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When you just don't know how to react...

TAJIKISTAN | Saturday, 14 March 2009 | Views [1179] | Comments [1]

It takes a lot to ruffle my feathers. I’ve trained myself not to outwardly react to most surprises in the name of cultural sensitivity. I’ve been told more than once that I should learn how to play Texas Hold ‘Em because I’ve got such a good poker face and keep my ‘cards’ so close to me. There have been a few moments here in Tajikistan, however, at which I had no choice but to show my whole hand with little grace…

Episode 1: The one with the terrorist

Within the first few weeks of arriving here, a colleague invited a fellow intern and me to have tea at his apartment and meet his family. We happily obliged and fretted about what sort of gift to bring before deciding on a cake and an ice cream cup for his little daughter. What we wrongly expected to just be a quick afternoon tea turned into several hours of engaging conversation about life in Tajikistan while dining on platter after platter of delectable fresh fruits and nuts and pitchers of tangy homemade compote (boiled fruit juice). When we could eat no more, our hosts brought out their photo albums to proudly show off their weddings and childhood memories. We came across a picture of our colleague’s sister-in-law in a traditional hijab covering all but her eyes, which were piercingly accentuated with heavy eyeliner.

“Ooooh,” I said, thinking how mesmerizing she looked. “Mysterious!”

“Yes,” she nodded without hesitation, flipping nonchalantly to the next page. “Miss Terrorist!”

I froze like a deer in headlights. I hoped more than anything that she didn’t think that just because I was from North America, I automatically thought everyone in Central Asia was a terrorist. About 90% of Tajikistan’s population is Muslim and it is bordered on the south by Afghanistan, but by no means had I sensed any sort of radicalism. In fact, the hospitality granted to foreigners was astonishing and quite humbling. A million thoughts ran through my head in what felt like an hour of silence but was probably just a couple of seconds. I officially looked like an idiot.

Suddenly, our colleague broke the silence and clarified to his sister-in-law what had been said. Though she didn’t seem to have cared either way, before I knew it, we were all holding our sides from laughing so hard at the linguistic misunderstanding.


Episode 2: The one with the goat

A month later, I found myself standing in the midst of 200 massive Asmori goats in an abandoned schoolyard in the south-western Pamirs. Shipped from Kabul, Afghanistan, they were being tested for transmittable diseases like TB and brucellosis before being distributed to vulnerable women-headed households for income generation projects. These goats were bigger, hardier, and more productive per kilogram than Tajik goats and cows.

I had just spent several hours trying to keep the goats more or less in a herd at the border with Afghanistan while my boss made 3 subsequent trips to transport the goats in a flatbed truck to the schoolyard (see “Badakhshan, part II: Western Pamirs” for shenanigans at the border). Whereas the 200 goats had previously been scattered around a fairly open expanse at the Afghan border, they were now all packed into a fairly small enclosure. And packing 200 Asmori goats – some of which go up to my waist – into a small yard is kind of like squeezing 20 clowns into an Austin Mini: hilarity is sure to ensue.

While helping the veterinarian draw blood from each goat, I couldn’t help but notice some of the animals getting a little feisty. One female in particular was being hounded by, shall we say, excited males; she kicked off at least 3 subsequent males with a flurry of hooves and horns and a cacophony of protesting bleats. One of the bigger males was particularly insistent and even chased her through the schoolyard, parting the rest of the herd like Moses through the Red Sea.

I looked at my boss, slightly concerned that the female was in distress. He simply chuckled and, in the most innocent and perfect (albeit unintentional) imitation of Borat’s voice, said, “That is a very sexy goat.”

Needless to say, I was rendered useless for the next several minutes by an uncontrollable fit of laughter and admittedly forgot about my sympathy for the poor gal.


Episode 3: The one with the Vicks

On March 8th, my favourite Pamiri musician, Daler Nazarov, was set to play a concert in Dushanbe (the capital of Tajikistan and where I was based during my internship). Having silently willed him to perform the entire time I was living in Tajikistan, I was absolutely thrilled that he would finally be playing just days before I was set to leave the country; it would be a perfect end to an incredible 8 months.

One of my Pamiri friends, an amazing musician himself, studied under Daler and often practised with his band. One afternoon, with the concert a mere few days away, he surprised me with an invitation for a private viewing of one of Daler’s rehearsals. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning but managed to maintain a semblance of composure as we ducked into the dingy basement studio to the familiar sounds of instruments being tuned. My friend introduced me to Daler and I almost couldn’t bring myself to shake his hand – not just because I idolized him, but also because I was being pummelled by a nasty cold and paralyzed at the thought of making him sick before the concert.

Satisfied that I was a worthy observer, he sat me squarely in the doorway of the practise room so I could be as close to the action as possible without being in the way. Having been relegated to tinkering away on an un-tuneable acoustic over the past 8 months, I gazed hungrily at the Pamiri tablas, the Marshall stacks, the wah pedal and Godin guitar, and the tobacco sunburst Music Man bass. I was suddenly overcome with the urge to grab the bass and make a run for it, but managed to convince myself that that would probably not go over well for various reasons.

While I sniffled and emptied my nose as discreetly as possible every few minutes, Daler led his band through a solid set that included many of his classics, including “Imshab” and “Chaki chaki boron”, as well as some of his new ditties, which are noticeably edgier and infused with elements of rock. My admiration for him grew exponentially; his band was TIGHT and even when he wanted to replay a section 8 times or chastise the guitar player for answering his phone in the middle of a song, he was impossibly gentle, almost ethereal, and commanded only respect. Most of them have been playing together for 20 years and undoubtedly saw each other as the closest of brothers; the unspoken bonds forged as both musicians and Pamiri must have been stronger than titanium.

After a couple of hours, they took a break and dispersed into the small front room and adjoining alleyway to chat and smoke. My friend motioned me into the practise room and introduced me to the bass player, who, upon learning that I was a colleague, promptly placed his Music Man over my shoulders. It was unplugged but I was still in heaven at the chance to slap out a few lines of Chili Peppers.

Coaxed out of the practise room by the prospect of getting my photo taken with Daler, I reluctantly handed the bass back to its rightful owner. I passed my camera to my friend, cursed myself for being sick and consequently looking like crap, but giggled like a schoolgirl (inside) as Daler placed his arm around my shoulder for a photo. I thanked him and his band profusely for letting me watch and wished them luck at the concert on Sunday (not that they needed anything as mortal as luck). His face lit up briefly as if he remembered something and told me to wait a moment before ducking into the practise room and rummaging in a bag behind some amps. I looked excitedly at my friend; what could he be giving me? A guitar pick? A signed CD? A backstage pass? The bass player nudged me and said he hoped Daler wasn’t giving me his bass; he looked a little too concerned to be entirely joking and I couldn’t help but wonder if that had happened before. Daler re-emerged and proudly presented me with a tiny plastic container. I, and everyone else in the room, had no idea what it was. He unscrewed the lid, dipped his finger into it, and invited me to do the same.

“You’ve got a cold,” he said with the sweetest smile I had ever seen in a middle-aged man, somehow still emanating the grace of an angel. “Put this on your nose.”

I was absolutely mortified. Daler Nazarov, the most famous and beloved musician in Central Asia, was giving me Vicks. Even though I felt like a complete tool spreading the shiny salve on my nose in front of his entire band and entourage, I was also strangely comforted by the familiar smell; my dad uses Vicks religiously when he’s sick.



Lovely stories honey.........talk to you tomorrow before you "hit the road". Love, Mom

  mom Mar 15, 2009 6:26 AM

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