A Study in Being Absurdly Foreign

I was interviewed on the Tajik news twice this week. Which really, when you think about it, is probably the most anyone could ever hope for out of life.

Being on the news in Tajikistan is a little different than being on the news at home...

The first time was much more exciting (and infinitely more awkward), so lets start there. On Tuesday one of my professors took me to the Nowruz party at the National University. Yes, it was a little late: Nowruz was last week, but because of all the snow, their party got delayed. I was one of very few foreigners at the event, which featured everything from a camel to young men dressed as Achaemenid (ancient Persian) Kings to a rooster fight. Thousands of students gathered on the hills around the performance green, and were roughly divided by their academic departments. I sat with the Asian Languages students, most of whom were studying either Farsi or Hindi.

I miss some things about home. But the lack of camels there is pretty disappointing.

I was perfectly happy to relax on the grass and make friends, but hospitality intervened. Another professor insisted that her top student accompany me on a tour of the Nowruz party. This mostly involved stopping at every department and snapping pictures with the exhibition they had created. Along the way I met a reporter, who was amused by my traditional Tajik dress and ability to say things in Persian. He insisted that I wish all of Tajikistan and the world a Happy International Nowruz Day. In case you don’t watch Tajik state TV, Happy International Nowruz Day.

Two different people interviewed me, actually. I don't really recall why.

After that excitement, I wasn’t expecting ANOTHER chance to be on the Tajik news to pop up that very week. But waddayaknow?! Friday, Joey and I were walking down the street after teaching our English class. And the Tajik News was producing a segment where they ask people on the street random questions. They asked us what we did when we had a fever and wanted to feel better. It was a little confusing. But, good little foreigner that I am, I answered. I said I sleep a lot.

The other exciting news is that it is spring. Winter in Tajikistan is hard. Just freaking difficult. Spring, on the other hand, is lovely. I stayed out past 10pm for the first time in weeks. There are outdoor bars and cafes cropping up throughout the city again. The smell of fresh grilled shashlik (kabob) fills the streets. People walk around outside. I only have to wear one pair of pants, instead of three. My feet aren’t constantly wet from stepping in melting snow. Children don’t pelt snowballs at my silly foreign self. We’ve had electricity all week. In class, I sit on a chair, instead of on top of a space heater. Its really wonderful.

Springtime in Dushanbe! View from the new National Library.

On Saturday, we took advantage on the nice weather by hitting up a bazaar and marveling over the fruits. I’ve been thinking lately that I couldn’t live anywhere without a good bazaar. Not a wimpy farmer’s market. A proper bazaar, where giant slabs of concerning meat hang next to the freshest fruit, and people yell at you from every corner. Someone has to sell ready-to-eat corn for less than 25 cents. There should probably be some stray cats. After buying some nuts, and also investing in some spices, we trekked up to the World War II Monument. Really pleasant place, on top of a hill, with a great view of Dushanbe. Pretty mountains, rustic houses, smoke stacks emitting black ash.

The WWII monument. The writing says "No one and nothing is forgotten" in Tajiki and Russian

Here’s  poem by Bedil Dehlavi, a 15th-16th century Sufi poet from the Mughal Empire:

At time’s beginning that beauty
which polished creation’s mirror caressed every atom
with a hundred thousand suns.
But this glory was never witnessed.
When the human eye emerged,
only then was it known.

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Nowruz Mubarak!

This week was Nowruz. Really quick, for those who don’t know- Nowruz is the Persian New Year. It marks the beginning of spring and the first day of the Iranian Calender. Its a lot of fun, and if you’ve never celebrated it, I recommend a trip to the former Persian Empire(s) next March 21st. Or just any major city where there are diaspora communities. That works too.

Obligatory picture of Chris, Joey and me, the three undergraduates studying abroad in Tajikistan right now.

Nowruz week started out with a snow storm on Monday. A really giant snow storm. And then there was no electricity. And classes got cancelled because the heavy snow was knocking over trees, which were in turn crushing cars and things. It kinda stunk.

But, not to worry!! That was on Monday and Tuesday. The last days of the old year. The new year is bright and sunny. Its year 1391 by the way.

Year 1391 has been pretty beautiful so far. And exciting too! On Thursday we had a Nowruz party. I mentioned last week that my professors were over-enthusastic about this party, and so I ended up performing. A lot. I was the “Malika Nowruz” which means “Nowruz Princess.” We performed a skit in which I had to welcome Nowruz and congratulate everyone on having made it to spring. Also, I had to hold some greens. I wasn’t allowed to wear my own Kurta. I had to wear a bright yellow Kurta that sort of made me resemble a duck.

Me, as the "Malika Nowruz" arriving at the party with some greens.

Now, maybe you think “Amanda, that sounds super awkward!” O, just wait! After that, I had to give a speech in Persian describing the “Haft Sin and Haft Shin.” Those are the traditional symbols of spring set out on a table at Nowruz. The Haft Sin is in all Persian speaking countries, the Half Shin is mostly in Tajikistan. I could tell you more, but I’m sick of talking about them. A little later, Joey and I greatly embarrassed ourselves by singing a Dari song about Spring. We didn’t actually know the words very well, and mostly just stood there, swaying a little bit. I’m sure it was great fun to watch.

Doesn't even begin to capture the awkwardness...

The rest of the party, when I wasn’t performing, was pretty chill. It was catered by an Iranian restaurant, and so we had “Sabzi Polo ba Mahi,” which is rice and greens with grilled fish. Deliciousness. Some neighborhood women gathered in the courtyard to make Sumanak (Sumalak in Tajiki), which is a traditional New Year’s wheat paste.

