“With Our Own Hands” – Nairobi’s Shariffa Keshavjee Reflects on an Astonishingly Beautiful Book About the People, Food and Life in the Pamirs

“In this region no guest is a foreigner and every visitor is warmly welcomed and enjoys amazing hospitality. Food prepared from the heart is a labour of love…As I read and re-read the book, I feel that the earth itself compressed to make a safe haven for these very special people who truly live in harmony with mother earth. Similar to the way the animals live in the Ngorongoro Crater.” — Shariffa Keshavjee

“With Our Own Hands” by Frederik van Oudenhoven and Jamila Haider

Front cover

Front cover “With Our Own Hands,” 686 pages. Foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales.

REVIEWED BY SHARIFFA KESHAVJEE

I have not visited high mountain regions of the Pamirs bordering Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and China, but these lands have always fascinated me .

I was fortunate to have laid hands on this beautiful and monumental book in Kenya. Reading and re-reading this tome connected me with the food and life in the Pamir mountains

It is special thrill to open a new book that contains many well annotated pictures. As I open a crisp fresh leaf of the book, I am delighted to see a familiar leaf, a man shielding himself with a rhubarb leaf. Yes, indeed, how hot and bright the sun must be must be up in the land locked mountains. I only knew rhubarb leaves as poisonous for gerbils!

Countries bordering the Pamirs are not that well known and this book is particularly welcome to expose the lands that straddle Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan where the Karakoram Pass snakes its way into the snow. In this region no guest is a foreigner and every visitor is warmly welcomed and enjoys amazing hospitality. Food prepared from the heart is a labour of love.

Using a wild rhubarb leaf as his parasol, a traveller shields his face against the strong sun of the high Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan. Photo/Caption: With Our Own Hands

Using a wild rhubarb leaf as his parasol, a traveller shields his face against the strong sun of the high Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan. Photo/Caption: With Our Own Hands

Beyond the peaks of the Pamirs are the cold deserts of Central Asia, China and Afghanistan, all part of the old silk road — the route that was the rich centre of trade and culture. Now that air travel is the norm, technology and curiosity bring us closer to our brothers and sisters in the Pamirs.

It was a delight to read Prince Charles’ forward in ” With Our Own Hands.” He has said it all — the hard seminal work of documentation, preservation and most of all making this work available in English, Dari and Tajik.

I loved the wonderful pictures of the beautiful faces of the people in the Pamir region. I was delighted to have met them when I was in Paris, and to hear the songs and watch the graceful dances of the region.

Bedona mulberries. Some of the berries have pink or purple streaks. Photo:

Bedona mulberries. Some of the berries have pink or purple streaks. Photo: “With Our Own Hands.”

The features of the people are such a contrast; the soft features so delicate and fine in the young, the rugged ones in the not so young exposed to the elements. These people show resilience of spirit. Their close connection with the earth on a daily basis is a sense of joy. I can relate this somewhat to us here in Nairobi, where some people are beginning to grow their own vegetables, to avoid pesticides and genetically modified seeds. There is a movement in Kenya taking us back to more organic foods. For the people of the Pamirs, their seeds are sacrosanct, untarnished by greed.

I myself am particularly aware of how fast we are losing many foods that I used to eat, that my grandfather grew on his farm in Muhoroni, near Lake Victoria in the Rift Valley. Now I know why I feel a connection to the Pamirs.

Change is inevitable. My aunt used to make Bursoq, called gulgulia. All over the world similar sweet dishes are a treat — baklava, bursoq, gulab jamuns, the list goes on. How much we share how much in common we have.

In the Pamirs, we have young people, with their hopes and aspirations, their varied languages of English, Russian, Dari, Tajik, Urdu, and Pamiri. One foot steeped in tradition and one in the modern world , a perfect place to balance between the sacred and a world so mesmerised by the material one.

with-our-own-hands-apricots-photos-and-caption

In the changing human environment the people in the Pamirs are balanced between their tradition and outside influence. Perfect time to savour the idea that no visitor is a stranger here in the mountainous terrain. Guests are honoured and feted. They eat food that is in season, a culture lost to us with export of food and refrigeration. We know, however, that the food that is in season is good for us. It was a strong belief of my great-grandfather who worked in our farm in Muhoroni.

Special foods are also a sign of celebration. In Ismaili ginans, special foods are mentioned, “ghee thi nitarta bhojan banavie, una una rotla ne Markhan knavravie…” ‘

Prince Charles aptly says ‘ the march of globalisation ‘, has crushed our traditions under foot. This book is a testimony to the perilous present juxtaposed with the resilient knowledge of the past.

Authors Jamila Haider and Frederik van Oudenhoven.

Authors Jamila Haider and Frederik van Oudenhoven.

