The story of the book

The land that always calls you back

Despite its barren nature, or perhaps because of it, there is a force in the Pamir Mountains that draws you back again and again. It may be because, in a place where every year people have to create the soil from the stony lands, the hospitality and generosity of the people who live here and share their foods are so great. The small plateaus that are carved out everywhere to grow food among the steep mountain valleys have given rise to a huge diversity of unique crops, a diversity that is mirrored in the local languages and cultures. But somehow, this richness is not reflected in the food you receive when coming to these mountains as a visitor.

When Frederik, who had first come to this region through his work on the conservation of ancient fruit varieties, commented to his Pamiri colleagues about the lack of diversity in the local food culture, they proved him wrong by preparing beautiful dishes made with the many kinds of food grown in the mountains. They agreed, however, that it was worrying that so many of these old recipes and practices were disappearing. Even the landscape was beginning to suffer from the loss of traditional practices and farmers’ knowledge. And so, Frederik and his colleagues started collecting recipes.

At the same time, in the spring of 2009, Jamila was working for a development organisation in the Pamirs on cross-border development between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Development organisations play an important role in the Pamirs, which is the poorest region of Central Asia, but most of the development ideas seemed to focus on external solutions to the problems, ignoring existing knowledge and biocultural richness. Jamila often thought about how Pamiri voices might be strengthened, how they could contribute more of their own knowledge to the discussions about development, their future.

A promise to a grandmother

Six months and 130 recipes later, Jamila and Frederik first met at a workshop about agricultural biodiversity in the Pamirs. It was here that Jamila tried Pamiri apricot soup for the first time and it was here that the idea of a recipe book began to take hold in their imaginations. The next day, in the village of Mun in the Ghund valley, an elderly woman started telling them stories about the food she once used to eat. Very soon, her entire family was there, listening to her, and more and more people from her community joined. When she had finished her story, she looked at her daughter, then at us, and asked us to write down her recipes in a book. “I want to share them with my children and grandchildren while I still remember what I know” she said.

Jamila and Frederik left the Pamirs and went their separate ways, Jamila to Kabul to continue to work on regional development and Frederik to Colombia to learn how to farm. The idea of the recipe book was shelved, although it was never quite forgotten. Neither was the promise to the grandmother in Mun.

Going back to the Pamirs

About a year later, Jamila wrote to Frederik, to ask how things were progressing with the book. They weren’t. She said she still thought about the idea often and that it would be a real contribution to the Pamirs. She made him an offer: if he wanted to go ahead with the book, she would, too. And so the real journey of the book began: having known each other for the whole of two days, they both dropped what they were doing, put together their savings, and returned to the Pamirs on a budget flight. Their idea was to find out a bit more about the 130 recipes they had on their list, to document them and make a little booklet for the people of the Pamirs.

Together with our friends from the Pamir Biological Institute we travelled through the Pamirs for several months to look for the people behind the recipes. In remote villages we had never been to, we arrived at people’s doorsteps as complete strangers, unannounced and uninvited. “Could you perhaps cook something for us?” we would ask, “something special,” and presented the list of recipes we still did not understand. The embarrassment we felt at doing this was always swept away by an overwhelming hospitality and kindness. It opened a window into a colourful new world of tastes, memories, poems and stories, and imaginings of what the future of the Pamir Mountains might look like. It helped us to understand more of the difficulties of Pamiri life, and more of its beauty, and to see these in a light that went beyond resource scarcity, poverty or war, themes usually associated with this part of the world. All this made the recipe booklet expand. We weren´t just documenting endangered recipes anymore, but also the world around those recipes: the places, the times, the ideas. Bit by bit, we were piecing together a mirror that we could give back to our Pamiri friends and in which, we hoped, they would recognise themselves, and feel proud.

Page 672

This was the new task we set ourselves: to make a book that could travel back to the Pamirs. The three months that we initially gave ourselves to do that became four years. Two years to research and write, disentangling the seven different languages used locally to describe seeds and recipes, learning about the natural and political history of the Pamirs, travelling back, to check and check and recheck. Two years more for everything else: the translations and re-translations into Dari and Tajik, the intricate design of 672 pages with so many different kinds of texts—from children’s rhymes to cheese recipes and revolutions—in three completely different scripts, combined with the work of several photographers. All the while, we were seeking funding for the printing of 2000 copies (one for each Pamiri community) of an ever-expanding book that just did not want ever to finish. And looming over all this work was the prospect, terrifying to any writer or researcher, that the people whose voices you recount, whose lives you portray, and whose world you try to understand, will read what you have written.
Thanks to the help of so many friends, in the Pamirs and in the places that have been our home over the past years, and thanks to the generosity and patience of our donors, the book is finished. We hope that with it we have done Pamiri hospitality justice and that it will find its way into Pamiri homes and hearts. And in doing so, we hope that it will help strengthen the call from that beautiful land, so that it continues to always call us back.

book details
Pamir food and life on Facebook

All images copyright of the photographers