Once home to a thriving theatre and literary scene, Tajikistan’s civil war (1990-1995) forced many intellectuals and artists to leave the country for good. Today, the country remains one of the most remittent-dependent in the world, using money sent home from labour migrants in Russia to prop up the country’s struggling GDP.
Now, a new generation is coming of age and reclaiming the country’s long-neglected cultural scene. Working in a community of non-profit projects and small businesses, their talent heralds a new era of dynamism in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
But with new ideas comes a fresh wave of challenges — economic, bureaucratic, and social. In 2018, youth employment reached 19 per cent. Artists are often forced to work multiple jobs while struggling to achieve financial independence. And, in April this year, government interference saw mobile internet prices surge, clamping down access to one of the country’s most liberated creative domains. Tariffs soon fell again after a widespread backlash, but fears remain about access in the future. “We are between two mountains,” is how Anisa Sabiri, a filmmaker who aims to train a new generation of Tajik filmmakers, puts it.
Dushanbe’s young innovators, however, aren’t ready to give up yet. We spoke to five of the nation’s brightest cultural figures to find out more.
Nigina Muminova began writing poetry at the age of nine. Opportunities to perform her verses in public, however, simply didn’t exist in Dushanbe. It wasn’t until the now-25-year-old began studying in Kazakhstan that she had chance to organise dedicated poetry evenings. When she came back home, the idea came with her. “Dushanbe is full of talented people,” she says. “If we don’t support them, who will?” When Muminova planned her first spoken word night in August 2018, she didn’t expect a turnout beyond the poets’ families — but instead was blown away by the crowd. When the chance came to organise another event, she hesitated, afraid that the crowd would be filled with the same familiar faces. Yet again, she was proven wrong.
Muminova now wants more cafes to host poetry events in a bid to promote local artists and encourage others to write. This, though, is a step not all owners are ready to take. “Performing poetry is not so popular,” she explains. “For the last few years, poetry has only really been shared through Instagram and Facebook.” Artists, however, are finally beginning to spread their wings in the offline world, sparking a growing number of cultural events in Dushanbe. “If people are unsure about new things, at least they are not afraid now. People are becoming ready,” says Muminova.
“[It came] out of clear blue sky,” proclaims 29-year-old Siyovush Muminov when pushed on the origins of Parking, the business he co-founded in 2018. Designed for young people, Parking is Dushanbe’s first 24-hour educational and entertainment space, combining a café with gaming, co-working, and educational spaces. Its creation, however, hasn’t been easy. Muminov and his co-founder have already faced down plenty of challenges — starting with the venue’s name. “We thought the name was a great idea,” he says, “but people kept calling and asking to leave their cars here.”
As the space’s reputation has developed, however, locals have started to realise that Parking is about something much bigger. “When you leave, we want you to leave smarter,” Muminov says. The events hosted by Parking include a start-up weekend for women and events for children, together with international organisations. Muminov recalls one group of teenagers who met at a Parking event who now gather there each week to play games together. He’s especially proud that Parking is a safe, smoke-free space for young people to gather, unlike most of the capital’s cafes. “It makes me very happy, to see people playing together and breaking barriers,” he says.
“People are hungry for cultural events,” says 29-year-old Ahmadali Tojiddinov. As a student abroad, he dove into Kazakhstan’s vibrant cultural scene — but was left wondering why the same events didn’t happen back home in Dushanbe. His website, tonight.tj, wants to close that gap by providing information on cultural spaces, night clubs, and museums.
Tojiddinov’s watershed moment was organising a tonight.tj Toqi party: an event celebrating local dance, music, and dress. When reporters from Reuters and RFE/RL’s Radio Azodi wrote about the event, Tojiddinov and his colleagues realised they’d done something special. “This was a social project, not a financial one,” he says.
After years supporting cultural events from his own savings, Tojiddinov founded advertising and event firm Monday Agency, working with commercial companies. He also still maintains tonight.tj; the site is like his own child, he says. He believes that the need for entertainment is part of human nature: “bread and circuses,” he says. The idea of boosting Tajik culture remains close to his heart. He currently runs a YouTube channel where he tells the stories of Tajiks working abroad. He wants to break down harmful stereotypes against migrants who leave to support their family. “All of the problems [I come up against] with bureaucracy don’t destroy my dream,” he says, “I want to make my country better.”
Growing up, Khakimova edited videos as a hobby. She also wanted to try filmmaking, but one giant pitfall seemed to stand in the way. “In the beginning, I thought Tajik cinema was dead,” she says. Then Khakimova found MyVision, an independent film school supporting a new generation of Tajik filmmakers. The school gave her the space and skills to produce her first short movie, Pudina: a documentary about the daily life of a Roma girl that breaks down long-enduring stereotypes. Now, when Khakimova looks at work from other Tajik filmmakers, she’s optimistic about their ability to produce great movies — if they’re able to get the right financial support, a constant difficulty for Tajik creatives. “MyVision [was] a good chance to take the first step,” she says.
Khakimova is also optimistic about the number of women joining the traditionally male-dominated field. Both the country’s premier sound artist (Shahir Niso) and its leading filmmaker (Anisa Sabiri) are both women. “It’s exciting and joyful that women are finally achieving equality,” says Khakimova. “Now women are represented in all spheres in Tajikistan, and this is very valuable.”
When Davlat Hushvahtov opened cafe and cultural centre The Place, he envisioned visitors applying the finishing to name themselves: “The Place” becoming “The Place for Music”, or Poetry, or Photography. “The Place is an unending name,” he says. “[It’s] a name that people themselves will decide.” The space is a revolving hub in Dushanbe’s intellectual scene, hosting quiz nights and the country’s first regular spoken word night. Hushvahtov also wants to fill the space with art, but struggles to find creatives willing to exhibit their work. He worries that the sparsely-decorated walls reflect Dushanbe’s current deficit of creativity — currently, just one local artist is on display. “It’s exciting that we have this art, but it’s always a problem because we can’t find more,” he says. But it’s not just artists who are struggling. Since its original opening in 2018, Hushvahtov has closed and re-opened The Place twice. For now, he insists that this process is itself part of realising cultural goals. “What matters is that people pursue these goals,” he says. “Results are not the be all and end all.”
As a student, Mas’ud Vohidoff travelled to Tehran to take classes in cinema. In Tajikistan, however, such moves can often prove controversial. Artists must overcome stigmas against both studying the arts academically, and pursuing creative careers, he says. Most Tajiks see the arts as a source of entertainment, rather than a way to make a living. “People have to find a way to become more creative,” Vohidoff says.
Now, Vohidoff organises an annual ethno-jazz festival, music awards for local singers and songwriters, movie screenings, and exhibitions. But despite his broad beat, Vohidoff stresses the small scale of Dushanbe’s cultural scene. Reaching new audiences is a constant challenge: “Everyone knows each other,” as he puts it. Access to filmmaking and other media equipment is also a challenge. “In Tajikistan, it’s hard to have independent cinema.”