Irna Hofman (photographs taken by author)
“I am afraid of the dog, but I like its owner” (Az in sag metarsam, lekin sohibashro naghz mebinam), the senior state official stated while staring at my Lada Niva parked by the road and inside, waiting for me to return, my dog Bim.[*] The official and I were standing at a crossroads, talking about land use issues. I had known him for years and tried to laugh off the statement, but it took me some time before I could pick up the conversation again. It was late in my fieldwork in Tajikistan, and his words, later caused me to reflect on one of the roles Bim had taken on during my fieldwork. She was my posbon, my guard.
As my fieldwork evolved, I increasingly became aware of the various roles Bim was playing simply by being there. She wasn’t an ethnographer or a hidden collaborator, yet she shaped my research in Tajikistan in important ways. Among other things, she took me to places where I would not have gone without her and affected encounters with people we met on the road. Thus, she was not only a guard but also a fixer, a broker, a guide and companion – but she could also mess things up and in doing so acted as a true troublemaker.
Serendipity. Bim wasn’t – and still isn’t – the easiest dog. She quickly becomes overstrung when there are too many people around or she hears a loud noise or there is sudden movement. She often doesn’t trust children, and she becomes agitated when encountering people on crutches or handcarts. She has a scar around her nose, probably from her mouth being tied up when she was young.
Leaving for the field without Bim for a year was not something I could imagine. Even though I had only adopted her in 2019, after she had been found by other foreigners in Dushanbe, and then brought her back to Europe, I was determined I would take her back to Tajikistan with me when another period of fieldwork appeared on the horizon later that year – in spite of the unpleasant journey ahead (hours in a crate in an aircraft) and other issues that surfaced later on.
Reflective writings on subjective identities and positioning in “the field” are nothing new in the scholarship on ethnography and anthropology. Indeed, this literature is rich and meaningful, if only for the realization, time and again, that feelings of failure, anxiety, despair and disappointment are part and parcel of any fieldwork (see, for instance, Stodulka et al. 2019). Even though such emotions influence eventual research outcomes, they do not always make it to the main body of an academic piece. And it is similar in the case of the ways in which non-human as well as human fieldwork companions affect what we take from the field, in terms of what they express, verbally or nonverbally – or in their silence, and what they silence. In fact, I had not read any anthropological literature on human-animal relationships and the role of a dog or any other animal in undertaking fieldwork; it was only when I was in the field that my colleague Miriam Driessen sent me an interesting article on the subject by George Kunnath (2020). Later, I discovered, but did not delve into, the scholarship on multispecies ethnography (cf. Kirksey and Helmreich 2010, Haraway 2008). Indeed, ethnographic research is like a joint performance, yet without perfectly orchestrated encounters, without dialogues on equal terms. Time, place, people, perceptions all matter, as well as dogs…
A guard (posbon)
Travelling as a woman alone, particularly by car, is quite exceptional outside of urban areas in Tajikistan. Travelling and living alone is often considered dangerous for a woman. Moreover, although it is becoming more common, being single or divorced is stigmatised, and older single and divorced women are often called widows (beva), a term that carries a negative connotation (Hofman 2021). I often encountered questions about my marital status and sometimes received proposals, something that other women scholars have also experienced in the country (Thibault 2018).
Bim made my made my otherwise solitary journey not only less solitary but also less dangerous. In Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe, I mostly stayed alone in a house with a yard (havli) where I could enjoy quiet moments and Bim could run around in the yard. People often asked if I wasn’t afraid of staying alone. I usually said I was used to living alone, but when I replied, “I have a dog,” people seemed to be more understanding, something I initially was not aware of. People considered the dog my personal guard, and in that role, she also became more accepted.
In my earlier years in Tajikistan (2012-15), I worked with young male assistants. This was mainly for two reasons: I wasn’t fluent in the Tajik language, and I felt the need to be accompanied by a male, because I would have to interact with mainly male farmers. The fieldwork was different in 2020-21. I had come to know the country and prior to my departure, I had decided to purchase a car to more easily get around and pass remote farm fields. Working alone in Tajikistan, I enjoyed my autonomy, finally fluent in Tajik and able now to navigate the rural roads. Despite regular car issues, the independence empowered me. I had also developed in maturity and self-assuredness and felt more confident, which translated into more varied encounters. The car definitely affected the ways in which I was seen. Occasionally – more often than before – I experienced verbal sexual harassment, and I grew more frustrated with such behaviour. However, I never felt vulnerable; rather, the issues that made me nervous were car troubles, and bureaucratic challenges that are commonplace in Tajikistan. After some time, particularly after that encounter at the crossroads, I understood that Bim sometimes kept people at bay. In Dushanbe, her barking behind the fence could dissuade strangers from knocking on the door.
The first few times that I went to rural areas for longer stays in 2020, I left Bim in Dushanbe, but later, I took her along. We started making week-long trips, Bim watching over my shoulder as we conquered the bumpy roads. Was that why I never had trouble at police checks? When I was stopped, it would end up with a simple chat: “What breed is it? Where are you from?” I’m sure Bim mediated in such situations. Perhaps she was a hidden collaborator after all!
