RENATO REDENTOR CONSTANTINO
November 4, 2009
For Muatar and Parviz
Dushanbe, Tajikistan -- Jiri Barta opens the day with Prelude, Suite No.1 in G Major from Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.
The Czech virtuoso plays the piece with a slow signature vigor, his bow gliding across and tapping the strings with a little more gravity, hewing close to the sound of Azerbaijan's master, Mtislav Rostropovich, but producing a different, thrumming cadence.
Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Turtles have been the favored companions throughout the trip but today Bach and Barta keep the peace.
As as the sun rises in Dushanbe, the rays reach past the thick mist and the roof of the world becomes softer as the light penetrates the dense white of the sky. There is a chill despite the strong sunligh washing over the city and casting long prisms of shadow.
An apple sits on the window sill and from a distance, wood-fired smoke is rising from behind a row of tenements. Trees surrounding the neighborhood are rustling with an early breeze and the muscular, speckled dog from the abandoned apartment across the street is chasing sparrows again.
The air this morning is like mist fading from a mirror as Rudaki Prospekt comes to life and pedestrians begin to fill Bukhara Ulitsa, where a bust of the Mahatma, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, has been installed. A place where youth used to drink away the night, Gandhi now looks intently at everything and nothing, a stern and gentle rendering of the great man.
In the confluence of the majestic Varsob river and the tributary Kofarnihon, Dushanbe is a city of quiet elegance, its color defined largely by the resplendent dress of its women reflected occasionally by grand mosaics dappling city structures.
It is a walkable city, a place for strolling. Massive oaks line the sidewalks of its wide boulevards - a promenade suited to the sauntering of its residents.
Tea is an all-day mode of drink here, which complements the measured pace of the city's denizens. At night, there is Shohona vodka, the finest of its kind the world.
This is the land of shish and salads, and its offering is simplicity. Dishes consist of enormous round loaves of flat bread, uncooked whole cucumbers and tomatoes, dill and great sprigs of basil, together with titanic amounts of grilled meats served on heavy, steel skewers.
You may get an occassional trout or chicken in Dushanbe, especially in the city's outskirts in Lazat, where fire is a friend. But as local consumer tribune Bakhadur Kabibov remarked simply, his Macedonian eyes glancing over locally brewed Simsim beer, "We consider chicken and fish as vegetables. Here you order meat - real meat - and that's what you get. That's the way it is."
Devastated by a five-year civil war after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan "rose from the ashes... with an elected coalition government that for the first time in Central Asia accomodated both religious and secular parties."
It was once considered by some as "a model" that offered "domestic peace and international investment opportunities." Today, the potential of the country remains huge, owed largely to the storied culture and stoic resilience of its people. But Tajikistan remains beset by economic crises.
For now, Tajikistan's future is under the sway of the usual maldevelopment suspects, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, with their debt-inducing programs and excess of reconstruction projects that are in various states of neglect or distress and which have served largely to line the pockets of the global consultancy industry.
Though markedly less nasty compared to the appalling US-backed regime ruling Uzbekistan, the veil of totalitarianism and political uncertainty has yet to lift from the shoulders of the storied Tajik people, descendants of the ancient Persian Empire.
Increasing drug trade from Afghanistan is undermining the nation's integrity. (Undocumented Filipinos used as drug mules are languishing in Tajikistan jails.) The government has yet to secure the country's long-term interests involving transboundary water resources while intensifying poverty and corruption is steadily sapping the will of even the hardiest Tajik.
And yet, as the eminent journalist Ahmed Rashid noted, "In many ways Tajikistan is [still] the key to peace and stability in Central Asia -- something the international community must recognize, and soon."
The fledgling nation of seven million was once the last region in Central Asia to come under Russia's province of Turkestan in the nineteenth century. Later, in the 1920s, arbitrary boundaries were drawn by Stalin, echoing the crisscrossing colonialist enterprise imposed by European powers on the Middle East.
Republics that "had little geographical or ethnic rationale" were created and the Tajik cultural centers of Bukhara and Samarkand were handed over to Uzbekistan. The Persian word for Monday -- the day visitors trooped to the marketplace village to buy produce -- Dushanbe became the capital around 1925. It was renamed Stalinabad in 1929 but, riding the crest of Kruschev's de-Stalinization drive, reverted to its original name in 1961.
Tajikistan shares a 650-mile border with Afghanistan, including "the thin wedge of Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor" which separates the country from northern Pakistan. Only six miles wide in some parts, the passage was defined "by Russia and Great Britain in the nineteenth century to ensure that the British and Russian empires were not contiguous." Around 30 percent of Tajikistan's eastern province of Gorno-Badakshan, which has large gold and mineral deposits, "is claimed by Beijing." A rugged 265 miles constitutes the border between the Tajik nation and China's Xinjiang Province.
Staring in awe at the Varsob valley's mountains, a poem came to me in a rush:
"Basic equations. / Human frailty. / Weaknesses abound. / Fights, debates / Quarrels over minutiae, / Disagreement over great / And mundane things. / Large victories, or defeat / All are same. / Look at the rockface of Tajikistan, / Mighty mountain, / Impregnable, still, solid. / Watching. / The granite stoic is wiser / Because it is patient. / Conversing with wind and sun / the failure of people / And the triumphs of women and men / Are smaller than the tiny pebble. / Humans may linger. Or may not. / But the earth will live on." #
1. Maya Eralieva, "The saga of ADB's impacts on the lives of Tajikistan," NGO Forum on the ADB website, 22 June 2009.
2. Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (Yale Nota Bene Book, 2003)
6. "Basic equations." By the author, written in Varsob Valley, Tajikistan, 14 October 2009.
Photos by redster.