A Goodbye Taj Post

So, I’m about to leave Tajikistan. And I was thinking about all these lists about goods and bads and lessons learned that I’d share with this blog. But, at the end of the day, I think on both sides, it comes down to my life in Tajikistan being surprising, and sometimes pretty weird.

In the span of the last three days I’ve given a research presentation to the Persian Department at the Tajik National University, gone on a final Osh picnic to Varzob, and caught the flu, necessitating a visit to the doctor for the first time since I’ve arrived here. Nearly made it!

Final Group Osh. Looks pretty much the same as they all do.

I’ve tried to keep this blog pretty upbeat all year, but truthfully there were a lot of aspects of studying in Tajikistan that were incredibly difficult and frustrating. Looking back, I absolutely wouldn’t trade the study abroad experience here for all the coasts in Costa Rica, all the romance in Rome, or all the mummies in Egypt, but there are some things I might try to forget, because who wants unpleasant memories?:

Nights spent shivering myself to sleep in the dead of winter.
The sinking feeling of coming home and realizing there was still no electricity.
The loneliness of realizing that the majority of my peer group here was married with a few kids.
Car sickness. So much car sickness. Stop building tall flagpoles and pave some roads, Taj!
Waking up every single day before 6am, because if I went running any later I’d be stared at, followed, shouted at, etc.
Literally living out of a suitcase for 9 months, because my room had no cupboards/closet
Going to bed every night around 10pm, because there just wasn’t anything else to do.
All the oil in Tajik food. Cotton oil, flaxseed oil, vegetable oil, just lots of oil.
Corruption.
Outhouses. Specifically mountain outhouses.

But there are also memories I’ll cherish, things I’ll genuinely miss and hope to see again someday.

If I could remember Tajikistan any way it would be like this:

(finally asked my host family permission to share that!)

Or like this:

Chris, Joey and me, on the Panj River near the Wakhan corridor, in the Pamirs. Behind us are wild batrian camels.

Or maybe like this:

As a US American, I will never cease to be amazed by still-standing structures that are more than 500 years old.

There is a part of me that is also extremely grateful towards Tajikistan. Most languages, you get a pick of your location, dialect, etc. when you decided to study abroad. As a US citizen studying Persian abroad long-term, that’s not really the case. For better or worse, we come to Tajikistan, and even though sometimes the Tajiki-Farsi dichotomy is frustrating, I dread the day when studying here isn’t an option.

I came here a wide-eyed Perso-phile, and I’m leaving as someone who can communicate effectively in Persian (most of the time). So it was worth it. Honestly, I don’t pick up languages easily. And I think the one-on-one/two-on-one classes that I’ve had all year have probably been the reason I’ve come along as far as I have. I’ll deeply miss my professors and my classes.

In case you thought THAT was sentimental, let me turn now to my host family. I’m pretty sure there have been times when my host family thought I was a complete nutter. And there have definitely been times when I thought they were totally bonkers. There have been more cross-cultural miscommunications than I can count. And yet, when I leave, I will miss my host family most. I decided early on that host family bonding was one of my priorities, and thanks to the fact that my host family was genuinely interested in spending time with me, it remained one.

When I was in Khujand last week, my host family called me, just to tell me that they missed me, and that the baby was crying and pointing to my shoes and asking “where’s Amanda.”

I love that when I come home a million people greet me (some of who I’m always supposedly related to but have never met before). I’ve even grown fond of my host brother bursting into my room and demanding that I go with him to buy a shepherd dog (this happens about twice a day). I’ll miss how, even though they think its nuts, they always make sure my Osh is meat-free. I’ll miss my host mom describing the millions of cakes she can make, and my host baby attempting to pray and falling over, and taking my little host cousins for walks around the block (one toddler on my shoulders, two toddlers holding my hands).

I’ll miss it all.

