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Monday, August 01, 2005

Letter from Tajikistan

Note from Pearsall: My good friend Alyssa has recently arrived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where she is going to be spending the next month doing field research for her ethnomusicology degree at SOAS. She's sent a couple of emails that I've found fascinating, and happily enough she's agreed to let me post them in a slightly edited form. Enjoy!

July 24th

I'm in Dushanbe now, taking a break from a wedding which was really hot and they kept feeding me and toasting to happiness with yet another shot of vodka. I'm feeling a bit ill now, but I have to go back, because Nobovar, who is the man with a band here, is playing his funky stuff. Apparently it’s just the crowd pleasing substance-less boogie music (all the women in shiny red, black, and green dresses, snapping their fingers and waving their arms to the tunes) I will be traveling to the mountains in a few days to hear the real stuff, the Sufi music...

My language skills are a bit pitiful; I audited a Persian class, and Tajik is basically Persian with a few different words, and a heavy accent- I tend to understand the Pamiris who are not first language Tajik speakers either. They speak slower and more

I'm here with my friend Sarah. I'm trying to find some healing music - played by the Bahkshis, and some rubab music from the Pamir Mountains... The Pamiri people, sponsored by the Agha Khan to travel, are the culture makers here.

Before I arrived in Dushanbe, we had to change planes in Moscow, with an overnight stay. We were met at the airport in Moscow by Doulat, Hamid's (my dutar teacher's husband, who is head of BBC Central Asia Service) colleague at the BBC’s Uzbek/Russian service. Moscow is such a horrible place! Evil looking hungry dogs picking at the windfall from dumpsters, white and black crows that look like vultures, and people who seem set to fight for anything - to push you from your spot on the sidewalk, because they want to put their feet there.

Doulat lived in a two room apartment with his wife and four children. He made us sleep in his daughters' beds and his whole family slept on the living room floor for us... He was tired and strung out, but generous beyond his means. His children were awe struck, with gaping grins and "asaloms" to us.

We left Moscow after one night and a brief tour of "Revolution Station" (with its statues of men holding various guns) and Red Square. We took a Tajik Air flight to Dushanbe- the engine sounded scary, but the flight turned out to be more comfortable than the BA flight to Moscow.

Z------ and S------- from the BBC Tajik service met us at the airport in Dushanbe (needless to say, extremely small and parochial...); they booked us in at a nice hotel for a night, an old Soviet ballroom/theatre type building.

Nobovar, who speaks some English, met us the next day, and he subsequently found us an apartment, introduced us to his band, took us to the Gurminj Instrument museum set up by his grandfather, and is giving us some friends to meet in the Pamirs.

The streets are lined with huge trees, the people are beautiful and very laid back, and it is very hot!

July 29th

Today was a very good day in Dushanbe. The sun was hot, I had chronic digestive problems, our gold-toothed landlord insisted on letting the entire handyman population (and our over-familiar Pamiri neighbor sneaked in as well to smile at us as we sat bent over in agony) of Pushkin Block 30 come into our bathroom to fix our water pump, which had been broken during the aforementioned season of illness. I met my Falak teacher Umar Timur, who has agreed to exchange folklore lessons, specifically on the dutar-i-mayda, for English lessons. He invited me to an old men’s toi, which is a wedding party, this Saturday at 5:30 in the morning where he is playing. Apparently we can go and sit with the old men as long as we sit with the musicians. We spent a few hours in the Conservatory building, which was being rebuilt, the sun streaming in over the baking lot of rubble into our little un-fanned room. Umar played the tar and sang, because he had forgotten his dutar and the bow to his gidjak at home. Sarah fell asleep in the corner like a cat. We tried to make our way to the National Museum, across from the wave-shaped fountain with a very dynamically positioned statue of Lenin, swimming towards the ancient treasures, locked behind thick carved wooden doors. Instead, we went to the Bazaar, in search of moo-moos.

The previous bazaars we had been to, both near the northern edge of town, sold mostly food, cassettes, and tools. Varnas Bazaar had mountains of watermelons and giant cantaloupes, fragrant and juicy. We walked through Varnas last Tuesday on our way to find the Great Game Travel Company which I had paid to sort out my Pamir Visa while still in England. We left the bazaar, past a few burnt out cars on a rubble track next to the German embassy, turned the corner past the US Embassy (which appeared to be a giant white castle behind high wooden and metal gates), crossed the Proloterskaya footbridge, and entered a suburb of gated houses on dirt streets. A large painted image of a pipe smoking colonialist, completely out of place, indicated the tour company, which turned out to be run by a grinning Irishman; he told us that we were too late register with OVIR and would have to pay 400 somoni ($120) in fines, and my Pamir visa would be another few days.

On Monday we had been thwarted in our attempts at registering by a variety of problems, including Naghina, the daughter of Doulat, who was the associate of Hamid’s who had given us beds (his daughters’ beds while he and his entire family slept on the floor in their two room apartment- he insisted!!). We were supposed to give Naghina $50 from Doulat, and get our return plane tickets back from Dushanbe to Moscow, register with OVIR, etc… All of which failed - failure in the heat is so much more painful, because you are left panting and defeated in puddle of your own bitter perspiration, without the energy or dignity to move on. But this man at the Great Game Company claws together his existence from the funds of wealthy trekkers wanting a nice safe adventure holiday in the Pamirs with lycra-gortex brand new hiking boots and shiny four wheel drive vehicles and guides who speak perfect English - so I left the air-conditioned office feeling a little refreshed and ready for the challenge of avoiding the KGB in the Pamirs who may check our papers and chuck us out of the least it’s adventure!

