Sunday, June 8, 2008

Afghan Literature

I am currently reading The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, a woman who lived in Kabul with an Afghan family. I mention this, for though it is about Afghanistan which is much more extreme than Tajikistan in terms of Islamic culture and fundamentalism, she describes so precisely the feeling of which I still can hardly speak from my Tajik experience: the perception thof being trapped, slowly but surely more and more each day, so that on the first days you don't realize it, but on the 30th day you find a shell is hard around you. I am actually sure this is unique to women, and for a Western woman to experience this is like taking a knife in the gut, where you will not die, but the wound is so severe that you know you will bleed and hurt for a long time after.

In her book, Asne Seierstad mentions the poetry of Afghan women. This is a collection from anonymous writers which in English is called Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women's Poetry. They are called landays in Farsi and are written in two line verses of 9 and 13 syllables. Here are a few:

Cruel People, you can see the old man
On his way to my bed
And you ask me why I cry and tear my hair

Tomorrow morning I will be killed because of you.
Do not say that you did not love me

Take me first in your arms!
Afterward you can bind yourself in my velvet thighs

In many ways this is the most touching poetry I have ever heard. For these are women who loved, when to love was to commit the heaviest of crimes; they are the ones who had the courage to write about their emotions when feminine emotion was ignored, and they do, for once, not hide themselves behind a hijab or burka, but expose the honest truth about a woman's life to their society.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Heartbroken Men and Old Widows

I have received two messages in the past two weeks from devastated young Tajik men who did not get the girl of their choice to marry them. One, a well traveled business man with a big heart and a kind smile, has had his eye on a number of different 19 year-olds, and plans his wedding to be in August. Recently, the girl he wanted most said no when his mother went to her house to request marriage. He started chatting with me later that day talking as if the world was going to end as was his life and there was no hope of him ever finding another spouse or suitable woman. All I could come up with to say (trying to hide the fact that I do not believe in or support any form of arranged marriage) was "все будет хорошо" (everything will be alright).

Another, an educated 23 year-old with a steady job for the US Government in Dushanbe, told me last night that his girlfriend of 5 years decided to marry another man by her grandparent's decision. I was prepared for another outbreak of emotion as I (as I had not expected from the former) but he simply said "Well' know life is like a piano..what you get out it ..depends on how you play I'm playing it well.....I hope....some doors are being closed for me..but the other doors are being opened up for is beautiful"

On the other side, I met two of the most beautiful Tajik women, both 26 or 27 in age and very intelligent. But neither was married. I began to talk with one about her choices as a young woman and why she did not marry in her early twenties. She said she always thought she was too young, and just kept putting it off. And now, as she almost started to weep and I scolded myself for being insensitive and asking too many questions, she is too old for the men, too intelligent, for she is more wise and more demanding in her choice of life's partner. No one wants to marry her anymore, and like most women she wants children of her own one day but dares not hope too much. We changed the subject, then.

Well, the suffering of arranged marriages apparently does not exclude men and, though the culture is slowly being broken out of, it is as the expense of young women who must live their life alone. Quite frankly, if I was Tajik girl I would jump on a wedding with one of these guys, and if I was a man I'd be all for these women for each one of them shows him or herself to be an intelligent, clear-sighted and competent person. Why is it that the good educated men and women just have the hardest time finding their own happiness in life?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dear God

As part of my Russian study, I am doing a lot of translation work, especially in children's books and news papers. Here is a section of the news paper (Asia Plus) which details excerpts from letters that 3000 Tajiks (of Russian descent and Christian religion) wrote to God.

-Greetings, Lord. How are you? How is your life and your health?

-If it is you who arranges to turn off the electricity, who is going to pray to you?

-Why do you punish good people?

- For those of us who suffered through the winter could it possibly be worse in your hell?

-I love You, of course, but my mother and father more, is that okay?

-Can I please not die?

- Okay, so Christ suffered for the sake of people, but for what sake do people suffer?

- Why is the world without affection?

-Do you have a mind, or are you made all of soul?

-Well, if I correctly understood evolution, you created Adam and Eve, but people are decended from snakes, right?

-What can a person do in their life without a mother?

- In the Cosmos is there a beginning and end, right and left directions, a top and a bottom?