So that’s that.  Three more days in Tajikistan, three weeks in the U.S., and then summer in India. Although I’ll miss Tajikistan, I’m really looking forward to the immediate future. One last poem, an extract from Attar’s Conference of the Birds (Fitzgerald Translation):

For like a child sent with a fluttering Light
To feel his way along a gusty Night
Man walks the World: again and yet again
The Lamp shall be by Fits of Passion slain:
But shall not he who sent him from the Door
Relight the Lamp once more, and yet once more?

خدا حافظ,
Amanda

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One Last Tajik Hurrah: Khujand Trip

First, a story:
On Sunday, Chris and I were in Istaravshan. We asked an old man if he knew how to get to the 15th century mosque and madressa. He lacked teeth, but more than made up for that in character. He offered to take us to the mosque, and along the way a large group of pre-teen boys joined our little party. When we got to the mosque we met the care-taker, who informed us that some ruffians had stolen her key. Which happened to be the only key to this 15th century Timurid mosque. She suggested we hop in through a window.

With my new friend, the toothless impromptu guide of Istaravshan

So that’s what we did- Chris, the old man, the group of pre-teen Tajik boys, and me. And then we climbed up the disintegrating stones steps of a spiral staircase- which clearly hadn’t been touched since the year 1500- to the minaret, where we all huddled on a tiny perch over looking some 500+ year old graves.

And I thought: Holy crap, I never want to leave Tajikistan!
I quickly came to my senses- I’m quite excited to go home in less than two weeks!- but it was a nice reminder about why I picked the Taj as a study abroad locale.

A view from the outside of the 15th century Timurid mosque

Getting there:
In the spirit of adventure and cheapness, we decided to drive to Khijand, instead of flying (we flew back to save time). A driver who also took us to the Pamirs offered to drive us. We shared his car with an under-18 boys wrestling team, and their gruff coach. In the middle seat sat four wrestlers, and Chris and I shared the back of the jeep with another wrestler.

We drove together for 8 hours, over an unpaved mountain pass that had been mostly washed away with the heavy rains this year and through the “Tunnel of Death,” where we got stuck behind a construction crew doing “pavement” work. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride I’ve ever taken, but then it definitely wasn’t the most uncomfortable, either (that was an overnight bus between Dharamsala and Delhi in 2009). The wrestling team wasn’t great at sarcasm. Chris and I convinced them that we ate hamburgers for every meal in the US, and that since pavement didn’t even exist in the US, the unpaved roads didn’t bother us. Everything they’d ever seen in movies was lies!

Where we stayed:
We stayed at the Hotel Leninabad in Khujand (Leninabad is the Soviet name for Khujand). It is the type of place where a lost old man will wander over to your room at 9pm and ask your TV works. When you say yes (a bit of an overstatement, it gets 4 very fuzzy Russian channels), he asks if he can take it. And waddles back down the hallway, television in hand. It will probably not win any awards for comfort. It may win awards for best Soviet throwback, though.

Khujand Bazaar

What we saw (in Khujand):
On Saturday Chris and I split up for a bit to go exploring independently. I musuemed for a while, and then walked across the Syr Darya to go find THE BIGGEST LENIN STATUE IN CENTRAL ASIA. I couldn’t remember how to say “statue” so I just asked strangers to show me where “Big Lenin” was. It worked. I met a young government worker (who swore he wasn’t corrupt), who offered to show it to me.

Khujand was embarrassed about the giant 22meter Lenin in the middle of their city nearly 20 years after independence, so last year they moved it to a field slightly set back from the town. The tallest Lenin in Central Asia shared the field with a hungry cow and a couple of stay dogs.

Biggest Lenin in Central Asia + a cow in a field.

After he showed me Lenin, my not-corrupt friend and I had this conversation:
Him: “You should visit my family’s house now. My parents will slaughter a goat and make Osh”
Me: “Where does your family live?”
Him: “In Penjikent.” (That’s 6 hours away, assuming the road is good).
Me: “When would we go?!”
Him: “Now.”
After that, I took my leave and went back to meet Chris.

