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.