Daler: A unique individual, in a unique society

Daler is one of the first people I got to know in Tajikistan. During my very first discussion club, on my second or third day in Tajikistan, he asked me if I wanted to spend Eid e Ramazon at his house. I demurred. Who is this guy? I thought. But he’d also invited two other Americans, so I felt comfortable enough to accept. Both then and now I wouldn’t just go hang out at a Tajik guy’s house without the accompaniment of a Tajik female or other Westerners.

Daler is a strange one. He looks petrified, in the vegetable sense of the word. His mouth is perpetually open. I’ve only ever seen him in a suit. In short, he’s socially awkward, which, I’m sorry to say, is the reason why I initially bonded with Jahongir and Mahmoud, who constantly crack good-natured jokes at his expense. Typically, Daler never catches on. He just continues to ask his slightly bizarre questions like “do you pronounce squirrel squir-rel or srqrrrrel” or “have you ever met someone from Pittsburgh” or “what does ‘tonight we gonna hit on the floor’ mean?” His favorite musical artists are Eminem and Enrique Iglesias.

Nevertheless, Daler is an amazing and an inspiring person and we all realize it, no matter how much we may joke. His father is a cobbler and his mother doesn’t work, but somewhere in him (for reasons he certainly cannot express, in either English or Tajik) he fiercely insists on learning English and studying at  university and at any and all free supplementary classes as he can. He is obsessed with foreigners and the West, and has no shame in showing it (mostly because I don’t think he knows what shame is.) But there’s no voyeurism in his interest; just enraptured interest (for unarticulated reasons). Which is why he takes pictures of foreigners on his camera phone, and then whips out the pictures months or years later.

Daler is enrolled at a couple of courses at the Aga Khan Humanities Project (AKHP) (click the link!), which is probably the most amazing educational initiative taking place in Tajikistan today. Developed by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), AKHP has a parallel philosophy to Teach for America in that it does not lower its standards for students who under-perform. It encourages students to meet its high standards and strive for excellence. Which is why it boasts a curriculum that is far superior to any other I’ve seen in Tajikistan and is on par with some American university classes. “Please analyze the following Shakespearean quote in 3-5 pages,” a prompt will say. “Use 12 pt Times New Roman font. Be sure to back up your response with evidence.” This is amazing, given how guilty I feel imposing these types of rules on my students who don’t have access to computers or printers or Internet. But – they rise to the challenge for AKHP.

“Will you look over my essay for “Individual and Society?” Daler asks me.

And I can never say no.

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Shukhrat; stepping in or staying out?

Shukhrat: It happened at the bazaar. I’d just taken my father’s new bike down there, without permission, to buy some food and to generally pass time. Just as I was approaching the bazaar, a man I’d never seen before stepped in front of my bike, beckoning me to stop.  He was wearing a toqi, a traditional Muslim cap, and he had a long beard. He was wearing clothes that a privileged religious man might wear, and I could detect the faint scent of the mosque on him. I stopped my bike.

The imam started to speak to me about Islam. I come from a fairly religious family, where in addition to reading the Quran, my father would often discuss Hadith with me and my siblings. He would tell us stories about the lives of Muhammad and his followers. They lived good and honest lives, so they could be as close to Paradise as possible. Through the Quran and the Hadith, my father brought us up to be people who live purely, pray on time, and seek to be as close to God as possible.

Given my deeply religious nature, my respect for imams, and my eagerness to discuss faith, I was happy to talk to the imam. We spoke for over an hour. He began by talking about the influence of Islam on society, and included many quotes from the Hadith. Between our different topics, he asked me questions like: What is your name? Where are you from? What is your father’s profession? Where are you going? He was very intelligent, and we talked about everything, including believers and non-believers. At the end of our conversation he wrote a sentence in Arabic on a small piece of paper and gave it to me. “Keep it with you,” he said. “It will help you reach all your goals in life.” He added that I must remember to work hard and not lose sight of those goals. Before leaving, he asked if he could ride my father’s bike to the end of the road. Of course, I said, getting off the bike. The imam got on the bike, and pedaled to the end of the road. And then he never came back.

