In Conversation with Polina Ivanova and Mehdi Hesamizadeh

I met historian Polina Ivanova and artist Mehdi Hesamizadeh in Yerevan, Armenia in January 2020 when I travelled there to participate in Mejlis Institute’s Persian Language and Cinema Winter Programme. Mejlis Institute was launched by Polina and Mehdi in 2019 as a non-profit organisation with the aim to bring to life the premodern meaning of the word ‘mejlis’—a social gathering for the purpose of reciting and discussing poetry, playing music and enjoying good company. In the spirit of ‘mejlis’ the principal mission of the Institute is to provide a platform for such gatherings, fostering learning through education programmes. The Institute holds summer and winter schools for an intensive study of languages, such as Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish and others, regular language courses throughout the year, lecture series, workshops, poetry readings, music performances, exhibitions, book presentations and film screenings. With its location in Yerevan, Mejlis Institute celebrates the historical position of Armenia as a contact zone between different cultures and languages, and thus, aims to strengthen the role of Yerevan as a hub of international cooperation.

Entangled in the New Year’s celebrations, my arrival to Yerevan on January 1, just as the purpose of my trip, was misunderstood by almost everyone. My Airbnb host has never heard of any institute in his historical residential neighbourhood of Aygestan. He was also convinced that no one would show up the first day of classes, scheduled at 9.00am on January 2, because people would still be celebrating New Year. Despite the forces of the New Year celebrations, the course did commence as planned. Reflecting back, I understand that the scrupulous nature of the course is an extension of the academic rigor prioritised at Mejlis Institute. Personally, my academic experience at Mejlis Institute was excellent: I achieved a tremendous progress in my language skills in Persian and was introduced to unique works of Persian cinematography. As a way of celebrating the impressive beginnings of Mejlis Institute, it is my pleasure to present the interview with Polina Ivanova and Mehdi Hesamizadeh.

The neighbourhood of Aygestan, Yerevan, Armenia.

How did you come up with the idea to found Mejlis Institute?

Polina: There is a longer story, and there is a shorter story. The longer story may not be interesting for a wider audience, because that is more of a personal story. We were gathering with friends to read poetry for informal poetry nights. Then we thought it would be great to actually formalise it, so that we can invite more people and make it into a kind of institution that would continue itself and do other sorts of things, not just reading poetry for fun, but doing all kinds of cultural programmes. So, this is kind of the long pre-story to the institute, and it was two years ago.

Was the poetry reading in Persian or in multiple languages?

Polina: Actually, we began with Greek and Romanian poetry, and it was during the night devoted Lorca’s poetry that we decided to do something larger out of these gatherings, which were around 10-15 people. Then, we began thinking of Armenia and its place. This is deeply intertwined with our personal stories. Intellectually speaking, I came to Armenia from Anatolia, because I was studying the Ottoman history, and then, medieval Anatolian history. Slowly, I became interested in Armenian culture as part of the other cultures of the Middle East. Thus, I travelled to Armenia to learn Armenian language with awareness that the country represents cultures of the broader Middle East.

Mehdi: I came here because of a different reason, but it is also a very personal story. I came here from Iran as a musician to work with the local musicians. It is not accidental that I chose Armenia, because this country is a crossing point for people from different places: Syria, Egypt, Russia, Azerbaijan and etc. Working in music, I travelled to different places, but here in Armenia I feel at home. It is a small country, but it is a point of intersection of the larger world surrounding it.

Polina: Armenia is not unique in this; these kinds of connections are an integral part of any human society. No culture is pure or isolated. It is always an amalgam. Armenia is not different. What makes Armenia in our eye special is that it is a hub geographically speaking: Iran is here; Anatolia is here; Mesopotamia, and obviously the Caucasus.

The neighbourhood of Aygestan, Yerevan, Armenia.

Did you have any reservations about choosing Armenia?

