The first few weeks since our arrival in Dushanbe have flown by at a relentless sprint, leaving my mind reeling and trying to make sense of all the events and impressions of the beginning of this program. I hope that this blog post will both prove passable reading material and help set my scrambled thoughts to something resembling order.
The Fall 2018 Eurasian Regional Language Program Tajikistan cohort arrived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in the wee hours of the morning of August 30th, 2018. Our little group of six emerged from the airport and piled into a minibus to be dropped off at our Tajik host families’ houses. Despite having more experience living both in the Central Asian region and in a host family setting as a Peace Corps volunteer, I must fess up to being a bit nervous all the same as I tried to squeeze myself and my luggage through the narrow entrance into the hovli or courtyard house where my host mom, Jamila, and her son Akram, stood smiling while their coal-black and scarred guard dog Charlie growled at the newcomer suspiciously. As soon as the customary greeting, assalamu aleikum, was said, it was clear that my nerves were misplaced.
Jamila, her husband Ikrom, her son and three daughters, and seven grandchildren have all been wonderfully patient and gracious hosts and friends, as well as excellent conversation partners. Jamila herself is an accomplished chef and enjoys detailing the ingredients of her delicious meals as I wolf them down before her eyes. So far, Jamila’s impressive culinary repertoire has included Central Asian staples like mantu (steamed dumplings filled with ground beef or pumpkin and chives), the Tajik national dish of qurutob (layered flatbread slathered with yogurt, fresh tomato, cucumber, onion, garlic, and dill), and Russian favorites like borscht and cutlets. Every evening after dinner, the family lounges on cushions and pillows surrounding their small rectangular table and talks for hours over cups of green tea. When I get an opportunity to contribute to the conversation, they patiently allow me to string my halting Persian words into sentences, often completing them for me. In case of disagreement or uncertainty among family members breaks out about which word is correct, an immensely entertaining and educational debate ensues, by the end of which I have learned more new words than I bargained for!
While Russian is no longer a state language in Tajikistan, most Tajiks are fluent or competent in it. This has been an absolute lifesaver, as my knowledge of Russian has allowed me to break the ice with my host family quickly, obtain essential information about living in Dushanbe, and efficiently learn new Persian words as needed by asking, “how do I say [insert Russian word] in Tajik?” To be clear, I look at this use of Russian as a stopgap measure. The whole point of participating in this program is to become competent in Persian, so speaking the target language 100% of the time is the logical goal for my time at home. The obstacles to this are my clumsy understanding of sentence formation and infinitesimal vocabulary. Inshallah, God willing, this will become easier with practice and lots of hard work in classes. I really look forward to being able to express myself fully without switching away from Persian.
By: Sean Heyneman
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Fall 2018