by Paolo Sartori, Vienna

Published in 1945, Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli is based on the author’s first-hand experience in Southern Italy in the mid-1930s when he was sentenced to “internal exile” (confino) for anti-fascist activities. Aggregating observations made in a remote rural area stricken by poverty, the book paints a picture of Basilicata quietly perched at the edge of modernization and steeped in a tenacious agrarian culture. Levi casts a sociological gaze at people prone to surrender to the forces of nature and magic, and methodically records how peasants and witches lived unencumbered under the heavy march of history. Christ Stopped at Eboli achieved even greater fame when it was immortalised in 1979 by post-neorealist film-director Francesco Rosi in the homonymous movie casting Gian Maria Volonté.

Roughly around the same period in which Levi’s masterpiece was published, a young scholar by the name of Yuri Knorozov was sent from Leningrad to Khorezm. A member of a Soviet expedition destined to make a major breakthrough in archaeology and ethnography, Knorozov spent in fact only a few years in Uzbekistan. Most probably because of an egregious fall out with the head of the expedition Sergey Tolstov, Knorozov was repatriated to Leningrad. Though academically marginalised, he nevertheless managed to eke out a career, during the course of which he succeeded, inter alia, in deciphering the Mayan script – though that is another story. While stationed in Khorezm, Knorozov produced reams of fieldnotes cutting across the entire cultural gamut and ranging from the cult of the saints to curative practices. By juxtaposing Levi with Knorozov, I would like to invite the readers of this blog to look at Knorozov’s fieldnotes as snapshots of a spirituality that we long imagined to have been disrupted by Sovietization. Such a juxtaposition isn’t an invitation to think of agrarian religion, either in Fascist Italy or Soviet Uzbekistan, in essentialist terms, i.e., as static and immutable “popular culture”, as the stereotype goes, detached, that is, from the purported intellectual vibrancy of dominant classes. Thinking with Levi, instead, can facilitate our appreciating the social significance of religion also during epochs which one would by default associate with secularist ideology and policies of radical modernization. It also encourages us historians to feel respectful for and elicit the meaning of cultural practices recorded among peasants and artisans. Finally, Knorozov’s fieldnotes can be read as historical documents suggesting that specific traditions of Sufi origin did not submerge during the Red Terror or WWII. Indeed, if and when read against a larger body of scholarship produced by Soviet ethnographers, such fieldnotes can offer connoisseurs of Islamic intellectual traditions a documentary repository with which to explore the enduring vitality of a Muslim religious space within the USSR.

FIELDNOTES FROM KHOREZM (Translated from Russian)

An unknown elderly man at the bazaar of New Urgench. 21/8 – 25/8/1946

On 21 August 1946, at around 5 pm I met a man at the bazaar in New Urgench. He was wearing a quilted grey robe that was fairly old, over white trousers that reached down just below his knees. On his head he sported a round Astrakhan-fur hat with a leather top. He [walked] barefoot holding a saddle bag (korzhun) in his left hand, and a knout with a donkey-leather handle measuring c. 20 cm in the right. With a short-trimmed black beard, he had a resolute and energetic expression of the face and a penetrating, unpleasant look. Walking along the market rows, he stopped in front of nearly every vendor, especially if he was an elderly man. When the seated vendor bowed at him, the man would hit him on the shoulder with a punch or pulled his ear. Twice have I seen him that he blew into the vendor’s face. Everyone facing such treatment gave him 1 or 3 roubles. While he did not despise the money, he refused food. When unsatisfied [by someone’s behaviour], he threatened him with his knout.

Nobody shied away from him, and both men and women of all age accepted him with satisfaction. Once he even stopped an Uzbek riding a bicycle. He got hold of the handlebar and then pulled his ear. The Uzbek immediately handed a 5-rouble note to him. Noting that I was following him, he tried to hide; but once he realised he couldn’t, he stopped and waited for me. I then gave him 5 roubles myself. He took my hand and placed it on his forehead, a gesture of gratitude. He was suddenly frightened by my camera which I had to hide quickly in its case. When I could finally let him know that I was willing to subject myself to the same treatment he gave others, he pulled first one ear, then the other, and then he hit me rather violently on the shoulder; at which point we parted.

From what I could make sense of what I heard from local residents without the aid of a translator, this man comes to the bazaar nearly every day, especially on Sundays, for a relatively short period of time. He can heal the sick, especially those afflicted by malaria. More generally, they say he is “soft handed,” which means that if he touches you, you will be protected from sickness. I couldn’t find out his name, but one of my respondents referred to him as a kho’ja.

I met him once again on 25 August 1946 around 3 pm at the bazaar. He walked with a boy who held his knout. A young Russian man offered to translate and I chatted him up by giving him 5 roubles, as if I were an old acquaintance. When I asked him whether he had lived there long, he muttered something then opened his mouth showing his teeth many of which had fallen out. [The Russian man] translated: “He’s 60.” “Can he cure?,” [I asked]. “Yo’q” [“no!,” in Uzbek].

When I explained to him that I wanted to be healed of malaria, he said that he cannot perform such services, but that his brother at home can. But I insisted. He requested a string. While my translator left in search of it, I could find a thin one and gave it to him. He quickly moved away from the bazaar and looked at me as if to invite me to follow him. As we reached the street, he sat on a wall and I too sat close to him. Having folded the string in two, he began to tie knots with quick automatic movements, repeating a specific sound resembling the whistle of a whip: “ho-u”. After that he took my cap away and he tied this string around my neck – I counted 12 knots in the end –, he began to execute an awkward massage to my head by pressing hard his palms on my temples, the occiput and crown. He completed [his treatment] by pulling my ears and beating my shoulders, and showed me to wipe my hands and then my face. He stated then that I shall not suffer from malaria; this is what translated for me a young boy who observed us.

