No, really. Every time I get within a hundred feet of Panjshanbe Market, I somehow end up surrounded by hordes of Tajiks who want to grill me about where I came from, what I’m doing in Khujand, and what my thoughts are on incredibly deep issues of morality, religion, and international politics. It’s uncanny. It’s as if I am a magnet and the Tajik nation is a pile of iron filings that arranges itself in interesting patterns surrounding my poles. That metaphor broke down quickly. Um. An alternate theory is that I somehow function as a blank screen on which Tajiks project their own personal desires of the moment. Perhaps I look like a shashlyk grill to them, or a pile of bootleg T-shirts in nonsensical jumbled Engrish, or a bag of those little rock-hard balls of qurut cheese that contain three cups of salt apiece, and they can’t help but fall into my orbit. I don’t know. IT’S CONFUSING, OKAY.
All of which is another way of saying the following: Tajikistan is the friendliest country I have ever had the pleasure of discovering. I had heard that the Tajiks were famous for their hospitality, but that’s nothing but a cliché in a travel guide until you experience it for yourself. In two weeks’ time, I have been enthusiastically welcomed to the country by three random people per day, invited over several people’s houses for all-afternoon plov feasts, encouraged to come to English-language discussion groups at the local American cultural center, and every so often, called on my cell phone before seven in the morning by enthusiastic Tajiks who want to hang out before any sane person has woken up. One man, on the basis of a fifteen-minute conversation, even offered me his apartment for zero rent for as long as I wanted to stay. (As an American, this last offer almost broke my brain. Does not compute! Does not compute! I finally stammered out a polite refusal while thinking to myself, Does this count as hospitality or just insanity?)
It’s because of my race, of course. My facial features and glaring white skin broadcast to everyone around me that I am something new and exotic, that I don’t belong here, that assimilation will always be just a little beyond my grasp. It’s uncomfortable sometimes. I remember feeling much the same in Mexico City, where I would stare at my reflection in the window of the metro car and wish that my nose weren’t so sharp, that my hair were a different color, that I weren’t so impractically sensitive to sunburn….
I know my idle overthinking is nothing compared to what the mzungu Kiva Fellows in Africa experience. And I know that it’s even more frivolous compared to what many of my minority American friends have had to put up with all their lives. But that’s exactly why I’m glad to get a reality check, to have my “dominant” racial status stripped away so I can get rid of assumptions I didn’t even know I had.
Anyway, this is Khurshed.
Khurshed is a glower, I think. He glows straight through language barriers. His passion for the English language, and for the countries that speak it, is phenomenal. Everywhere he goes, he carries around an English notebook and a tattered English-Russian phrasebook to help him learn. One day, he wants to go to London. Or New York. Or Hollywood. Anywhere! Everywhere in America! It doesn’t matter! He’s never been, though; like almost every person I’ve met here, no matter how educated, he has lived in Khujand his whole life and has never gotten to travel more than a few cities away. It’s a reminder of just how isolated we are here: surrounded by hostile Uzbekistan to the west and dangerous Afghanistan to the south, cut off from Tajikistan’s own capital by an unreal wall of mountains, held hostage by decaying infrastructure and transportation routes that run across closed borders. It’s hard to get to Khujand, but if Khujand is where you started, it’s even harder to get out.
Khurshed studied architecture and philology in university, graduating only a year before me. Now he owns his own painting business and walks around the city pointing out to me all the buildings he’s worked on. If he were American, we would cluck our tongues and tell each other what a shame it was that the recession took him off track. But in an economy like Tajikistan’s, no, this is just how life works. Most people dream small, wanting nothing more than to provide for their families and give their children a comfortable life. The ones who dream big almost never reach their dreams.
Khurshed first met me on September 9th, Tajikistan’s Independence Day, when he spotted me sitting alone on the lip of a fountain and writing in my journal. “Excuse me!” he said brightly, leaning over the handlebars of his heavily laden bike. “Do you speak English?” As it turned out, I do, and so did he, and he was so excited by this development that he took me by the arm and led me straight into the Panjshanbe Bazaar. He bought me apples and peanuts and milkshakes and drinks, rebuffing my most strenuous efforts to pay. He showed me hazelnuts from the Fergana Valley and riotous piles of spices from Kyrgyzstan and bags of soft rocks that came from the slopes of the Pamirs, eaten by Tajiks to help their digestion. He introduced me to a row of rice vendors as “my friend from America,” and they got so excited that they sat me down and gave me an entire free lunch of plov and salad and tea and delicious grape juice they had made themselves. He whipped out his cracked and battered Sony cell phone to show me video after video he had taken of his two kids, sharing all of his favorite mp3s with me in the process. Finally, after about six hours of the most intense and genuine hospitality I’ve ever experienced, he hopped on his bike and rode off. I was reeling. I was exhausted. I couldn’t even process what had just happened to me, other than I had a grin splitting my face and memories I would cherish for a long time.
Khurshed was one of the two incredibly friendly Tajiks who shaped my first full weekend in Khujand. The other was Bakhtiyor. But his story will have to wait until later.