School Teachers with their own copy of With Our Own Hands

The authors ensured that each of the 1800 communities of the Pamirs received a copy of “With Our Own Hands.”

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The authors ensured that each of the 1800 communities of the Pamirs received a copy of “With Our Own Hands.” In this photo, schoolgirls in the Bartang valley are standing with a copy of the book. The authors have noted that they were received time and time again with the warmest hospitality one could ever imagine. Photo: Facebook page, PamirFoodandLife.

“With Our Own Hands” is a font of knowledge; I learnt so much about mulberries, which grow in my back yard but I did not know they could be dried. I now see them with different eyes. I learnt about the use of apricots, always a rare dish at our table. As siblings we would enjoy cracking the seed so delicately as to obtain a whole nut. We used out brass pestle and mortar.

Water is such a precious commodity that it has angels looking after it. The channels once established widen and give. The people then become so close to their water source. What a beautiful concept for those who turn on the faucet without any reverence.

In the book, I continue to enjoy the sun blessed rugged mountains of the Pamirs, and the beautiful faces of the people. The earth in its longing for human company. As we prepare to celebrate Navroz on March 21, know that we are together in hope, love and celebration. We too are part of the climate change — a colder winter here in Kenya, although our waters do not freeze as does the Panj River. Together our resilience and faith is stronger than the not so clement weather!

Back cover With Our Own Hands

Back cover “With Our Own Hands”

I love the cucumber story in the Wakhan Valley! We too, in Kenya eat the root of the Arrrow Root, (ARVI) and not the leaves. Now as we become multi-cultural, we eat the root and the leaves!!! We make our Qorma with green grams and eat it with chapatis. Yes, culinary art is ever changing and we enjoy foods from far and wide and origins of our foods become seamless. In Kenya the idea of juicing all green vegetables is quite in vogue to fight non-communicable diseases.

As I read and re-read the book, I feel that the earth itself compressed to make a safe haven for these very special people who truly live in harmony with mother earth. Similar to the way the animals live in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Thank you brothers and sisters of the Pamirs for preserving, and practicing your resilient knowledge which is is a repository of timeless knowledge. Thank you Frederick and Jamila for bringing the knowledge to us here in Africa where we too invoke Bismillah at the beginning of each event.

Copyright: Shariffa Keshavjee/Simerg.

Date posted: January 11, 2017.

_____________________

Note: Simerg had obtained limited quantities of “With Our Own Hands” from its Canadian distributors, UBC Press. We quickly sold out, and the book is now out of print. However, the book may be purchased from resellers at Amazon at US$80.00 and up! – ed.

6 thoughts on ““With Our Own Hands” – Nairobi’s Shariffa Keshavjee Reflects on an Astonishingly Beautiful Book About the People, Food and Life in the Pamirs

  1. Thank you Shariffa for your so heart, and mouth watering and tummy stirring write up on the With Our Own Hands. It is indeed sad that, what we term as advances in life style, and particularly culinary field, we have and are losing the genuine foods from the good Mother Earth, to manufactured, canned, and thoroughly bland, frozen meals, that we more and more are driven to, to meet the demands of our times.

    One such lost delight is recorded in my Papad Making In East Africa. No more wholesome and tasty home made papads; instead mass produced and packeted, from supermarkets. What next, bajra no rotlo in packets too!

    I sincerely hope that the Pamir people, are shielded from this culinary degradation, that we in larger and larger cities, face daily. Their pride in their foods and preserving the aromas and tastes is to be highly lauded.

    Vali bha, re your uni uni rotli etc, even now after some 70 years, I remember the ditty we sang when the first rains, arrived. As walked home from school in the first shower, we raised our voices to:

    ‘Aav re versad,
    Dhebreo parsad,
    Uni, uni rotli,
    Ne karela nu shak.’

    ex-East Africa.
    Kersi Rustomji.
    Australia.

  2. Having visited Khorog recently with family friends – a total of 6 – I entirely agree with the following remarks made by Shariffa:

    “In this region no guest is a foreigner and every visitor is warmly welcomed and enjoys amazing hospitality. Food prepared from the heart is a labour of love…As I read and re-read the book, I feel that the earth itself compressed to make a safe haven for these very special people who truly live in harmony with mother earth. Similar to the way the animals live in the Ngorongoro Crater.” — Shariffa Keshavjee

    During our very short visit to Khorog we were invited for dinner by a Tajik Family and the exception hospitality will be cherished for the rest of our lives.

    It is very sad to write that the head of this Tajik family Mrs. Bodomgul Bekikova passed away recently at the age of 66. We pray that may Almighty Allah rest the departed soul in eternal peace. Ameen.

    A very interesting post – thank you very much Shariffa.