- Can I help you with anything?

- What did you do to my father that he is so unlucky?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

you or You?

The English language is one of the only languages I know of that does not distinguish between formal and informal you. The languages I am surrounded with here, Tajik and Russian, use formal You for new acquaintances and older persons (it is vwi in Russian and shmo in Tajik) and familiar you for friends (ti in Russian and tu in Tajik). There is one aspect which is very interesting about Tajik's use of use of formal you which is different from in Russian and other cultures.

In Russia (and in Germay) ALL familiars, including adults and parents are addressed with the informal you. But in Tajik culture husbands and wives call each other shmo or vwi and certainly all children address their parents in the formal. I think this is so interesting to look at the cultural implications of having such usage: it is obvious even in speech practices that the family is the most important entity in Tajikistan, though sometimes I, as a Westerner, feel the respect as somewhat of a division, (but that's probably just because even the concept of different "you's" is foreign to my culture). But perhaps the formal you in the family also has to do with the fact that husbands and wives often do not know each other before they are married and there remains this distance between them in marriage, though I can really only look at arranged weddings from a Western eye. All I can say is that the use of shmo and vwi in the family facinating to me, and is probably something I could research further if I did not have such time and language restrictions.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Besides the fact that the past month has been filled with traditional Tajik holidays, the Tajik people are celebrating the availability of electricity, water and the existence of humane temperatures and sunshine. In four weeks the city has transformed from totally depressed, grey and dead to colorful and lively. People have been out working in the gardens, both public and private, planting trees and flowers. National flags have been hung everywhere, the streets newly painted, and everyone is participating in what I think of as the national sport: "guliat" or walking and strolling around in the afternoon and evening for no reason other than to enjoy the air. It's a nice time to be in Khujand, as the city wakes up, and the Tajik people seem to have a new energy after the hardship of the winter.

The first holiday was Army Day on February 23rd. It is a day to thank all soldiers in history who fight for Tajikistan and has morphed into a sort of "Men's Day."

The second holiday was Women's Day on March 8th, a holiday founded in the early 1900's in the Soviet Union celebrating women's freedom from hijabs. It has now spread all across the world and is a day recognizing women's freedom, franchisement and social equality. In Khujand it was a day for giving women "S praznikom" or congratulations, as well as flowers, gifts and cards. Among the more religious group, the holiday is detested as it is a sin to celebrate women living without hijabs.

The last holiday is Navruz, on March 21st celebrating the coming of spring. In Tajiki Navruz literally means "New Day" and the 21st is also a type of new year. This year, the President came to Khujand and all people were walking in the streets and the parks or riding boats on the river, eating ice cream and watching street performers. The women wear national Atlas cloth dresses with new spring colors and friends and families get together to make sumanak --- a sweet paste made from wheat. (It is prepared over a fire for 24 hours straight, stirred in a large pot while those who stir think about their wishes and dreams for the future. There is also music and dancing all night long and celebration when the sumanak is finished cooking.) I spent Navrus walking with friends, eating sunflower seeds and riding the (really slow) ferris wheel-- which was an experience since everyone wants to ride and Tajiks do not at all know how to form lines so one just has to push and shove to get one's turn. At night I went dancing with friends and prepared sumanak the following day.

The liveliness of the city has continued even as the holiday winds down and there is a more vivid feeling of happiness everyday. The Tajik people, always peaceful and hopeful, are really looking to a brighter future.

Monday, March 3, 2008

У Нас Свет Есть!

We have electricity! Since March 1st is has been given three times a day. From 6:00-7:30 am. From 10:00am-6:00pm and then again from 7:00-8:30 pm. It's a huge luxury to watch TV at home, to have a heater and lights at school (though we hardly ever use them--the days are so warm and sunny) and we don't have to worry about running out of battery on our phone. Life is good.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Fresh Air

I have not written in a couple weeks, not because I don't want to or am too lazy, but because I really don't think I have much that would be of interest to readers. My life is strangely predictable, with school in the morning Monday- Friday, English Classes at my NGO on Saturdays and Sundays and private English lessons or discussions at the American Corner in the afternoons. I stick my personal lessons in Russian and Farsi in there when I can. Everyday someone else asks me to teach them English, or I meet a stranger on the street who asks me if I'm a foreigner. I'm treated well wherever I go, very unlike many non-Tajiks (mainly Russians) who are treated with a more vicious curiosity. Yet this life of predictability is still very interesting to me especially in my language development which allows me to interact as part of the culture much more.