There have been some practical concerns. Armenia is still very much dealing with the legacy of the 20th-century nationalism, which is not past and is still with us now. Armenian culture remains still a very nationalistic culture. And for a good and bad reasons. Partly this has to do with the Armenian state having been built after the genocide, when celebrating anything national was a celebration of survival. Yet, despite this environment, the education that children get in schools, the kind of history that is being taught here, Armenia has quite an open society.

Doing what we are doing here, although it is in some ways may be a counter-mainstream understanding of history and culture, we do not feel threatened; we have not had any negative reactions from anyone we spoke with. We think that people here are curious. For example, people passing on the street and seeing the name of our organisation ‘Mejlis’ will say: ‘Isn’t “Mejlis” the name for the national assembly of the Crimean Tatars?’

They will be puzzled more but they will not be necessarily aggressive. They will say: ‘This sounds like something Muslim.’ We have not until today seen any aggression. So, when thinking of the original conception, we considered Armenia to be a good choice, where students from different countries can come together. It is a safe and welcoming place.

Mehdi:  After the Soviet period, it was difficult to find an institute, and place, where you can gather and have a simple intellectual conversation. And that was our initial concern. We know we can go to a different place, but here, we feel and see the positive feedback.

Why and how did you develop the format of the Institute?

Polina: We chose the format that we did quite consciously. At one point, we were thinking of collaborating with university. Then we thought that we wanted to go a different way. We decided to establish it as a non-profit, basically an NGO, in order to be free with our format. What does this mean? There was always this question mark: is this academic or is this not academic? Well, we then thought, we do not have to necessarily put ourselves into one frame. We can take from academia what we like—being rigorous, having high standards, having high demands—but also avoid some things we find counter-productive in terms of intellectual life and community, such as some aspects of competition and hierarchy. We wanted it to be as much as possible an open place, open to all kinds of students, not necessarily academics, but also to those who have genuine interest in learning, so that we can have people of different levels and from different places come together—that is our primary concerns. In terms of the format, we did not want to do something just academic. We wanted to be more interest oriented. Let’s say if we want to do some kind of summer school or seasonal school…Mehdi is working on cinematography for a workshop for filmmakers…why not? We can do it here, because it speaks to our goal of bringing people together, working together on interesting topics. If we want to do a workshop, like the history of the multicultural city, which is invisible today, we can do it working with students, architects, amateur historians. We are not putting ourselves into some kind of chains of how things should be done in an academic institution.

Yerevan is cosmopolitan. Here is the land of the Armenian people, but we want to make an important point about Armenian people: historically, Armenians are known to have been always multilingual, with one foot in one culture and the other foot in another culture, serving as translators. Hence, you have Armenians speaking Armenian and Persian, Russian, Turkish, French and you can continue this infinitely. We want to celebrate the role of Armenia as a hub, Armenia as crossroads, Armenians as translators.

The Blue Mosque in Yerevan, Armenia.

How did you move from the conceptual idea of the Institute into its establishment?

Mehdi: We liked the area of Aygestan, because it is part of the old Yerevan and it is close enough to the centre but secluded enough as well. We were looking for a house and this one has a garden, and as an Iranian I can tell you that this is very important for us. As metaphors in Persian poetry have it, a garden is the part of the house, where you can be the gardener of you soul. When we found this house, it was an abandoned, ruined place.

Polina: This was six-months of hard work repairing the house with our own hands and those of our friends. We are still in the process of renovating other parts of the house, but we made it ready for the summer school in 2019. At the same time, we were managing the program, writing emails to universities and etc. to invite lecturers. It was all happening at once.

Any thoughts for the future?

