When you first land in Tajikistan you will be immediately struck by two things. One is that you are dreadfully tired. The flight probably arrives at 3 am and as it is 12 hours ahead of Pacific time, thus making your flight not only long, but getting in at a really awkward time. It will take you up to a week to really get adjusted to the time difference.
The second, and maybe more interesting (i dont know how much you care about sleep deprivation), is of course, how people look.
Most westerners stand out in Tajikistan, not because of our whiteness, so much, as that we don’t care as much about how we dress. There is a phrase I’ve heard a lot in Tajikistan, but it holds true for most Former Soviet Countries “People could be starving, and have no food on the table, but you wouldn’t know, because they always dress beautifully.” Here you always look good when you leave your house, even if it is only to go across the street for a stick of gum. When I was in Ukraine it was explained to me that this was because people used to have very little nice clothing, so it was constantly cleaned, and when you got home you got out of it fast so as not to have it get soiled by cooking, eating, or anything else you might do at home. Whether you are the president of the country, or one of the women sweeping the streets, you make sure that you outfit is beautiful and clean, and you look presentable to all. As my friend Javohir likes to point out, “You never know who you are talking to or when you will meet someone for the first time, so always look your best.”
But its not just that they look good. Men for the most part will be dressed in much the same way as any man in Europe. This comes from Russian influence, where it seems slightly uncouth to show your religion in what you wear. And yet one of the things you see many men, especially older men, wearing is whats called a tubeteika. This is a squared black cap with white lines around the base and designs in the triangles. (see below)
You may also see older men, and in villages some younger men, wearing big coats that look like they are made out of carpets or comforters. They arent though, called a khalat/khilat, they are very light and supposedly have a rich history themselves (the word has come into Russian language to mean any generic robe). These seemingly heavy coats will always come with the tubeteika hat. And sometimes they will be tied by a sash. This sash is actually very old, how old is kind of difficult to tell. But you will see this often as well, since the Khalat doesn’t have a way to secure itself. The folds of these sashes used to act like a pocket holding money, Naz (like tobacco chew in the US but a lot more potent), or other things.
Women though dress distinctly differently. Their costume combines the older asian outfits with the newer fabrics which have come from the Russian industry and modern China. I will start by saying I have never seen anyone wearing a burka. EVER. (I’ve been asked this a surprising amount since being in this country). I have seen people wearing a hijab (which isn’t all that surprising), though the president has been telling women more and more often not to wear them recently. Women, especially older women, commonly wear a scarf on their head covering much of their hair. As one woman put it to me, “Your girls put ribbons in their hair, we put scarves, different cultures, different histories. It’s just something we do.”
Their outfits though are what make Central Asian markets so beautiful. The common outfit (and traditional outfit) is a long tunic down to about the ankle with pants underneath, the pants and tunic are usually of the same material (though not always the case). This outfit comes from extremely far back (think 1000 BC or before) when many, if not most, of the Central Asian people were nomads who rode horses. The men, and women, both rode horses, hunted, and fought (some historians think the Amazons of Greek mythology were a Central Asian tribe), and any woman who has tried to ride a horse in a skirt or dress has found out quickly, this is a bad (if not the worst) idea. The pants though are interesting. I’ve been told, and seen for sale, some pants that are made of plain white cotton on top, and then starting just above the knees, move back to the same material as the tunic. Why? Supposedly the white color has a magical power that will help women conceive children and just feel good in general.
But the most surprising appearance is the monobrow. In the US where having one eye brow is so frowned upon that kids as young as 7 or 8 start plucking their eyebrows, here the monobrow is cultivated, and if non existent, drawn in. Its not every woman who does this, but a good number definitely do. So why the Monobrow? Well it seems that some believe (and I would like to emphasize SOME) that the monobrow begets supranatural powers, why that is a good thing I do not know. But it has a different reason, it seems Central Asian men, Tajik men included, find the one eyebrow very sexy. I’ve asked a few of my colleagues and friends, and out of 10 only 1 said he doesnt find it unattractive. So it doesn’t seem that this tradition is going anywhere anytime soon.
My first few weeks here I kept being asked how I liked Tajik women. I would respond, they seem nice. At the time in one of the offices I was working was a German woman who I became friends with, and over beer I asked her what she thought Tajik fashion was, because to me it seemed a hodge podge at best.
Her response? “Men in hats, women in tunics and pants, and the monobrow. Everything you need to look good in Tajikistan”. That and a good iron of course.