I have gotten used to living around the electricity and water restrictons. The weather is gradually warmer which certainly makes it all a lot less uncomfortable. I am really enjoying my walks to the bus stop in the morning and down town in the afternoon. Life with the family continues to be a great experience as they all encourage my Russian development yet outside of the home I find myself speaking more English than I'd like.

This post is so titled after a recent understanding about how Western I am in my need for personal space. I have, until recently, been living with four others in an apartment, dressing out of my suitcase and spending much of my home time either with the family in the only warm room--- the 10 x 10 foot square kitchen---or asleep sharing a bed with my host sister. I deal with this situation as it is necessary for me, but since two days ago have realized how I sometimes need a breath of fresh air.

Last Wednesday, my friend from Canada, who is on a year internship program here in Khujand, went for a holiday to Bishkek, Kyrgistan. She lives alone in an apartment above one of the fanciest restaurants in town-- which of course has a red line of electricity. She has heating and water, TV and internet in her two-roomed house and when she lent me the key before she left, I did not realize the extent of luxury she was offering me. I have been sleeping here for a couple nights and it's such a pleasure for me to read when I want, study when I want and cook for myself and clean for myself. Even if there was no electricity or water, it would still be a pleasure to be here. My Canadian friend has said herself that she would love to have a real Tajik experience living in a family and learning the language solidly, but she just could not give up this real independence which she is so used to. My Tajik friends can hardly understand it! All of their lives sons live with parents, daughters live with husband's parents. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, children fill up any remaining space so that Tajiks hardly know what it is like to live and be by themselves. We in the states are raised with our own rooms, our own closets to fill with our own belongings. We design our bathrooms the way we wish, stick magazine cut-outs or photos one our walls and personalize everything as much as we can. Not so in the Eastern countries. I have heard that a Chinese's personal space exists only inside of him or herself. Everything else is communal. The house I live in is certainly communal. We all sleep in a different bed each night, depending on whether or not a certain aunt or uncle is staying or if the mother has traveled on her business to Uzbekistan. We have one closet which has at most five coat hangers and five shelves shared by all of us. If I ever leave the kitchen and want to go study in another more quiet room, four questions jump at me-- "where are you going?" and I always feel bad leaving the family behind. And this is not at all because the flat is too small- two of the largest rooms are virtually empty and could easily be turned into living spaces, but are more for random storage instead. This habit is more cultural and clearly shows how much more the family is valued in such a country compared to the US where individual achievement and personal space is very important in life. There are still many ambitious people here, but that ambition is used for the good of the family, to provide better for aging parents, growing children instead of for recognition. Independence and freedom, though part of the constitution, are not part of the culture and habitual way of life.

I am glad to learn about other practices of life, since it allows me to reflect and look at my own life from new angle. This, I hope, will grow and develop, as I spend more time here and as I too grow and develop. The one thing I am sure of now, for these five days, I am glad to fill my lungs and breath new fresh air.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Winter in Tajikistan

I have been here for one week, and I don't think it has hit 0 degrees celcius yet. It's cold, no doubt, but not colder than a winter in Maine. The problem lies in the lack of resources for heating. In Khujand we have no more than four hours of electricity a day, from about 6am to 8am and again at 4pm or 5pm for another couple hours. That is definitly not enough time for the radiators in the house to heat the rooms, so in my house all of our rooms, save the kitchen, stay at ourside temperatures. In the kitchen we have a gas heater and all five of us sit around it in the mornings and evenings, trying desperately not to get in each other's way. Fortunately, two of the beds have electric blankets, so when there is electricity, they get nice and toasty and we sleep very well.

I did spend last weekend visiting my host mother's sick mother in Nau, a town of about 100,000 on the border with Uzbekistan. I spent a couple nights with a family who paid for a "red line" of electricity and they heat their house accordingly. But no neighbors can know about this red line because it is illegal. Unfortunately, on my second night I accidentally turned on a light in a room where a curtain was open. Five minutes later one girl looked at me and just said, what have you done to us? An hour later the electricity was turned off, and for the first time this whole winter that house had no heating for a whole night. None of us could sleep and the outside temperature hit -20 C at least, normal for Nau. After I put on my boots the next morning and walked to the taxi to take me to Khujand, my toes were so cold I thought I had frost bite. I still have no idea if the family got their electricity back.

And yet, I know I have had it so much better than most. People can hardly afford to feed themselves, much less pay for red lines of electricity. Those who can have coal stoves in their houses, but still that is very expensive. And yet people manage. And they laugh and are happy too. They must have so much endurance to have lived through the months of December and January which were far colder than February.

My personal life is busy as I have started working with an educational NGO as well as at the Waldorf School. I have a very definite plan of teaching classes at the Waldorf School Monday through Friday in the mornings, leadings discussions at the American Corner in the library every Tuesday at 2:00 and working with the NGO and attending Russian lessons in my other freetime. Already in one week I've had multiple requests for English teaching or practice, but since time is so limited, I always request that they teach me in exchange. Currently, I am also attending the first grade main lesson at 8am, which is Russian Literature. The students are all so cute and the class is very helpful!

I hope you in Texas, Ireland or wherever in the world are all cozy and healthy this February and please, if you can, give a warm thought to the people Tajikistan. And Happy Valentine's Day too!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tajik Food

Mmm's actually good. Nice and simple, but fresh and healthy. And good.

Let me start with an over view. The most common agricultural product in Tajikistan is cotton, so correspondingly, cotton oil is use in almost everything. The most common grain is rice, the most common vegetables are carrots, onions and potatoes and the most common fruits are pomegranates, grapes, apples, watermelons and persimmons.

The Tajik food staple is lepioshka (non in Tajik) which is a round bread, very flat and almost inedible in the middle and about two inches thick on the outside. I ate it at every meal from the day I arrived--with eggs or sausages in the morning, with salads at midday and with soups in the evening. Frankly, it's some of the best bread I've tasted especially when warm-- it's almost creamy and perfect for soaking up soup, oil or tea. I have no idea how it is made, since my hostfamilies always bought theirs, but in many Tajk families lepioshka is homemade in a stone oven. (Left photo shows the back side of a lepioshka.)

One thing I found hard to adjust to was the fact that the Tajiks rarely drink water, probably because the tap water is definitely not sanitary enough to drink and bottled water is an additional cost ($.50 for 1 liter). So instead, they drink hot black or green tea with every meal. My host families mostly preferred green, and I liked it plain or with sugar and a slice of lemon. We drank out of small v-shaped, handle-less cups which are meant to allows the heat to dissipate quickly but are in reality are just emptied of contents quickly. By tradition, a new pot of tea has to be poured into a cup and then returned to the tea pot three times before it it fit to drink. No one could tell me the origin of this, though Canyon did mention something about one cup being for Allah, the second for Muhammad and the third for...who knows but no Tajik could confirm this for me. Another tradition that goes along with tea drinking is that the host pours half cups for the guest, until he wants the guest to leave; then he pours a full cup. Apparently, tradition varies in this matter, for in Dushanbe they pour full cups from the get go.

Tajiks celebrate everything-- from birthdays to weddings to the welcoming of a guests--by eating plov, (or oshenpalo in Tajiki). It is made from rice and garbanzo beans in cotton oil and is garnished with chunks of lamb. Served in a large bowl, Tajiks traditionally eat it with their hands and a communal napkin, but many have started using utensils and I was certainly always given a fork or spoon. Plov is served with a salad of nothing more than tomato chunks and onions. Simples, but it was one of the tastiest salads I'd ever had! (See the feast before plov at a birthday in the photo right)

Soups are huge in Tajikistan and vary only slightly, most having water, potatoes, meat (beef or lamb only since it's a Muslim country) and salt , decorated on top with parsley. Sometimes there are meat-filled ravioli (like pot stickers) in the soup and this is called montou.

