An Englishman in Dushanbe: Some Worthy Thoughts for a Border Crossing

Posted on July 5, 2012

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As I was writing my last post, a large, boisterous Englishman tumbled into our Dushanbe room with all his baggage and made himself at home. He was, as it turned out, our unexpected third roommate for the night, and one of those truly strange expats you meet now and then in travel who just beg for a bit of page time.

The Englishman, as he’ll be called for the duration of this post (it’s how everyone else at the house referred to him, and he seemed to enjoy it), was hardly an Englishman in fact. He’d been living somewhere or another in Africa for the past quarter century, and five years ago he’d moved with his wife and then-three-month-old son to Morocco (for reasons to be clarified below). He now resides in Fez, where he owns a guesthouse (named after his son), runs a farm in the mountains, and does the occasional consultancy work for the UN on public health. It was the latter of his three jobs that’d brought him to Dushanbe, although for the past few days he’d been in the remote Fan Mountains to the north (an area I’d like to visit someday, but we can only do so much on this trip) and had returned just in time for his flight.

After discussing Papua New Guinean beliefs about the health benefits of wearing gourd cone sheaths over one’s genitals and the state of affairs in Libya, among other things, we all decided to meet up later in the night for a drink in downtown Dushanbe.

Of course, this is where I shall clumsily try to stuff a description of the city itself: Dushanbe’s really quite a pretty city, if a dull one. Ask anyone from the region and they’ll tell you that there’s not much happening in the city these days, which actually suited us quite well, given that we just needed a place to rest off the Pamirs and the Wakhan. And honestly it seems to work quite well for most residents of the city, given that between 1992 and 1997 it was the scene of great violence and uncertainty, that many of the streets were empty, starving, or pocked with stray bullet holes.

Dushanbe stretches out along a big, leafy boulevard, Rudaki, named after the famous Persian-speaking poet. As with many other figures associated with Dushanbe in national symbolism (Ismail Samoni), Rudaki probably didn’t ever live in the region, but rather lived in other culturally and historically Tajik cities, like Samarkand and Bukhara, which were awarded to Uzbekistan in the Stalinist partitions of the region. (To this day, these cities speak primarily Tajik-Persian laced with Uzbek-Turkic, although the majority of the population is ethnically Turkic, while culturally Persianid–it’s all confusing.) But none of this stops the Tajik government from making good use of myriad names and symbols from throughout Central Asia and attributing them to the glory of Tajik culture and history.

Cultural appropriation and nation-building concepts aside, Rudaki is a nice main drag. Recessed a way from the street are long blocks of Russian-influenced pastel plaster buildings–pinks and blues and yellows and reds, cut with chalky white columns. There’s little in the way of history or memorial, just the dreamy and the pastel rolling out into the bare pasture hills which curl up around the city. Even off the main drag, most buildings follow the older Central Asian model of ugly exterior (plaster and concrete walls) and beautiful interiors (wide courtyards of roses and marigolds, climbing vines and creeping trees, chairs set out and some old man always sitting in a corner sipping tea and eating a watermelon).

The place we settled on later that night for our drink with the Englishman was a little open-air plaza off Rudaki, next to the yellow-green pastel opera house. A pleasant spot, and not nearly so covered in cops as Rudaki proper, which has possibly the most police per capita I’ve ever seen (instilling order to this day, I suppose, after the paranoid memory of the civil war). Nearby, a couple of grills were set up roasting onions and kebabs, so we grabbed a few, along with a loaf of naan, some cucumber and tomato, an armload of Baltika 9s for Mike and the Englishman, and a Sprite for me.

A few Baltikas and a few hours in, the Englishman and I got into a decent conversation about community structures, the nature of the edifice of the state, and the human condition at large. As it turns out, he’d lived in Somaliland (the northern part of Somalia) in the early 1990s, the height of disorder in the nation and era of Black Hawk Down infamy, so naturally we started talking about social feedback and governance mechanisms in “anarchic” tribal settings, the nature of Somali conflict, and the similarities between parts of Somalia and parts of Tajikistan under civil war.

It came out in this discussion that part of the reason he’d fled to Africa was fear of a strong state–a state in which laws may be abused to harass citizens, police are ever-present, and the government has the power, even if theoretical, to wreck great damage on the freedom of individuals. He enjoys living in Morocco in part because the state, though present, is not extremely strong and hence cannot impede upon his freedom too actively. He’ll take a mild degree of corruption and a lesser degree of development to escape the existential fear of an omnimpotent force lording over him. True, he says, one can easily be jailed in Morocco for silly reasons, but one can also easily escape, especially if one invests in understanding the structures of a non-state social system and the mechanisms by which it operates.

I’m fairly sympathetic to the Englishman’s fears. But unlike him I’ve not got enough conviction about the nature of the state or the nature of the tribe to act and determine my life. He’s given me many things to think about, or rather a little impetus to resume my old quandries over how to live a good life, how to achieve the best situation for myself as an individual, and what social system I will feel most comfortable in. Even though I’m totally unsettled on most of these points, I like having the notion of the Englishman in my head now as a symbol. Seeing as he’s lived his mantra–abandon the conventional and invest in a new system, it’s the best way to achieve happiness–and that he’s doing quite well by himself (although not perfectly), there’s another little support to that side of my internal argument. Also, he was just a cool person to meet. I’ll close with that, because as should be clear here, I’m not settled on the notions above.

Our conversation ended just as unsettled, which both of us posing questions that the other couldn’t answer satisfactorily. By that time, he and Mike were a little soused, so we went around the corner to grab some drunk food–hotdogs with maynoaise and katchup on hamburger buns with fries and a coke–from the local fast food chain, Southern Fried Chicken (in retaliation to KFC, their slogan is “It’s simply lip-licking good”). We made our way back to the guesthouse, pulled out a TV and fell asleep watching the last game of the Euro Cup. And when we woke, he was gone, back to Morocco.

The next day we left too, into Uzbekistan, another hard-nosed and cop heavy nation. Crossing the border on foot, I was the sacrificial lamb, selected from our party to get the yelling, thorough search, police pat down, slurred questioning, and accusations of drug possession. I escaped the need to bribe anyone and managed not to get a beat down, but we knew coming to this border that it was all a possibility. But after a couple of hours, we cleared the border and found a ride to Bukhara (involving several security checks and bag searches over the course of our eight hour drive through the Kyzyl Kum desert). Still, I’m holding onto border documents and regional registration papers right now–more documents than I’ve needed to carry on my person at all times for any other nation. And I can’t help but thinking back to the Englishman and his skepticism about states in general. Bukhara is beautiful, and I’ll write more about it later. But I’ll also be glad to be back in America soon, where the government may always be in my life, but is (for me, fortunately, but unfortunately not for many) blessedly less invasively so.

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