If you want to see my host bro’s personal introduction to the family and their new bed and breakfast scheme here in Khujand, check out his blog site here: amirnuriddinov.wordpress.com
A word to any Tajikistan travelers who might come across this site: my happy homestay is open to you as well. I’ll be leaving this place in 3 weeks. I can’t believe 10 months has gone so fast. But more on that later. Nasimako, Amirjon and the rest of the family are hoping to attract a few people to their place in the future, so here’s a little advertisement:
So, theoretical googler of “homestays in Khujand” or however else you may see this, I recommend staying with tne Nuriddinovs. I stayed here for 10 months as a Fulbright Fellow and the family was remarkably hospitable and helpful. So if you’re headed through Khujand, contact Amir (who knows English quite well) at (+992) 92 777-6114. Or e-mail him at amirnuriddinov[at]gmail.com or contact me by commenting on this blog.
Rohi safed! (may your road be white)
We’ve known for months that Lenin’s time on the pedestal dominating the city were numbered. Every few weeks I hear a rumor that they are finally going to begin taking him down. But now it seems the process is actually begun. Starting with his feet, apparently. It’s difficult to tell, but it seems that the screen around the great leader’s boots conceals the beginnings of his demolition. Feet first into the future I suppose.
Here Amir gestures to the great communist himself, exhibiting the grandeur of his decay.
And yes, here I am, in all my Obama t-shirt glory, heralding the new age of capitalism. Shortly after this immodest display Amir and I were accosted by an irascible caretaker type who tried to weasel money out of us for “illegally” taking pictures. He threatened to call the police, but we stood firm, knowing it was an empty threat–if the police came they would take the bribe money for themselves. Eventually we pretended to delete the photos and walked off. Paradoxically, after he realized he could wrangle no money from us, he called out, “come back when it’s finished! Rohi safed (white road–a blessing).” It was as if his natural hospitality finally overcame his lust for bribery. Oh Tajikistan. Always an adventure.
Once the park surrounding the statue is remodeled the pedestal will be the new home of a statue of Ismoili Somoni. It’s going to look great actually. Workmen are already tracing murals along the stairs approaching the pedestal. But I think I will be in America by the time it finishes. As with any project like this, the finish date is supposed to be Independence Day, September 9.
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.
Just a brief outline of what life looks like now that I’ve settled down a bit:
My family, the Nuriddinovs, consists of the father and mother, Nasim (who goes by Nasimako–ako means big brother) and Manzura, their 17-year old son Amir and Nasim’s mother, who pretty much goes by grandma.
Amir (or Amirjon, jon is another common suffix signifying closeness) takes special English classes and is hoping to study in the US next year with the State Department’s FLEX (Future Leaders EXchange) program. I hope he makes it. Then I could show him some hospitality.
My work mostly involves leading discussion clubs, at the Commerce University and the American Corner. American Corners are a little-known and interesting piece of American foreign policy. They are small libraries of books in English about American culture, along with English learning materials and information about study-abroad opportunities in the US. They are sponsored by the Cultural Affairs Section of the US Embassy, in partnership with local educational institutions. These “Corners” began in the former Soviet Union, but are now worldwide. In a slightly bizarre, but charming piece of similar friendship diplomacy the American Corner in Khujand contains a “British Corner” within it. They only get one shelf though. It has some Dickens novels and some Sherlock Holmes. Gotta love the Brits.
Anyway, I only work part-time hours as an English language teacher, so I’ll be spending the rest of my time as an intern with Mercycorps, an NGO which focuses on rural development, agriculture and health. If their Tajikistan site seems a little bit sparse and out of date to you, it’s because updating it will likely be one of my upcoming tasks as the new English-language content-creator on board. Mercycorps seems to operate in a way that is genuinely directed by community participation. I feel privileged to get to see their operations in the field.
So that’s my life, more or less! So far it’s been constantly interesting.
Osh-making with Nasimako and Manzura.
And here’s Amir.