Sometimes I took passengers along in my car when I drove from one district town to another or back to the capital city. They would take the seat in the front, often somewhat hesitantly, worried about the black dog at the back. It all went well as long as Bim did not try to approach the strangers. One of my brokers, who always accompanied me when I visited a huge Chinese agribusiness close to the Tajik-Afghan border, got used to Bim in the back and amusingly started taking selfies from the passenger seat, making sure Bim would be clearly visible behind his seat. It made the anxious moments somewhat less tense, as those trips weren’t always easy ones.
Walking around with dogs, as is common in residential areas in Europe, has until recently been quite exceptional in Tajikistan. Domestic dogs have become more popular in Tajikistan’s urban areas lately; affluent segments of the population appear willing to spend large sums on precious breeds, such as huskies and golden retrievers, and one occasionally notices people walking with dogs on a leash. There’s also – according to hearsay, as I have never visited it – a dog market in Dushanbe. In the countryside, walking with a dog is much more unusual, and there are many unleashed (and quite dangerous) dogs around. People regularly asked me what we were doing outside. “I’m going for a walk [Progulka mekunam],” I would reply, explaining that I had to go outside as Bim did not pee or poo in the yard.
I walked small circles and long stretches with Bim in Dushanbe on a daily basis, so I got to spend quite some time outside, much more than I would have without a dog. Walks led me to places I would not have visited alone. When Covid-19 infections spread, for instance, I met a man with a cow in central Dushanbe. I was surprised, as animal husbandry had been outlawed in the city; when I greeted him, he explained that the cow would be slaughtered for the ceremony to commemorate his deceased wife. She had been a medical doctor and died of Covid-19. I expressed my condolences as well as anxiety, given that (at that time) the Tajik government denied the spread of Covid in Tajikistan. He told me that many nurses and doctors had been infected and the spread of the pandemic was no secret in the hospital. He had to continue his life alone, living with a son, he said, visibly depressed. It was heartbreaking.
Indeed, Bim brokered meetings by leading me to places and into conversations that I would not have otherwise entered and encounters with her by my side lessened tensions and anxiety. The short walks led to spontaneous interactions also in the countryside, for instance, when I was outside my friend’s house as a Chinese agribusiness combine harvester passed, crossing the vast cotton field from one side to the other. This gave me the occasion to strike up a conversation with some of the agribusiness’ employees and the mayor of the municipality on the roadside as we stood and watched the combine doing its work.
Of course, Bim also made some contacts complicated or impossible and sometimes messed things up. In Islam, the most widely practiced religion in Tajikistan, dogs are considered impure. Many – although certainly not all – people kept their distance from her, and I would try to anticipate and keep her back.
An issue that regularly surfaced was people’s indignation about the luxury of keeping a pet and the way I treated Bim. I could very well understand this, and it engulfed me with feelings of guilt and shame. I struggled to justify the amount of money I spent on taking a dog along, by plane or in the car, to my Tajik friends and others who live in a setting of extreme socio-economic hardship and inequality, with poverty and food insecurity commonplace. Many people I have befriended over the years have difficulties making ends meet, and my having Bim revealed another layer of inequality, which I often struggled with. These feelings particularly surfaced when I left Tajikistan again in August 2021 and had to pay for the journey at the airport, surrounded by many (male) Tajik migrants who were waiting to board the plane to Russia and expressed their astonishment out loud: “This woman is paying an enormous amount of money, just to take a dog along!”
The dog also messed up and untidied things and made me feel embarrassed – in hindsight, though, usually in hilarious ways. In a moment of courage, I once let Bim off the leash while staying with friends in a village. She happily ran around until she noticed ducks in an irrigation drain full of weeds. Those familiar with cotton farming in Central Asia may know what such drains look like, and anyone can imagine the dirty water there leaving the fields, regularly with agrochemical residues. I was looking for Bim, calling her name, sometimes hearing the sounds of plashing water, and women at a distance were looking on from their household plots. I laughed at first, imagining Bim was having fun, but became concerned as time passed – would she return (alive)? Fortunately, all ended happily, though the smell she carried back with her was awful. Indeed, people increasingly associated me with that naughty black dog.
When spending time in the village at my friends’ place, I would often go out to visit farmers in the area, on foot or by bike – I would leave Bim in the yard. One day, upon my return, I met an excited family. The young boys, rather amused, reported what had happened – Bim had escaped during my absence. The family had been terribly concerned – the dog of aunt (khola) Irna had got lost! They had all gone out to look for her, and luckily found Bim waiting by my car when they gave up and came back. The boys had become fond of Bim and would have liked to adopt her.