In terms of funding the programme, we are a non-profit, we just need money to pay the running expenses and pay the salaries, and we would like to make it free for all participants. We would like this programme to be possible not only for international students who have university support, but also for Armenian student, and specially the Iranian students, for whom it is extremely difficult to go abroad. They can come to Armenia, they don’t have a visa problem, but accommodation in Armenia, even if it is reasonably priced, is too expensive for them. Our goal is to be able to offer a simple, shared accommodation and a tuition-free study for different kinds of students. Now we do charge tuition to cover the expenses of the programme, but it is a very open policy. We ask students, who come from universities, who can support themselves or who otherwise have resources, to pay tuition to support us and make it possible. But for student who do not have the resources we offer tuition waivers, because we will never say no to anyone who would like to come. It is a good working solution for now, but of course in the future we hope we can have more sustainable funding.

Steps leading to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan, Armenia.

We are open to expanding in various ways. The summer course has a ‘connected histories’ component to it, and we like that our group consists of students learning Persian, Turkish and Armenian, and how they interact with each other and learn in the context of these other languages being taught next door, and how they have lectures on connected histories. We hope to add Kurdish to our list of languages, and we would be happy to accommodate larger versions of this programme. This was a pilot project and we can do a month-long course on Persian and Persian cinema, or a poetry course. One of our policies is that we try to understand what the needs of the students are and then try to shape our programmes in such a way that those needs are met.

What are your reflections on the past programmes you held? What worked? What did not work?

In the summer we admitted 15 students, but three of them cancelled, so we ended up having 12 students. I would not say that everything worked, but one thing that worked very well was the idea of connected languages and histories. We had students from Turkey learning Armenian and an Armenian student learning Turkish, and Turkish students learning Persian, multiple linguistic overlaps, and when we had our coffee break in the garden, we would speak all of these languages together and that was very sweet. This meant that students had an extra chance to practice with a native speaker and reinforce what they learned in class. That really worked very well, and we had a very interesting series of lectures and explored the notion of connected histories from archaeology, ancient history, music, medieval literature. We will repeat the course, but it will never be the same because we would invite different lecturers, and of course, students would be different, so there would be different interests and focuses. It will be the same framework, but it will take a different shape every time.

In terms of something that did not work, well, I wish that our students from Iran could come. We had a few applicants from Iran, whom we wanted to invite, but most of them even on tuition waiver, could not come here. Even though they could come here by bus, accommodation here is really expensive for them, and even life, which does not seem expensive for someone from Europe is expensive for Iranian students. For us this is really the missing link. We wish for Iranian students, teachers, scholars to come here and we hope we can find the resources to make it possible. With local students from Armenia, we would like to make ourselves more known here as an open institution, so that local students would join us. These are our goals for this year and years to come.

Mejlis Institute is holding a summer programme between July 13 – August 14, 2020, which will consist of three parallel language courses – Armenian, Persian and Turkish – and a series of seminars devoted to topics in connected histories of Armenia, Iran and Anatolia.  I encourage all interested students to check out Mejlis’ website. I thank Polina, Mehdi and Maryam (our Persian instructor) for all of their work. I personally had an amazing time and I look forward to participating in Mejlis in one capacity or another soon.

Kushtdepdi of the Turkmen and Its Origins

Turkmen national dance Kushdepdi

I heard singing with the distinct “hu hu” breathing pattern, and instantly, a small circle of people gently formed in the middle of the crowd in the courtyard of the groom’s house. The people in the circle—children and adults—danced around the circle stamping their right foot on the ground, and afterwards, jumping up and throwing both arms in the air. There was no boundary between the spectators of the dance and its participators: people seamlessly moved in and out of the circle. The energy created by the stamps, the claps and the singing was astonishing. These are my memories of the Turkmen dance kushtdepdi.

Kushtdepdi is a Turkmen folk dance practiced at weddings by the members of the celebrating community and is accompanied by special songs called ghazal or kushtdepme. To understand the various ways in which kushtdepdi is practiced by the Turkmen we must distinguish between the concepts of ‘a dance in the field’ and ‘ethno identity dance’, codified by Anthony Shay—a scholar specializing in dances from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. According to Shay, the term ‘dance in the field’ represents dances that form an organic part of local communal life while the term ‘ethno identity dance’ refers to dances that are choreographed or prepared for the stage.

