My host mother’s name is Gulshirin (Per: گلشیرین / Taj: гулширин), literally “flower sweet,” but since we prefer to put our adjectives before nouns in English, “sweet flower” probably sounds better to your ears. Beautifully devout, she prays daily (maybe 5 times, I’m not sure), which I usually witness around dinner time during sun down. Once, as we were driving home from a quick family visit, she performed the motions as best as she could in the car as the sun was setting (no worries, my host sister was driving). She has unbelievable patience, translating key moments in Russian TV shows or news for me and carefully modifying her speech to replace Tajik/Russian words with their Persian equivalents in our conversations. She and my host father are both in their late 60s, retired, and are amazingly active hosting and attending dinner parties, performing errands, going on trips to visit family members outside of Dushanbe, and taking care of the clueless American living with them.
One morning over breakfast a few weeks ago, Gulshirin was going over names of fruit sitting on the table. She pointed to some dried dates sitting in a glass dish and called them xurma (Per: خرما / Taj: хурмо). I got so excited I interrupted her. “They have xurma in Azerbaijan,” I stuttered, “But over there the fruit is big and red. I ate one and the taste was SO bad. I don’t like xurma, no no no.” She responded that yes, they have that xurma too because there are two types (of course): big xurma that grow on trees (i.e. persimmons), and little xurma that grow on small trees/bushes (i.e. dates). Then she told me a story about Mariam (Mary) who found a little xurma tree while she was pregnant with Isa (Jesus). She sat under the tree, with a river flowing nearby, and ate many little xurmas. When Isa was born, he was healthy and strong because of the xurma, which is still an important fruit for people today. I was simply mesmerized and drank in the story like a child. So even though I still refuse to touch persimmons, I think of Mariam and her pregnancy cravings and hate the fruit a little less.
Two People at the Stove is Not Good
The poor man just wanted some Turkish coffee to hide the bitter taste of his medicine. But he, like other husbands I’ve witnessed, had the worst possible timing. Gulshirin wasn’t done prepping some dinner on the stove and my host father was in the danger zone. It was amusing to watch from my seat at the table, and although I caught maybe half of their words, their body language and tone relayed the rest.
“What is this — what are you doing?”
“I just…wanted to make some coffee for my medicine…”
“Why are you using this big burner? I need it for the pot.”
“No. You always do this. You know better. You’re in the way. Hurry with your coffee, I need to feed people.”
He scurried to finish the coffee prep (which you really can’t do with Turkish coffee) and left the kitchen. Gulshirin noticed my attempts to suppress my laughter. I explained (very haltingly and slow) that I’ve witnessed similar interactions between my parents. She smiled and shook her head, “Two people at the stove is not good.” Surely this idea is a human universal.
I stared at the large jar filled with richly dark, thick syrup. I’ve seen this before. I slid it over the kitchen table to catch a whiff. They say that the sense of smell is a powerful way to induce memories and that was certainly true. I was transported back 3 years ago when I lived in Baku, sick with an awful cough for over a month. I heard my dear Azerbaijani friend’s voice as she gave me a cleaned-out pickle jar filled with the syrup and instructed me to take a large spoonful first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I don’t care if you call me crazy — I swear — within a few days I felt better and my lingering cough cleared up soon after that.
Bəhməz is a syrup made from mulberries (Per: توت / Taj: тут). My experience in the Caucasus led me to believe that it’s a magical cure for illnesses, so I was caught off guard when my host family drizzled it on their blini with some smetana and referred to it as shirini (Per: شیرینی / Taj: ширини), a generic term meaning “sweets” and usually applied to little cakes and pastries. I explained to my family that this “sweet” is used as medicine in Azerbaijan. They found that a little strange, but I’ve kept unwavering faith in bəhməz’s medicinal qualities and make sure to consume some whenever I see it on the table.
Maybe the mulberry syrup isn’t a Tajik home remedy, but this certainly is: Just last week I got a sore throat, probably from allergies, which made classes very uncomfortable when I tried to speak. I mentioned that my throat was sore/hurting during dinner (Per: گله ی من درد می کند/ Taj: гулӯям дард мекунад.) and without batting an eye Gulshirin explained the home remedy that would solve my problem. It was like she knew exactly what I was going to complain about.
Later that night in my room, she said while prepping the supplies, “I don’t know what you do in America, but this works for us in Tajikistan.” She folded a square piece of thin white fabric into a triangle and placed two large, fluffy pieces of cotton along the long edge. She rolled the fabric, gently tucking the cotton into place. She put it next to a plastic bottle filled with “spirits” (i.e. booze? vinegar? It certainly had a potent smell). Right before going to bed, she instructed, I was to dab the spirits throughout the cotton band before wrapping it around my neck. Then I should cover my head with a scarf to keep it warm while I slept.
Oh and this, she indicated the vodka in the tumbler, gargle and drink before bed too. It was a size-able portion and before I could ask, she clarified that I should drink the whole thing.
Did I try this remedy? Of course I did — it involved liquor, for God’s sake. I made sure to follow everything as closely as possible, including gargling the vodka (give it a try; it’s fun, I promise). The verdict: it worked. At first I didn’t think it did anything. I woke up the next morning and my throat stung and felt super gross. The fact that basically all of Dushanbe was without running water that day probably added to my bad mood. But, I did feel better throughout the day. Really, when was the last time you had a sore throat that actually got better during the day? Never.
I told Gulshirin at dinner that my throat was better. She had a slightly smug, “of course it worked” expression as she said that I should wrap the band around my neck again that night. But sans vodka treatment. “But…I think the vodka helped the most,” I protested. She only laughed and commanded me to eat more dinner.
By: Hayley Pangle
Term: Academic Year 2017-2018
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program