All things counter, original, spare and strange in Khujand, Tajikistan


A Musical Detour

So here’s something that has little to do with Tajikistan: some time ago my friend Justin Johns, who is now working on his Master’s in Composition at the University of Florida, asked me and several others to contribute texts which he would put to music. I offered up a few sonnets, then subsequently forgot about the project. But Justin recently sent me the results, and I was very impressed. He’s a talented guy, with a flair for vocal composition heavily influenced by sacred music. He even wrote his own mass. He posts the work he is doing now here.

As with anything like this, I cringe a little looking back on poems I wrote a few years ago, but I quite liked the work Justin did with the pieces. It’s a flattering thing to see one’s work used this way. So here they are, with the text following each composition. (note: In Praise of Forgetfulness underwent some editing, so the text here may not match word-for-word with the sung text)

In Praise of Forgetfulness

This patterned absence: shadow leaves on snow,

a strain of music on the wind, a wisp

of scent you lose in passing. Subtle gifts

are given in his place, and somehow known

as traces, tracks left by some animal,

who, great as men are great, would naturally

impress himself on his surroundings, I

reason, not willing to admit that all

the tears aside a door will be a door

without his heavy knock, a book will be

a book without his voice.  The way I see

him missed in his apartment’s dusty floor

persists, as dust persists, but then again

did not the dust itself once pass—to man?

After the Ascension

Angel: Why stand you staring after him?

He’s gone but he will soon return again,

And you will drown in floods of glory when

He rends the earth’s thin veil, but do not swim,

Inhale. Yet while you breathe stale air, I say:

Do not forget what wonder round about

Enshrines your dry dust path. Soon you will doubt,

It will be long, you will not know the way

But do not be so foolish as to think

That dust is dust, and not the stuff God’s hands

Made into you, that man is only man,

And not the image of the great unseen.

So now go forth, shake temples, shudder kings.

Go forth! This world must shatter ere it sings.


Book Review: Three Cups of Tea/Three Cups of Deceit

This may be old news for some of you, but the big scandal in the world of relief and development also happens to involve some places not far from my location here in Tajikistan. Greg Mortenson, founder of Central Asia Institute and author of the best-seller, Three Cups of Tea–which I read not long before beginning my own adventure in Central Asia–has been accused of both fraud in the way he operates his organization and deception in the books he wrote.

The point-man for the Mortenson attack is none other than Jon Krakauer, of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild fame, who also happened to be a financial supporter of Central Asia Institute before becoming increasingly dissatisfied, and finally disgusted, with the way Mortenson ran the organization. Krakauer went so far as to do his own investigation on the matter and publish the results in an e-book entitled Three Cups of Deceit, which I read when I should have been making lesson plans.

Krakauer’s book breaks down into 3 accusations (the titular “three cups” I suppose):

1. In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson lied about his time in Pakistan in order to make the story more dramatic.

2. He subsequently engaged in fraud by misallocating large amounts of donated money.

3. His program’s model was unsustainable, leading to a number of “ghost schools” which are no longer in use, including one in the Wakhan corridor which had featured prominently in the plot of Mortenson’s second book Stones into Schools.

The first of these is the one most commented on in the media, though I think the second and third are far more troubling. But no one likes swallowing a tall tale, especially one as feel-good as Three Cups of Tea. Let’s be honest, Three Cups of Tea is very effective. It’s an inspiring story, with a great sense of dramatic timing and a flair for suspense. I couldn’t put it down. But sadly, some of the key events are apparently fabricated. Specifically, Mortenson claimed to have been nursed back to health in a village named Korphe after failing to summit K2. This event is central to the myth of Mortenson the humanitarian. But Mortenson’s porters and climbing partners contradict his story. It seems he actually never set foot in Korphe until after the K2 attempt, once he had already raised the money to build a school. The Korphe nursed-back-to-health story was a later fabrication to make CAI’s beginnings into a more exciting narrative.