The origins of kushtdepdi in the field are ambiguous. There is strong evidence to suggest that until the 1970s, the dance was practiced widely by the Yomut Turkmen on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea. We also know that in the following years, the dance spread in Turkmenistan both as a communal celebratory dance and as a staged dance.[1] In terms of the origins of the dance, the most prominent narrative is advanced by Turkmen scholars. This narrative suggests that the dance comes from dhikr healing ritual associated with the Sufi mystical Islam. The uniformity of the discussions by these scholars creates an impression that the dance is an ‘invented tradition’.[2] This in its turn rouses suspicion that their hypothesis might in fact be a product of post-Soviet nation-building efforts. In order to assess the validity of this hypothesis, the aim of the rest of this article is to compare the elements of the Sufi rite of affliction practiced among the Turkmen and kushtdepdi in the field. What we find in the end is the great likelihood of the origins of kushtdepdi to lie in a Sufi healing ritual.

Turkmen folklorists claim that kushtdepdi comes from a healing rite. For example, Geldiyev writes that kushtdepdi emerges on the basis of dhikr. Gochmuradov takes it even further to state, that indeed, dhikr itself is a form of folk art.[3] Additionally, Otdiyev and Atdayeva explain that kushtdepdi comes from porhanchylyk, i.e.shamanic practices.[4] Dhikr is ‘originally a Qur’anic word, commanding “remembrance of God”, and an act of devotion during and after prayer’. [5] Here, it is important to note that while dhikr is strictly an Islamic notion, neither of the aforementioned scholars attribute dhikr to Sufism, and in fact, some assign kushtdepdi to be an extension of shamanism. Devin Deweese explains that mislabeling Sufi elements as shamanistic was a common practice by Soviet academics as a result of the government’s hostility towards Sufis and their institutions—potential sources of opposition.[6] This makes it clear why the Turkmen scholars, who follow the trajectory set by Soviet academics, never explicitly pinpoint Sufism when referring to dhikr and for this inquiry we must consider dhikr in the context of Sufism.

While the Turkmen scholars offer a hypothesis on the origin of kushtdepdi, their discussions seem speculative as they lack any nuanced explanation of the transformation of a religious ritual into a codified dance. Yet, it is crucial to recognize that such analysis is difficult to accomplish, because there is ‘no documented history of dance prior to the early twentieth century’ on the territory of present-day Turkmenistan.[7]Due to this limitation, the only viable method of assessing the hypothesis lies in analyzing the transformation of the Sufi rite of affliction into kushtdepdi by comparing the two.

One of the most profound points of comparison of the Sufi healing ritual and kushtdepdi is their vocal and physical movement components. Devin Deweese analyzes two ethnographic studies of the Turkmen which provide a primary source basis for the comparison: a study of a healing ritual by Iomud Khan published in 1924 and a study of a wedding dance by Annaklychev published in 1960.

A vocal element discernible both in the Sufi rite and kushtdepdi is the vocal inhaling and exhaling. Deweese illustrates the vocal element of a healing ritual described by Iomud Khan: ‘the ishan begns to utter “hu, hu“, and the people sitting around the tent join in; if they slacken their cries, the ishan says “hu” again, and after awhile [sic] he says “Alla” and the people cease shouting and rest’.[8] Similarly, the phrase “hu, hu[9] was part of a wedding dance described by Annaklychev in 1960 and it is part of kushtdepdi  to this day. In fact, all of the kushtdepdi techniques which I witnessed in person or on video materials involve the vocal inhaling and exhaling.