When I got home, my father was angry with me for taking his bike without permission. “But you are safe, and that is the most important thing. Forget about the bike,” he said.

I don’t trust imams anymore. I’ve told my story to friends and neighbors, and they often argue back with me, saying that a servant of God could never do such a thing. I don’t think all imams would do it. But it happened to me.

To sum up, I’d say that I’m a believer who believes himself and then trusts others.

After Shukhrat read us his essay, half the class argued back with him. “You can’t think like this,” Mahmoud said. “You can’t question Islam.” The chatter continued.

“But it happened to me – I don’t question Islam. I’m just saying that it happened to me.”

“That’s bad that you think that. He wasn’t a real imam. A real imam would never do that.”

“I don’t know if he was or wasn’t. He definitely knew what he was talking about, though.”

“You cannot doubt our faith,” Mahmoud pressed.

I listened quietly for a while, and then finally I decided to step in. I always debate when to stay out because it’s not my culture/religion, and when to step in.

Stop arguing with Shukhrat, I told them. This is his “personal statement,” this is his personal experience, and you can’t argue with someone’s personal experience.

You don’t understand, they told me. This is our religion. He can’t doubt our faith. He can’t doubt Islam.

Sorry guys, I said. You’re not going to tell someone that their personal experience is wrong. Especially not in a place I’ve deemed as a safe setting where everyone should feel free to open up without fear of judgment.

Ok, we got it, they said.

Who’s next? I asked.

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We never call him by his name. We call him “Communiste” with affection, and I’m not sure if that’s French or Russian or English with a funny accent. He’s the only one of my students in graduate school. He’s studying international relations, because he wants to be a diplomat or a politician. He looks at everything through the lens of politics. Usually his views are a bit simplistic. For example, when I asked him what he thought about the revolution in Egypt, he told me that it was America’s doing because America wanted control of the Suez Canal. But he dreams big, and I respect that.

The Communiste is from Gharm, where I’ve been living for the past week and will be for the next month or so. Gharm was the stronghold of the opposition in the Civil War. It is supposedly the nexus where the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and the mujahiddeen from Afghanistan gather, and where they clash with the Tajik military in dangerous skirmishes. In the news, Gharm is a hotbed of extremism, and in history, it is where some of the bloodiest standoffs have taken place. It is also the most conservative part of the country, where women mainly stay indoors and are prohibited from working. And it is the poorest part of the country, where education, health, and economic indicators are the lowest.

All I see are green hills, snowcapped mountains, and children playing in the one schoolyard. There’s no electricity or hot water for the most part, and most of the men have left to find work in Russia. Everyone smiles, they wash their clothes in plastic tubs outside, and talk to their neighbors. Actually, I find it much more charming than Dushanbe.

The accent here is slightly different from the accent in Dushanbe, and quite different from the accent in other parts of the country (Sukht and Khatlon being prime examples). I’ve been told that during the Civil War both sides would shoot people based on their accents. In Dushanbe, families stayed locked up in their apartments for years. There’d be a knock at the door, and a voice saying “I am from the government. I just need to know how many people live in here so we can bring food.” Based on the slight accent in the one word response, you’d either be killed or you’d be spared.

The Communiste’s family fled Gharm during the Civil War for Dushanbe. He was very young, about six years old. On the road, his mother held his hand and covered his eyes so that he wouldn’t see the unimaginable brutality. But he heard the screams. I lived in a world of darkness and depression, he said. I had no hope. I had no faith. I only knew destruction.

In school in Dushanbe, he was behind his other classmates. I was a hooligan, he says. I didn’t do my work. I just played tricks and caused trouble. My teachers thought I was a lost cause. My father would get angry with me and try and discipline me, but it didn’t work.