What we saw (in Istaravshan):
Well, you’ve already heard about our mosque/madressa adventures. The other great thing about Istaravshan was its bazaar. Outside there were lots of live chickens. Inside, there were lot of old yogurt makers who let us sample their fresh yogurt (delicious!). The smells of a million kabobs. We went to the bazaar in Khujand too, and that was also wonderful. In fact, it is apparently among the best and largest bazaars in Central Asia, and was situated in a picturesque central city square. But I preferred the bazaar in Istarvashan. We ate a wonderful lunch of Tabaka (chicken grilled on a spit), in the middle of the bazaar.

I asked if I needed to cover my hair while visiting the 15th century mosque. Our new friends said no, but then decided it would be hilarious if I wore the old man's hat.

Later, we sat on a tiny bridge over the small, fast flowing river in the middle of town, and watched the afternoon and some goats stroll by. Chris also played soccer with a bunch of kids in the middle of the old town. Many of the kids insisted that I take about a thousand photographs.

Chris on the soccer pitch

Coming Home:
Quick flight on Somoni Air. Comfortable half hour spent on a 737. No teenage wrestling team. Back to Dushanbe in time to relax with my host family on Sunday evening.

Here are some verses by Nima Yooshij, a relatively modern Persian poet from the early 20th century:

I stand opposite the sun
I cast my gaze upon the sea.
And the entire world is desolated and ravaged by the wind
And the ever-playing piper progresses onto his path
In this cloudy world.

تا دوشنبه آینده
Amanda

A trip to Kulob: The Land of 1,000 Emomalis

On Saturday we were lucky enough to take a trip to Kulob, the third largest city in Tajikistan and the birthplace of everyone’s favorite Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon. Actually, we learned, he wasn’t born in Kulob but in a village nearby, which we drove through on our way to Kulob proper.

He looks so young in this photo! Awe.

Kulob is a decent distance away from Dushanbe. About three and a half hours. But the trip was punctuated by interesting scenery, and odd stops. We stopped at a beautiful reservoir to eat rhubarb. There was basically an entire market in the middle of the Tajik “highway” just devoted to rhubarb. This is a great country. Also, rhubarb is delicious!

Near Kulob, we stopped at an old fort. Now, generally I really like old forts. But I hadn’t had any coffee, and we left Dushanbe at 6am. So I was grouchy and mostly stomped around the fort, which has clearly been rebuilt within the last 5 years. I managed to take nice photographs though.

Putting on a brave face, despite being uncaffeinated.

After a lunch that involved a cup of coffee, I was feeling much happier and genuinely enjoyed visiting the mausoleum of Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, which was in Kulob town. He seemed like an interesting fellow: He was born in Hamadan in Iran, and traveled all the way to Kashmir, where he spread Islam and Sufi thought. On one of his travels between Kashmir and Hamadan, he died hear Kulob. Hence, mausoleum.

The park around the mausoleum was certainly among the most pleasant places in Kulob, if not Tajikistan. It also featured the young Rahmon picture from above. Because, you know, what goes better with 14th century Sufis than 21st century post-Soviet personality cults?!

Mausoleum

Afterwards, it was time to head back to Dushanbe. The other excitement of the day was stopping to find animals as we drove along the road. We stopped in the morning and found turtles. In the afternoon we found a snake. Actually, a legless lizard. Not poisonous.

With the legless lizard

Next weekend, we’re going to Khujand. The second largest city in Tajikistan, and supposedly also one of the most pleasant places here. Chris and I went to buy plane tickets on Friday. In a reminder that Tajikistan is pretty much the definition of cash-based economy, you can’t even buy flight tickets with a credit card here. We will drive there, because the idea of Tajik mountain roads after a tough winter is just so exciting. And then we’ll fly back to save time.