The nature of Sufism in Central Asia explains the vocal correlation between the healing ritual and kushtdepdi. The most prevalent Sufi order among the Turkic-speaking nomads was the Yasavi order, founded by Ahmad Yasavi. A distinguishing feature of the Yasavi order is the jahariya dhikr, or dhikr ‘practiced aloud’. [10] Spencer J. Trimingham explains that Ahmad Yasavi ‘is said to have introduced the “rasping saw” dhikr, a tradition which no doubt attests to its Central Asian origin. For this the ha is expired very deeply, then hi aspired as low as possible; and it sounds much like sawing’.[11] Both of the aforementioned ethnographic works refer to this ‘rasping saw’ sounds. Indeed, jahariya dhikr ‘came to be adopted as a part of Turkmen healing rituals in communities in which saints of the Yasavi tradition were quite prominent’ [12] and ‘as an entertaining genre for wedding and house-warming ceremonies’.[13] While the verses of kushtdepmeler adopt poetry of prominent Central Asian Sufis, such as Alisher Navoyi, and repeatedly refer to the name of Sufi figures, such as Ahmad Yasavi and Baha’ ad-Din Naqshbandi,[14] it is the ‘rasping saw’ sounds present in both the Sufi ritual of affliction and kushtdepdi that make their correlation irrefutable.

Syr Darya oblast. City of Turkestan. General view of Sultan Akhmed Yassavi’s mausoleum from the southern side. Syr Darya oblast. City of Turkestan. General view of Sultan Akhmed Yassavi’s mausoleum from the southern side.

Comparison of the physical movements of the healing rite and the dance also unearths their correlation. According to the analysis of Iomud Khan’s description of the healing ritual, ‘the sick person is always seated in the center of the tent, with the other people sitting in a circle around him’[15] and after the ‘rasping saw’ chanting ‘at first they bow as they go, and then they begin to stamp their feet on the floor and jump in time to the singing’.[16] Annaklychev’s observations of the wedding dance are similar in that ‘several people form a circle; one of them begins singing the “ghazal“, while the others begin the dance, stamping their feet and jumping in time to the song.”[17] Kushtdepdi today is similarly practiced in a circle while feet stamping, bending at the waist and jumping are all fundamental choreographic elements of the dance. The common movements practiced by people during the rite of affliction and the dance point to the connection between the two. Iomud Khan’s observation that dhikr which began to be practiced for entertainment only further underscores this connection.[18] Furthermore, the oral history in the Turkmen community, especially among the Yomut, confirms that kushtdepdi was once a healing ritual.[19]

With the correlation between the Sufi rite of affliction and kushtdepdi established, the question remains: why did the ritual transform into a codified dance? One possible answer is that the younger members of the community began imitating the shamans for their entertainment.[20] Another explanation—perhaps a historically sound one—lies in the hostility of the Soviet government towards ‘unofficial’ Islam, which included ‘ancestral worship, shrine veneration, pilgrimage to shrines, popular healing, prayer at unofficial mosques, performance of dhikr [emphasis added]’.[21] Deweese confirms that in Central Asia ‘the face of religious life indeed changed dramatically’ in the 1930s and 40s.[22] Geldiyev adds, that with the coming of the Soviets, the religious schools were closed and the shamanic activities were terminated, and as a result, kushtdepdi emerged.[23]

Independence Day Parade

Whether the dance originated as a result of religious censorship or imitation for entertainment, the correlation between the Sufi healing ritual and kushtdepdi, on the basis of shared vocal elements and physical movements, is convincing. Understanding the origins of kushtdepdi is important not only because the dance is understudied, but also because it helps to unravel its transformation from a dance in the field into and ethno-identity dance. This in its turn provides a look into the present socio-political life of the Turkmen.


Annamuradov, R. Küštdepdi. Ashgabat, 2007.

DeWeese D. “Shamanization in Central Asia.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 57, no. 3 (2014): 326–63.

Geldiyev, G. “Küštdepmeler.” In Türkmen Šahyrana Halk Döredijiligi, 257–65. Ashgabat: Türkmen Döwlet Neširÿat gullugy, 2003.