One day, when he was about twelve, his father lost patience with him. He pointed to an encyclopedia  among the array of books on the bookshelf and told the Communiste to read two pages and summarize them for him. He opened to a page at random. The article he opened to was about Franklin Roosevelt.

He was completely engrossed. Roosevelt overcame all the odds, he says. America was in the worst economic depression in its history and it had just come out of a devastating war. And one man, one crippled man, managed to turn it into a super power. I find it so inspiring – if Roosevelt could do that for his country, why can’t I do that for mine?

From then on, his whole life changed. He approached his studies with purpose and vigor. Franklin Roosevelt was the guiding light in his life. I want to lead my country into better times, he says. I want to lead my country into happiness.

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Naseem, upon whom Bollywood was based

Naseem works as an information management assistant for an international non-profit organization in Dushanbe. He’s in his twenties, like most of my other students, but takes his responsibilities a bit more seriously. He doesn’t come to class to joke around. He comes prepared and on time, with a folder bearing the logo of his organization, and then leaves promptly after class. Befriending a foreigner is not a novelty for him. He treats the class as an American student would – a good learning opportunity, but not an end unto itself.

I learned my students’ stories by assigning them the task of writing “personal statements” in class. If you’re applying for an international fellowship or job, you need to have a narrative that sets you apart, I told them. If 1,000 people apply for the same opportunity, and 500 are equally well-qualified, how do cut down the list of applicants further? By determining who is creative, who has had interesting experiences and will add to the diversity the class, and who will ultimately think outside of the box and excel. You don’t have to have done something amazing, I said. Some of the best personal statements give color to the mundane.

To illustrate my point, I printed out a bunch of sample essays written by teenagers in the United States. After each one, I asked them why it stood out. They weren’t able to tell me. I asked them to tell me their own stories. They dragged their feet. None of them have ever been taught to think they are special, for better or for worse. Tajikistan’s society is egoless.

But Naseem was different – he understood the task immediately. When he came in the next class, he handed me two essays. “When I started writing, I couldn’t stop. I wrote for hours. I wrote ten pages. But I knew it would be too long, so I’m giving you a shorter version as well.”

This is his story.

Naseem: I left my village to study at university in Dushanbe. I was one of the few people to leave my village and study in Dushanbe. But in Dushanbe, I was behind. I barely spoke any Russian, and I didn’t speak a single word of English. I worked hard, and made lots of friends.

One of my classmates, a friend of a friend, always had trouble with math. She asked for my help, since I’m good at math. I was embarrassed to help her because she had been raised in Dushanbe. She was beautiful and smart and spoke Russian fluently. She even spoke some English. She was very sophisticated, and I didn’t want her to know the truth about me.

We met twice a week, every week. I’d help her with math, and she’d teach me Russian and English. We spent three years like this, and we became very close. She was my best friend. But I had deeper feelings for her than just friendship. Would she accept me, a poor village boy? I was too scared to find out.

One day she approached me, looking upset. “I’m engaged to be married,” she told me. My heart sunk. “My cousin and I are going to be married this summer.”

I didn’t know what to do. I went home to my village to talk to my mother, since discussing these matters with my father was out of the question. I showed pictures of my friend to my mother, and asked her what to do. My mother urged me to ask for her hand – so with my mother’s blessing, I went back to Dushanbe.

I tried to call my friend, but her phone was off. For three or four days I couldn’t reach her. Then I saw her at university. She was wearing the traditional clothes of one who is mourning. “What happened?” I asked her. “My grandmother died,” she told me.

What horrible timing! How could I ask her to marry me right after a death in the family? But I asked anyway.

“I can’t,” she told me. “My grandmother’s last wish was that I marry my cousin. It was her dying wish. Why didn’t you come to me sooner? I’ve been waiting for you. But now there’s no way.”

I left university. I don’t know what I did for the next few days. I paced around. My mind was racing. My mind was empty. I hated her. She left university, without graduating, to be married. She invited me to her wedding, but I refused. I concentrated on my classes. Then I contracted a terrible illness, and spent the next few months in the hospital.