I stirred the Sumanak/Sumalak for a few minutes. It takes a full day to make. So I didn't stir the whole time.

Other excitement included a tug-of-war and some arm wrestling contests. The party was hosted together with Tajik students who had returned from study abroad in the U.S. in the past couple of years. Most of our professors attended, as did a number of foreigners from the Dushanbe community.

Joey and me with our Dari professor.

By 7:30 or so, most of the professors and foreigners left, and it was just us Persian language students and the returned Tajik study abroad students. The music changed pretty abruptly from traditional Central Asian fare to Kanye West and Jay-Z and Co. I’m pretty sure I saw someone Dougie. After such a traditional celebration, it was little strange to slip into U.S. pop culture. Especially because behind us, the neighborhood women were continuing the stir the sumanak, and small Tajik children were stranding on the roof, staring at us. Still, I suppose it was a nice reminder of home. Also, an unfortunate reminder of the fact that, no matter what culture I’m in, I still can’t dance.

One more awkward Nowruz skit picture

The other exciting bit of news is that Karzai, Ahmadinejad and Zardari are all in town to celebrate Nowruz. My host baby thinks Zardari looks like Baba (Grandfather) and I think I caught Rahmon (Tajikistan’s president) falling asleep during Karzai’s speech on TV. Also, the influx of foreign dignitaries means the main street has been reserved for their cars all week, and I kept getting frisked by the police as I tried to walk to a cafe on Sunday morning.

In honor of the fact that books of Hafez’s poetry are often found on Haft Sin tables, here is a verse by Hafez:

“Though the wine is joyous, and the wind, flowers sorts
Harp music and scent of wine, the officer reports.
If you face an adversary and a jug of wine
Choose the wine because, fate cheats and extorts.”

تا دوشنبه آینده


I may have had some odd expectations when I first came to Tajikistan. I may have thought that I was going to spend the year riding on yaks, defending Sogdiana from Alexander the Great. In reality, I spend most of my time sitting in cafes, trying to explain that I don’t speak Russian.

But sometimes, Tajikistan lives up to my weird stereotypes. On Saturday, we went to see Buzkashi. Buz means goat, like what we often eat for dinner. Kashidan means to pull, like on a goat.  Before I tell you about it, maybe just watch the video I took. It probably captures the whole thing better than I can:

Buzkashi involves a bunch of dudes riding around on horses, trying to steal a goat carcass from each other. They have these crazy whips that they use to pick up the carcass , and to whip everything in sight (including each other). They also wear cool hats. The crazy whips are cow intestines. The cool hats are Soviet tank helmets.

Action scene

The point of the game is to get the goat carcass into the goal. On Saturday, the goal was a big hole dug in the ground between two Tajik flags.

When you watch a Buzkashi tournament, you stand up on mountains or hills. Then, down in the valley, all the dudes kash the buz. You can walk down closer to watch. In fact, you can walk down on the field. Many people do this. It greatly increase their chances of being trampled. Some guy decided to set up his snack stand too close to the field, and it got trampled. Good-bye, candy-bars.

View of the "stadium." Note the camel in the corner. More on him in a minute.

Now then, how would you go about organizing a Buzkashi match? On first gland, it didn’t seem like it needed any organization at all. Anyone who wanted to play could, as long as they brought their horse (or mule. or yak, maybe?). There were not teams. Everyone just wanted to get the buz for himself and shove it in the goal. The game took place in a big valley between two villages about an hour outside of Dushanbe.

More action

But, it is actually really well organized. Somebody had to dig up the floor of a valley and turn it into a giant buzkashi field. Somebody had to invite all the villagers and all the foreigners and also the President’s son. Somebody had to organize the prizes.

On Saturday, the prizes were mostly rugs. But the “grand prize” was a bactrian camel. I don’t know who won the camel. It was not me. Unfortunately.

This Bactrian Camel was the grand prize.

I was pretty excited about Buzkashi. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I kept waking up to see if it was time to go yet, like a little kid before Christmas.

Buzkashi feels pretty much like a sporting event anywhere in the world. Kids walk around selling coca cola and seeds and hot dogs. Young people get far too worked up. Basically, Buzkashi was like my version of March Madness. For me, in both cases the fun is not so much the competition itself, but the atmosphere and festivities that accompany it.

Except usually at sporting events back home there aren’t teenagers goofing around on horseback in the stands. Back home, said teenagers also usually don’t lend you their horse to take pictures with, which is a shame.

A young boy lent me his horse in order to snap an awesome photo.

I guess Buzkashi wins. Sorry, basketball.

The other exciting news is that NOWRUZ IS NEXT WEEK (Reminder: Nowruz is Persian New Year. And the first day of spring). My special Nowruz clothes should be ready by Monday. The seamstress ripped me off, but then she made me feel better about it by inviting me to her house for her Nowruz festivities.  I am going to make a mighty fool of myself in the Nowruz show. I have very enthusiastic professors so, somehow, I have agreed to do Dari-language Karaoke and be the Nowruz Princess. If you’re lucky, I’ll have embarrassing photos to share with you all next week.

Here’s part of a  poem by Attar, a 12th century Sufi from Nishapur:

“Don’t be dead or asleep or awake.
Don’t be anything.

What you most want,
what you travel around wishing to find,
lose yourself as lovers lose themselves,
and you’ll be that.”

تا دوشنبه آینده