The Wild East

Sorcery. Poison. Betrayal. Tajik pastries. Brinton Ahlin, AB'09, fills us in on his adventures in Tajikistan.
Sometimes you run into things in the field [that] you don’t expect..."...

Every now and then, someone tells you a story so good it has to be shared.

Brinton Ahlin, AB’09, is full of these kinds of stories. (Full disclosure: Brinton was my roommate during my last two years in the College.) Thanks to a  Foreign Language Acquisition Grant and a Summer International Travel Grant, he traveled throughout Russia and Central Asia during his UChicago career. His adventures are legendary among our friends and former housemates.

Currently, Brinton is on a Fulbright grant in Tajikistan, a small, mountainous country supported in large part by its migrant labor force. His BA paper in Anthropology explored the relationship between migration and Tajik hospitality customs, a topic he hoped to study in more depth during his Fulbright research.

I had planned on talking to him about this research and his experiences abroad. But our conversation took an unexpected turn. “I have a story for you. I’ve been the victim of sorcery,” he told me when I called to schedule the interview.

What follows is a slightly abridged transcription of the story, complete with fortune-telling, poison, betrayal, and Tajik pastries. And what a story it is.

-Susie Allen, AB’09

[W]ith all ethnographic projects, sometimes you run into things in the field [that] you don’t expect.

About a week after arriving in Istaravshan [a small town] I fell quite suddenly ill. Essentially, my body felt the need to entirely clear itself from both ends. It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced that. I’m very familiar with illnesses related to poor water or unsanitary conditions. But this was a new experience.

Needless to say, my wife was quite concerned about me. However, we became a bit more concerned when, upon inspecting what had been in my stomach, we found a small green ball—less than one centimeter in diameter—that had apparently broken in two. There are certain charms people wear to fend off the evil eye, and it resembled those charms. It appeared that painted on it in very small letters was some sort of Arabic inscription.

At this point, we began to think that something was perhaps amiss. If it had just been an illness due poor water, I doubt it would have proceeded in the manner it did. [I began to suspect] that the green ball had been filled with poison.

Understandably, this was upsetting—probably more so for my wife than me. Then of course the question becomes: “Who? And why? And when?” I quickly found out that this is not exceedingly rare. Most people were able to point to something similar happening to someone that they know. 

At first, of course, there was a lot of doubt. There seemed to be a genre of speech that’s constantly employed here. I would label it the “Well, I don’t believe in sorcery, but you know what happened to so-and-so” genre.

[W]e were at a bit of a loss about what to do. We’d only had relatives from my wife’s side who had come to visit us in the past week. We began to suspect everyone. It was a fairly frightening experience.

Eventually, we decided the object could only have been hidden in sambusa, the Tajik national dish—basically [a pastry] with different types of greens and onions in it. 

Needless to say, my wife and I claim that we do not believe in sorcery! But the fact that sorcery exists on the ground and has a social reality to it means that some of its effects can be very real.

We began talking to [my sister-in-law], who lives in a nearby village. We went to a fortune-teller in our village, and she went to a fortune-teller in her village. I was sorely underwhelmed by the fortune [my fortune-teller] was able to produce for me.

My wife’s sister had a much different experience. She went to a woman, one of her neighbors. The woman claimed she had been waiting for [my sister-in-law], that she had expected her to come.

[The fortune-teller] claimed that, yes, this was something your relatives have done. She tried to guess who it might be.

The next day, my wife’s sister went to her again. The [fortune-teller] said she had seen me in a dream, and said that some of this [poison] remained in my stomach. And sure enough, the following day I became sick again.

The next step was for us to do the necessary rite so that the illness that had been wished upon me would be sent back to the person who instigated it. There were seven objects that were prepared. Apparently, [the fortune-teller] spent an hour reading various types of Koranic verse to these various objects.

The most important of these objects was a bottle of water that had been prayed to. We had salt, loose-leaf tea; there was dirt that was to be spread under the carpet; there was a needle and thread to sew a small part of my clothing.

We were told that something bad would happen to the person that did this to us, perhaps they would fall ill, perhaps something would get stolen from them, perhaps some of their livestock would die, and that we would know what had happened. So we did this, believing or not believing.

Although we were a bit scared, we had promised to visit our relatives at their house. They had been over to our house, and we were obligated by the norms of Tajik hospitality to visit them.

One of the other things the fortune-teller had told us was that the person was a relative of ours, but not a blood relative—she had married in. She said it was definitely a woman. [The fortune-teller] said that...she was wearing a green dress. She said it was definitely the sambusa

[My wife and I] were both a bit surprised when one of the neighbor women, who was also a relative of ours, dropped in when we were over at [our relatives’] house. She was visibly ill, and, indeed, she was wearing a green dress. Twice, we had eaten her sambusa. We’re pretty sure it was her.

The big question is, why would someone do this? It’s not exactly clear. It could be envy or jealousy, not directed toward us, but toward my mother-in-law, who is a famous writer.

I felt pity for the poor woman, and, if anything, she probably regretted what she had done. We ate over at their house—with great trepidation!

Ironically, this is exactly the angle I was going for in my research right before this happened. “Fortune-tellers” and “sorcerers” are both terms that do not fully capture exactly what these people are. They play a very active role in moderating the hardship of migration. When some people can’t find work, they’ll often go to these people for help, or to find out how long their hardship will continue. So that’s exactly the sort of [thing] I wanted to approach in my Fulbright project.

Tagged: Summer International Travel Grant, Foreign Language Acquisition Grant