At that time I realized that I do not and cannot hate her. Were it not for her, I wouldn’t be who I am and where I am today. I know Russian and English, and I have a good job with an international organization. In fact, I’ve accomplished much more than she has, though I don’t take any happiness in that. She has two children now. She is happy. And I am happy for her, and also for myself. I can’t wish it didn’t happen. The love I felt for her was a gift.

This summer, I will be married. The girl is very nice and smart. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to our life together.

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Mahmoud’s story, which doesn’t even begin to do him justice

I had a very happy childhood. I had two older sisters. One had just gotten married, and the other one was studying in England. She was so beautiful and smart. She was going to be very successful. But one day she developed a terrible kidney problem and suddenly died. We were all devastated. My father was so stricken that he developed a disease and stopped being able to walk. So in a short time it so happened that I lost my beautiful smart older sister and my father became a cripple, so he could no longer work and support the family.

So I left for Dubai to find work. Dubai is not like Dushanbe, it is a big city and you have to look out for yourself. You can’t trust people. No one is going to take care of you.

But I made friends. I found a job with a clothing company. It was the first time I learned about capitalism. Every week we would move things around the store, we would offer new promotions and there would be employee benefits or commissions. I had to work hard – I was on my feet at least eight hours a day. But it was worth it. In addition to housing and clothing discounts, I got to travel to other store locations (like Abu Dhabi) and after six months I even got a special stipend to take English classes, for being Employee of the Month! Mostly I learned English from customers. In Dubai, everyone speaks English. You have to know English. I also learned it from my housemates. We were from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Egypt. So with the Egyptian we spoke in English.

I worked so hard – every time I got a paycheck I sent half of it home to my family. And then after three years they told me to come home. They said it was too difficult for them to have me so far away. First my sister, then my father, and now me. My father said he didn’t care about money, he just wanted his son home with him.

So I went back. I left the new life I’d created for myself to return to the family. But Dushanbe, Tajikistan, they’re not the same once you’ve left. That’s why I want to get out. I’ll do anything. I’ll go anywhere.

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Johingir’s Story, as told to me

I was studying economics in a good university in Tajikistan. Our family was financially secure and happy. Then one day my father told me that his business had gone bankrupt, and that we had no money. So I stopped studying and left Tajikistan to go to Moscow and find work so I could send money back home to my family.

In Moscow I was lucky because I spoke Russian well and because I can pass for a Russian. So I didn’t have any problems with the Russian police, unlike most Tajiks. The Russian police hate Tajiks and always try and cause trouble for them.

I was shocked when I saw how Tajik people live there. So many people living in such small dirty places. And no respect from the Russians. I walked all over the city every day to try and find a job. I didn’t have the time or the money to eat proper meals. I was sheltered before. In Russia I learned that you can’t trust anyone – just yourself.

Finally I began working at a small roadside store selling basic products with a Tajik friend. There, I made friends with people from all different places – from Russia, from Azerbaijan, from Turkey, from all over the former USSR. It was great.

I met a Russian girl. She was very interesting and knew so much about the world, not like Tajik girls. I didn’t tell her that I am Tajik in case she would stop liking me. I told her I had nowhere to live, and she told me I could move in with her. We started dating. I told her I was Tajik, and she said she didn’t care. I really liked her. You could say I loved her. We spent three years together. I told her I couldn’t marry her because she was Russian and my family would never accept her. She said it was fine, she said that she was happy to enjoy our relationship for what it was.

Every weekend we would leave the city and go stay at her parents’ house in the countryside. The four of us would go fishing and play games. Even her father knew that I would not marry his daughter, but he didn’t care. Russians are not like us Tajiks, they just come and go and don’t care about honor.

But my girlfriend started to get attached to me. She started to learn Tajik, and told me she would convert to Islam. But I told her she would always be Russian. Then one day my family insisted that I come home to Tajikistan. I didn’t want to leave Russia. I’d made a life for myself there, and it was better than my life in Tajikistan. But I had to do what my family wished – it is our way. So I left Moscow and I came home.

