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.