Akobirov is slim, with close-cropped white hair and a tightly trimmed white beard. He is fond of one-piece jumpsuits and perpetually carries around a rubber thermos of tea, which he makes from a blend of different grasses that he grows in his garden and finds in the mountains above. He often quotes, or seems to be quoting, poetry, sprinkling the conversation with vague aphorisms. Of the need to see the world, he says: “What if the lamp does not know where the fire began?”
From his perch on the rock, Akobirov says that he inherited his interest in botany from his father. As a young boy, he would accompany his father on trips to the mountains above Jafr to collect cuts from the wild apple trees, which his father would graft to trees in their garden.
“I loved that there was always fruit in our garden,” Akobirov says. “Guests would come, and my father would of course set fruit that he had grown in his garden in front of them.”
The Rasht Valley was a good place to grow up interested in orchards. The higher hills in the valley are barren and prone to erosion, but wild cherry and apple trees grow at lower elevations. It is not far from where researchers, using DNA sampling, have determined humans first domesticated the apple a few thousand years ago in what is now Kazakhstan.
More recently, as a part of the Soviet Union, while Tajikistan and all of Central Asia were net-importers of most other foodstuffs, the region became an important source of fruit. In the Rasht Valley, engineers installed enormous pumps that sent water from the base of the valley up into the hills to provide better irrigation. By the 1980s, Central Asia produced 35 percent of the entire Soviet Union’s fruit.
Akobirov attempted to flee but was captured and spent eight months in prison
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Akobirov spent nearly ten years studying agricultural practices at a technical institute in southern Tajikistan and then at a university in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. At the end of the 1980s, after returning to Jafr, he decided to try to create a botanical garden there. Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Soviet Union, and his reforms inspired Akobirov. He petitioned local officials for the land, was granted it, and began to build his garden. “My purpose—the purpose of the garden was the same—was to bring back the trees from my grandfather’s time that had become very rare, that had vanished.” Akobirov scoured the mountainsides and went from village to village, gathering seeds and saplings that he deemed worthy of his garden.
In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Within months, civil war broke out in Tajikistan. Some of the heaviest fighting was in the Rasht Valley, which was known as a stronghold of opposition to the government. Akobirov, who supported the democratic opposition forces, attempted to flee but was captured and spent eight months in prison. He was unable to return home after he was released and eventually went to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he waited out the rest of the war, which ended in 1997.
The combination of Soviet collapse and civil war ravaged Tajikistan and left the economy in shambles. The amount of land dedicated to fruit cultivation dropped by 40 percent over the course of the war. Without access to other sources of fuel for heat in the winter, villagers resorted to cutting down fruit trees for kindling. Irrigation systems built under Soviet direction either fell into disrepair or were destroyed during the fighting, and orchards withered.
Akobirov returned from Kazakhstan to find his garden ruined. “The village headman had divided, sold it piece by piece to other families,” he says. “Our neighbors came and took some parts of it and planted them in their own gardens. They destroyed the garden.”
With GDP per capita in Tajikistan sitting below $200 after the war, many Tajik men began migrating to Russia for work. The Russian economy had rebounded from the fall of the Soviet Union and a 1998 financial crisis. Almost all of the first wave of Tajik migrants had been educated under the Soviet school system and spoke Russian. As citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose association of many former Soviet Republics, they could enter Russia without visas. According to the World Bank, the remittances sent home by these migrants were the main source of poverty reduction in Tajikistan between 2003 and 2008.
Akobirov, however, stayed in Jafr, and decided to rebuild the garden. Thankfully, he says, “I have six sons, four brothers.” Akobirov’s voice slows as he remembers all that needed to be done. “Little by little, we gathered saplings, we gathered fuel, we remade the garden again from new.”
The garden looks haphazard, almost unkempt, belying the constant attention it receives. At the garden’s peripheries stand tall, thin trees. The largest resemble weeping willows, with long strands of leaves that tumble almost to the ground. A row of skinny poplars runs along one side. Densely planted cherry trees used to create a wall along another side. The cherries proved too bitter, so he and his sons hewed the trees back down to their stumps and grafted on new saplings.
Inside the garden, rose bushes stand next to stones that serve as platforms for clay vases and ancient shards of pottery. Toward the center, opposing rows of apple trees form a path that leads from the front of the garden to the back, away from the unfinished museum, past a small gazebo where Akobirov dries grasses for his tea, to a tree nursery that resembles a dense thicket of shrubs. A solitary, majestic white mulberry tree stands behind the nursery next to the guesthouse.
While Akobirov and his family rebuilt the garden in Jafr, Tajikistan’s dependence on the money sent home by labor migrants in Russia deepened. In 2013, remittances accounted for half of Tajikistan’s GDP.