There are not, I don’t think, many Tajiks or Tajikistanis in Los Angeles. I only know one, personally, and when we first met at a birthday party a few years ago, I got the impression from him that I was the amongst a very small numbers of Angelenos that he’d met who’d ever even heard of his country. Americans are, on the whole, justifiably notorious for their geographically illiteracy but even the few who pay moderate attention to world events probably have little knowledge of Tajikistan or have ever met anyone from there. It’s my hope, however, that if there are any Tajik Angelenos reading this that they will make themselves known in the comments. салом!
Tajikistan (Tajik: Тоҷикистон) is a Central Asian country bordered by Afghanistan, East Turkestan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The territory that now constitutes Tajikistan was historically home to several ancient cultures, including the Bronze Age Oxus and Andronovo cultures. It has been ruled by a succession of empires and dynasties, the last before independence being the Soviet Union.
As a geography and culture-obsessed kid, I became aware of Tajikistan (or “Tadjikistan” as it was usually spelled in English back then) by looking at maps and was especially curious about the non-Russian republics and autonomous republics of the USSR — especially as I could find no one who knew anything about them. Tajikistan became a Soviet republic in 1929. It has been ruled by President Emomali Rahmon since 1994, however, and such lengthy reigns surely are rarely if ever indicators of a flourishing democracy.
Most residents of Tajikistan are ethnic Tajiks and speak a Persian dialect, also called Tajik. Other Tajikistani ethnic groups include Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Russian, Pamiri, and smaller groups. 98% of Tajiks practice Islam. The Muslim Eid Mubarak, the breaking of the fast of Ramadan, is one of Tajiks’ biggest celebrations. As with most of Central Asia, however, the pre-Islamic/Zoroastrian spring festival of Nowruz (literally “New Day”) is also widely observed, including by Tajiks in Southern California.
There was formerly a thriving Jewish community, but most Jews left from the 1970s to the 1990s and resettled in the US or Israel. Interestingly, there may very well be more Tajikis living in Afghanistan than Tajikistan itself, which has a population of around nine million whilst some most estimates for Afghanistan suggest that there are somewhere between nine and eleven million Tajiks living there. Countries with smaller but substantial numbers of Tajiks include Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Russia.
An estimated 6,000 Tajikistanis live in the US. Most have settled in New York, California, Nebraska, and the Washington, DC area. For whatever reason — and unlike most East and Southeast Asian immigrants — Central Asian immigrants tend to favor the East Coast over the West. Two of the most prominent Tajikistani-Americans are dancer Malika Kalontarova and Vine co-founder Rus Yusupov. Both are Bukharan Jews and both live in New York. Not surprisingly, the Embassy of Tajikistan is located in the nation’s capital. Metro Los Angeles, on the other hand, is home to the California Tajik Society (in Torrance), the California Tajik American Association (in Long Beach), and the Tajik Karate Academy (two locations in Irvine).
My first glimpse of Tajikistan came with Djamshed Usmonov‘s 2002 dark comedy, Angel on the Right (Фариштаи китфи рост), set and filmed in the town of Asht and which shares a lot of stylistic similarity with the films of the Iranian New Wave. The copy I obtained was from Amoeba Music Hollywood‘s Asian Cinema section. Other films by Usmonov include Flight of the Bee (1998), To Get to Heaven, First You Have to Die (2006), and My Wife’s Romance (2011).
Tajikistan formerly supported a surprisingly robust cinema. However, since the collapse of the USSR, it has shrunk considerably. There have been efforts to revive it, though. Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov‘s Luna Papa (Лунный папа) was submitted for consideration for the Academy Award‘s Best International Feature Film. Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf‘s Tajikistan-filmed Sex & Philosophy (2005) was submitted, too, but disqualified for not having English subtitles. In 2004, the bi-annual Didor International Film Festival was inaugurated in Dushanbe.
It was whilst working at Amoeba that I first heard Tajik music, too, when I picked up a copy of Invisible Face of the Beloved: Classical Music of the Tajiks and Uzbeks by the the Academy of Maqâm. That album was the second volume of Smithsonian Folkways’ truly excellent series, Music of Central Asia. The Academy of Maqâm is a traditional music ensemble founded by Tajik musician Abduvali Abdurashidov in Dushanbe.
There apparently aren’t many opportunities to hear live Tajik music performances in Los Angeles — although Uzbek musician Abbos Kosimov performed traditional Uzbek and Tajik music at REDCAT in 2011 and at the Getty Center in 2014. I’m not certain but my guess is that if one were to try to find Tajik films or music recordings in Los Angeles, their best bet might be a Persian store like Music Box in Westwood.
Last but not least, at the Los Angeles Zoo there live several Bukharan markhors or Tadjik markhors (Capra falconeri heptneri). The markhors are an endangered species of goat-antelope, native to Tajikistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — and possibly Afghanistan. There are only and estimated 5,750 still living in the wild. In 2018, four more were born in the zoo.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.