Emomali’s chubby face peered into mine with intent, almost like he was questioning a spy, or at least a man caught trying to steal a wallet. The trays from two airplane meals were stacked on his tray table, and this, combined with his stomach, made his leaning into me very difficult.
I stammered at first, so he repeated the question. “What do you know about Tajikistan?” For me the answer was long. I knew a lot, but Emomali knew how the rest of the world viewed his mountain country.
“A lot,” I responded, “I’m a little tired, I’m sorry, but I know a lot.”
Emomali’s face burst into a giant grin that melted into his eyes and made him look a lot like a life like Buddha statue. He stuck out his hand.
“My name is Emomali,” he said in heavily accented English. “Its not common name in English, yes?”
“No,” I responded, taking his hand, “It is not.”
“Do you come to see Pamirs? Or are you with a Government?” He asked leaning back into his seat.
His question was legitimate; most foreigners coming to Tajikistan fell into one of the two categories. Today Tajikistan is know in the outside world, if it is know at all, as a violent place, filled with Narco-terrorists, and mountains that make mountain climbers mouths water. These two things create low tourism for most of the country, since most people are not mountain climbers, and cast Tajikistan as a land few would wish to come to, or even send their enemies too.
“Neither, I am coming to work with Micro Finance organizations,” I said, trying to wake up for this conversation.
He sat up so quickly that he almost knocked the top tray off and into the isle.
“This is very good. I too work for NGO.”
“Really? What does it do?”
He closed his eyes as if trying not to see something, “I work to make good ummm..” he paused trying to think of the English word, “places for mental sick people?”
“Sanitariums? Mental Hospitals?” I asked, a bit in shock.
“Have you ever been to one?”
I shook my head.
“We just come back from Estonia and Latvia, beautiful… Mental Hospitals there. Much better than Tajikistan.”
I couldn’t respond, I could only imagine what Tajikistan’s mental hospitals were like.
“So why do you know a lot about Tajikistan?”
I explained that I had studied post soviet countries in university, and got interested in 2005 with Central Asia, and after I graduated I continued my interest by reading almost everything I could on the subject, which is surprisingly little in English. In those studies Tajikistan is talked about a little bit, but not as much as I wished.
When I was done he nodded, “Yes, but now you are going. Will you see other countries in Central Asia?”
“Maybe, I can speak Russian, so…”
Emomali nodded his big head, “Not common in the United States.”
I laughed a little remembering one friends comment: “Russian reminds me of the bastard child of English, Greek, and Turkish. Languages I know either kind of well, or not at all.”
“No, not common, ” I responded
“What do people know about Tajikistan in America?” He asked, as he handed his two trays to the stewardess. The stewardess turned to me and smiled without showing any teeth and took my tray.
“Depends on who you ask,” I said, thinking of the people I knew. Some knew about Tajikistan and Central Asia as a whole because I talked about it, a lot. Others had fields of knowledge of Tajikistan which were very specialized: Mountains, Drug Trafficking, guns, poverty, Ismali music, Chinese influence, hydroelectric power, Farsi, the borders of the country. Many though, knew nothing at all except that it was a “stan”.
“Many people don’t know us,” Emomali said tapping his chest a bit with his giant hands, and looking a little sad. “And those that do know about us, think us violent or stupid.”
He shifted in his seat so his body now faced mine. “Russians think we all have just come out of the hills, are walking around with guns, and don’t know about running water.”
This was a pretty accurate description of Russians view of Tajiks actually. The major comedy show in Post Soviet Countries, Nasha Russia, had a sketch that had two bumbling construction workers who break into gibberish, these workers are based on Tajik migrant workers. In the recent movie based on the show begins with two of the characters based on Tajiks, rolling out of a suitcase they’d been put in so that they could get into a country they are not allowed to be in. Then at the end, these characters and their friends come out of everywhere to help the main character their “boss”, and insure that the character gets married.
This idea is so powerful in Russia and Ukraine that many Americans, who are really smart, seem to have adopted it.
I had to be honest with myself, I had been one of those people up until about 3 years ago when I met someone born in Tajikistan. They were not Tajik, they were Crimean Tatar. I had met him back in Crimea, the place he had “returned” to after living his whole life in western Tajikistan. He had been an electrical engineer, and now was a farmer in Crimea. This man was very smart, funny, smiled easier than anyone I had ever met, and took his religion seriously.
“That is sadly true,” I said.
“I wish,” Emomali said poking the air with his big right hand. “I wish that British had umm… conquered us. Like they did Pakistan.”
I looked at him cautiously, not really knowing where this conversation was going.
“Then I could speak English good,” he said.
“Well,” I responded, the English teacher coming out of me.
After that he let me fall asleep for the first time in my 22 hours traveling to the country, and I awoke on our decent into Dushanbe. The black of the night punctuated by orange lights flickering all over the places.
As we walked into passport control Emomali came up to me, and gave me a hug as he picked me up. I was slightly surprised, both by his strength and by how awake he seemed to be at 4:35 in the morning.
“Welcome to Tajikistan!” he exclaimed as he placed me down on the ground. A few gold teeth shining in the back of his mouth.
I began to have the feeling that this trip was going to be slightly more interesting then ones I had had in the past.