Here’s a poem by Manuchehri, an 11th century court poet:

Get up and bring fur clothes as Autumn is here
A cold wind is blowing from the Khawrazm yonder
Look at that vine leaf hanging on the vine bough
It looks like the shirt of dyers
The farmer is biting his finger with wonder
As in the lawn or garden is left no more rose or lavender

تا دوشنبه آینده،

Amanda

The third largest aluminum factory in the world!!!!!

So guess what!? I survived February in Tajikistan. I think I should get a t-shirt. The beginning of March and the return of temperate weather means that I haven’t fallen down lately, there’s no need to constantly wear long underwear, and even my giant amusing hats have disappeared from my wardrobe. Here in our little Persian-language-learning world it means we get sit outside and study or nap in the courtyard. It ALSO means that leaving Dushanbe for day trips is becoming sort of possible. We had one this Saturday. We went to… THE THIRD LARGEST ALUMINUM FACTORY IN THE WORLD.

Undergrads/boren scholars/Eurasian Regional Language program repping.

I know. Extreme excitement coming outta this blog lately.

As you may have noticed from my previous posts, Tajikistan has a lot of natural beauty. But apparently (unfortunately), countries can’t survive on natural beauty alone. They need industries, I’ve heard. Hence, big aluminum factory in Western Tajikistan (thanks Soviets!).

Supposedly, this thing takes up somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of all of Tajikistan’s electricity supply. So, when I was freezing my butt off due to electricity outages all winter, I had this place to blame.

The pouring of aluminum

When we got to the factory (which is called TALCO, short for Tajik Aluminum Company), we were greeted by our “minder.” This man didn’t seem to have any particular knowledge of the factory or the small museum that accompanied it, but was really great at reading signs and pointing out the obvious, eg: “These are stones.”

In the museum there were lots of awards and presents from other countries and signs promoting Tajik-Belorussian friendship. The factory itself was much more interesting. First of all, the entire place was magnetized. So, things like coins and keys all stuck together. Evidence below:

o hey, look at these dirhams sticking together. magnetism.

Second, the whole thing looked like something out of a nuclear apocalypse. There was old Soviet propaganda everywhere, everything was grey, and sometimes I swear I saw particles of aluminum just hanging in the air. At the end we asked our minder-person how many on-the-job injuries took place there each year. He shook his head and said “That’s a secret.” We were pretty lucky to be able to get in though: not many foreigners have been, and they often forbid photos.

This sign says something like "Glory to the winged aluminum producers." Or something. Its in Russian so I don't really know.

They did several demonstrations of aluminum pouring for us. We were warned not to wear any baggy clothing, or touch ANYTHING, as this might lead to spontaneous combustion and/or third degree burns. Afterwards, we went to another, much smaller factory in a village somewhere. I am a little unclear on what this factory did. They definitely husked rice, and maybe did something with wheat. They weren’t actually operating, but showed us the rice husking machine and looked confused when I asked how people had husked rice before electricity. I also bought flaxseed oil for my host family there.

Nope, not Osh. Its a giant boiling pot of aluminum.

On a side note, the TALCO plant is a major point of political contention between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (though what isn’t?). If you’re interested, you can read about it here or here.

When I got home from the trip on Saturday, I found that my host family wasn’t home, and I was locked out. This wasn’t a big problem… I walked over to my host grandmother’s house and found them all there. I hadn’t been there since coming back from break, and actually had a really lovely time.

As the sun set, I played soccer with my host cousins in the courtyard. I am not a good soccer player. However, I was also the only person over the age of 9. The kids thought I was pretty good. They said “Amanda, you’re Messi!” “No! You’re Ronaldo!” Kids are the same everywhere. Its reassuring.

One of the interesting things about taking only Persian classes is that at least 3 times a week my professors spontaneously burst into poem. Here is one my professor quoted by Rudaki this week. Its about a time when Ismoil Somoni (aka the Wizard of Dushanbe) went off to Herat and didn’t want to come back to Bukhara. Basically, its flattery. (I actually quoted a different part of this poem once. Its one of Rudaki’s most famous).

