I've now had a couple of weeks to observe the Tajik people and their ways. The first thing I noticed upon entering Khujand was the colorful dress of the women, a huge contrast from the gray soviet buildings and the dusty roads. The natural environment, too, is generally beautiful -- the sky is very blue and mountains line all horizons, but there are few trees and no grass here in the city. Perhaps out of habit from the days of the Soviet Union, the Tajik people seem to care much more about preserving their culture --their national dress, the national dishes, their commitment to Islam--than about bettering their country as a whole--the economy, the roads and the buildings, for instance. Or perhaps it's just because they cannot.
Whatever the case, Tajik culture is still very rich -- remarkable that it survived the uniformity of the Soviet Union. All Tajiks are Muslim, but few fundamentalists live here in the city. Families vary on how committed they are to Islam, but Tajik traditions exist for all families, no matter how devout. One of these, and perhaps the most different to our Western traditions, is arranged marriage.
When a young woman or man is in his or her early twenties, thoughts shift almost exclusively toward marrige. Unions are made on practicality and the modest woman who knows how to cook and clean well is the choicest pick, though her beauty also plays a role. Parents, often it is the mother, choose the bride for their son who then goes to "look" at her to see if she pleases him. If she does, then her parents are contacted and if they too, and the girl (though her opinion is secondary), agree the marriage happens one month later. Often, the two have not done more than see each other once or twice and have exchanged just a few words if any. After the wedding, the girl goes to live with her husband and his family and her married life begins in a new family.
There is nothing close to Western "dating" in Tajikistan. If two people fall in love it must be secret and hidden. Young sons, no matter how "in love," rarely request to marry a certain girl because in the event that the marriage does not turn out, a mother would blame her son and turn against him. Sometimes these arranged marriages do not work and the couple ends up divorcing, or he has a woman on the side, or he marries another woman (polygamy is illegal, but since Muhammad had multiple wives some men do not hesitate to follow his steps.) Quite often, though, these arranged marriages do work, perhaps because of the sharp intuition of a mother, or perhaps because the son makes it work to please her (in Islam, the mother is placed #1, #2 and #3 in the family, the father placing only fourth).
Many many girls my age have spoken with me about marriage, since it's such a big event in their near future. One girl has a so called boyfriend, whom she sees only at the University (rarely in public) but she is taller than he, so she doesn't hope too much to marry him (his mother won't like her height). Another Russian girl is in love with a Tajik, but is having to fight the Tajik tradition of Tajiks marrying Tajiks to enter his family (she's even willing to convert from Christianity to Islam for him). My brother here, Kakramom, is 26 and unmarried, somewhat uncommon for a man his age. But he's in no hurry. His parents are searching and he went to "look at" a girl last week, but she didn't make his heart pound (he said so himself) so he won't marry her. (His sisters don't mind that he's taking his time, except when he asks them to wash his clothes for him and then they tell him he needs a wife, because it is not their duty.) Another girl claims to have a Tajik boyfriend in the Red Cross to whom she will be married in two years after she finishes University. Most girls, however, have never been in any type of relationship as it might diminish their prospects of marriage. (Friendships between guys and girls are not uncommon, however, and happen at school or in large groups. I went skateboarding with a group of 16 year old boys and girls from the 11th grade last weekend, for instance, and it was quite normal.)
Tajiks as a whole, though they love their culture and religion very much, are never imposing. They often watch Russian TV and are understanding that life is different in other places. They are not at all condemning of other ways of life, so the Russians who live here in Tajikistan have also managed to keep their own culture, seperate and different from that of the Tajiks.
I will have to write again about the food. the dress and music, for these are also different and very fascinating. Hopefully by that time, I can upload some more photos too.