Gochmuradov, H. “Küštdepdiler.” In Türkmen Halk Döredijiligi, 59–63. Ashgabat: Türkmen Döwlet Neširÿat gullugy, 2010.

Gross, Jo-Ann. “The Polemic of ‘Official’ and ‘Unofficial’ Islam: Sufism in Soviet Central Asia.” In Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics, edited by Frederick De Jong and Bernd Radtke, Vol. 29. Leiden: Brill, n.d.

Hobsbawm, Eric., and Terence. Ranger. The Invention of Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Oraztaganov, Allaberdi. Куштдепмелер. Edited by Gozel Amanguliyeva. Ashgabat: Turkmen State Medical University, 1998.

Otdiyev, G, and N Atdayeva. “Küštdepmeler.” In Türkmen Halk Döredijiligi (Turkmen Folk Art), 62–68. Ashgabat: Türkmen Döwlet Neširÿat gullugy, 2010.

Radkina, N. P. “Turkmenistan.” In The International Encyclopedia of Dance. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Shay, Anthony. Ethno Identity Dance for Sex, Fun and Profit: Staging Popular Dances around the World. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Sultanova, Razia. From Shamanism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Culture in Central Asia. International Library of Central Asian Studies; 3. London; I B. Tauris, 2011.

“The World Factbook — Central Intelligence Agency,” accessed October 17, 2018,

Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. 1 online resource (xx, 333 pages) vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[1] G. Geldiyev, “Küštdepmeler,” in Türkmen Šahyrana Halk Döredijiligi (Ashgabat: Türkmen Döwlet Neširÿat gullugy, 2003), 257–65.

[2] Eric. Hobsbawm and Terence. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[3] H. Gochmuradov, “Küštdepdiler,” in Türkmen Halk Döredijiligi (Ashgabat: Türkmen Döwlet Neširÿat gullugy, 2010), 59.

[4] G. Otdiyev and N. Atdayeva, “Küštdepmeler,” in Türkmen Halk Döredijiligi (Turkmen Folk Art) (Ashgabat: Türkmen Döwlet Neširÿat gullugy, 2010), 62–68.

[5] Razia. Sultanova, From Shamanism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Culture in Central Asia, International Library of Central Asian Studies ; 3 (London ; I B. Tauris, 2011), 137.

[6] DeWeese D., “Shamanization in Central Asia,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 57, no. 3 (2014): 326–63.

[7] N. P. Radkina, “Turkmenistan,” in The International Encyclopedia of Dance (Oxford University Press, 1998),

[8] DeWeese, “Shamanization in Central Asia,” 332.

[9] Ibid., 338.

[10] Lindsay Jones, Mircea Eliade, and Charles J. Adams, Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005).

[11] J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 197.

[12] Jo-Ann Gross, “The Polemic of ‘Official’ and ‘Unofficial’ Islam: Sufism in Soviet Central Asia,” in Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics, ed. Frederick De Jong and Bernd Radtke, vol. 29 (Leiden: Brill, n.d.), 533.

[13] R. Sultanova, From Shamanism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Culture in Central Asia, 95.

[14] Allaberdi Oraztaganov, Куштдепмелер, ed. Gozel Amanguliyeva (Ashgabat: Turkmen State Medical University, 1998).

[15] DeWeese, “Shamanization in Central Asia,” 332.

[16] Ibid., 333.

[17] Ibid., 338.

[18] Ibid., 333.

[19]  R. Annamuradov, Küštdepdi (Ashgabat, 2007).

[20] Otdiyev and Atdayeva, “Küštdepmeler.”

[21] Gross, “The Polemic of ‘Official’ and ‘Unofficial’ Islam: Sufism in Soviet Central Asia,” 525.

[22] DeWeese, “Shamanization in Central Asia,” 339.

[23] Geldiyev, “Küštdepmeler,” 257-58.