Mondays in Dushanbe, Tajikistan
A reflection on my language study in Central Asia’s smallest country
The capital city of Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet Republics is Dushanbe. It actually means Monday, and received its name because it grew from a village that hosted a weekly Monday bazaar, becoming the capital in 1929. There is still a lot of village left in this capital city though! I spent nine months living there in 2010–2011 while studying Persian and although things have modernized even more since then, I’m told there are certain experiences that remain the same.
The Tajiki language is a dialect of Persian, having been the northern region of the once great and vast Persian empire, but now they use the Cyrillic script, and most Tajiks still speak Russian and many also Uzbek. If you speak any Russian you will have an easier time picking up Tajiki, reading signs and figuring out what is on food labels. I had been studying Iranian Persian-Farsi with its Arabic script and was forever stuck between scripts and dialects.
My first host family was Tajik of Uzbek heritage, and they also spoke a mix of Russian/Uzbek/Tajiki. They were from the group of Persian-speakers (Tajiks) who fled Uzbek rule in Bukhara in the 1920s onwards and settled in Dushanbe (called Stalinabad from 1929–60).
Tajikistan became independent in 1991 but suffered through a civil war until 1997 during which most of the Russian population fled, leaving the country and capital mostly ethnically Tajik and religiously Muslim. President Emomali Rahmon, whose face you will come to recognize quickly as his picture graces many buildings, emerged as the leader from the civil war and has held an ever-firmer grip on power ever since.
Life in Tajikistan is still very conservative, traditional and dominated by family traditions and obligations. Although most Tajiks are Muslim, the government has taken many measures to control the rise of Islam, including banning Islamic education abroad, wearing beards or headscarves, using Islamic names and many other open displays of religiosity.
The prevalence of traditional Tajik dress is in part due to the lack of other options, but the very beautiful handwork involved in creating the Tajik kurtas, a comfy and colorful pants-and-dress combo is something to appreciate. Women wrap a scarf around their head and tie it in the back, and depending upon the occasions, these kurtas range from sturdy every day for housework to elaborate beaded and hand-woven out of fine imported Uzbek cotton.
I went on a day trip to the largest central market with my language tutor and haggled for a green fabric in ikat pattern, then brought it to the other main market where the seamstresses work. There I went back for several fittings, until I got the dress I wanted, ready in time for Nowruz, Persian New year celebrations in the Spring.
Arriving in Dushanbe International Airport from the flight from Istanbul I was quite groggy as I had been traveling for the 36 hours to get there from the East Coast USA. The moment the plane landed before the taxiing began, people already began getting up and getting their bags down from the overhead bin, and generally not heeding the instructions of any of the stewards. This was emblematic of the Tajik airport experience. Upon arrival, there are many men offering taxis and people hustling for your attention when you arrive, many being helpful with the expectation of a tip. In my case, I was lucky to get out of the baggage area and find my study abroad program liaison to pick me up.
The city has electric trolleybuses, minibusses (called marshrutkas, where you pay the fare to a young man who collects and manages the ride, while squished between many other passengers), taxis and many private cars that can become taxis if you just hail them down, as many car owners also double as taxis for a few Somoni to take you down the road they are traveling anyways. I don’t recall seeing many women driving, but as a white Westerner, I was aware that I was exempt from the strictures placed on Tajik women and enjoyed many more freedoms.
In fact, as a westerner in 2010, my fellow students and I were often cat-called, talked-at, started-at, and annoyed on various levels while out in public. There was an element of friendly curiosity to the encounters, where the groups of young men would try to impress their friends by shouting at us “Helllo, Hello, Hello” endlessly and not seem to realize how impolite it was. Children would often run after us, also shouting for attention and in some cases, what seemed like gangs of wild children would go so far as to ambush us while walking to class. The best way to deal with children is to pay attention to them with a smile and a laugh. The same cannot be said for grown men, and I had some unpleasant encounters in the cafes where visiting Turkish men would insist upon buying us coffees we didn’t want, even chasing us down the street for our phone numbers. Tajik men I had encounters with at the market, or the bus, were usually very polite, restrained and respectful.
My first host family lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in northern Dushanbe, several blocks from Rudaki, the main avenue running the length of the city. One to two-story houses, many in an evolving state of construction, where the sounds of chickens, and even sheep, could still be heard, between children playing and TVs blaring. The houses are set up around a central courtyard in central Asian compound fashion, where most of life takes place. My host mom was Bibi. That’s the name for every Tajik grandma, and she was a widow who ruled the roost. She cooked the traditional and elaborate meals, baked cookies and taught me through the movements of her eyebrow, and even the slightest gesture, what was approved of and what not. As an already older, Western woman, I was not quite a typical host-daughter so much as an honored guest. The first question asked of all guests or anyone actually in this country, is whether you have a family, are married and have children. When I answered was that I was divorced, this exempted me from many other lines of questioning, and expectations on my behavior.
Bibi cooked a lot, and because Ramadan was just ending with Eid celebrations approaching as I came, I was able to try many of the traditional dishes immediately upon arrival. Unfortunately, my stomach was not able to handle the Tajik culinary ecosystem and I frequently got very sick. The hygiene standards in Tajikistan were primitive, and although all the restaurants there had toothpicks on every table, the bathrooms — and kitchens for that matter — did not have soap. I definitely recommend taking copious amounts of Cipro and other gastrointestinal medicines with you on any trip there, if you have a delicate stomach as I do.
Spring semester I moved to a different host family, where again I heard a lot of Russian spoken and was taken to more family celebrations and learned more about the Tajik culture.
The national dish of Tajikistan (and Uzbekistan) is osh plov, a rice and meat (lamb or beef) dish cooked in a big pot over a wood fire. Usually, it is the men who are responsible for making it, and though delicious and tasty, it is also oily and eaten with your hands from one large dish at the middle of the kot, which is a raised bed-couch like structure with cushions where they sit around a tablecloth to eat. My Bibi and host sister taught me how to grab a portion of food, squish it up in a bite-sized ball and push it into your mouth using your thumb, in one smooth motion. Well, in theory. I mostly stuck to using a fork. It becomes a joke: dinner was ready, and regardless of what it was they’d lay out a spoon and fork for me their Western guest.
There were several Western-style restaurants which we frequented when we couldn’t handle any more plov, top amongst them Segafreddo Cafe in the center of town on Rudaki, and Salsa Restaurant. Some of the big western hotels also had good restaurants.
Dushanbe is an interesting city for a westerner, where you can get a glimpse still of what life was like last century. Although it is modernizing with its fried chicken restaurants along Rudaki and ubiquitous use of cell phones, there are many sights to see (the markets, the Chaikhanah — the traditional teahouses) that bring to mind a bygone era.
The U.S.State Department issued heightened travel alerts late 2019 (see here), but they are to be taken in context so depending upon your citizenship and tolerance for risk.
Lonely Planet Info: Lonely Planet Store
Info on Tajikistan: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/tajikistan