Lindsay Saligman reflects on her semester on the Eurasian Regional Language Program in Dushanbe as a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship recipient and magical realism in Tajikistan.
In order to get an idea of what Tajikistan is like, (or rather what it was like in my experience) I should start by talking a bit about what it isn’t like: Iran and Russia.
Many students who go to Tajikistan to learn Persian make the mistake of expecting Tajikistan to be like Iran. While it is true that Tajiks and Iranians share history, language, traditions, and literature, the modern day culture of the two countries in my experience could not be more different. While Iranians are known for their gushing flattery and talent for tip-toeing around hard to mention truths, Tajiks are often extremely blunt. The following was an interaction I observed between two of my teachers, one Tajik, the other Iranian. I think it illustrates the cultural difference perfectly:
*Tajik teacher turns on the light in the classroom*
Iranian teacher: oh my dear colleague, you brightened the room with the light just as your presence brightens our lives
Tajik teacher: I brightened the room with the light because I want to get work done. Are you done bothering me now?
Many of my friends who have studied Persian in Tajikistan are quick to tell me that Tajikistan is far more similar to Russia than it is to Iran. While there may be some truth to this, as someone who has lived in Russia, I can tell you that Tajikistan is not very similar to Russia either. In Tajikistan, I experienced hospitality the likes of which I had never experienced in Russia. For example, when an American friend’s host uncle was getting married, not only my friend, but also all of her friends were invited to the wedding, and when we actually went, we were encouraged to hold babies, make speeches, and even invited to sleepover by the neighbor of the bride, who set up beds for five of us on the floor of her living room, which was heated by a wood burning stove.
Ironically, I can probably best describe what Tajikistan is like through comparing it to a predominately Latin American literary tradition: magical realism. Magical realism is a literary genre made famous by the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez, in which surreal events occur against the backdrop of otherwise realistic fiction. In other words, strange things happen to normal characters, but rather than being shocked by these things, the characters in magical realist worlds continue their life as if there was nothing remarkable about the magic. In my experience, this is Tajikistan.
I’m not just saying this because Tajikistan is different from the United States. I have had the privilege of traveling a lot in my life, and can honestly say I have never been somewhere as surreal to me as Tajikistan. Below are a few stories from my semester abroad, which I hope will communicate to you what I mean when I say that Tajikistan is magical realism.
Let me begin by saying that the most popular sport in Tajikistan is called Buzkashi, which literally translates to goat-pulling. During a game of goat-pulling, hundreds (yes, hundreds) of men, and some male children, ride on horses and whip each other as they fight to gain possession of a dead goat. Points are scored by pulling the goats’ stuffed body over the goal line, and prizes for goals range anywhere from a living goat to a new car, depending on how rich the host of the game is.
Speaking of cars, although Tajikistan is the poorest former Soviet Republic, and the fourth poorest country in the world, I noticed a seriously surprising amount of Mercedes-Benz and BMWs cruising the streets of Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe: maybe one in twenty cars. Where do these luxury vehicles come from? I’ll let the answer to that one remain a mystery as to enhance the magical realism.
Speaking of the homes, in many Tajik homes, it is completely normal for the family to sit around eating cake (the daughter in-laws of Dushanbe make the most delicious cakes I have ever tasted in my life) and watch hourly broadcasts of elementary school children reciting thousand year old poetry on state television, as the lights in the room brighten and dim according to the whims of the power grid.
And finally, speaking of grids, to get off the grid towards the end of my semester, myself and some of my fellow exchange students piled in 4x4s and traveled along dusty roads unmaintained since 1991 into the Pamir mountains, the most remote place I have ever been in my life. After two days of driving on dirt roads, stopping only to have our special travel permits checked at the entrance of each new municipality, we arrived in the mid-sized city of Khorog, a literal stone’s throw across the Panj River from Afghanistan. To our surprise, but no one else’s (magical realism), Khorog was something of a metropolis, boasting Indian and Italian restaurants, shelves on the street labeled “free books”, and a local population – the majority of which was perfectly quadrilingual (English, Russian, Tajik, and their native Shugni).
A few days further into the mountains, we came upon the Bulunkul, a town with no internet or no cell service, the solitary road to which is completely blocked off by snow for 5 months a year. We met the mayor of Bulunkul, a handsome man with a clean shaven face who had four wives and more than fifty grandchildren, and who boasted to us of his interest in meteorology and of his blood relationship to everyone in the town, except the Kyrgyz doctor installed there by the U.N. back in Soviet times, and has never left.
Is Tajikistan fun? It can be. When you’re jumping up and down to a free Navruz (Persian New Year’s) concert with 60 year old grandmothers in traditional dress, Tajikistan can be fun. While you’re packed under your own weight in blankets during a winter power outage, it can be a bit challenging. Something I learned though during my time there, is that most people don’t go to Tajikistan seeking only fun. There is fun to be had in Tajikistan, but there is also so much more than that.
To those of you considering spending time in Tajikistan: Do not go there expecting to enjoy yourself 100% of the time. Do not go there expecting to have fast and reliable internet for talking to loved ones at home, and do not go there expecting Iran or Russia. If you go to Tajikistan expecting any of these things, you might miss out on some of what are in my opinion the most wonderful parts of the country: the magical parts, which are uniquely Tajik. If however, you go to Tajikistan with an open mind, and open eyes and ears, I highly doubt you will regret your time there, in what I personally found to be one of the most surreal and bizarrely endearing countries in the world.
Watch out Latin America, when it comes to magical realism, Tajikistan might just give you a run for your money.
About Fulbright-Hays Scholarships from American Councils
American Councils for International Education has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, to provide scholarships for advanced overseas Russian and Persian language study. Learn more about the eligibility requirements here.
About Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad
The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, commonly referred to as the Fulbright-Hays Act, was made law by the 87th U.S. Congress under President John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1961. Senator J. William Fulbright and Representative Wayne Hays introduced the legislation, which represents the basic charter for U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. 2016 marks the 55th anniversary of this landmark legislation. More information about Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad can be found here.