Loy, Thomas

The Chala – “Jewish Muslims” in Soviet Central Asia

This talk was held on 29 June 2018 in the framework of the Prisma Ukraïna Workshop “At Home: Jews and Muslims in Eastern Europe” (28-29 June 2019).

In Tajik, as in other Central Asian languages, "chala" means “incomplete, neither this nor that” and bears strongly negative connotations. In the Bukharan Jewish context of the 19th and early 20th century the term chala was commonly used to denote Jews who embraced Islam. In the Bukharan Emirate (like everywhere else in Central Asia before the Russian conquest) the Chala population was regarded as a distinct community living in Muslim quarters adjacent or close to Jewish ones.

Their location in town reflected an intermediary position between the Muslim and the Jewish world. In Russian sources, this group of people show up as “Jewish-Muslims” (evrei-musulmane). Most academic texts dealing with Bukharan Jewish history mention the Chala, but only very few studies concentrate on that particular group, their history and their cultural and social particularities. All of them neglect the fact that among Bukharan Jews in Soviet times and today the concept of chala was and still is in use to draw a line between “us” and “them”.

Thomas Loy is researcher at the Central Asian Seminar of Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. His research focusses on Oral History, Mobility, Migration and Memory in Central Asia and Afghanistan, Tajik/Dari language and literature, Jewish cultural history in Central Asia.

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