Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Family Matters

Khojand - Javohir's family

Filling the tank by 10L jugs on the way to Khojand. Tajikistan isn't big on "pumps" for gasoline

After a few days of life maintenance in Dushanbe, I hit the road once more. This time I was headed North, up to Khojand and Tajikistan's portion of the Fergana valley. This valley is the heart of agriculture in Central Asia, and the only arable land that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have. Back in the early USSR, Stalin carved it up in the crazy map shown below so that each of these new soviet republics would have enough population to exist, and at the same time, he divided the population of the fertile valley as a means of "management." The result today is a seemingly ridiculous region with few logical borders (rivers, ridgelines, straight lines, etc.) The result for me travels is another exploration of the effects of political borders on people in identical landscapes.

curly, swirly central Asia

In Khojand I had reached out to a few Couchsurfers for a place to stay. Usually I'll send a few requests and only one or two will get back to me, sometimes able to host, sometimes not. This time, ALL of the 6 people I contacted in Khojand got back to me offering places to stay or to meet up for coffee, another testament to Tajik hospitality. I decided to stay with the first one who responded, and that's how I met Javohir.

Left to right: (top) Moses, Jesus (bottom) me, Javohir

Javohir and I are the same age, but he got married at 20 and started having kids right away. The result is that now he's managing a house with the two young boys pictured above ("one wants to be an educated man, the other a gang member" he says) while I skip around the world on my own. His decision to start a family so early was based on a few factors. Number one: Tajik culture and his own family. When asked how he met his wife, he said, "through my mother. She told me, 'you are now engaged to this woman.' We had talked a few times before, but I didn't really know her." It's common for Tajiks, and central Asians in general, to get married fairly early and to start having kids right away. People tend to be shocked when they find out that I'm 26, unmarried and without any children, then they go on to tell me about their wives (sometimes multiple), and abundance of children (often working abroad).

Studying their letters. English was on the backside.

The second reason Javohir decided to have two kids early: Tajik law. All men in Tajikistan are required to serve in the military. Unlike our military, nobody seems to consider the Tajik military as an honorable or desirable career choice. One is likely to be sent far from home and ordered to carry out tasks not necessarily for the good of the nation, but more often for the good of the commanding officer (helping to build his house, for instance). Tajik men can put off this requirement by going to university right out of school, but they will still be required to serve one year after graduating. To avoid it altogether, they have to have at least two kids by the time they graduate university. This is what Javohir did.


Regardless of its origins, I found myself embedded in this family for three days and welcomed as "Uncle Shawn" immediately by the two young ones, Moses and Jesus. Over that weekend, I spent a bit of time exploring Khojand, but more time hanging out around the neighborhood with Javohir and the boys. Javohir is an ambitious, intelligent man who has hopes of coming to America, or at least getting his family out of Tajikistan, as soon as possible. He's also incredibly curious about America and world affairs, and we stayed up late into the night on several occasions to share perspectives. Here's some of what I learned:

1. He's a devout Muslim and views most of life through that lens. 
2. He was fairly convinced by "Farenheit 9/11" and wanted to know my perspective. 
3. He likes the US very much, but said, "many places very much do not like America," then listed places like Uzbekistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia (where he used to work). 
4. In regards to the 9/11/12 attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi, he said that, "Even though someone says terrible things about the prophet (peace be upon him), I think it is not OK for people to kill the ambassador, who didn't even know the man who made the video." 
5. He likes Enrique Iglesias and the Backstreet Boys, and wanted to know if either had performed in Seattle recently. I told him I didn't think so.
6. The new "market economy" system in Tajikistan (post USSR) has created great differences between rich ("most of them work in the 'chemist's shop', as we say") and poor. That being said, communism would not work if brought back to Tajikistan
Statue of Lenin moved from its place of prominence in the center of town  to the outskirts, joined by sheep.

I left Javohir and Khojand feeling a bit bewildered and enriched, with new friends (keep an eye out for them in the states in a year or two, they're in the green card lottery) and began my journey on to a new republic:


My first glimpse of the Uzbek border. Looks a lot like Tajikistan...