Another specialty is sombosas, which are hot pastries filled with meat, pumpkin or spinach. These were some of my favorite foods to go out and eat with friends (there was a perfect little place near the Waldorf School) and we would smother them with sour red sauce. (See my host-sister, left, eating a sombosa)

The last, and very cultural summer food, is shashlik. This is just chunks of meat on a stick, cooked over a grill and topped with raw white onion. It is sometimes accompanied with ba carrot salad and some kefir (which is basically yogurt, though as I understand it, is made from the fungus of milk instead of the bacteria) and is very cheap at $1 a stick.

A couple of times, Canyon and I made an "event" of it and went out of town with our friends to eat Kurutob. This is a cheesy dish of noodles and can be served with chunks of tomatoes. It was the closest thing to Mexican food we could find, so we cherished it to be sure!

We also went out for ice cream early in our stay (it's really creamy--like soft serve in the States), but since my host family concluded that it was the source of a sore throat I got the next day, I did not have it more than once.

Lastly, I did encounter some "Southern Fried Chicken" at a fast-food joint in Dushanbe. It was less thrilling than I expected my first western meal to be after two months of simple Tajik food, but it satisfied me nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Well, I have just bought the tickets! I leave February 4th flying via British Airlines (Austin-Chicago- London-Moscow) and Siberian Airlines (Moscow-Khujand). This way turned out to be the least expensive, even with a $100 transit visa through Moscow. The catch is that I arrive on February 6th at 4:05 am, after spending 10 hours in the Moscow airport. I do hear it is a nice one, though.

Since I left, I have been keeping in pretty consistant touch with friends from Tajikistan who tell me that it is currently -17 C in Khujand (about 0 F) and there is snow! But, good news. The government is now giving gas all day-- 12 full hours of it. That is an improvement since I left!

I will be staying with the same host family as before (photos below) who really welcome me as one of them, and fortunately have an extra electricity line which allows them to have more than four hours of electricity a day. I'm very glad about this.

Also, not part of the plan this time cutting. I have mentioned this a few times, but more than once Tajiks commented that I really stand out, and even look a bit masculine, with my "short" hair. It remains part of the culture for most women to leave their hair uncut for many years. So, I guess I'll just have to go along with tradition.

There are just three weeks left before I depart, and my Tajik visa will be coming in soon. I hope that my plastic box of donations will continue to fill with anything and everything deemed appropriate for 1st-6th graders, or Tajiks in general. (Ideas: pencils, notebooks, recorders, warm blankets, warm clothes....)

And thank you again to those of you who have already donated.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cotton Picking

I spent my first Sunday in Khujand cotton picking. Arriving at a parking lot in central Khujand at 7 am, we (four teachers from the Waldorf school, Gertruda a German friend of the school and myself) crowded into buses for the one-hour ride to the fields. I remember the ride well as I, already overwhelmed by language and cultural differences, attempted to understand the German chatter of Gertruda as she relayed stories of life in Kenya and Sudan. The other Tajik women on the bus, worn and tired from the fasting month of Ramadan, started muttering and complaining about us two foreigners talking (rather loudly) in a strange tongue. I felt so ashamed that already I was appearing as a loud American in Tajikistan yet that was unfortunately not the last time strangers reprimanded me for being too loud in public transportation.

I actually enjoyed the cotton picking because it gave me a chance to talk with and get to know Tahmina. We picked slowly, rested frequently and at lunch time fell asleep under the cotton bushes. But fortunately for us, we had to do this only once.

I have mentioned it before in the blog, but since it does not cease to astound me, I will write it again. The government requires that all university students pick cotton for an indefinite period of time every fall. Teachers are supposed to go on Sundays, their only day off from school. Starting in August, students live together, eat together, sleep together and pick cotton together not returning home until November or December. And this is because the government is committed to paying salaries and tuition.

At the end of the day I was tired and my back was sore, and the buses were over full with sweaty grumpy people, so I stood the whole way home. Tahmina and I, together, had picked only 40 kilos of cotton in eight hours, about 40 kilos below par. But we just laughed it off and were glad to return to the city, thankful that come morning we only had to teach children and not pull white fluffy lumps off brambly bushes for days on end. We decided not to return again.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Istanbul From Above

Shots of Istanbul from our airplane
-September 26th 2007