After a couple of brief days back in Dushanbe, it was finally time for me to travel to my final destination: Khujand. When this whole thing started, I thought I would be in Dushanbe for two weeks before taking my place as a respectable working man in Tajikistan’s second-largest city. Two weeks turned into a month and a half of vagabond-hood, but that’s been totally ok with me. I got extra language lessons and a couple of weeks in Khorog out of the deal so it’s all good.
So last Tuesday my friend Viraf (who had research contacts to make in Khujand) and I made our way to the edge of Dushanbe, boarded the back seat of an SUV which we shared with 5 other people and headed North.
The road to Khujand is actually quite good by Tajikistan standards, which means that it’s paved until you get to the mountains. When you get to the mountains you get two choices: the Tunnel of Death and the Pass of Terror (as they are dubbed by the ex-pats here). In former times the only option was the Pass of Terror, but thanks to a project begun by the Iranians and finished by the Chinese, the Tunnel of Death offers a quicker, but darker, danker, wetter, and funnier-smelling alternative. So naturally we took the Tunnel. This time of year there is actually little chance of Death, though once you pass the Tunnel and follow the winding road through the mountains pictured above you may experience some Terror if you happen to look down while your driver veers close to the edge of the dirt road. But no worries. Compared to the road through the Pamirs, it’s peanuts.
After the mountains, the view opens up into the broad expanse of Sugd Province, Tajikistan’s little slice of the valuable Ferghana Valley, where 2/3 of the country’s GDP is produced. Khujand itself is the capital of the region. Formerly named Leninobod, it boasts the largest remaining Lenin statue in Central Asia, a boast made possible by attrition, since the others have been torn down. Here a sheep hustles to catch up with the flock, unconcerned by the stern visage of Comrade Lenin behind it.
Notice the sheep’s enormous rump. That is the source of a serious hunk of fat which any self-respecting osh-maker (oshpaz) will toss into the mix for a good shot of concentrated animal protein.
Khujand also has the biggest bazaar in Tajikistan, the Panjshanbe (Thursday) Bazaar. It’s a crazy place to shop. You can get nearly everything, but you have to find it first.
I have settled in to a homestay with a welcoming family in a neighborhood called Pulchikur, which is known for producing most of the rock candy and ice cream for Khujand. My host father makes a traditional rock candy called Navot:
Here we are in front of the family home. It’s a really nice place. I am glad to have finally settled in. More about my work and life later.
(photo courtesy of babasteve)
By way of introduction to a new phase, Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”:
I return to that poem every time I travel. And those of you I’ve seen recently know I am about to travel about as far from home as is possible. I will be spending the next ten months in Khujand, Tajikistan. I have received a Fulbright grant, which offers me the opportunity to teach English as a second language for the next ten months under the auspices of the Khujand Commerce University and the US Department of State.
For the factually minded, Khujand was originally founded by Alexander the Great himself, who called it “Alexandria the Furthest” or something to that effect. It was later razed by the Mongols, leaving little trace of the earlier city, but it has played an important part in the politics of the region, situated as it is in the fertile Ferghana valley. Under Soviet rule it was called Leninobod, and it still retains a large part of its Russian character. Over the city looms the largest statue of Lenin still standing in Central Asia.
Tajikistan itself is a creation of Soviet border-carving. Before the Russian revolution it was part of the semi-independent Khanate of Bukhara, which ruled what is modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. On the pretense of establishing national sovereignty the Soviet regime created Tajikistan as the territory of the Persian speakers (i.e. the Tajiks). After the fall of the USSR, Tajikistan declared independence, preserving the Soviet-created borders.
Tajikistan today is the smallest and poorest of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, but it possesses incredible natural beauty, and the possibility of abundant (though controversial) hydroelectric power. Its official language is Tajik, which is very similar to Farsi, but uses the Cyrillic alphabet instead of the Arabic alphabet.
This country is the last place I thought I’d be headed this time last year, but in this strange, fickle, freckled world you never know what may happen, and I feel privileged to live in and learn about this unique and fascinating culture. So here I am. I hope you enjoy hearing about my adventures.