By Dora Ohrenstein

My primary reason for coming to the Pamirs, the eastern mountainous region of Tajikistan, was to learn more about the mysterious jurabs — colorful socks — made by the women there. I had a strong hunch that they were a far older form of crochet than what is known in the west. The region is remote and few people knew of these socks. I’d seen a photo on ravelry, and was greatly impressed by the beautiful color work, then learned more when a Russian friend, Larisa Valinsky, researched the socks and their origins for an article for Crochet insider. She theorized about the possible ancient origins of the socks, made entirely with slip stitch crochet, and their evident links to rug-making in Central Asia. Of course, with only internet sources available, we were uncertain about the validity of this theory, and I decided I must see for myself. In the course of time I discovered De Pamiri Handicrafts, an organization’s whose website featured photos of jurabe, though not as remarkable as the ones I’d seen in the photos. De Pamiri’s founder and director, Yorali Berdov, had told me it would be possible to come to the Pamir region and see women making the socks using wool from animals they raised, and learn the technique from them.

I’d already had first hand exposure to the making of jurab the day before, and on this day I was to go to two villages near one another, about 100 kilometres from Khorog, to meet several “artisans”, as Yorali called his crafters. Yorali came to my hotel in the morning and we addressed the matter of expenses, which had not been previously detailed. Here I learned that the marvelous Yusuf and his vehicle had already cost me almost $1000! Yorali and I worked out a plan where the remainder of the trip would be done less lavishly: Yusuf was released from further service, and Yorali drove his much more humble car to the various villages. This turned out just fine, as we spent many hours together, he taught me a great deal about the Pamirs, it’s culture and history, and the present state of affairs in Tajikistan. Plus, he is an awesome dude.

(An interview of Yorali about De Pamiri Handicrafts, can be found in this issue.)

During Soviet times, almost all of the local crafting traditions had been lost. The Soviets were interested in large scale factories and for the people of region, always living on meagre means, the opportunities provided by the new Soviet system were tempting, nor could one go against the authorities. The Soviets also provided a far better education and medical system than had been previously available.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, civil war broke out in Tajikistan that lasted until 1997, leaving the country in a desolate state. The new goverment has been ineffective, with education, medicine and the economy at a much poorer level than they were in Soviet times. This was evident everywhere, in the lack of plumbing, clean water, and decent roads. The paved roads I’d come across on the long journey from Dushanbe were built by the Chinese government. The border with China was less than 600 kilometres from Khorog, and China sent many trucks through to Tajikistan’s capitol, Dushanbe, and beyond, for commercial purposes.

Yorali’s mission was to revive the local handicrafts of the Pamir people, and he had made great strides in the five years since his plan was conceived and realized with funding from the Aga Khan Foundation. De Pamiri had a lovely small building right in the town’s main park — a beautiful one also built by the Aga Khan — with a shop filled not only with jurabs, but hats, necklaces, felted slippers and bags, all made by local artisans who were relearning the lost arts.

Yorali picked up his two beautiful boys, aged 5 and 8, and adorable wife, Zuhro, and we left for the villages. The first artisan, it turned out, had taken ill and was in the hospital, but I saw from her small workshop that her work was of very high quality. At this house, I saw an elderly lady and asked if I could interview her about the jurab tradition, with Yorali acting as translator. The lady said that sock-making in her family and all the others she knew went back many generations. The socks were made in two sizes, very long ones for men to wear in their high boots, and shorter ones for women. All the women made them, and shared the patterns they knew with their neighbors. The colors came from natural dyes and were fixed with allum, so that they would last. Women were adept spinners, and would make a hole in a very long fingernail to draw the yarn through. They also knit socks, using wooden needles, as metal was hard to come by, and often combined both crafts in a pair of socks. I thanked the lady for the interview and felt like a real journalist.

We went on the house of another artisan, not far away, and were given a substantial meal in the usual Pamiri style: lamb, rice, and the accoutrements of fruit, nuts, bread, home-made preserves from home grown fruits, and endless cups of green tea. The meals the Pamiri women cooked up in what must be called very basic conditions impressed me a great deal — they were always tasty and beautifully presented on big platters. Everyone eats from these platters, often with fingers, dipping the fresh bread in the meat juices, and munching on slices of watermelon, a local staple, between bites of the main course. I ate in this way all my time in the Pamirs, staying away from uncooked foods and only ate fruit where I could take off the peel. These included delectable small plums from trees on the property

After the meal Asparmo showed me once more how to twist the yarn at the back in color work, and I made a little progress, but as it was getting dark and the thread was black, not as much as I would have liked. Asparmo enjoyed looking at my book and was very interested in learning one of the stitches, which I taught her. Like Alisha, she learned it very quickly. After some hours of stitching and talking, we all went to bed in various parts of the house, a compound with several dwellings for the extended family, as is traditional. I slept in my clothes, the easiest way to cope with the conditions, as the outhouse was some distance away.

Next morning, we drove to another village where we spent several hours with a large family, again enjoying an enormous, delicous meal. This village was far less lush than the others we’d visited, and it was evident that people had a rougher time, most obvious from the weathered, wary look on children’s faces, unlike the cheerful kids I’d seen elsewhere. The only crop that could be cultivated was potatoes, and no fruit trees grew. The artisan at this house made a portion of a sock for me so I could practice with it, showed me her charts for some of the traditional pattterns, and sold me her particularly pretty home made hook.

We sat in the Pamiri house for hours with the extended family of 12, covering 4 generations. At one point a large frame drum appeared and a young woman beat a simple rhythm. Then the proud matriarch of the family joined us, and played the drum very powerfully, beating out a slow pattern traditionally performed by seven women to greet visitors and on other special occasions. I interviewed this lady about jurab too, and the same facts were confirmed: they were widely done by all the women over many generations, using long established patterns, made from home spun and dyed yarns, using both knitting and crochet, and wooden needles.

Zuhro and her boys

Setting of artisan’s home

Felted hat with embroidered decoration

Felted animals in the same workshop

Asparmo crocheting

Examining Asparmo’s spinning wheel, home made of car parts

Kids playing in the Pamiri house

Lady whom I interviewed about crochet traditions

Partial sock and hook I purchased. Curlicues on hooks are the handle.
It was explained that I was a musician interested in hearing local music. Shortly, a professional musician appeared who sang with great power, playing accordion, accompanied by two boys who were expert drummers, and a small concert ensued. I was enraptured, and captured it all on film. The people from this village originally were from the area of Bartang, which had its own special music and dance traditions, and two children gave a rendition of the dance. A girl of perhaps 7, who had been sitting near me all day with the sweetest smile on her face, danced like someone out of the tales of Sheherezade. Soon she was joined by a boy of about 10, who danced with with his arms extended, the two twirling around each other and the boy swooping down and then up again. It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my trip, among many marvelous moments. (Sorry there are no photos of this, but there is film, which will be posted once edited.)

Zuhro, Yorali’s wife, was also exhilarated by this day, telling me that ordinarily she didn’t take time iff from her work in De Pamiri, nor spend enough quality time with her two boys. The next day, she told me that the people of the village had been struck by the joy they saw on my face, and realized that despite the hard conditions in which they lived, there was much to be thankful for. I was very moved, and I know I’ll never forget them.