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Central Asian tabibs in post-Soviet archives: healing, spying, struggling and ‘exploiting’

April 15, 2010

By Alisher Latypov

Ever since I commenced my research on the politics of medicine and opiate use in Russian Central Asia and Soviet Tajikistan, finding the ‘voices’ of tabibs in primary and secondary sources presented a particular challenge. While opium occupied a prominent place in this region’s Islamic medicine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the overwhelming majority of published sources on tabibs and their practices were written by their rivals, Russian and Soviet doctors, or by the Russian imperial ethnographers and administrators as well as other European travellers.

In these accounts, ‘the medicine of the natives’ was generally depicted as a static corpus of knowledge and practices – with local education based almost exclusively on the religious studies of the Qur’an – while both tabibs and opium often emerged as ‘demons’. In view of these problems, two recent groundbreaking works on the history of medicine in Russian and Soviet Central Asia, written based on archival research in Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan by Paula Michaels and Cassandra Marie Cavanaugh, provide only a limited perspective on indigenous healers, suggesting that these healers did not leave any written texts behind them. (While some texts may well exist and be guarded by the families of tabibs, it should be noted with particular reference to the sedentary areas of Central Asia that the Institute of Oriental Studies in Tashkent alone stores hundreds of medical manuscripts in Arabic and Persian languages, with many of them translated, transcribed and utilised in the second half of the 19th century.)

Still, when setting off for my field research in Moscow and Dushanbe libraries and archives in early 2009, I did cherish some hopes to find the records of tabibs – if not in Russia then in Tajikistan. Productive as much as it could be in all other regards, this research yielded very little new material on native healers, to say nothing of their ‘voices’. However, it helped to develop some initial ideas of what kinds of tabib-related source we can and cannot find in the post-Soviet state and Communist Party archives, and what other sources, apart from oral histories, we may use in our studies of traditional (called ‘non-traditional’ in the late Soviet period by then ‘traditional’ biomedical doctors) healing in Central Asia.

As described by Adeeb Khalid (whose paper in Ab Imperio inspired this brief report), post-Soviet archives primarily store the records of the state organs of power, and indigenous Muslim healers feature in those records only when interacting with the state in one way or another. In the imperial period, one rather peculiar means of such interaction was spying for or against the state. Fortune telling, reciting prayers to counter the influence of the evil eye and to expel the malevolent spirits, and the treatment of human and animal diseases were considered the best occupations for coming across many people and collecting intelligence. Both Russian and British empires readily recruited local Asian people possessing the above skills to spy upon each other and gather data in territories affected by the ‘great game’. Although one would expect some tabibs to continue supplying information for the early Soviet-era security agencies (VChK–GPU–OGPU–NKVD), tabibs more often approached the Soviet state in the 1920s as supplicants requesting certification as officially recognised doctors.

Tabibs also had to face the state’s institutions of persecution after they were outlawed in the second half of the 1920s through the Uzbek Council of People’s Commissars-enacted legislation restricting medical practice to licence holders and through the Uzbek Criminal Code’s Article 255 (which was also applied in Tajikistan until 1935), penalising indigenous medical practitioners with no state-certified biomedical education by up to one year of compulsory labour or a fine of up to 1000 roubles. When the time was ripe to ensure the ‘purity’ of the Communist Party, engaging in ‘tabibism’ served as a ground to purge some of the members from its ranks. The subjugation of ishans and other religious healers was harsher because of their overt hostility towards the new regime. A certain number of them were killed in the course of the Basmachi struggle against the Soviet troops in Tajikistan in the mid-1920s, and some others were either ‘seized’ (another word used by the Bolsheviks as a synonym for murder) in its wake or repressed in the late 1930s.

However, compared with a small number of indigenous healers that had recorded dealings with the state, the majority of Central Asian healers went underground and remained largely beyond the reach of the state (and its vast archival collections) until the Gorbachev period. While rare pro-tabib opinions were denounced and discouraged, the state-declared victory over ‘irrational’ folk doctors and religious healers was seen as an integral part of the triumph of socialism over the backward, dark and ignorant past. In public discourse, one of the most widely portrayed images of tabibs and ishans became that of a brutal and venal exploiter (with occasional publications by the Soviet ethnographers on ‘folk’ medicine usually being an important exception to this pattern, although there too, one finds conclusions emphasising the backwardness of tabibs as well as the harmfulness of some of the healers’ treatment methods). Flogging patients with willow branches to exorcise malicious jinns implied violence and brutality; accepting as much or as little money or in-kind offerings as patients could afford symbolised greediness and exploitation. Not surprisingly, in some archival sources from Tajikistan the bloodletting by tabibs was also interpreted as patient abuse within the context of the Soviet state-regulated and -rewarded blood donation practice.

In addition to the above perspectives that one finds in the post-Soviet state and party archives, there are two other kinds of source related to the local healers, albeit with their own weaknesses, that are worth mentioning with regard to Soviet Tajikistan. The first are (local Central Asian) patient case records, most notably those from mental hospitals, since it was (and still is) often on the occasion of mind disturbances that healers were consulted prior to visiting doctors – as a result of people’s robust beliefs in the ability of supernatural beings to cause mental illness, stigma, and the psychiatrists’ lack of success in explaining and resolving the major problem of schizophrenia identified as majzubiiat. These records can contain information on what types of healer were approached by the patient and his/her family, where, when and what kind of assistance was received, what the perceived effect of seeing a healer was, etc. However, whenever available, this information was recorded by psychiatrists (excluding patient letters that are sometimes kept within clinical case histories) and, as demonstrated in a recently published casebook of images of mental illness in Central Asia, it can often more accurately reflect their own blaming of a healer for having presumably contributed to the development of a psychiatric disorder than provide a detailed account of healer–patient interaction.

Finally, the periodical press from the glasnost period is a fascinating source on the return of tabibs to the foreground of public discourse as well as emergence of ‘New Age’ healers in Central Asia. Numerous articles that appeared in that time not only in local but also in central Moscow press reveal a significant role that these practitioners have been playing in the region as well as great demand for their services, with patients coming from all over the union republics. Yet, based on my readings of newspaper articles devoted to the Tajik healers, I can say that they tend to be focused on a few more popular figures, their relationships with the state, their accomplishments and their hardships, and do not provide any insight into the experiences of scores of other practitioners who did not hit the headlines.

Notwithstanding all of these limitations, patient records, the periodical press and state-generated archival sources can be used critically in combination with oral histories to research non-biomedical healing in Soviet Central Asian republics, which to date remains only broadly and rather vaguely outlined.

Alisher Latypov is a Doctoral Scholar at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL.

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