She is married now. I still think about her, but I know it could never be. I want a nice Tajik girl like what my family wants for me. For me, family is the most important. But maybe I will take a second wife, someone who I choose. My second wife will be like a Russian. Or maybe she will be Russian. She will be very smart and won’t always agree with me.

But I will never forget about my life in Russia. Even though it was so good, I think about all of the Tajiks who live there and don’t know what their legal rights are. Every day they get taken advantage of because they don’t know better. I wish I could do more to help them. When I was in Russia, I would tell them their rights. But what else could I do?

That’s why, no matter what anyone says, East or West, Home is Best.

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Johingir and Mahmoud

Johingir and Mahmoud are my closest Tajik friends. For a while, they were also technically my students, although they are both older than me. Johingir is 25 and Mahmoud is 27. Both are unmarried. Despite the fact that we have almost nothing in common, and that it is very strange for two young unmarried men to become friends with a young unmarried woman, we managed to beat the odds. Humor knows no cultural boundaries, and it was by making snarky jokes and poking fun at each other that we first became close.

In most ways, they are completely different from each other – not just from me. Physically, Johingir is short and stocky, and with his light hair and skin color could pass for Russian (and did when he lived in Moscow). Mahmoud is tall and thin, and could pass for Middle Eastern (and he did when he lived in Dubai). “I am an extrovert and Mahmoud is an introvert,” Johingir says proudly, showing off the new vocabulary I taught him. “What’s wrong with Johingir today? He’s BARELY said a thing!” says Mahmoud, shooting me a glance to see if I noticed that he just used the latest addition to his vocabulary. Both of them speak English very well and with a great imitation American accent. It is only when reading their work that I realize how poor their grammar is – which tells me that most of their language acquisition has been self-taught.

But anyway, back to the differences – Johingir will say whatever comes to his mind, and immediately. He is chauvinistic and crass and hilariously funny. Mahmoud is brooding, thoughtful, and deeply religious. If I told Johingir that Mahmoud was religious, Johingir would argue back that he too is religious. Typical Johingir, to argue back immediately – though he is correct that both of them are religious, Mahmoud interprets every issue through the lens of Islam, while Johingir tends to say whatever comes to his mind first.

They cruise the streets of Dushanbe together in Mahmoud’s car, which he has equipped with a special sound system so that he can play the latest dance beats from Iran, India, Europe, and the U.S. And then they rock out in the car. They also go to Dushanbe’s murky club scene on occasion, but don’t drink because it is “against Islam.” The details of what exactly they do at the clubs are unclear to me – do they sit and watch and sip on pomegranate juice? Do they dance? Do they take girls home?

Paul, one of my American friends  here, renamed them “Double trouble,” which they love. “I am Double and you are Trouble,” Johingir tells Mahmoud. The four of us have become a sort of group, which is great, because without Paul I’d feel a lot more uncomfortable spending so much time with Johingir and Mahmoud, given the cultural norms. We eat chocolate, take walks, drive around, have picnics in the garden, and swap stories and slang words.

I thought that they’d been friends for ages, that they’d grown up across the street from each other and gone to school together. But no, they’d met at the small library in September where I offered free English discussion clubs. Every week they diligently came to every discussion club, where they became more confident with their English and their friendship grew.

Why were they drawn to each other? No doubt the same sense of humor, the ease of language acquisition, and the guts it took them to ask their teacher to hang out with them. But there was something else as well.

Johingir had lived in Moscow for four years, and Mahmoud had lived in Dubai for three years. While neither of these experiences is uncommon for Tajik men, they managed to ease into their respective new host societies more easily than most. And coming back to Dushanbe was for that reason, bittersweet. Now they wanted to go back to Dubai together so they could make money and experience the world. But both of their families wouldn’t let them go until they got married. So they have reluctantly acquiesced.

These are their stories.

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