. Mike.

Aiz said...

Hi Vest,

Much appreciate your comments and I do share in your sentiments, Rather than say I disagree and I am rarely a critic of innocent perceptions, In the world of Competing ideas and manufacturing consents, the truth is sometimes lost :)

I don't have a blog per say though I have tinkered with the idea at the suggestion of a friend who has his own blog site below.

http://ismailimail.wordpress.com/

Aiz said...

Hi Vest,

Much appreciate your comments and I do share in your sentiments, Rather than say I disagree and I am rarely a critic of innocent perceptions, In the world of Competing ideas and manufacturing consents, the truth is sometimes lost :)

I don't have a blog per say though I have tinkered with the idea at the suggestion of a friend who has his own blog site below.

http://ismailimail.wordpress.com/

Take care and sincere regards

Vest said...

Aiz. Thank you for your return visit. It is unusual for this blog to attract a person with some quality knowledge, please feel free to call anytime.

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