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Sloboda 1.0: what life was like in the Tatar slobodas one and a half centuries ago

, Cities
Translator Olga Baltsatu

Are you allowed to eat soap, wear skinny pants, and get on adults’ nerves?

As an important Kazan brand, the Tatar slobodas are an interesting subject for researchers and ordinary citizens: activists give tours there, specialists give lectures on their history and architecture, and the authorities think up ways to preserve Tatar identity and make it more appealing to tourists. In the wake of increased interest in slobodas, Strelka Magazine translated a conversation made by Inde, the local media, with historian Ildar Shafikov to find out the features and paradoxes of the Kazan Tatars’ lifestyle at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Ildar Shafikov, historian, specialist in the Tatar lifestyle at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Assistant Professor at the Department of Tatarstan History, Archaeology, and Ethnology of the Institute of International Relations, History, and Oriental Sciences of Kazan Federal University


The norm and the deviation

Tatar family from Kazan province. Photo by J. Raoult, the 1870s

When we speak of everyday life, it is important to determine, which of the daily manifestations of human behaviour are considered normal, and which – deviant. Islam had a major impact on the Tatars’ life at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though sharia was not the only source of behavioural norms. People also relied on adat (custom), unless it contradicted Islam. For example, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the pre-Islamic kalim (bride price) was allowed, and it was basically the same as the Islamic mahr (a gift for a bride). Kalim is paid to a bride’s family, but later it gets divided into two parts: the first one goes to the parents, and the second one to the bride for her use during iddah (this is basically the definition of mahr). Secular laws were also taken into account. For instance, separate fatwās (the binding legal position of an ulama, mufti or respectable theologians on a certain issue. – Editor’s note), concerning the age of marriage were in use in the Volga District: the boys were allowed to start a family starting from 18 years old, the girls – from 16. That age came from the secular legislation, and Muslim scholars included that requirement in the Islamic law system. In comparison, we learn about teenage marriages and marriage contracts between families involving juvenile children from the eighteenth-century sources.

Meanwhile, even obvious religious restrictions – for example, alcohol – could be cancelled depending on the social context. The rule of law produced legal lacunas: for instance, the consumption of medovukha and kumis was considered a variation of the norm. Moreover, a Tatar could drink a glass of wine in his Russian friend’s house simply not to offend the host. And this wasn’t considered a violation of the rule because the situation took place outside the Tatar (read: Muslim) context.

We can see such variations of the norm in other areas as well. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Musa Bigiev wrote a work called “Abstinence on the Long Days” (in the summer. – Editor’s note). He gave a fatwā according to which people engaged in hard physical labour could fast in the winter instead of in the summer, as it is difficult to work on an empty stomach on a long summer day. The question emerges as to how necessary that rule was because apparently most of the Tatars of that period didn’t even think of not fasting: the norm of fasting was considered absolute. However, it was undergoing change among the westernised youngsters, who thought of Ramadan as a severe archaicism. Using the fact that Islam allows people with health problems and travellers not to fast, during the holy month they would get a medical certificate in a hospital, or become wanderers (musafirs) and leave the city. The main condition was to not stay in one parish for longer than two nights: otherwise, you become a member of that parish and the general rules of sharia start being applied to you. It may seem like the rule of law was accurately abided, but in reality, there was clear social deviation.


The Tatars and the Tatars

The Kazan Tatars lived in the Tatar slobodas. For a historian, this area is a closed multileveled system consisting of the Tatars’ connections amongst themselves. Personal connections and live communications influenced the religious foundations. There was also a system of mutual verification (collective identity). For example I’m a mullah, and my neighbour is also a mullah, so we treat each other accordingly. We communicate with the commoners from the position of mullahs as well, and they think of us as the priests – this status forces everyone to abide by a certain code of conduct. But if something in the system gets disrupted, the connections break: for instance, a marriage between the wards of mullahs that don’t acknowledge each other might not succeed. One of the older relatives of Fatix Ämirxan could not get married because the advisers of the bride’s and groom’s families did not get along. This system of conventions seems excessive now, but these limitations allowed the culture to remain on its native land after being overrun by the Russians.

This strategy was also manifested at the beginning of the twentieth century when all aspects of life tended to get a religious evaluation. At the turn of the century, everyday life was rapidly changing, which caused understandable stress among the population. Faithful Muslims asked for decisions regarding seal meat being halāl, listening to the gramophone, and wearing certain clothes. Riza Fakhretdin (qadi and mufti, Tatar writer and educator, orientalist, religious figure. – Editor’s note) wrote three articles in “Shura” magazine (“Soviet”, literary and journalistic liberal magazine. – Editor’s note), where he denies the concept of Muslim clothing, saying that it is a dynamically changing phenomenon and it is impossible to normatively set what is allowed and what is not once and for all. His articles were a reaction to a wide-spread – at the time – critique of the skinny pants worn by clerks and office workers, which appeared in “Dyn ve megiyshet” magazine (“Religion and life”, conservative magazine, published at the beginning of the twentieth century. – Editor’s note). In one of the articles, those who wore skinny pants in the mosque were condemned, to which Fakhretdin replied that pants are secondary, and what is important is that people still go to the mosque. However, that discourse existed only in the educated Muslim environment: most of the commoners did not understand all the specifics and logic of sharia and saw religion as a system of defined dogmas with a clear line between “you can” and “you can not”. For them, a Muslim is someone who looks like a Muslim, meaning a person that wears proper pants, beard, hairstyle, etc.

