Parasites, Weddings and Tajik Lessons

It was late afternoon when I piled into a small Lada with the Chief of Party and a national staff member who were returning to Shaartuz after a few days in Dushanbe.  After what seemed an eternity among the dust, car horns, shouts, animals and heat that swirled around us in Dushanbe, we finally made it onto the open road headed for Shaartuz.  Infrastructure soon gave way to rolling sand hills and grazing livestock as the Lada toiled the pothole-ridden road.  The car conveyed us through flat farmland and imposing rock faces; dessicated sand dunes and cheerful communities.  Three to four hours of incredibly beautiful landscape and good conversation, we arrived at our destination.

Shaartuz has now been home for two weeks, yet it seems that I have been here for months already.  It is a town in the southern corner of Tajikistan dotted by mountains, small villages and the borders of both Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.  The town is arranged around two major streets and is almost purely residential.  Homes in this part of Tajikistan usually consist of a series of buildings arranged around a large central kitchen garden.  Each room of the home is accessed from the central courtyard with the kitchen and bathroom being outdoors.  The Mercy Corps office is located in just such a house.  It is here that I take all my meals and where all the staff works from during the day.  I am currently sleeping in a room in another part of town, just a short walk from the office.

It would be disingenuous to begin reflecting on my first impressions of Tajikistan without mentioning my epic battle with a fairly stubborn parasite.  The warning signs were there.  Rumblings.  Frequent trips to the squat toilet.  Fatigue.  Headaches.  For the first few days I decided to ignore it and thought that it was just something that I had eaten.  It was only when I could hardly hold down my food at a wedding I had been invited to that I realized that drastic measures had to be taken.  A few doses of Cipro later and I finally felt myself.  My formidable foe returned a second time, but I was ready.

Speaking of weddings . . . I have now been to no fewer than three.  I have arrived at the end of the Tajik wedding season and it seems that every one of my colleagues knows someone who is getting married every night of the week.  The Tajik wedding is a multi-day affair with dinners at each family's home, a religious ceremony with a mullah and a public reception with music, dancing and dinner.  I have been privy to only the public reception, but it is certainly an unforgettable experience . . . deafening live Tajik dance music blaring from the speakers, heaping amounts of food on the tables, a a unique brand of dancing on the dancefloor all while the bride bows to her guests throughout the night.  Despite the most recent Presidential decree outlawing weddings that cost a certain amount of money and delineating the times during which receptions could be held, the last wedding I attended managed to hire a singer named none other than Benji.  Dressed in red tuxedo pants, a shirt unbuttoned to his navel (somewhat scandalous for Tajikistan) and a black tuxedo jacket, he wowed the audience with a dance rendition of Michael Jackson's Thriller among other well known "classics".  To cap off the night, myself and the other intern here in Shaartuz, being foreign, were asked by the bride and groom through a line of intermediaries to make a speech.  I have to say, it was quite eloquent without preparation.

Wedding feast

In just a short period of time, the Tajik people on the whole have amazed me with their abiding hospitality, keen sense of humor, commitment to family and immutable smiles.  Every day that I travel to the villages in which I work, I undoubtedly see considerable poverty.  Yet, the mood is always light and the people always ready with a joke or sarcastic jab.  Being the awkward foreigner, I rarely understand the entire joke despite it being explained to me by an English speaking staff member, but the cheery atmosphere nonetheless points to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.  I have seen this in other collectively wounded peoples, such as the Cambodians.  Tajikistan and its people have come a log way since the end of its civil war in 1997.  The wounds are still there, but I am confident that with the continued effort of the Tajik people in concert with appropriate and truly sustainable development programming aimed at engaging youth to combat extremism and creating employment opportunities within the borders of the country - not Russia or Kazakhstan - that Tajikistan will again experience its proud history in the present.

Hayom, my Tajik teacher (far left); Aziza, his wife (far right); Rukshona, national staff (next to Aziza)


Anonymous said...

You look happy and healthy with your new friends. I bet you wow them with your dance moves at the weddings!
The Spicer

Pete said...

Can't believe that guy stole my dance moves.