But yesterday I discovered that I needn’t worry about such trivialities, as long as I have my faithful host Nobovar, a very kind and generous human being who leads a group called Shams, after the poet companion of Sufi mystic Rumi. I was given his contact details from Federico at SOAS, who lived in Dushanbe all last year, studying music and nationalism. Nobovar is the leader of the most famous band in Tajikistan, as he reiterated to us on many occasions. Before being the frontman for Shams he had been a middleweight champion wrestler, then a soldier in the civil war for two years, before he moved to Kazakhstan with his band to escape the mounting violence against Pamiris. The Pamiris had wanted to secede because after the dissolution of the Soviet government they were not getting much economic support, and there’s really no arable land in the crunchy dry and high Pamirs.

Nobovar has said many times that life was much better during the Soviet period. People in the Pamirs lived communally, without locks on the doors, and everyone had enough money, musicians were celebrated and on state pensions, and the university in Khorog flourished. Nobovar became famous at the end of the war in 1997, when he came to Dushanbe with his group (which had already been going without him for a previous 11 years under a different name, and playing only rock music) and sang a song about (something?? I still haven’t figured this out yet) in the style of Pamiri meets Sting, with the voice of a Sufi. He knows everyone here, especially in our little Prospekt Pushkin which is near the Gurminj Museum (a museum of Pamiri instruments started by Nobovar’s actor/musician grandfather) and Nobovar’s studio, his domain to the extreme. It takes about half an hour to walk down the little avenue because he is constantly stopping to place his hand on his chest and bow to the admirers and acquaintances.

When we told him of our registration problem, he was shocked, “Why did you go alone to register??? It’s ok, I will do it. It’s a big problem not to register. You will have to pay lots of money.” He took us to the city OVIR office where we waited outside with weary-looking Tajiks under a green plastic sheet overgrown with orange trumpet-flower vines, as he went inside and argued with the tourism officer. After this we went to the Republic OVIR where he somehow got into the office of the chief of tourism. The office was air-conditioned; a tv set in the corner playing Russian mafia soap operas. The chief smiled at us and revealed a mouth completely full of gold teeth. He said that we should come to his house for dinner later, stamped our passports, and let us go. Altogether the whole process of stamping and paying $35 each just to register here took about an hour. The only reason that we got away without paying a hefty fine of $600 for registering late, as Nobovar told us, was that the chief liked his song.

After registering, Nobovar took us to the Russian Cultural Center, a huge yellow mansion with white columns on the northern edge of town, with the green-grey mountains rising up in the distance behind it. He had to leave his ID card at the door before taking us inside to a large room containing a theatre with a class of dancing girls from the age of 7-14 sitting in the pews. He asked the dance teacher where the electrician was; as we left the girls clambered on stage and did thrusting hip movements, then pretended to be fishes - it was all very graceful. We went down the hallway bedecked with paintings of Russian soldiers charging through mountainous villages and the streets of Dushanbe (very odd), and then handed my defunct minidisk (whose recording function had died) into a room with three nervous looking electricians who fixed it in 2 hours. Brilliant!

So everything went well today- and that’s a taste of life here on the fourth day of experiencing it…

P.S. - here is an episode from day one:

The first evening in Dushanbe we were met by S------- and Z------ from the BBC Tajikistan. They took us to the Hotel Vaksh, a soviet ballroom construction, on
the square next to the national ballet theatre. A disgruntled old woman in a flowered moo-moo, the standard dress for all classes of women here (although some women wear Western clothing, this does not appear to be a class demarcation), gave us our $25 room overlooking gushing fountains and old drooping trees planted by Stalin 80 years ago. S------- had finished her MA in sociology at Delhi University a few years before and had gotten her post at the BBC straight away.

I asked Z------ how she started working at the BBC. I already knew that she used to be an actress. "Oh, it's a long story," she said, in perfect English, and then continued at the cajoling of S-------. "It is an amazing story. She used to be a cleaner at the office. We call her Cinderella", said S-------. "The BBC was interviewing 100 women for the post of cultural analyst," said Z------. "I was serving tea to them. I had to take the job as a cleaner. I needed money after the war, and there were no jobs in the movies anymore anyway…" She had been in films in Libya, Syria, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, and Belgium. "So, they didn’t like any of the girls, and finally they asked me. They said, ‘Hey girl, what do you know about the war?’ So I wrote them an essay about what happened to culture here. They gave me the job, and two years later, I’m running the whole BBC office here."

Still a very glamorous woman, dressed in jeans and a loose white cotton shirt, with embroidered flowers along the seams, her large black mane, loose around her face, she says she uses her well-known appeal in business. “Yes, Why not?” she says.

P.P.S. - The height of fashion: gold teeth, moo-moos, and arched monobrows- if the hair in the middle isn’t there it is painted in...

|| RPH || 4:30 PM || |