The flat was full and noisy. At the table a tall blonde guy was drinking tea. The hostess was working in the kitchen.
I barely ate anything before the trip, but experience of previous travels had taught me that tea and biscuits might not be the most wholesome food, but would certainly prevent me from taking breaks during my long road trip. After a seven-hour journey through the mountains the first thing I noticed in the kitchen was warm soup with a large piece of tail sticking out from under the potatoes. Without asking what kind of tail was floating in my soup, I gave away my bowl to one of the men sitting at the table.
Anton, an Uzbek and friend of the family I was staying with, came over to fix the non-working power switch. Tall and handsome. A blonde in a country of dark-hair men. With hips half the size of mine he went straight to the point: “Are you married?” And then added: “I could marry a Tajik woman, as there are women here who have their own opinion, do interesting things and speak Russian.”
In a Tajik house, guests quickly start to feel at home. Hence, on the second day of my stay with a Tajik family, I opened the door to Anton. I brewed some tea in the kettle and poured it for both of us. A simple ritual.
Anton is 34 years old. He was raised in one of Uzbekistan's cities. As a child he lived with his grandmother in a small, 30-metre flat. He doesn't remember his father who died when Anton was a child. He would see his mother only in the summer. Every year he would go for two months to a foreign city in northern Tajikistan, where his mother's new husband didn't try to play the role of being his father.
His grandma would feed him, teach him and review all the potential candidates for his wife. One of them even got her approval but, as she told Anton, “Women from here don't like sensitive men.” But this girl left for a guy who after a few years left her alone with two children.
Two years after her grandma’s death, Anton left the flat behind and went to live with his mother. He had good skills and quickly found a job. For the last ten years he has been trying to improve his relations with his mother. And for the last ten years he’s also been searching for friends.
A tall, handsome blonde in a country of dark-hair men has many friends, He has his own business. However, even his clients’ daughters are getting older and older. Anton sees all these match-makings, engagements and loud but short Tajik weddings. “No Tajik will give his daughter to a non-Tajik,” he sighs.
I’ve just returned from my fourth trip to Tajikistan, and every free moment I would spend wandering the cities, visiting villages and talking to people. I was witness to engagement ceremonies, sending out wedding pigeons, and funeral preparations, when at dawn I would buy a ram at the animals’ market, although I didn't get up for the slaughtering.
I have a feeling that the traditions, religious holidays, paganism mixed with Islam, all make this charmed circle so hard for the Tajiks to get out of. The circle is so tight that unless you’ve been in it since childhood, it is really hard for you to really get in and understand what's going on.
In Tajikistan the man who is usually the sole breadwinner in the family. The wife, kids, older parents, and quite often the siblings with their families fully depend on him. Family ties are as strong as the unemployment is in the country.
On the next day, Anton comes to pick me up. I leave with a camera bag on one shoulder and a linen bag on the other. As we get to the staircase, Anton always offers me a helping hand, I won’t be opening any doors by myself. I won’t even be allowed to pay for my own the chewing gum.
Two 30-some year-olds, one Catholic and the other Protestant, are having a cup of tea in a Muslim country.
”So, if not all marriages are arranged, then how do young people meet?” I ask. The evening is coming near and we are still sipping tea with the noise of the café in the background. On the streets of this city of 150,000 inhabitants I practically only see men. I am one of the very few women in this restaurant. The only one without a baby in my arms and a husband at my side.
“Sometimes it is just enough to start chatting with a girl who is working in a shop, or smile to somebody in the street. Or even just say 'hello' while passing. When she says 'hi' back to you, you just join her and continue walking together and try to establish a longer-term contact,” Anton replies.
Being escorted to the door – obligatory of course – doesn't bother me at all. Especially as women don't venture out into the streets at night. On our way, we pass two giggling women. I ask if they are “working”. Anton gives me a look as if I'm an idiot: “These are girls; can’t you see? They probably just came out to buy something in the shop.”
We pass a newly built swimming pool. It’s open seven days a week. Days of admission for women are Wednesday's and Thursday's. I know this as on Monday I talked to the guard. He looked me up and said: “If you are not embarrassed you can also come here tomorrow.”
My skin is clearly fairer than everyone I pass in the street. I am 175 cm tall. I speak Russian. I work. Despite many of his work-related duties, Anton spends every minute he can with me. I assume that I am culturally closer to him than many of his local friends. He complains that there are no Russians in the city. Previously, all the Asian “Stans” had been a mixture of many different nationalities, just like the rest of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the “Europeans”, as the Russians are called here, left for their own country. In northern Tajikistan only very few remained, usually the elderly who had no place to go back to.
I enjoy spending time with a guy who is not much older than me and who, just like me, looks at the Tajik reality with a bit of a distance. Until now, the majority of my “intimate” conversations were with women. The worlds of men and women are parallel. From my perspective, these two worlds meet only at the existential level, which to me, a foreign visitor, is usually irrelevant.
In Tajikistan the majority of weddings are proceeded by a few weeks, or even months, of match-making, when the family of the future groom visits the houses of potential wives.
When in the spring of this year I was saying good-bye to a female student friend of mine, she jokingly said that maybe in the autumn she would welcome me with a ring on her finger. “Grandma really wants me to get married,” she said. However, six months have passed and nothing has changed in her life. Together with her mother she has looked at six candidates but none of them matched her taste requirements. For the moment, she has decided to focus on her computer studies. “Do you know how many papers and exams I have to write this year,” she asks me rhetorically. “I have no time for wedding preparations.”
Anton is over 30 and getting a bit edgy. Most people marry here at the age of 19-20. Not to mention the fact that more and more often 16-year-olds get married to 18-year-olds. Realistically thinking, Anton can establish a family with a woman who is divorced. And even here the divorce rate is going up. Arranged marriages don’t always bring joy and happiness. Another common thing is men who leave their families behind to work abroad, usually in Russia, get caught in a completely different lifestyle out there, break up with their families, and start their own, completely new, lives.
Anton, however, is not planning to go to Moscow. He dreams of having his own farm: a house, a garden and animals. Life in a Russian province is not appealing as men like to drink. Here he’s got his business and a stable income … the only things he lacks is the language and knowledge of Muslim traditions … and the streets of Tajikistan are now seeing more and more women in hijabs and men with beards.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt