In Dushanbe I start sweating at 7:00 am. That’s a few moments after taking my first sips of piping hot breakfast tea. Hot tea, of course, is had with every meal, regardless of time of day or outside temperature. Refrigerated drinks are now ubiquitous in the city, but even so hot tea is still the main source of hydration. As my western stomach can’t handle Dushanbe’s brothy tap water, and I can’t be bothered to bring home a jug of bottled water home in the evenings, I start and end nearly every day with hot tea. Mornings, the tea ritual kicks off my daily contest with the oppressive Tajik summer heat. Evenings, it’s an attempt to work up enough sweat to thoroughly cool off before bed. I’d tried this tactic before, in other countries and climes, to limited success. But it seems to be working better here. After especially hot days my host father will sit in the garden until near midnight, complaining of the heat and drinking cup after cup of hot tea. Why not drink something cold?, you might wonder, but cold drinks are said to swell the glands and tempt illness; hot tea protects against sickness and helps with digestion. After three weeks in Dushanbe, many plates of questionable food, and no episodes of indigestion, I’m a believer.
Every morning my host sister thoroughly soaks the grass, driveway, and courtyard sidewalk to thwart the dust. By the time I’ve finished my second plate of breakfast (either milky rice porridge, blini and marmalade, or boiled buckwheat), had the requisite morning chat with my host mother, and am making my way across the courtyard, steam is already rising off the concrete. Forty minutes later, I’m on my way to class, and the pools of water have been scorched dry by the morning sun. That’s when the battle against the heat really begins. It is not a fair fight–not even in the shadiest, best insulated, most air-conditioned neighborhoods of Dushanbe. Those in poorer, exposed neighborhoods suffer more from the sun’s assault, as do the people who both work and (astonishingly) keep their Ramadan fasts. Construction workers probably have it the worst, equipped as they are with only the flimsiest of armor against 110+ degree heat–baggy clothes and damp neck rags.
Sun Tzu instructs that in war if your enemy is superior, evade him. Most everyone does. In this heat that means shuffling from one sanctuary to the next: the wealthy move between air-conditioned spaces, those who can’t afford them move from one building to another, or one patch of shade to another. Bored shop owners and the un- and underemployed crowd the shadows that migrate up and down sidewalks. Rather than seek customers, some taxi drivers sleep through the heat of the day, lying shoeless in the backseats of cabs parked under trees or next to high walls. For those who work in non-air-conditioned offices, like my host father, idleness is not an option. Instead, they shuffle their sleep schedule: work in the early morning, take a siesta from 11 to 5, and then get in a few hours of work before sunset. We students do our own American Councils Shuffle. During and between classes we huddle under the office’s few working air conditioners. Afterwards, we bounce between our study spots–cafes that have either wifi, air conditioning, or less than exorbitant prices, but never all three.
The atmosphere in my neighborhood shifts at dusk, when everyone gathers at home for the evening meal, and, for thirty minutes, stillness prevails. Then people start trickling out into the cooler air. At first it’s mostly children and youth playing games. But soon whole families are strolling through parks, eating ice cream and watermelon, and chatting with neighbors. The cool of the evening is somewhat of a social leveler, bringing wealthy and working-class families into the now supremely pleasant and walkable public spaces. Fasters, relieved of their daily burden, also come out to talk and luxuriate. But, unlike many Muslim countries where shops, cafes, and bars are open all night during Ramadan, here everywhere has closed by midnight–meaning that students seeking a study spot have nowhere left to shuffle to. For me, that means it’s time to go home, where my the conditioner will fight furiously to cool my bedroom, which spent the day stewing in trapped hot air. It seldom gets cool enough before morning, and even then it’s not long before new sun rays turn the tide of the war once again. At least for those few hours, though, I get to win.
By: Lukas Anderson
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2015