Dushanbe, Tajikistan – Day 1

Tuesday, July 16

Alex Rotaru and I got in very early yesterday morning to a chaotic Dushanbe airport, and despite the presence of an “expeditor,” I think we were the last ones out of there. Nevertheless, things have been great from there on out. We were met outside the airport by Mahmud Naimov, the Cultural Affairs Assistant at the U.S. Embassy Dushanbe. He was involved in the AFS program last year with Marilyn Agrelou. After checking in to very nice penthouse corner suites at the Vefa Apartments, we joined Mahmud for a roundtable lunch with Nicole Bayer, Information Officer from the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Section, and two of their colleagues. After a driving tour of Dushanbe for some errands, and to see landmarks such as the world’s tallest flagpole, we called it an early night.

This morning, we left for Istaravshan in Northern Tajikistan. Along the way, we went through multiple mountain ranges (apparently, second in height only to the Himalayas), and through an adventurous, dimly-lit, water-logged, 3-mile tunnel known affectionately as the “Tunnel of Death” for its “lack of ventilation and poor construction,” which Mahmud assures us is a local tourist attraction (it was fun…). The change in air pressure put me right to sleep, until Mahmud plied me with RC Cola, a soda pop I remember from the 80’s that everyone here loves. We had a small feast of skewered lamb and beef before getting to Istaravshan, a town known internationally for its high-quality craftsmanship of forging and engraving beautiful steel knives.

We got to the Istaravshan Access Microscholarship Program classroom around 1pm, just in time for Alex Rotaru to tell his life story before screening Kids With Cameras. There were 34 kids, about 12 – 16 years old, 2:1 ratio of girls to boys. There were also two very friendly teachers, who, as a rule, forbid everyone from speaking anything other than English in the classroom. I was surprised at how well they understood us. The screening went very well, no technical hangups other than a slight compression issue that we can fix before the next screening. Mahmud has a portable projector and screen, so we’re a mobile film festival without any need of venue troubleshooting in advance. The students asked a lot of questions, though almost none focused on the film—Alex was asked about his hobbies, where he lives, what kind of music he likes (Jennifer Lopez? Michael Jackson?). The teachers asked some more focused questions about filmmaking, so that there was some dialog about the difficulties of making films, anecdotes from Alex’s experiences on Kids With Cameras and other projects, etc. The highlight of the session was when Alex was challenged to sing for the class, prompting a 3-minute aria sung in perfect Italian. I learned that Alex Rotaru is a musical prodigy, and, also, a “counter-tenor” (I was told to turn the camera off before the falsetto performance). Also, a former Romanian child-star. The kids then enthusiastically posed for photos with Alex and me, took AFS cards and put their names on the sign-up sheet, gathered for some group shots, and warmly bid us farewell, hoping that we would return soon.

Before leaving Istaravshan, Alex and I bought knives from the local craftsmen. We then took a detour to an enormous half-bust statue of Lenin that sits at the top of a dam (and about 1,000 stairs), with an arm pointing towards the city. Some further travel took us to Khujand, a beautiful town of about 400,000, where we had dinner and spent the night. Our friendly driver, Sayid, had been fasting all day for Ramadan and was “hungry like the wolf” by the time we got served—cheese-filled bread, grilled eggplant, mushroom soup, Russian salad… so much food that Alex and I barely touched our entrees. Mahmud promised us cakes tomorrow from the best cake shop in Khujand, which I can imagine will be delicious. He also offered to take us to the gym back at the U.S. Embassy Dushanbe, which I guarantee you we will need. Soon.

– Alex Ago, AFS Staff

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