Krakauer uncovers other apparent fictions in Mortenson’s two books, but even more saddening to me is the misuse of donor funds and the unsustainability of his program model. Krakauer accuses Mortenson of using funds donated to CAI in order to promote his books, definitely a fraud since the profits from both books go to Mortenson’s private account, not CAI. This is extremely disappointing, and reveals an incredible lack of accountability within CAI’s organization. According to a former CAI staff member quoted by Krakauer, Mortenson “regards CAI as his own personal ATM.” That’s hard to defend, and Krakauer makes his case persuasively.

The third accusation is that Mortenson’s organization is operating in an unsustainable way, building schools but not properly providing them with teachers or materials, thus leading to “ghost schools,” empty of both teachers and students.

It’s apparent that it is difficult to gain accurate information about CAI’s effectiveness. Krakauer alleges that one of the schools which features prominently in the story arc of Stones into Schools– a school in the village of Bozai in the Wakhan Corridor region of Afghanistan–has in fact been left empty. He also cites various former employees and a anthropologist doing research in CAI’s program area, who claim that many other schools are also empty, being poorly planned, underfunded, or not supported sufficiently by either CAI or the local communities. These allegations can only be cleared up by a full program assessment by CAI, which apparently has not been done, a sign that their manner of operations does not meet the standards of most major aid organizations.

All of this information is, of course, very disappointing. I loved Three Cups of Tea. But looking back, there were danger signs, if I’d been critical enough to recognize them:

1. Never focus on the white guy with the savior complex. The good things in the world of aid and development happen because dedicated local people work in cooperation with expats who have the humility not to act like they are rescuing the “natives” from ignorance.

2. Never oversimplify the situation. Having lived in Central Asia for almost a year now (which is certainly not enough to make me an expert), even I can see that Mortenson’s claim to be rescuing children from radicalized Islam is little more than a dramatic conceit. The regions CAI works in are generally peaceful and heavily Ismaili, a sect I’ve written about before, known for their tolerant, even pluralistic brand of Islam. Mortenson claimed to have a unique insight into Islam, but actually oversimplified the religious landscape of Central Asia.

3. Never expect results too fast. Mortenson’s meteoric rise as a public figure could only create false expectations of what his fledgling organization could accomplish. I hope that CAI continues to build schools, once they figure out how to overcome the baggage left by their charismatic but dishonest leader. But it will take time, research and investment to make a real difference in the education system in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan. This kind of thing does not happen overnight. A real functioning school is not bricks and mortar, it is a social contract made by a community. CAI should seek to facilitate this development, not just throw up buildings.

My final thought on this is that I hope this scandal does not keep people from supporting legitimate organizations which do good development work in the Muslim world. I know from my experience here “in the field,” that the real work of development can often look different from the promotional brochures. But the two organizations that I have spent time with here, MercyCorps and Operation Mercy, have both impressed me with the work they do on the ground. As a matter of fact, if you are reading this and you want to support an initiative that is doing real good in the area of health and education, contact me and I can give you the information on Operation Mercy’s HINT (Health Initiative for Northern Tajikistan) Program, which is currently seeking funding.

نوروز, Навруз, Nowruz, Navruz

This is coming a bit late, but I never blogged about the Persian New Year,  Nowruz–pronounced Navruz in Tajik. Navruz happens on March 21, on the spring equinox, but in my region some villages started having spring festivals as early as March 8. I went with my friend Merzobek to the village of Paldorak to see their festival. It mainly consisted of a wrestling competition.

The best part was when this old guy stepped into the ring and demanded to be allowed to participate. Some consternation ensued until applause erupted from one side of the field and another old man was thrust forward as his opponent. They wrapped these cloth bands around each other and tried to throw each other to the ground:

It ended in a tie. But everyone seemed to agree it was a good laugh, and they both got prizes.

By the time Navruz itself rolled around, my good friends Drew, Mark and David had arrived for a visit. We spent Navruz Eve with my host family. Naturally, we had what every Tajik feast requires: big plates of osh.

