Last week, I traveled south to Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan, for Fulbright’s Central Asia English Teaching Assistant Workshop. It was a great chance to meet up and catch up with the other ETA’s living in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, compare and contrast our experiences so far, learn from one another, and learn from the resourceful and informative English Language Fellows based in Tajikistan who led the workshop. Of course, I was also excited just to be able to travel and visit another part of Central Asia during my time here.
I arrived in Dushanbe on Sunday morning, two days before the workshop was set to begin. One of the embassy staff had generously invited two other early arrivals and myself to Varzob, a beautiful river valley about a half an hour drive north of Dushanbe, to have lunch with him and his wife. The drive itself offered close-up views of the different parts of Dushanbe and its surrounding area, including the neighborhoods and villages nestled in hills as we wound our way towards the riverside restaurant. Since the weather in Dushanbe still resembled that of summer, we elected to sit outside in a tapchan overlooking the river. Very popular in Central Asia, a tapchan is a raised platform with thin mattresses and comfortable cushions for sitting on and reclining against, with a smaller table in the middle for serving food on. We were told this restaurant was well-known for its shashlik, so we happily ordered two plates of beef, chicken, and lamb shashlik, along with sides of salads, bread, and pots of black tea with lemon. You can never have enough shashlik in Central Asia! The delicious food, beautiful scenery, and welcoming company left me refreshed and excited for my second day in Dushanbe.
On Monday morning, I woke up to lively music spilling into my window from the street outside. After taking a few seconds to orient myself and remember where I was, I staggered over to the window and pulled aside the curtain, letting in a stream of daylight. My window overlooked the Ayni Opera & Ballet Theatre and the courtyard/park across from it, where there was a crowd of people dancing and singing with a stage where performers took turns dancing, singing, and playing instruments. Most men were dressed in suits and the women were dressed in colorful and traditional Tajik kurtas. I soon learned that these were festivities for one of the most important national holidays, Constitution Day, which marks the day that Tajikistan formed and adopted their own constitution as a nation in 1994 after gaining independence from the Soviet Union. Wanting to observe the celebrations at a closer angle than from my window, I hurriedly got dressed and ventured outside towards the crowd.
They had formed a semi-circle in front of the stage in the courtyard, where people waved the Tajik flag and women danced, with their dancing being characterized by delicate hand and wrist movements and gestures. I admired the festivities from a distance, not wanting to intrude and having a heightened awareness of being the only woman in the courtyard not wearing a kurta.
I don’t have much knowledge of Tajikistan’s history and culture, but the dancing, traditional wear, singing, and music made for a colorful and lively environment that I feel privileged to have been able to witness on such an important celebration of Tajikistan’s history. Even more excited for the week that lay ahead of me, I observed the celebrations for a little while longer, and then took a short walk around the area through the surrounding parks.
Later in the day, a fellow Fulbright ETA based in Tajikistan met up with me and took me on a walking tour around the city. We spent the majority of the day walking, and the incredible monuments, parks, fountains, and architectural structures that made up Dushanbe’s landscape kept me so enthralled that exhaustion did not creep in until the very end of the day. The monuments that we visited were incredibly larger than life, pristine looking, detailed, and – there’s really no better way to describe them – monumental. There were many parks full of trees and greenery throughout the city center, and as I mentioned briefly, an abundance of fountains.
On Tuesday, we began our three-day workshop at the Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe. This is one of the six Ismaili Centres in the world, which act as symbolic markers for the presence of the Ismaili communities in regions which they reside in. The centers are facilities for religious, social, and cultural events and purposes, and also have the mission of encouraging mutual exchange and cultural understanding between diverse people. It was truly a gorgeous building with an important purpose and mission. I felt extremely lucky and thankful that they opened their doors to us and allowed us to have our workshop there.
Once the workshop began there wasn’t as much time for sightseeing, so I was glad to have been able to explore the city during the first couple days. However, we did experience a variety of food throughout the week that offered insight into Tajik culture. One such dish was kurutob or qurutob, which is a mixture of bread and onions in a yogurt sauce topped with salad and occasionally with meat. Kurutob is served in a large wooden dish and shared between various people at one table. It is also traditionally eaten with hands, but people can opt to eat with forks and spoons instead. It was a heavy but delicious meal, and I quickly became full.
After an eventful, exciting, and sometimes challenging week, saying goodbye to everyone at the workshop was somewhat bittersweet. Everything that I experienced during this week constantly reminded me of the amazing opportunity I have to explore, learn about, and become immersed in a region that is still a mystery to most American people and is dynamic, constantly developing, and abundant with diverse cultures. I look forward to the next time I’ll get to travel regionally and deepen my knowledge and understanding of Central Asia, and especially hope to return to Tajikistan and experience more of its culture outside of Dushanbe in the future!