I'm proud to say that, unlike Mr. Cain, I can tell you who the president of this country is, as can nearly everyone around here. It helps that he's been president since the early nineties and has no plans of leaving until he dies (possibly soon, he's getting a bit old). His name is Islam Karimov, also known as "Papa" in Uzbekistan. He, like the Tajik president to the south and many other rulers, sees his countrymen as children, although he doesn't give them the privileges that he does to his own children (his daughter has held many political posts, owns a bunch of nightclubs, maybe some sports teams, and is a celebrity singer). Some Uzbeks embrace him, others find additional father figures:

Mohammad and papa Rumsfeld

Mohammad (sitting in the chair) in front of his Medrassa

Mohammad is one of these people. I met him in Kokand, the first major city in Uzbekistan. He was the curator of a shuttered Medrassa and Mosque in the center of town, shut down by Karimov in an attempt to clamp down on Islamic Extremism. Mohammad was happy to show me around the place, and once he found out I was American, he beamed and wouldn't let me pay for the tour. Instead, he told me to say hi to Donald Rumsfeld, "[very good man! He is like a father to me! He came to Tashkent and met with Karimov, many Uzbeks fighting in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld! Ohhhh, very good man. Hillary Clinton, she's ok. Donald Rumsfeld, like a father! Tell him privyet when you get to America!" So, Donald, just in case you're reading this, Mohammad in Kokand, Uzbekistan says hi. He's a fan.

Spontaneous family

Mohammad wasn't the only one to perk up when he found out I was American. Despite Javohir's warnings, it seems like almost every Uzbek I've met loves America and Americans. About an hour after meeting Mohammad, I was walking through town trying to find a cheap hotel. Along the way, I passed a group of middle-aged men hanging out on the street. They, like many others, hailed me with, 
"A-salaam aleikuum! Hello! Otkuda? (where are you from?)" 
"America" I said, and continued to walk
"ooohhhh, very good, state?"
"state Washington. Seattle"
"oohhhhhh! chai?" Said one, motioning towards the buildings nearby. I thought about it, I had nowhere to be, and I was a bit hungry.
"sure!" I said. Beaming, he led me to his home, a surprisingly large compound behind the high street walls. His wife seemed a bit surprised, but she went and got the food and drink ready, and we sat and tried to chat while watching some Russian news and skimming the other 600 channels on his satellite TV (mostly from Arab or muslim countries). Pretty soon I was not only fed and chai-ed, but they invited me to spend the night, gave me another meal, and a personal tour of the bazaar in the morning, where they kept a stall selling teapots and other household items. Unfortunately, all of my photos are on my other camera, and I can't get any of them here, so I'll just leave you with this: 

a tool-sharpener at work on the street with a saw

Family plov

Om nom nom. Now I think I actually know how it's made

I left the next morning once again feeling welcomed and thoroughly impressed with Uzbek hospitality (there were several other examples of it in those 24hrs that I don't have time to explain here). I was less impressed, however, with the Uzbek understanding of hitchhiking. In fact, they really have no understanding of it. On my way to Kokand, I got a ride from a bewildered man who agreed to driving me for free, then drove me about 10km before he realized what that meant and left me on the side of the road. Another car took me along to the next town, then bought me a taxi to Kokand before I could realize what he was doing. Fortunately, gas here is way cheaper than in Tajikistan, so the cost of the ride was only about 50 cents. Still, I felt bad.

The other downside is the roads are way too nice. After the dirt and rubble of Tajikistan, I wasn't expecting smooth tarmac and bright white paint. It sounds good at first, but really it just means that cars are having way too much fun driving and don't want to pull over to stop. Plus, with the developed sidewalks and multiple lanes, there isn't much of a place to pull over anyway. Despite all of this, I started walking out of Kokand, looking for a place to try to hail a ride.

After about an hour of walking, the driver of a small parked truck waved me over and asked where I was going. He offered to give me a ride a little ways out of town, so I hopped in. Once inside, he asked if I wanted to come to his place for food. Obviously, I agreed.

Soon I was down several km of backroads into a tiny town near Bagdad, Uzbekistan. Once again, I was welcomed like family, taught to make plov, fed twice and only kept marginally captive for several hours before they drove me back out of town and put me in a taxi to Bagdad, where I caught a bus to Fergana.

Jhon, me, other guy, Mazhbod, and Akhon
The bus ride wasn't the end of the Uzbek family hospitality, but I'll leave it there for now. I'm here in Fergana as I write and I'm looking forward to the next month exploring this new, seemingly rich and hospitible, Central Asian republic. Oh yeah, and eating lots of plov, I'm looking forward to that, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment