Soviet Tajikistan 1991


It was hot, 40 degrees of dry, relentless heat. The hall was slightly cooler than outside but even with all the windows open or broken, holes in the ceiling and doors ajar, it was stifling. The forty or so participants listened attentively whilst wafting their necks and faces with the handouts we had distributed at the end of the previous workshop. The interpreters Gula and Safar were feeling the strain of a long day and Jean and I were more than ready for a cool drink and a restful half hour in the shade of the nearby trees.

The martins flew with speed and pinpoint accuracy in and out of the broken windows, navigating the high vaulted ceiling which they scanned for likely nesting sites. As I began to draw the workshop to a close Dr K crashed into the hall and halted proceedings. After a three-minute rant at Gula, we were directed towards the door with an apology from her and told that an explanation would be given on the way…the way to where we were yet to know.

I was working on secondment for the World Health Organisation and had reached day 6 of a two-week tour of the USSR with my colleague Jean. Our brief was to teach nurses and health officials about HIV, AIDS and Drug misuse. We were now in Dushanbe in Tajikistan and working hard in the main hall of a run-down ex holiday camp and TB retreat forty minutes drive from the hotel.

Dr K, was chaotic and domineering in his approach to ‘his’ health officials and if he spoke, they obeyed. It seemed we were also expected to comply with his managerial style.

We set off in a minibus. Jean, Gula, Safa, Dr K, a couple of unknown men and I leaving our poor health officials two minutes away from a concise and helpful summary of the workshop and its outcomes. Given the heat, they were probably relieved to have finished slightly earlier than planned.

Gula explained that Dr K had important friends in a nearby village and that today was the first day of a three-day celebration of his friend’s son’s journey to manhood. His friend’s son was due to be circumcised and a feast was planned. Most of the villagers would be there to participate in the festivities.

Irritated by being taken out of the workshop minutes from the end, I was slightly appeased by the thought of experiencing real Tajik culture, that was until I was told that Dr K had requested that I give a speech at the celebration and that as a visiting ‘official’, it would be a great honour for the family if I would oblige.

The remainder of the journey was a blur. Sudden panic resulted in complete thought block apart from an overpowering single track, recurring internal commentary and imagery about severed foreskin and diplomatic incidents. We were shown into the courtyard of a typical whitewashed village house with buildings on three sides and trees providing much-needed shade on the patio. The women folk and children were gathered together in a downstairs room, mostly sat on the floor or stood, rocking and nursing young babies. I half expected Dr K to direct Jean and Gula into the women’s space but thankfully he didn’t, perhaps he knew Jean better than I thought he did.

We were ushered past the brightly dressed women folk and taken to a large room on the first floor where the men folk were gathered around a sumptuous feast laid out on elaborate cloths on the floor. Cushions and rugs decorated the sparse brightly coloured room, accentuated by the most unlikely pair of Laura Ashley style curtains that shaded us from the sun and heat.

The meal was very meat orientated with various cuts and dishes I was unable to recognise. Being a life-long vegetarian, I tinkered with the few nuts, breads and fruits that were available and managed to fend off, politely, constant offers of meat and such. Alcohol flowed freely, rough and harsh on the throat, I surprised myself with my ability to make a small glass full last an exorbitant amount of time. I was still unsure what my role in these proceedings would be so a clear head was needed.

The smell of wood fires drifted through gaps in the curtains, rising from the dome-shaped bread ovens in the yard where a team of younger men pounded and shaped flat breads ready for baking on the inside of the roof of the oven. Unfamiliar instruments played rhythmic tunes as young girls danced with their arms held high. Laughter and chatter filled the air, Gula and Safar in overdrive translating many questions and answers about our lives and the lives of our hosts.


My big moment arrived. Quite unexpectedly, Dr K clapped his hands together to bring silence to the feast. Life outside of our room continued and I was invited to make my speech. Only having had an hour or so to think about what I might say, I decided early on not to attempt to memorise anything but to be spontaneous and ‘of the moment’. The need for translation helped as it gave me time to think about my words and ensure that I avoided social and cultural cock-ups. I faced my host and wished him, his family and his son many things to do with prosperity, health, good fortune, loyal and hard-working children, bountiful harvests and gratitude for his generous hospitality. I concluded with how I would treasure this day and take happy memories of Tajikistan home with me to England and how one day I would like to return.

A rapturous round of raised and clinking glasses, cheers of agreements, clapping and nodding heads confirmed that what I had said had been up to standard. With a sigh of relief, I proposed a toast, downed my drink, burned my throat and relaxed into the celebrations that were to continue for many hours to come. Thankfully, the circumcision had taken place earlier on in the day. Regrettably, later in the day, I was asked to lead the dancing as we celebrated well into the evening, dancing was never my strong point but faced with 40 or 50 locals clapping and beckoning me, I had little choice but to drop my guard, raise my hands in the air and join in…

One response to “Soviet Tajikistan 1991

  1. Hi ian,
    a day to remember, full of suspense and (fortunately) a good ending.
    The dancing reminded me of a trip to Tunisia where Birgitta and I had to take the stage to the men’s clapping.
    I’d like you to send me the fotos you took at Casa Belén to my e-mail

    regards to Luis

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