Above all, though, Bim was my companion. There were lonely moments in the fieldwork during the pandemic. Tajikistan was no longer new to me, it had become a bit like home, and I was not a junior ethnographer, but it wasn’t easy. Having undertaken intensive periods of fieldwork, and also previously working in other capacities in the country, I had returned with confidence in January 2020, as noted before. This was in spite of the fact that my research project, focussing on the presence of Chinese actors in Tajikistan’s rural economy, meant I had to embark on challenging topics and discussions, and even though fieldwork always comes with its ups and downs, which I knew. As Covid-19 spread around the world and news on increasing cases of infections and deaths circulated in Tajikistan, the Tajik state tried to silence the existence of the pandemic in the country and portrayed Tajikistan as a Covid-free island in a sea of infection. The World Health Organisation (WHO) initially supported the claims of the Tajik government, and the state’s propaganda was quite effective; for some time, life continued more or less as usual and my Tajik friends outside of Dushanbe insisted and expected I should visit them for holidays. How could I explain and justify why I had to stay away? My friends and relatives back home raised eyebrows when they heard my stories of gatherings in the country. I felt like I was in a twilight zone.
I decided not to leave the field, in part because I felt the “need to deny … the possibility and luxury of leaving” (Gudeman and Rivera 1995, 247). In that period, Bim gave me a feeling of home. We ran and walked long stretches, greeted people on the streets and exchanged some words. When Bim did not accompany me, people asked where she was, such as the group of women who cleaned the streets in the early morning hours. “Yoohoo, friend [dugona]! Where is your friend [Dugona dar kujo ast]?!” I smiled and responded: “She’s having a rest [Vai dam megirad]!”
People occasionally approached me:
S/he: What kind of breed is this? [Shto eto za poroda?]
I: It’s a street dog. [Kuchagi.]
S/he: A street dog?? [Kuchagi??]
I: Yes, from the street. I trained her a bit. Sometimes she listens, sometimes she doesn’t. [Ha, kuchagi. Kame dars dodam. Ba’ze vaqt gush mekunad, ba’ze vaqt gush namekunad.]
Sometimes the conversation continued:
S/he: Will you sell (it)? [Mefurushed?]
I: No, I won’t sell (her)! I like her! [Nee, namefurusham! Vairo dust medoram!]
Although she might have spent the first ten months of her life on the street, Bim is quite a pretty dog. She attracted a fair bit of attention, in her pink harness, with her white feet and the white tip at the end of her tail, (sometimes) walking gently along my side. During one evening walk, four street dogs had started to follow us, and people were staring at us as if I was taking care of five dogs on the outskirts of Dushanbe.
When I returned for a brief visit to Tajikistan in November 2022, I realised even more how visible I had always been in the public realm, cycling or walking, often with my dog accompanying me. People at the market and in the streets of Dushanbe approached me asking where the dog was and whether it (she) had died [“Sag kani? Kani sag? Sagaton murd?”].Bim was alive, but I had come alone this time. In conversations, friends and my host families often also inquired about Bim. Greetings in Tajikistan aren’t simple hellos and goodbyes; they include a wide variety of questions and inquiries: “How is your health? How is your family, your father, your brother, sister, your work… is all well? How is Bim [Bim soz ast]? Did she gain weight [Vai farbeh shud]?”
Ethnographic research and insights depend on encounters and are shaped by varied actors, factors, and artefacts and the emotions they trigger. The whole is always more than the sum of those parts. Fieldwork in the years 2020-21 wasn’t easy. The terrain was rough and the roads bumpy – not only the physical roads, but mentally, too, it was a challenging journey. I switched identities and shifted positions from a hesitant and uncertain female researcher to a confident woman driving a tough car.
Bim gave me a feeling of home, and it felt like I was more than a mere passer-by in Tajikistan “doing research.” The long walks were moments to step back and reflect. And more importantly, Bim made my solitary journey less exceptional and less controversial in the eyes of others. As I came to appreciate better over time, Bim affected the ways in which I was seen and made me more aware of my subjective identities. She mediated encounters, conditioned and brokered, and sometimes broke silences.
Gudeman, S. and B. Rivera. 1995. From car to house (Del coche a la casa). American Anthropologist 97(2): 242-50.
Haraway, D. 2008. When species meet. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.
Hofman, I. 2021. In the interstices of patriarchal order: Spaces of female agency in Chinese-Tajik labour encounters. Made in China #2 May-August 2021.
Kirksey, S.E. and S. Helmreich. 2010. The emergence of multispecies ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 25: 545-576.
Kunnath, G. 2020. Doni the anthropologist’s dog: A scent of ethnographic fieldwork. Anthropology Now 12(3): 106-21.
Stodulka, T., Dinkelaker, S. and F. Thajib. 2019. Affective dimensions of fieldwork and ethnography. Berlin: Springer Verlag.
Thibault, H. 2018. Labour migration, sex, and polygyny: negotiating patriarchy in Tajikistan. Ethnic and Racial Studies 41(15): 2809-26.
Irna Hofman is a WUR alumna and currently a guest at RSO. She is an associate researcher at the University of Oxford and undertook long-term fieldwork in Tajikistan in 2020-21 for her post-doctoral research within the “China, law and development” (CLD) project. Her research has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 803763).
I thank Miriam Driessen for inspiring me to write this contribution, and Markus Göransson and Joost Jongerden for their constructive feedback. I am also grateful to the Oxford CLD team and friends and family who were of great support during fieldwork.
[*] The name “Bim” is relatively common for a domesticated dog in Tajikistan; it comes from a dog in a Soviet drama from 1977, “White Bim black ear” (Belyi Bim, chernoe ukho).