Long live Bukhara! Be thou of good cheer!
Joyous towards thee hasteth our Amir!
The moon’s the prince, Bukhara is the sky;
O Sky, the Moon shall light thee by and by!
Bukhara is the Mead, the Cypress he;
Receive at last, O Mead, thy Cypress tree!

تا دوشنبه آینده،
Amanda

At Home in Tajikistan

I’ve been living with my host family for about six months now, and yet I realized I haven’t written much specifically about life here in my big pink house near the Agricultural University. And given that February is still slowly rumbling along, I thought I’d treat all those out there avidly reading this blog to tales from my surrogate home.

One of the odder things about living with a host family in Tajikistan is that even after half a year I’m still officially referred to as “mehmon-e ma” or “our guest.” As in “Don’t take tea before you give some to Amanda, she’s our guest.” Or, “Amanda, don’t you dare consider trying to be useful, you’re our guest!” I’ve mostly gotten used to this by now, but being hollered at for attempting to vacuum is disconcerting.

After spending so much time here, I’m pretty much over the culture shock of being plopped down with a family several thousand miles away from home. But occasionally, there are things that remind me that my host family and I sometimes have different ways of seeing the world. My host family doesn’t talk about politics often, but when they do I’m always surprised. My host dad says “Why are they protesting in Kazakhstan!? Everyone is Kazakhstan is rich!” My host mom says “Of course we like Putin. Because he’s not like Yeltsin. Yeltsin drank too much vodka.” On a non-political note, my host sister says “Amanda, are any of your friends boys!? I saw you walking with some boys!!”

Before coming to Tajikistan, I hadn’t spent large amounts of time with small children, at least not since I was a small child myself. Nine year olds are a special kind of crazy. My host brother constantly wants to teach me Sambo, which is a sort of wrestling/martial arts popular in the former Soviet Union. This is not my favorite activity.

My host family really makes an effort to speak to me only in Tajiki (as opposed to Russian or Uzbek). But my host brother isn’t really old enough to understand how much Russian he mixes in. We spend a lot of time staring at each other, looking confused. I’m confused by the Russian words, he’s confused by the weird foreigner who can’t understand basic sentences. But we’ve bonded recently because he’s taken an increased interest in his Farsi homework (or, “Classical Tajiki Alphabet” homework) and requested my help.

Of all the members of my host family, I guess I’ve told the most stories about my host baby. That’s because she is adorable. Lately, she’s started calling me “Aoity-Boon,” which is her mispronounced way of saying “Aoity-Joon,” and apparently means “dear big sister” in a Tajiki dialect.

My host baby also drinks a concerning amount of tea. She chugs the stuff. Doesn’t matter how hot it is. My host family usually calls her “mymoon” which means “monkey.” When she’s being really naughty, they say “in parazit ast” which means “this one is the pest.” I taught them how to say “monkey” in English, and occasionally they call her that, too.

After all this time here, life at my host family’s house feels pretty normal. There are mornings when I feel grouchy about the fact that I can’t make my own breakfast, or weird about the fact that people ask me where I’m going and when I’m coming home whenever I leave the house. But mostly, I’m pretty glad I got such a great host family.

This year so far would have been pretty hard without the excitement that goes on at my host family’s house. I can’t imagine a dinner without a baby crawling on me, my host siblings competing for my attention for help with English homework or my entire host family breaking out into a giant 3-hour long argument about whether to buy an aquarium. If nothing else, my host family has certainly succeeded in keeping me entertained and engaged throughout this slow cold month.

Here is a quote by Nazami Ganjivi, a 12th century Persian poet from modern-day Azerbaijan.

Seek knowledge, for through knowledge you effect that doors to you be opened and not closed.
He who shames not at learning can draw forth pearls from the water, rubies from the rock.
Whilst he to whom no knowledge is assigned—that person you will find ashamed to learn.
How many, keen of mind, in effort slack, sell pottery from lack of pearls to sell!

تا دوشنبه آینده،
Amanda