The great French Arabist, Louis Massignon wrote of sacred hospitality as an integral part of the process through which one comes to know a stranger. For Massignon, it was only through scared hospitality that one could come to know others, the foundation for understanding foreign societies and their religions. Sacred hospitality was the thread that bound man to man, thereby reducing the strangeness of the other for each. I had expected the absence of infrastructure and the poverty of Tajikistan, but it is the hospitality I have received from my host family that has struck me most profoundly. It whittles away at the minutiae that might seem from afar to amount to an insurmountable difference, and it makes known those things which are vastly more important: the foundations of our commonality. I use Massignon’s term not to emphasize the religiosity of this gesture of hospitality, but to give it a depth beyond its regular usage, because even with the careful administration and oversight of American Councils, it is still very much a great leap (of faith if one is so inclined) to welcome a stranger into your home as family.
My host mother and sister are impressive cooks, and there never fails to be a parade of pastries and cakes stuffed with walnut, pistachio, and cherries after dinner. They were preparing for a party recently, and as extended family was over, I expected a big communal dinner. Instead, I ate in the kitchen while the women rushed between there and dining room, serving the men at the splendid table I’d seen earlier. This gender division was reserved for a formal setting, however, and the next night, when we had no guests, it was abandoned and put back on the shelf, so to speak, in favor of the old intimate dining routine, always accompanied by a Russian television program in the background. I’ve heard tales of other families whose husbands yell at their wives about the excessive sweetness of the compote, but there are no such domestic issues with my family.
The dominance of the economic context in a country as impoverished as Tajikistan is difficult to ignore. Access to clean water and basic medical care are pressing problems, even within the capital city. One of my host brothers is suffering from a severe leg length discrepancy, and since I’ve arrived, he has had surgery. He has progressed this week from being carried everywhere to using crutches, but given both the state of the healthcare system here and the absence of physical a therapy regimen for him, his prognosis is extremely troubling. There have also been periodic power outages since I’ve arrived, though I have read these are nothing compared to the winter outages experienced when the rivers are low and the Nurek dam electricity production decreases. Obtaining adequate supplies of energy is an enormous challenge for Tajikistan, and even a cursory examination of the largest energy consumer in the country, Talco, unearths far greater problems, which do a great deal to explain why the general population remains so very poor.
By: Rachel Cochran
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2014