Tajikistan, for me, was a country of mixed emotions. At times I cried of happiness, overwhelmed by the beauty of both its people and landscape – and at other times, raged of fury for being called names based on my gender. I do not want to encourage presumptive views people might have on Central Asia, which are mostly based on its proximity to Afghanistan. Of course, Tajikistan is a Muslim country, extremely traditional and relatively poor; but simultaneously brings forth a culmination of incredible cultures, breathtaking sceneries and warmhearted hospitality.
As a little background: I am half Afghan, had initially intended to work in Afghanistan – however decided it would not be the safest place to reside as a Western-looking girl in her beginning twenties. I thus decided to intern in Tajikistan, a country I basically knew little to nothing about, other than its Soviet background. I discovered they mostly speak Tajik, but was not even sure whether it would in any way resemble Dari, the language spoken in Afghanistan. So, I went there relatively open-minded and tried to adapt. I covered up most of my body (which is not imposed in any way), I lived with a Tajik family and tried to speak Tajik. It started off well, apart from my experience at the ‘guesthouse’. There, we were literally seen as guests; to attend dinner timely, adapt to rules and behave as expected. I wanted to feel comfortable being at home and therefore moved to a different place.
Other than that, I explored the city by walking (Dushanbe has a plethora of humongous parks) or wandered about the markets which produced colorful seasonal fruits, vegetables, nuts and more. I took the bus, jumped on/off marshrutkas packed with up to twenty people, tried to grasp the immense mountainous view – generally learned to love Dushanbe. I was allowed to attend a wedding, where we were treated as the guest of honor and were served continuous meaty dishes. I generally loved the way Tajiks eat together, on tapchans, sharing plates, eating with their hands – which is by the way harder than we think. Currently living in Cambodia, I am constantly reminded of this type of communal eating and sharing, a custom I hope to take on.
On weekends we would leave the city and explore turquoise clear lakes, hike in deserted areas, discover waterfalls, generally sense paradise. We sometimes went further and took days off to sit squashed in jeeps to head north or towards the Pamir region on bumpy and at times frightening roads. On our way to the Afghan border, a ride of about 18 hours (depending on the vehicle and amount of people) we encountered a landslide, which forced us to take night at acquaintances of our driver. It was a frightening moment, being stuck between dark mountains and the overflowing border river – and the buried road ahead. In the end we arrived safely, and thanks to our driver experienced the lovely Pamir region in an incredible way. We stayed at home-stays with the most hospitable families, hiked national parks, bathed in hot springs, climbed along the Hindukush. We basically touched upon the Persian culture – increasing my yearning to cross the border over to the huts, to the Afghan children bathing in the river, the stunning colorful scenery.
I do not want to overpraise Tajikistan and the kindness of its people without failing to mention the existent downsides that slip in the back of my mind when I think of my time there: daily water and electricity shortages, which can be a drain if you experience temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius, constant corruption, and your feeling of powerlessness to counteract (taken the head of the corruption unit is the son of the let’s say slightly corrupt President). You are treated differently because you are a woman – I was approached and cat-called on a daily basis (up to 20 times), was numerously asked whether I was married, and had to get used to the religious strains the population puts on itself. Cultural values are highly respected, the bonds amongst families are incredible and most importantly: people judge. As outsiders we detect a societal struggle, but it is just the way it is – with the situation changing slowly but steadily (with foreign influence). Tajikistan is striving, it is continuously changing, aiming at being better and more nationalistic than its neighboring countries (even though being the poorest of the STAN-countries, excluding Afghanistan). To surpass their Asian neighbours, they even built the biggest library in the region however failed to fill it and forced every student to donate four books, leading to a library filled with old school literature. Thus, even though change is occurring, it is still happening in a Tajik way.
Currently, Tajikistan is governed by Emomali Rahmon, who took over the country after a bloody civil war which outraged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, making him the 14th longest reigning president world-wide. With a rather repressive government, there is a possibility the country will be by touched upon by ISIS, experience a further Taliban uprising (as every year) – but I hope for the better. I hope the government learns that blocking social media or forbidding beards and forcefully punishing religious sentiments is not the right method. I await women starting to make use of their legal rights, that are actually given, which so few are aware about.
Despite its struggles, Tajikistan is of the most stunning, loveable and breath-taking countries I have ever lived in. Of course busses may arrive whenever, the president may block half the city for his ride back from work, or you find yourself squashed in a Marshrutka with twenty other people – just enjoy this lovely piece of earth for what it is.
TZH & Daniel Mittermaier