“Hello Daniel. How are you? I remember you said that you were willing to help some of my students out with their English lessons and…well, I have a nephew whom I would like you to meet.”
It was 9am on Monday morning. I was drinking Nescafe and checking email, when the MicroInvest English teacher came in to see if I was still willing to fulfill the pledge that I had made the day before to give some of the locals a chance to chat with a native speaker. I was expecting one, possibly two hours of tea with an eager, fresh-faced teenager, a Central Asian devotee of American culture who listened to hip-hop and watched old reruns of “Friends” on Russian TV. What I got was something far different. What I got was Abdugaffor. A 38-year-old doctor-turned-“biznezman” with anti-Semitic tendencies and a David Letterman-like gap between his two front teeth, Abdugaffor did not fit my preconceived mental image of the typical English student. He was not amongst the Western-looking vanguard of Tajik youth, but was instead a well-intentioned, yet bumbling caricature of his country’s isolation from the rest of the world, earnest in his efforts to learn English and clueless about America and the world in general in a simultaneously endearing and shocking, “Borat”-esque sort of way.
Caught between two worlds , the stable Soviet society in which he had come of age and the cutthroat(sometimes literally), winner-take-all world of “kapitalizm” into which his country has been unwillingly thrust in the early 1990s, Abdugaffor is, in certain ways, representative of his generation. He was in medical school in Dushanbe when the brutal Civil War broke out and had to abandon his studies due to this violent struggle for the reigns of power in the newly formed Republic of Tajikistan. When he finally received his degree, salaries for medical professionals had plummeted to below subsistence levels, and Abdugaffor spent six years in the local hospital, working for a pittance before calling it quits. The $40 he received every month didn’t provide him with much of an incentive to stick with his chosen profession and the exigencies of life led him to a career in the bazaar, the only viable option in the constrained economic landscape of Tajikistan. Throughout the course of my time here I have interviewed dozens of individuals trained as economists, engineers, mathematicians teachers, etc., who now work baking bread, selling children’s clothing, or hawking watermelons at a stall in one of the countless markets of northern Tajikistan. The refrain of wasted talent is a constant one. In Abdujaffor’s case, however, the bazaar allowed him to discover his knack for business, and he now has three shops within Panjshanbe Bazaar, selling various food products. Business for him is good as evidenced by his silver ’97 Mercedes.
Here in Tajikstan, the Mercedes is de rigueur for anyone who can afford it, a conspicuous status symbol that doesn’t necessarily mean that one is rich, just not poor. There must be more “Mare-say-days” (as they say the name here) per capita here than anywhere else on earth, most of them coming from the Baltic states where used and damaged vehicles are repaired before being shipped off to the marketplaces of Central Asia. In this part of the world people tend to care less about performance than they do about image. As long as it has the classic emblem on the hood, what’s underneath is not much of an issue and these casualties of Europe’s roads are thus given a second life in the “’stans.”
At 5pm, the time of our first meeting, I walked out onto Sharq street, the bright and chaotic thoroughfare where MicroInvest’s offices are located, lined with a jumble of food-stalls and smoking shashlyk grills, and packed full of speeding minibuses and porters pushing their overloaded carts through the incessant pedestrian traffic. Two minutes later, a silver Mercedes pulled up to the curb, its middle-aged driver turned off the engine, excitedly leaped out of the vehicle, and vigorously shook my hand, exclaiming in slow and labored English, “Helllloooo. My name Abdugaffor. Very niiiice to meeeeet youuu.” A slightly mischievous, yet bewildered smile lit up his face as I returned the greeting, annunciating every syllable to make sure my new pupil understood me.
“I am very glad to meet you too. My name is Dan. I am from America, from Washington, the capital of the United States.”
“Ohhh…veeeery niiiice. I am very happy… very, very happy that you are teach me English. Let’s….EAT!”
What followed was a night of non-stop food accompanied by a endless cups of green tea. The first two hours were spent at the depressing Tajiki-Turkey café, a “fusion” restaurant that turned out to be a dimly lit cavern whose fading green walls probably hadn’t been painted since Stalin died. The conversation started off fairly simply. I asked Abdulgaffor what his favorite food was. “Fried…SHEEP MEAT!” he responded enthusiastically. “Yes..fried sheep meat very good..very tasty…I like. But not very good for you. I doctor so I know these things.”
“What kind of doctor are you?”
“I doctor for children. But I not very good doctor!! Hahahaha,” he said playfully poking me with his elbow and giving me that mischievous smile that was slightly disconcerting. I silently thanked God that I never had to use the Tajik healthcare system.
