*name of person has been changed to K. to protect him*
I could not sleep. I had fallen asleep fast and hard when I had arrived home the night before as I had woken up at 4am that morning. But now it was 3:20am the following morning and I could not sleep. I decided to get up and get dressed and go see if places were opened for pre-Ramadan fasting breakfast, and what that would entail. As I headed out the door I decided against taking a book.
I found many of the cafes I sometimes get dinner at were open and operating, serving a large number of clients. I went into my favorite, one of the cheapest, and the most authentic near where I live. The woman who takes orders smiled at me as I entered.
“Seet down Sam,” she said in the English I had taught her a few weeks before. One of the reasons I liked the restaurant was that if one person was sitting by themselves they would sit someone down with them if they also came in by themselves.
After ordering gretchka (think oatmeal, except better tasting) and eggs, I sat down and looked around. Everyone in the restaurant was male, and many of them were wearing nice dress clothes as if right after this they were headed to the office. Not to a mosque, then home, then after 2 or 3 more hours, to the office.
As my tea was placed down on the table, a man wearing a plain shalwar qameez, the traditional Pakistani mens outfit, came in. He wore a full beard and had a taqihyah (the traditional muslim round cap), and he was alone. The woman smiled at the man and said something in a language that did not sound like Tajik, Uzbek, or Russian and then pointed him to my table.
The man looked to be in his late 30’s and he walked over to my table and sat down. The woman never came over to take his order, and I began to suspect he came in a lot.
“Asalaam Aleukum,” I said as he sat down. He looked up at me and smiled a big smile.
“Aleukum Asalaam. Вы откуда?” (where are you from) he responded in Russian.
“The United States, California.” I answered in Russian, knowing the next question.
His smile became even bigger, which I thought was impossible. And the white shone through his black beard.
“Arnold,” he said in English and patted his chest, “my brother.”
I had to laugh, because I had heard this from many other people. He said his name was K. and we got to talking over our predawn meal. He asked me the standard questions one asks new people in an area, and when we got to what I did he sat up straighter.
“That is important work. Thank you for doing it.”
He went on to say that he could only work in the market now. I was confused because I knew he spoke Russian with great fluency, and he had already demonstrated that he could speak a bit of English, so I asked why, if he knew Russian he didn’t go and work in Russia, like so many other Tajik men.
Turns out he isn’t allowed to really travel outside of Tajikistan. He then launched into one of the most fascinating stories I have ever heard while traveling.
When he was a teenager he was arrested in his home area of southern Tajikistan, where he was caught praying with 5 other boys and an older man in a house. The Soviet authorities threw him in jail for 2 years before letting him go again. By that time he had missed so much school that he couldn’t return to it easily. So he picked up a trade and made due, practicing Islam in his home instead, and learning languages from television, movies, and radio, and Arabic from the Koran, and French from the Ismailis who lived in his area. Today he knew some English, Arabic, Tajik, Russian, some German, French, Pushtun, and some Mandarin.
In 1991 he was part of the democratic movement that swept into Tajikistan. He believed that the state needed to be more like America, where there was separation of church and state, but that church was still important to the state (if you don’t think this is true, read up on a politician who WASN’T religious and how well they did, especially in a presidential election), just that one should not influence the other. He was on the side of the opposition group, made up of democrats and Islamist, and in 1992, as the Tajik Civil War was under way, he was arrested for “carrying out an attack on a Russian army group” that had, he said, killed his sister and father when they “invaded” his town. After a year he was released from prison, and followed his family across the border of Afghanistan and began to try to rebuild their lives.
He said that when the Taliban came to power, he thought about joining the northern alliance, but decided it was time to go across the border and return home instead.
This time he crossed near the Wakahn Corridor (the sliver of a valley in North Eastern Afghanistan), and went to Dushanbe. His time in Afghanistan made him stand out. (during this time Iksander had come to power for a brief second in Dushanbe, before being ousted by a combined “government, Uzbek, and Russian” forces, and those who practiced Islam were looked at suspiciously) The way he dressed, the fact that he prayed five times a day, his beard, it was enough to have his movements curtailed and his actions watched. In 1999 he had earned enough money to bring his family back from Afghanistan and had a small house outside Dushanbe.
He crossed the border into Afghanistan without any problems. He had papers from the government for his family, and he said, he was within site of the Tajik border almost the whole time he was in Afghanistan. But as he brought his mother, and surviving sister (who was now 16) across the border the police arrested him calling him a terrorist. His sister and mother were allowed back into Tajikistan only after a massive bribe was given to the border guards, who were Russian, but K. went into jail again, this time the Tajik governments jail. After 3 years (2002) he was released after a trail showed he had no contact with any known terrorist organizations, since the UTO (United Tajik Opposition) was now “part” of the government. When he went to find his family he found out that they had moved, with his sister’s husband, to Khujand, and he proceeded up there as well.
He still could not travel across borders because, he said, “people still think I am a terrorist”. He can not get a high paying job that would use his knowledge of farming and other skills including his language abilities with International organizations for the same reason.
He looked at his watch and stood up abruptly and said in English, “It was nice to meet you my friend, I must go pray now.”
And like that my breakfast was over, and I began to notice I was the only one left in the cafe. I stood up and paid my bill of $1.00, the woman smiled at me and I asked in Russian, “What language were you speaking to the man?”
She said a language I had never heard before, “it’s a mountain language” she said in Russian. And with that I went out as the sky started becoming blue. I wasn’t sure if I believed all of what K. had told me, but if even half of it was true, which was possible, I wouldn’t forget it anytime soon.
I looked at my watch and decided I could go home and sleep for three more hours before going to work. That is, if I could fall asleep.