But things got more raucous than usual. We turned on the music channel on TV and everyone started dancing. At the commercial break, the family asked us if we could sing an American song. We froze. The only thing we could think of was the national anthem. So, hands over our hearts, we sang it. Then they sang the Tajik national anthem.  Good times had by all.

Then we hopped in a car and went to another house where we got to stir a giant cauldron of the traditional Navruz dish, semalak. Semalak is basically a big kettle full of wheat sprouts, which you stir and stir for hours, then let burble all night until the starches caramelize and it turns into a brown, sweetish pudding. This all night affair provides an excellent excuse for the youth of Tajikistan to party way later than their usual bedtimes. Dancing and flirting ensued such as I have never seen in this country.

Navruz, by the way, is an incredibly ancient holiday thought to have been established by Zoroaster himself, who may have lived anywhere from the 18th to the 6th century BC. In old Persian Navruz means “New Light,” though in Modern Persian, “ruz” has come to mean “day.” In Iran the pronunciation has changed from “Nav” to “Now,” though in Tajikistan they have preserved the “nav” from Ancient Persian, which is cited as evidence that Tajik is the modern dialect closest to the Ancient Persian language.

Navruz corresponds with the festival of Purim in the Jewish calendar, the celebration of the time when Esther saved the Jews from extinction. There is some speculation that this festival is influenced by the Persian Navruz, and/or that the events in the book of Esther took place around the time of the Navruz festival.

So happy Navruz everyone! Since March 21st, the days have been getting longer and the sun has been getting warmer, which is enough to make me celebrate.


Well, spring is here and I finally got a chance to travel to the ridiculously beautiful Zarafshan Valley south of Khujand. It’s a six hour trip over the mountains to the city of Penjikent, the main trekking base in the region, then another couple of hours to get to the region called Haft Kul, or the 7 Lakes. That’s the 7th one pictured above, with a boy from the village posing thoughtfully in front of it. The 7 Lakes are a string of lakes a few hours from Penjikent which are legendary for their varying colors and lovely surroundings. My group spent only one night up in the lakes themselves, but we managed to take a look at all of them and walk from the 6th to the 7th, then back down to the 4th, where we stayed at a local homestay/village bed and breakfast. A nice hike, followed by a plate of plov and a soft bed. Couldn’t be better.

Legend has it that the Seven Lakes were created in the following tragic manner: Once there was a family with 7 beautiful sisters. When the first sister became old enough to marry a very rich, but old and ugly, man asked her father for her hand.  The father agreed happily, but the young lady refused categorically. She told the man she would only marry him if he built her a castle overnight. The man was besotted, so he spent his fortune to employ every builder and stone-carrier in the region.  Over the course of the night he managed to build a stone castle, complete with a tall tower. So the girl’s father made her keep her word and marry the old man, but she was so distraught that on the wedding day she threw herself from the tower down to the valley below. Where her body fell marks the place of the first lake. Seeing their sister’s death, the other six sisters began to weep profusely, and their tears filled up all seven valleys, making the 7 lakes, each as beautiful as the tragic heroines of the tale.

Penjikent itself is a pleasant, unassuming post-soviet town. But it boasts an ancient pedigree. Ancient Penjikent was a Soghdian city which held out against the Arab invasion before finally succumbing to the flames in 722. Paradoxically, the fact that the city perished in fire had a preservative effect on the frescoes which decorated the main palace. The walls fell inward, preserving the frescoes intact and undamaged until they were excavated by soviet archeologists. Many of the best sections were taken to St. Petersburg, but the museum in Penjikent still has a few pretty striking scenes depicting stories from the Shahnameh–the Persian book of kings–and daily life in the Soghdian court.

My trip was just a long weekend, but I’d love to go back. I doubt I’ll have time, but maybe I’ll be back in this part of the world again someday…

For more information about the region check out the Zarafshan Tourism Board.

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

As the Uzbekistan trip came to an close, Corrie and I booked a flight from Urgench, on the western side of the country, back to Tashkent, which is only a few hours from Khujand. On this flight I finished the book I’d brought along for the trip: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

Reading Lolita is Ms. Nafisi’s memoir of her life as a woman in the Islamic Republic of Iran, told through the lens of the novels she studied with a select group of students in her home. Nafisi was a free-thinking literature professor who survived the Islamic revolution, the subsequent upheaval, and the war with Iraq and managed to continue teaching about the novels she loved.

Memoirists face the challenge of taking the self as subject without appearing self-absorbed. The guiding conceit of Reading Lolita–life told by means of literature–only partly solves this problem. The voice of the book tends to be a bit too self-interested, inwardness without the stylistic flair needed to pull it off.

But where Reading Lolita shines is in Nafisi’s passionate advocacy for the importance of fiction–even in the face of a world-shattering revolution, oppression and pervasive censorship. Why literature, of all things? Doesn’t the world need freedom, prosperity, security and peace far more than novels?

In Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons (or The Possessed, depending on translation), one of the characters is drummed out of a revolutionary organization for daring to claim that Pushkin’s poetry might be more important than boots. Ms. Nafisi herself was a revolutionary in the Marxist mode, versed in communism’s demand that literature make itself useful to the class struggle. But she never bought it. Faced with the choice, one imagines she might–however cold her feet–choose Pushkin  over boots. Would you?

How can we defend the importance of something that is by definition not useful? One could, and Ms. Nafisi does, argue for the novel’s usefulness in inculcating empathy, encouraging freedom of thought and expanding one’s sense of the world. But ultimately Reading Lolita is more of a love letter than a polemic. Ms. Nafisi and her students continue studying Nabokov, James and Fitzgerald out of delight, not necessity. In a wonderful passage they take turns defining one of Nabokov’s neologisms, an imaginary letter called “upsilandia.” Defining an imaginary word? While their country remained in the grasp of a repressive and chauvinistic regime? How could they?

As I write, Egypt is boiling over with protests, Tunisia’s president has fled, Southern Sudan comes closer to independence, even as protesters in Khartoum challenge the North Sudanese regime. Arab North Africa is changing fast, a change that may soon echo across the Muslim world. Is this really the time to be talking about fiction?

Is there ever a time? The world is always somewhere coming to an end. But never has the need to create, or appreciate creation, ceased. Violence, poverty and oppression interrupt literature, but never eradicate it. Where humanity flourishes, it creates. Literature should need no defense, because it is a constant of fully expressed life. But it always needs a defense because life is always under attack.

So perhaps (perhaps) boots should precede Pushkin. But it’s a false dilemma. If the boot-makers come from this part of the world
(i.e. Tajikistan), they can probably recite Pushkin, plus Rudaki and Firdausi, as they work. You can’t stop it, and Reading Lolita in Tehran is valuable as a testimony that delight is human.

The Aral Sea

A few hours north of Nukus in Karakalpakstan is the city of Moynak, site of the worst ecological catastrophe of the 20th Century. Moynak used to be a fishing town on the edge of the 3rd largest inland sea in the world: the Aral Sea. But the Aral Sea is now a desert, drained in a mere 40 years as a result of soviet agricultural policy.

The history of the Aral Sea is wound up in the history of cotton production in Central Asia, which is in turn linked, tragically, to the American Civil War. The driving force of the Aral Sea’s transformation was Mother Russia’s need for cotton. This demand was supplied by the American South up until the civil war, when the North’s blockade kept southern cotton off the world’s markets. So Russia looked to its own southern conquests in Central Asia, and began encouraging the intensive cultivation of cotton in semi-arid Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan (then under the collective banner of “Russian Turkestan”).

Cotton production requires water. Lots of water. So irrigation was needed from the major rivers of the area: the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, both of which empty into the Aral Sea.

To get to Moynak we crossed the dwindling Amu Darya, which further East forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. When last I had seen this river I was looking across it toward Afghanistan from Khorog, where it is called the River Panj. By the time it reaches the makeshift collection of rusting barges which passes for a bridge on the way to Moynak it is greatly diminished. Further north on the way to the Aral Sea it disappears altogether.

Moynak’s main industry before the catastrophe was fishing and canning. But the Soviet planners had even bigger dreams. They saw the region as an opportunity to fulfill the USSR’s goal to become self-sufficient in cotton. Thus Imperial Russia’s cotton greed was continued even more intensively by the Revolutionaries. The Soviet Union was able to mobilize the labor and technology to irrigate the Amu Darya basin to a degree the Tsarist’s could never have achieved. The result was 20 years worth of unprecedented bumper cotton crops. But the golden eggs were not without their cost.

The irrigation was so extensive it kept the Amu Darya from filling the Aral, shrinking the inland sea steadily every year. In Moynak, denial was the first reaction. They dug a channel from the port to the sea so the fishing boats could continue docking where they always had. But the channel got longer every year, until the fishermen gave up and left the boats to rust. The canneries closed, and thousands began to leave, fleeing a region increasingly plagued by a polluted water table, temperature extremes and rising incidence of birth defects.

Our visit to Moynak was only made more bleak by the freezing wind sweeping in from the man-made desert that has replaced the Aral Sea. It didn’t take long to take in what there is to see of the place, but it’s not a sight I’ll be likely to forget. And it should be noted that life goes on.

Waiting for the bus back to Nukus (a sweaty 4 hour ordeal in a standing-room-only conveyance as it turned out), we watched a woman and her son roll out dough for sombusas. People milled around, sellers of bread and sweets regaled us with their wares, and eventually the bus came and filled up with passengers for Nukus. Environmental catastrophe has not stripped life from Moynak, but it has made it harder.

The Aral Sea Desert stands as a warning, a reminder that man’s power sadly outstrips his wisdom. And yes, it points to a key weakness in the Soviet system. No one could gainsay the central planners who engineered the Aral’s demise. But if you think America is immune to this sort of dilemma, just look at the tangled web of ecological missteps that is California’s water crisis. From the Salton Sea to the algal blooms choking the marine life out of the Gulf of California, America has her own issues of water over-utilization.

So beware. The ghost ships of the Aral Sea should be enough to convince us all that we are not infallible and the earth’s resources may not withstand human greed.


Nukus. Capital of the Semi-Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan i.e. the land of the black-hatted people i.e. the Middle of Absolute Nowhere. And they don’t even wear black hats. Not exactly the first place you’d expect to find a world-class art museum. But there it is.

In 1950 a painter named Igor Savitsky accompanied a soviet archeological expedition to Karakalpakstan and found himself falling in love with the region, it’s people and culture. He decided, to the consternation of his Muscovite wife, to move there, spending considerable time collecting local handicrafts and jewelry for the Nukus museum. Eventually he was named curator of the museum and embarked on the quest that would make the Nukus museum the wonder it is.

During the 60s Savitsky traveled the USSR looking for pieces of art that had been banned during Stalin’s most intense times of censorship. Despite the danger involved with assembling this collection, he persisted, even wrangling money for the museum from the local Karakalpak Soviet authorities.

Savitsky managed to assemble 40,000 pieces of artwork which did not conform to the Socialist Realism restrictions. The collection includes pieces inspired by the Surrealist and Primitivist movements. Some of the paintings are absolutely remarkable. I’ve probably never been so impressed. V. Lisenko’s painting The Bull was one of the most striking. It bears down on the viewer, eyes like gunbarrels. Lisenko’s other paintings were equally memorable. If it hadn’t been for Soviet censorship, he would have been world famous, the sort of artist to shake up conventions in the Armory Show in New York. But instead, his paintings went to Nukus, the only place in the Soviet Union that dared to show them.

Wonders lie in unexpected places.

By the way, a documentary was filmed recently in Nukus called the Desert of Forbidden Art. I’d like to see it.