Next stop was meal number two, this time at Abdugaffor’s friend’s house in a distant part of the city. Plov was served, copius amounts of alcohol were consumed by our hosts, and Tajik poetry was recited. All around me were drunk doctors, practicing their poor English and telling me about the virtues of the USSR and traditional Tajik medicine.
“European Union, Soviet Union….same thing!,” the man sitting next to me exclaimed.
“We Tajiks,” one of the more inebriated ones began, “We discover everything before Europeans. The great Avicenna, one thousand years ago he say baby need to drink milk from mother…and now all Europeans say same thing. They steal from Tajiks! What do they know? Nothing, that’s what!”
The evening was a typical night out in Tajikistan, a heady stream of overwhelming and boozy hospitality, and I left late that night with Abdugaffor demanding that he pick me up after work the next day, same time, same place. Having little choice, I reluctantly agreed.
The following evening, when the Mercedes pulled up right on time, I saw that Abdugaffor had brought along one of his friends, probably to show him that he was actually meeting with a real, live American. We proceeded to my favorite restaurant in town, that wonderful oasis of deliciousness called “Zaitun,” where I had, to say the least, one of the more interesting meals of my life. Abdugaffor began by asking me questions about America such as the following gem that seemed to be taken straight from a script written by Sacha Baron Cohen: “My friend, he live in America. I think he live in Los Angeles. He tell me that he kill sheep in yard and then police give him fine.” A look of earnest confusion swept over his face and he asked “Whyyyy?!! Why not allow kill sheep in yard in America?”
After then going through a 30-minute explanation of what to do in an American airport (“You give the customs agent your passport.” “And then?” “And then he stamps it.” And then? “And then you go to collect your luggage.” “And then?……”), our comedic conversation took a turn for the worse when Abdugaffor and his friend jumped headlong into the subject of Jewish conspiracies.
“You know Putin is Jew and Medvedev, he also Jew.”
“No they’re not,” I futilely replied.
“Yes, they are! So is Bush and…what his name?… oh, Al Gore, he also Jew. You not know? America is Jewish country!”
His friend then piped up, “Why Hitler no like Jews?”
“I don’t really know, that’s a very complicated question and I don’t have time to….”
Abdugaffor immediately corrected the record. “No, no, no, Hitler not that bad. It just story…skazka like we say in Russian. It just skazka made up by the Jew.
Being a Jew myself I was left somewhat speechless at this moment, my face was bright red and my ears were hot. I had heard of people spewing such nonsense before, but it is one thing to read about it and another to experience it laid out in front of your own two eyes in a strange country, with strange people, after too much plov and green tea. My head was spinning and I needed to calm down before I did something I would regret. I just shut my mouth and waited until the tirade had subsided until I berated Abdugaffor’s ignorance in English that was spoken too quickly for him to understand. He drove me home soon afterwards, and at this point I thought that my days with Abdugaffor were over. I was wrong.
A week later I picked up my phone and was greeted by an excited voice on the other end asking, “Oh, Daniel, how are you? It Abdugaffor! You remember me?”
“Of course. How could I forget?”
“Oh, good…veeeerrrry gooood, I happy you remember me. What you do this evening? I want meet with you and practice …ENGLISH!”
Although our last meeting had left a bad taste in my mouth it was hard to say no to his boyish enthusiasm and I chalked up his previous comments to the ignorance that can come from living in such an isolated place like Tajikistan. I didn’t sense any hostility from him, just an utter lack of understanding about the world, that in many ways was a product of his environment. I decided to give him another chance, and as time passed I became less frustrated with Abdugaffor’s narrow view of things and just tried to learn what I could, observing him with a degree of detachment that helped me deal with some of his more unsavory remarks. Things went quite smoothly for several weeks, and I was beginning to think that maybe Abdugaffor was even somewhat “normal.” Needless, to say, these false illusions were shattered fairly quickly when at one of our recent dinners he dropped the following bombshell:
“Ohhh, in America you have lots of gay. It very baaaad…men sleep together, very very bad. In Tajikistan, we don’t have. I never met gay in life. In America you need to….cut them!” he says making a slashing motion with his right hand.
“Cut them? You mean kill them?! But they’re human beings!”
“Yes, yes…zarezat nado!,” he said affirming his opinion in Russian, “Need to kill the gay. Maybe you can cure them, but if not….” He left this sentence hang ominously in mid-air as he made the slashing motion again.
As I picked my jaw up out of my soup I realized that the old Abdugaffor was still alive and well and that maybe some cultural gaps were never meant to be bridged. Yet, what is so strange is that despite his incredible statements of ignorance he could not have been more kind or generous (at least to me, that is). Although I am viscerally opposed to his philosophical viewpoints and I feel that people should be held accountable for their opinions, I have learned to simply throw my hands up and accept Abdugaffor, like so many things in Tajikistan, warts and all.