I asked how much I owed him. He said I was free to pay what I wanted. I handed him 10 roubles. He thanked me by putting the back of my hand on his forehead. Then he said goodbye [by uttering the word] kho’sh. I never met him again.

Elderly mullah and guide, Sabir. [Town of] Manghit 3/9/1946

An elderly mullah in the town of Manghit told me about a female porkhan whose name is Shukur Sapaeva. She can tell fortunes, which means that “she sees and tells” with the help of a mirror (oyina). She cannot cure the sick of chronic malaria, but she can heal a sudden type of malaria caused by the evil-eye (ajina). During the treatment she walks around the sick beating on a drum and sings. This is an example of her invocations:

In the name [of the Almighty] the king of this world
I shall begin after the basmala

Forty mullahs went in winter
And ten went in a month
Oh maids caring for the family,
Come in help by the thousands!

According to Sabir, this young lady is married to a tractor-driver; her parents were not healers, and she began to cure the sick during the [Second World] War, i.e., two years ago. Invited to deliver a treatment, she stays 4 or 5 days in the house of the sick and leads a séance for one hour each day. During the séance she plays the drum and hits the sick on the spine with a knout, walks around him, clapping her hands and repeating “uf-a-o”. After the healing the owner of the house sacrifices a goat and the porkhan smears the sick with the blood of the animal. She takes the meat and eats it. The treatment is called jar.

Urazbaev the “healer” (porkhan). [City of] Qypchaq 8/9/1946

On 8 September 1946, around 7 pm, with my guide Iavbasarov I visited the “healer” (porkhan) Urazbaev who works as keeper of the trade department (raitorg) [in a collective farm]. He was wearing a white shirt with no collar, and white trousers rolled up to the knees; he was barefoot. He sported a skullcap (tiubiteika) on his head. He was an elderly man with short moustache and a beard. Iavbasarov explained to him that I am a fellow-worker and that I am sick, and that I often suffer from seizures. The healer recommended to go to a “doctor” (dukhtur). Iavbasarov replied that doctors cannot understand [what afflicts me]. Urazbaev asked why we did not go to other healers, for there are plenty of them around Qypchaq. We replied that we did not know anyone else. He agreed to cure me. They brought me to a semi-dark entrance hall (daliz). They had me sit on the floor in the middle of the room. By the way, the door was open and an 8-year-old boy observed the entire treatment; also [I could recognise] the figures of other people inhabiting the house who passed by. Urazbaev told Iavbasarov: “in fact I can sense that a spirit had hit him (jinn urgan).” At the beginning, together with Iavbasarov, he drank water from a cup; then the healer poured water with salt and pepper into a cup. He filled his mouth with water and then sprinkled with it my face, my crown and neck; then all the body, i.e., my open belly, and the palms of my hands which I kept outstretched, and my legs and my face once again. After that he pressed my head with his palms, starting from my face and crown, and then the temples. Then he hit my shoulders hard four times with his palms and then another eight times with less strength; and with this the treatment ended. Iavbasarov paid him 12 roubles.

The healer invited us to come again the next day, explaining that the first séance should help a little and that next comes a treatment with fire. On 9 September around mid-day I went again to Urazbaev together with Iavbasarov. The porkhan said that we ought have come a little later, when the sun reaches the zenith. When we came a second time, he brought us to a secondary room (tam) on a mat in the middle. Then he soaked a piece of fabric in cotton oil, took it with burning tongs and set it on fire. He waved the flame three times around my head, nearly touching my face. I couldn’t see anything. He raised my left hand and passed the flame beneath my armpit; he did the same thing with my right hand. He then waved the flame above Iavbasarov and muttered something and it seemed he was inviting us to spit. Then he took the guttering torch out of the room, most probably out into the street. When he came back, he poured water into a cup, added salt and pepper, filled his mouth with that water and sprinkled with it my face, my crown and neck and again the face. He once spat on Iavbasarov, took the coup to my mouth and quickly took it out of the room. Later I came to know that I should have spat in it in order for the spirit (jinn) to come out. He came back and, without taking off my cap, he pressed with all his strength first my forehead, then my crown, and the temples. Then he hit me on the spine eight times with his palms. Then it was Iavbasarov’s turn. He pressed him on the temples with his finger, and he gave him a “massage” by placing his palms on his head and taking the skin on his back into folds.

And with this the treatment ended. I asked him what had happened to me. He replied that clearly a jinn had hit me and that most probably I had had an unpleasant meeting. I confirmed that something of the kind indeed had happened to me. According to him, if I had not been scared nothing would have happened to me. I asked him why he became a porkhan. He replied to this question by explaining that “he saw a jinn in a dream who ordered him to become a porkhan”. [He added that] he has control over some jinns and paris and that he’s not afraid of visiting the places where the jinns live. He claims that paris are associated with whirlpools and they can damage (porazit’) a man. And a porkhan cannot heal a man who has been hit by a pari.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Devin DeWeese, “Shamanization of Central Asia,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 57 (2014), pp. 326-363;

Alexandre Papas, Ainsi parlait le derviche. Les marginaux de l’islam en Asie centrale (xve-xxe siècle) (Paris: Les éditions du Cerf, 2018);

Paolo Sartori, “Of Saints, Shrines, and Tractors: Untangling the Meaning of Islam in Soviet Central Asia,” Journal of Islamic Studies 30/3 (2019), pp. 367-405.