    Kamrudin A. Rashid,
    Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

    • Dear Kamrudin,
      Through your comment I learned, with great sadness, of the passing of our friend Bodomgul. She was one of the women who helped us tremendously and who took such immense joy in teaching us about Pamiri food (and making fun of our silly questions).
      Thank you for your post and kind words.
      Frederik van Oudenhoven

      • Thank you very much Frederick for your kind comments which are greatly appreciated. Bodomgul was without any doubt a real kind, compassionate and caring lady.
        Best wishes and warm regards.

        Kamrudin A. Rashid

  3. Shariffa Keshavjee often contributes poems on this site – sublime and devotional. This piece here is in prose, but lyrical nonetheless at places. I think we learnt quite a lot of what’s in the book and she deftly weaves in her piece our (East African Asians’) situation now and in the pioneering days. She laments that many of our culinary arts are disappearing under the influence of what Prince Charles calls “globalization”. She evokes her great-grandfather. He’s also my great-grandfather – Jamal Pradhan, my grandfather Mukhi Valli Jamal’s father as also of Shariffa’s grandfather Count Hasham Jamal’s. Ada only agreed to come to East Africa to join his four sons and a daughter if the eldest son assured him he could be living on his own farm. And so it happened. Eldest son Hasham (later Count and Life President of the Kisumu Council) agreed, and great-grandfather Jamal Pradhan settled down in Muhoroni, growing sugarcane and vegetables. We learn all this from Shariff’s book about her grandfather Count Hasham Jamal – Bwana Mzuri. I have read it avidly, but I also heard a lot of that story from my own father Mr I V Jamal, in other words a grandson of Jamal Pradhan, son of Mukhi Valli Jamal, brother to Hasham, twice Mukhi of Mombasa Jamatkhana and almost the first President of Kampala Council. My father was in his twenties when great-grandfather passed away and so he remembered lots of things about him, pertinently what he ate – one of the subjects of this book and alluded to by Shariffa in terms of foods that have disappeared from our diets. Great-grandfather’s staff of life was bajra (millet) no rotlo (baked bread) with dahi (yogurt). The main course was always khichri with yogurt or kadhi. The accompanying curries were made of ringda (egg plant), karela and bhinda. All these foods either disappeared from our diet or are disdained. What a pity! They are the most nutritious things you can do to your body – counter to blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. The next generation simply lost the art of how to cook these foods. In its place they go pick up a naan and chicken tikka from the supermarket – or worse a hamburger from McD.
    Luckily for us some of our ladies have produced cookbooks about our traditional foods. One last one was by none other than Shariffa’s sister-in-law Leila Umedally (nee Keshavjee). She intersperses her book with memories of her childhood in South Africa and married life in Uganda. So she hits two KFCs with a few strokes of the keyboard. She’s a great believer in the goodness of khichri and gives us the recipe. We learn her grandchildren love it. It was as simple as that – serve the dish and people are bound to like it. She includes the recipe of bajra no rotlo. It’s not a recipe we need, but a how-to-roll-it description. You actually pat the dough ball and keep rotating it between the palms while it flattens, taking care that the edges do not drop off, something impossible for the present generation to master. But bajro is good for you. I have extolled the rotlo/rotli, where bajro is 40-50% of the dough mix and the rest is brown flour, bran, amaranth, you name it in whatever proportions you fancy. Add hibiscus flour, add garlic, add paffu (African olive). You can roll it and you semi-fry it; it won’t “rise” and it may not be round.
    I have some of the above in my book about Uganda Asians (out in July 2017, ten years in the writing, 1.5 million words, >10k photos) in a fun section called the Socio-economic History of Us, where I go through the demographic transition we experienced in just three generations in East Africa (8.8 children in the pioneering generation to 1.8 now), the educational ladder (1.5 “books” in Gujarati to 1.5 degrees); the gender-equality transition (more of our ladies with second degrees and more of them among professionals in the job market than men), the obesity indices – and the food transition. Some positive trends some not so.
    One or two weaknesses/imfelicitouses (sic). We do not quite see what do the Pamir people actually eat and what changes their foods are going through because of globalization. I am sure they have a flat baked bread and a kind of pillao. It’d be nice to read about that. “Great-grandfather worked in our farm in Muhoroni” – the family owned it; he may have pottered around. Demise of seasonal foods because of “export” and refrigeration. Should be “import.”
    It was nice to know from Shariffa food is mentioned in one of our ginans – una una rotla. It’s there in many poems and songs – uni uni rotli ne karela nu shaak. Don’t give up on karela. Our 48th Imam Aga Khan III used to admonish us continually about eating good. HH Aga Khan IV’s Diamond Jubilee should be a time to somehow revive our traditional foods!

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