While Fred lived in Tajikistan for a couple of years after the creation of this new country, Sharon visited, and was able to take advantage of his wide circle of friends and work contacts to learn about the Tajik people. Also, we traveled a lot…and were able to see the mountains and cities from one side of the country to the other.
The peaks of the Pamirs
When I think of Tajikistan, I first remember the great Pamirs, mountains often described as “The Roof of the World” (Bam-i-Dunya). The formerly-named Pik Kommunizm is 24,590 feet high, and Pik Lenin (now Independence) is 23,405 feet high. Living in the shadows of the Pamirs must, I believe, influence the thoughts of the creative Tajik people. One has only to look at their unusual art form of brightly painted decorative ceilings to imagine a people always looking up.
Great Tajik/Iranian Poets
The other really significant memory coming from our time in Tajikistan is the many connections with Iran. The Tajik language is very close to Persian or Farsi, spoken in Iran, and to its derivative, Dari, spoken in Afghanistan.
The Tajiks share literary connections, including their great love of poets writing in their language…as well as a fairy tale about “Farhod and Sherin”, which translates to “Fred and Sharon” (our names) in English.
A long civil war, finally over
Tajikistan suffered a 5-year civil war between the Moscow-supported government and the Islamist-led opposition, in which more than 50,000 people were killed and more than 1/10th of the population left the country; war only ended in 1997 with a UN-brokered peace agreement.
When we were first in Dushanbe, I remember looking out the windows at night seeing only a few males carrying guns walking the streets; no one else dared go outdoors in the hours of darkness. On a recent trip, the downtown streets of the capital were lighted by internet cafes, and young people were strolling hand-in-hand.
Widespread unemployment and poverty
The economy never fully recovered from the civil war, causing widespread unemployment and poverty. About half of Tajikistan’s income comes from migrant workers living abroad, primarily in Russia.
Although the Tajiks receive electricity from their abundant rivers, they must depend on oil and gas to be imported. Young men without jobs can be tempted by offers from Islamic extremists to travel and fight in foreign wars.
An exotic country?
Tajikistan seems particularly exotic, and few foreign tourists have had the thrill of climbing its mountain peaks, because it was virtually closed to the western world for 100 years.
Few “foreign capitalists” passed this way since 1891, when the Russians expelled the consummate “Great Game” player, Francis Younghusband, from the Pamirs. (Reading “The Great Game: the Struggle for Empire in Central Asia” by Peter Hopkirk is a wonderful way to start learning about this region.)
During the Soviet time, cities in Tajikistan were restricted from foreign visitors because they were the center of research and classified study by Tajik scientists and intellectuals.
Tajikistan’s best hope for the future
Tajikistan’s best hope for a prosperous future seems to be the advent of tourism. You should visit and enjoy the beauty of its mountains and valleys, as well as the photo hunt for near-mythical animals such as the huge Marco Polo sheep with curled horns.