Autonomy was the defining feature of this system of connections: local requirements varied in different parishes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no single Islamic calendar, and Ramadan would begin at a different time in different villages – it all depended on a specific imam.


The Tatars and the Russians

The bazaar (or business in a wider sense) was the main social context of interactions between different peoples in a city. In the Tatar environment, there were families that had dealt with the Russians for generations: they were in close relationships with their companions, they visited them, congratulated them on holidays, etc. However, this kind of contact was more typical for the city, rather than the village. Tatarstan is not a homogeneous territory: Russian and Tatar villages are mixed here. At the beginning of the previous century, residents would lead a closed life, excluding any communications with people of another faith.

For example, there were people in the Russian villages of Menzelinsky county called “eshne” or “belesh” by the Tatars: these were your acquaintances or friends in a culturally alien village who help you to do business in the foreign territory. If you have “eshne”, you exit the “alien” category and enter the buffer zone – at least people will talk to you.

There were Tatar villages where merchants weren’t allowed, or they were allowed only to go to a certain house. Outside of the established cultural connections, people used to build relationships only out of a situational acquaintance – if you served in the army with someone or you got stuck on the road during a blizzard together, that person would stop being a stranger. Meanwhile, people were more open near Kazan, where the settlements were situated close to one another and were linked by a general road to volost centres.


Fathers and sons

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the westernised part of the youth was called the “yashler” (“young”). It was a separate subculture – yashler used to intentionally undermine what they considered archaic standards; they wore funky clothes and behaved differently from their parents. In this way they were destroying the established verification system and building a new identity. For instance, Ğabdulla Tuqay grew out his hair, smoked cigarettes in public, and wore a Russian shirt. Fatix Ämirxan couldn’t get emancipated from his father, Zarif Ämirxan, for a long time, so, trying to rebel, he would ostentatiously violate the accepted standards: he declaratively denied Islam, didn’t fast and wore glasses despite having good eyesight. One specific anecdotal case is described in various sources: during the month of Ramadan, someone noticed that Fatix was eating cheese. The cheese wasn’t a part of the Tatars’ typical gastronomic set, so many people didn’t even know what it was, which is why the witness thought that Fatix was eating soap. This caused a major discussion with a demand for a fatwā on a ridiculous question: “can a Muslim eat soap during the fast?”.

Despite the fact that the representatives of the yashler are now known as outstanding people, they weren’t regarded as equals by the religious elite at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is why there wasn’t exactly an active opposition between liberals and conservatives. The youngsters’ behaviour was seen as childish pranks – nobody took them seriously. Meanwhile, there were certain people who were regarded as equals by the sloboda’s orthodox elite, like the Jadidts Galimdzhan Barudi and Riza Fakhretdin. It was then that the issue of ideological debates emerged, even though they would take place only in the narrow world of the educated part of the Muslim population, and they had almost no effect on the commoners’ lives. In general, the westernised Tatars were a minority – there were only a few families. They were sometimes unfamiliar with Arabic writing, which is why they were criticised by the rest of the Tatar population.

There weren’t many consumers of the new kinds of leisure like theatre, dance nights, and cinema, in the Tatar environment. But that doesn’t mean they had no impact on a sloboda’s life. Since the moment it appeared, the Tatar theatre became a subject of intense public discussions (there were petitions “against”, new fatwās were issued, etc.) – the theatre became a universal scare. Everyone had heard about it, but only a few had seen it with their own eyes. There also wasn’t a common opinion among the westernised Tatars: for example, the Jadid madrasa “Muhammadia” forbade its students to frequent such places, even though it was considered a liberal educational institution.

All these forms of leisure implied the presence of women in a public space – these social evenings were quite appealing, partly due to the opportunity to see women with uncovered faces, hair, and ears. However, nobody tried to solve this problem, so it was up to the viewer. We have gotten used to thinking of the Tatar world only within certain cultural areas: Kazan, Ufa, Kasimov. However, there was a great number of other settlements that lived and developed according to their own, original scripts. For instance, the issue of opposition between Jadidism and Kadimism had almost no coverage in the media in Bugulminsky county. First, the akhoond Gilman Karimov, the father of Fatih Karim (the publisher of the “Vakit” newspaper that was published at the beginning of the twentieth century for the Turkic-speaking population of Russia – Editor’s note) accepted all the novelties almost instantly, and from the very start the madrasas in these counties were focused on mass education, rather than the education of singular specialists in Islamic law. Although, the fact that the sound method was applied in a specific madrasa didn’t necessarily mean that it was a Jadid madrasa. Everyone understood that the sound method of education worked better than the regular memorization of a book (the alphabetic-syllabic method), but this recognition wasn’t always accompanied with teaching secular subjects, such as chemistry and geography.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, the Tatars’ elementary education became available for the masses, and the ability to read and write was no longer an attribute of high social status. Meanwhile, a clear succession remained in the Tatar environment: the volume of education was changing, but the system was not.

Text: Almaz Zagrutdinov

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