Foreign and Familiar

In my first three weeks in Dushanbe, Tajikistan I’ve been struck both by elements of foreignness and of familiarity in the lifestyles of the people here. For this blog post, I want to write about two experiences that I’ve been lucky enough to have here so far, one of which has been unforgettable for its totally foreign nature, and the other of which for its deep familiarity.

The speed and style with which the Tajiks I’ve met spend their time seems in many ways to be the exact opposite of their American counterparts. My host family seems to value time spent sitting around the table, in the courtyard, talking about things—or, even, not talking—above time people spend in the pursuit of individual projects. Dinnertime is the central way in which I’ve been able to experience this difference. We sit down at eight and often remain there until at least ten, as members of the big family populate and leave the table in turn. This experience is radically different from my own, in which dinner is not only an important time for family bonding, but also a kind of necessarily compressed distraction from the things that each individual in the family needs to get back to. Here, there seems to be no worry that the meal will drag on too long. Rather, the time my family members spend among themselves feels inherently important, regardless of the specifics of the moment’s conversation.

And second, I found heart-warming familiarity when I went to Dushanbe’s Zurkhaneh gym for the first time. Zurkhaneh, literally, “House of Strength,” is an ancient Persian form of wrestling. Dushanbe’s Zurkhaneh gym has the unmistakable appearance of a temple to wrestling. It’s a round, domed building, decorated both inside and out with sculptures of wrestlers, paintings of ancient warriors, and poems written in beautiful calligraphy. Stone steps line the circumference of the building’s inside and also curve around the bright blue circular mat in the middle. The “ostad” of the Zurkhaneh gym, which, I think, in this case means something like “sensei,” is a deeply knowledgeable man named Manucher. Manucher’s intensely cauliflowered ears speak for themselves (this unambiguous marker was the first element of familiarity that I noted). At my first request, Ostad Manucher allowed me to participate in the club’s practice. As I jumped into the warm-ups and started drilling with a partner, I quickly realized that wrestling is the Tajik language in which I am closest to fluent. For perhaps the first time, my difficulty communicating didn’t really matter: While Manucher’s commands were often made up almost solely of unfamiliar words, their meanings conformed so clearly to the soundtrack of my high school wrestling years—“keep all your weight on him; lift with your legs, not your back; keep your head tight to him as you lift…”—that I could almost always figure them out. I plan on coming back often, attempting to immerse myself in a familiar kind of community as I take in this totally new place.

By: Gabriel Rody-Ramazani

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2018

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