11 October 2018

“Azan on the Moon”, an Anthropological Journey in Central Asia

Till Mostowlansky, Research Fellow at the ANSO Department, works on the anthropology of infrastructure and humanitarianism. His latest monograph, Azan on the Moon, is an in-depth study of people’s lives amidst projects of modernity along the Pamir Highway in the borderlands of Tajikistan, China and Afghanistan.

Azan on the Moon is a poetic title. Can you tell us more about its meaning and origin?

During my fieldwork in Tajikistan I came across a range of Islamic conversion narratives which appear in popular booklets and are shared via mobile phones. One of these narratives argues that the American astronaut Neil Armstrong – the first man on the moon – converted to Islam after he realised that he had heard the azan, the Islamic call for prayer, when he stepped on the moon. For my informants, this narrative resonated with the landscape of eastern Tajikistan and the rise of public performances of piety along the Pamir Highway. You have to imagine that the environment of the eastern Pamirs is dry and seemingly empty. There is something lunar about it. To hear the azan in such an environment is to hear Armstrong’s azan on the moon.

Many people in the region have also been socialised into a world of technology. They are mechanics, engineers and road constructors. For them, the idea was appealing that the finest modern technology allowing humans to fly to the moon would eventually lead to God. I thought that the title Azan on the Moon would accurately reflect some of the key points about life along the Pamir Highway: piety, tradition, sociality and global outlook, but also technology, modernity, remoteness and peacefulness. Later I realized that the title could also appeal to a broader Muslim public. For instance, as far away from Tajikistan as Singapore, where I finalised my book manuscript at the National University of Singapore, Malay Muslims could immediately connect to the book title because they knew about Neil Armstrong’s alleged conversion.

In the wake of China’s rise in Central Asia, you tried to understand how people along the Pamir Highway strive to reconcile a “modern future with a modern past”. Can you share some conclusions?

Discussions about modernity are often informed by a number of assumptions that remain unspoken: for instance, the idea that modernity is closely tied to entities like “Europe” and “the West” and that it has emanated globally from these spaces is not uncommon. This process is predominantly discussed with respect to centres of economic and political power and frequently implies a linear development from non-modernity to modernity. The example of people’s lives along the Pamir Highway challenges such assumptions in a number of ways. The Soviet Union was for many decades invested in materialising modernity in this mountainous border region. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union this project of modernity came to an end and has become a memory of the past, of which the highway itself is the most visible symbol. Soon other actors showed up to tell people along the Pamir Highway about the modern futures they would bring: the Tajik government, international NGOs, religious organisations and Chinese companies, most recently propagating China’s Belt and Road Initiative. People along the Pamir Highway try to make sense of these competing and intersecting projects of modernity. They also discuss these competing projects critically and actively create alternative visions. This shows that modernity is neither linear nor static and that it can be an important part of people’s identities in unexpected locations. Taking this seriously, an important conclusion for me is to always let my research challenge existing assumptions – my own and those of others. This is true for debates about modernity, but also for ideas of centrality, marginality and globalisation at large.

You seem to have great consideration for the people you met along the Pamir Highway and value the moments you spent with them. Is your book also a way to present Tajikistan and Central Asia, which are not well-known areas in Europe and Switzerland? 

I tried my best to make my book accessible and to tell a lively story within the boundaries of my research interests, but it is still an academic publication. I am not under the illusion that this is a format that necessarily reaches out to a large audience in Europe, or in Switzerland. When writing the book, my goals were more modest: attempting to live up to the highest standard of anthropological research, giving my informants a voice and writing a book that might hopefully still be an informative and good read in ten years from now. Saying that, I think it is important to keep telling stories from lesser-known areas in order to provide alternative angles onto our world in past and present. For instance, even in Tajikistan itself my perspective to look at the country from its margins is a little out of the ordinary. Fortunately, I have had positive feedback from people in the region, and also from Central Asia more generally, which makes me very happy. Now, if interested NGO workers, policymakers and tourists were to pick up a copy before embarking to the Pamirs, that would be a great achievement.

With its very neat style, your book is also a literary journey. Is writing itself a part of your research outcome?

Absolutely. In anthropology a well-written ethnography is an important part of the research process. Many of the discipline’s central studies are also works of art and this is certainly something many anthropologists aspire to. There are fantastic pieces of art coming from visual anthropology, too, such as ethnographic films and photo-ethnographies. To me writing comes more naturally than the visual and I tried my best to present a rich and colourful text.

Although a Swiss citizen, you have had the opportunity to live in many countries and you speak several languages. Your journey has brought you to Geneva. What anthropological lesson do you draw from your own path, as a researcher into roads and routes?

Some strands of research on roads depict modern means of transport as socially void and alienating. In my opinion, people’s lives along the Pamir Highway, road trips in Pakistan, train rides in Switzerland and even flights from Melbourne to Geneva suggest the opposite. I find that many trains, transit zones and petrol stations are marked by intense sociality and emotional density. I am aware that it is a sign of immense privilege that I am able to speak of mobility in such positive terms. I am based in Australia, I have the opportunity to work in Geneva and I conduct research in Asia. It is clear that my citizenship is a central factor in this freedom and it is important to mention that many people around the world are not that fortunate. For me, a lesson to remember, and to topicalise in my work, is that access to global mobility is highly unequal and a matter of suffering and disenfranchisement for many.

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More information on Azan on the Moon > 

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Interview by Marc Galvin, Research Office.
Front picture: Tajik government placard in Murghab, July 2015. Photo by Till Mostowlansky.