Five Things I Love About Tajikistan
1. Tajiki-what?: Being an American in Tajikistan means that you are in a country that few of your compatriots have ever heard of, let alone traveled to. You are a curiosity everywhere you go and the lack of Westerners gives you the opportunity to act as kind of a mini-ambassador, answering all of questions that Tajiks have been waiting, sometimes their whole lives, to ask an American. Especially in the small towns, I attract a crowd of onlookers whenever I’m conducting an interview with a Kiva client, gawking at me as if I’ve just arrived from the moon. It is quite fun to be suddenly elevated to such pseudo-celebrity status and when I speak people listen to every word with an incredible amount of interest. I’ve been asked by mothers to marry their daughters, I’ve had a child named in my honor, and the usual response by my driver when we reach some kind of checkpoint or roadblock is to loudly exclaim to the soldiers or policemen on duty “We’ve got an American in the car!” and the problem just disappears. I relish the time I spend teaching others about America, answering their numerous questions and asking them in turn a litany of my own questions about their country. Because Tajikistan is so far off the beaten track the cultural exchange that occurs here is really intense and you experience travel in a way that people rarely do anymore in a world where there are so few places left to discover.
2. Hospitality, re-defined: Trust me, you don’t know the meaning of the word until you’ve been to this far-flung outpost of former-Soviet Central Asia. Everyone wants a little piece of the new Yankee on the block and over the past several weeks I’ve felt a little bit like a human pinball, bounced back and forth through all the different feats of generosity that my wonderful, yet often overbearing hosts can throw at me. My patience, my Russian language skills, the strength of my gastrointestinal system, and above all my appetite have been tested in ways that I never thought possible . Exhortations to “EAT!” and “DRINK!” are shouted at me like I’m in some kind of Central Asian bootcamp with Tajik babushkas playing the role of drill sergeant as I try to get the mounds of plov and shashlyk down my throat without choking to death. Even after what I think are my Herculean efforts to consume everything my hosts have offered me, I’m usually ridiculed with a typical “Ha! My grandson, he’s not even a year old, and he eats more than you!” or “What, are you not hungry? Do you not like our Tajik food?” It is an utterly exhausting endeavor to “go as a guest” in Tajikistan, but it is a wonderful and often hilarious experience nonetheless. You learn the real meaning of generosity, when you are given a feast of epic proportions by someone who makes $100 dollars a month and has several children to feed. Even though I consider myself a fairly giving individual, I feel like a real Ebenezer Scrooge in the face of such kindness. Despite the fact that it’s not always the most delicious meal and you may add a few inches to your waistline in the process, being a guest in Tajikistan will open you up to a new level of hospitality that you will never forget.
3. Melons, melons, and more melons: Central Asia is known for its melons, especially in summertime when the bazaars are packed with pyramidal stacks of the ubiquitous fruit. Almost every meal either begins or ends (sometimes both) with slices of fresh watermelon (tarbuz in Tajik) that are amazingly sweet and delicious. As a guest here in Tajikistan, I am usually forced to eat about half a gigantic tarbuz at every sitting, and sometimes they throw in a regular yellow melon just for good measure that far outshines the comparatively bland honeydew and canteloupe that we have become accustomed to in the states. You could live here on melons alone, especially during the hotter months when there is nothing as refreshing as laying down on the tapchan (a traditional raised square platform where Tajiks do most of their eating) with melon juice sloshing around your stomach as you sip green tea and drift slowly into a lazy afternoon siesta.
4. Apricot heaven: I have to admit that I’m a huge fan of apricots, but never in my life did I think that I would stumble onto the apricot mecca that is northeastern Tajikistan. The area around the city of Isfara is the epicenter of the apricot world where over 40 varieties of the fruit are grown on the seemingly endless orchards that surround you as you drive into the countryside. Everywhere you look you see the deep orange hue of fresh apricots drying on huge pieces of cloth underneath the summer sun. Women kneel over and remove each pit by hand that they then dry and roast in order to eat the almond-like nut inside. While interviewing clients outside of Isfara I asked my loan officers if we could stop and take a look at some of the orchards. They kindly granted my request and with permission of the local farmer I giddily ran around, plucking the ripe fruit from low hanging branches and sampling the amazing gift of Mother Nature that is the Tajik apricot. Dried, the apricots serve as a kind of local currency that people can barter or sell when they need some extra cash. Therefore, not only are apricots delicious, they are a kind of safety net for families in this part of the country during the harsh and economically uncertain winter months.
5. A Mild Cult of Personality: President Emomali Rahmon’s obsession with himself is something that I both love and hate simultaneously. For a foreigner like myself it is one of the more hilarious aspects of being in Tajikistan, yet as I laugh at his silly portraits and statements hanging everywhere in the cities and along the roadsides, I am also sad for the people who are stuck here with this post-Soviet despot and can’t take these curious monuments as lightly as I can. One of my favorite pastimes here is to make fun of Rahmon’s attempts at being a “man of the people,” when it is obvious, especially with $6 billion sitting in a Swiss bank, that the people are really the last thing on his mind. At the main intersection here in Khujand there is a jumbotron that plays a non-stop montage of Rahmon’s sojourns amongst the citizens of Northern Tajikistan, cutting ribbons, visiting schools, kissing babies while crowds of people clap in rhythym, standing in a wheat field and feeling the crop with his own hands, giving speeches surrounded by gigantic picutes of (guess who?) himself, and receiving various awards for basically doing nothing. Over and over again the largest screen in the city plays this vacuous film when they could be using it for some useful purpose, but alas, logic and common sense are often scarce commodities amongst the leaders of Central Asia. The type of humor that comes from watching this display of extravagant narcissism is bittersweet and stems from a certain exasperation one feels when the system is so stacked against change that the only thing left to do is laugh at the absurdity of it all. But, laugh I do, and even though it is tinged with sadness, seeing this strange form of political expression is endlessly amusing and fascinating./>