Dushanbe, Tajikistan – Day 4 & 5

Friday, July 19

To preempt Alex Rotaru from the pleasure of spreading the news, I overslept today. Luckily, our “superdriver” Said got us to the remote Southern town of Qurghonteppa in record time. Qurghonteppa was easily the hottest part of the country we had visited, but a dry heat that’s got nothing on Miami in August. We screened Kids With Cameras at the American Corner, a cozy haven for curious Tajik youth to gather on bean bags and watch movies, surf the internet and explore American culture. This was a predominantly male audience, with about 25 boys and 14 girls, ranging from 12 – 16 years old. Their English-language skills were impressive, and we had no trouble communicating. Reflecting a more Islamic influence, most of the girls wore colorful scarves over their heads, though not the more conservative hijab. The students took a little prompting from Alex during the discussion, and the questions came mostly from the boys. Alex explained the various complications that austistic individuals encounter based on misinformation widely circulated in American society about the condition. He also gave examples of how autism can be diagnosed early and how outlets for creative expression, such as theater and the animation workshop chronicled in the film, can help autistic children develop the social skills necessary for a more integrated life beyond the structures of the family and the education system. He also revealed stories about the production—how certain characters had been removed in the editing process and how other elements, such as the inclusion of the animated shorts from the workshop, helped Alex to find the rhythm and structure needed to achieve the appropriate length for a traditional television documentary (running just under an hour). The highlight of the day came when the students offered us traditional Tajik caps, or Taqiyahs, though these caps can be worn without religious significance. Not known to miss a photo-op, Alex Rotaru and I posed with students before a warm farewell. Crossing cultural borders momentarily, Mahmud treated us to Turkish cuisine for lunch, followed by an early return to the hotel and a relaxing night in Dushanbe.

Saturday, July 20

Our most surprising and dynamic screening of Kids With Cameras took place at an art gallery in Dushanbe, where a local NGO called Iroda hosted a screening for an audience primarily comprised of Tajik mothers, many of whom have autistic children. The event had a higher gender slant than most, with about 22 women, mostly in their 30s and 40s, some with young children, and only 4 men. The conversation was an emotional one, with most questions prompting immediate responses from other guests before granting Alex an opportunity to interject. Many of them offered testimonials of their own experiences, and how autism is regarded by the medical community, and Tajik society at large. Of major concern is the continued struggle to have autism understood as a condition, not as a disease (implying a cure). They also shared stories of how autistic children have been excluded from or denied access to education, and how Iroda and many at the screening work tirelessly to raise awareness of autism in their country and fight for the same civil rights to be extended to their children, as well as adults, who fall somewhere “across the spectrum” of the condition. Some educators in the room also shared their own personal growth as they have learned more about children with autism and how to best consider and approach their individual needs in the classroom.

After the encounter with Iroda, Mahmud took us to a restaurant that specialized in plov, a rice dish made with shredded carrots and pieces of meat fried together in oil. The unique ingredient on the plate was the slice of horse sausage (tasted like pork), which gave me an opportunity to redeem myself for having refused the sheep’s tongue in Khujand (still the right decision). I can now proudly cross off horse meat from my bucket list and admit to enjoying it thoroughly.

Our last screening in Tajikistan was of They Came to Play at the American Corner in Dushanbe, with a cosmopolitan mix of Tajik teenagers and Americans living in Tajikistan. We had about 24 men and 15 women, mostly ranging from 18 yrs old to mid-30s, and the post-screening dialog involved almost everyone in the room. They Came to Play follows The Van Cliburn Foundation’s annual International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs (or “amatores,” as Alex puts it) in Fort Worth, Texas, which has become a highly regarded and coveted showcase of piano virtuosos. They come together in a celebration of classical music as they compete for first place in a field of 75 extremely talented non-professional performers. Unlike many of our prior encounters, this group was largely interested in the filmmaking process and engaged Alex with questions about documentary form and the challenges he faced while making the movie. Alex discussed casting, shooting, and editing, including stories of how some of the key documentary subjects had to be interviewed after the competition (and after the final results were in), and in such as way as to be used strategically throughout the film without revealing the chronology of the interviews. Naturally, the audience had certain favorite competitors, and Alex explained some of their strategies, as well as the politics of the competition and jury, and his own insight as to why some succeeded while others did not. One brave soul prompted Alex with the statement that she had “heard he was an excellent singer” (either from my blogpost or a feisty comment from Mahmud). Requiring a more-than-expected level of goading (from me) and encouragement (from the audience), Alex won the crowd over with a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace” that would have been a YouTube sensation had I been given a videocamera in advance.

That night, Alex, Mahmud and I celebrated with a well-earned feast of skewered lamb and beef at a National Tea House, adorned by exquisite wood carvings and meticulously hand-painted floral designs on the ceiling.

Sunday, July 21

Our last day in Dushanbe was an opportunity to better explore the city and find some treasures at the local jewelry stores. In particular, Alex and I were on a quest to find Lapis Lazuli, a relatively rare semi-precious stone found mostly in Tajikistan and Afghanistan that has been prized since antiquity for its intense blue color (thanks Wikipedia). Lapis acquired, we then toured the National Museum of Antiquities, which boasts an exceptional and enormous statue of Buddha in Nirvana, one of the largest and most ancient monuments of Buddhism in the world. As Alex and I discussed the exhibits, or more accurately, Alex offered a free history lesson about Alexander the Great in Tajikistan, we overheard a bit of muttering from the only other two people in the museum about how Americans don’t respect culture (thanks for the translation, Mahmud). While I shrugged it off quickly, Mahmud spread the news of this unfortunate encounter with at least a half-dozen colleagues on the way to lunch, making sure to highlight that our critics were actually of Russian origin.

Lunch was another masterpiece. On the road to visit castle ruins in Hissar, we stopped at a restaurant that offers fried chicken (but nothing like the breaded, GMO-fueled meat we’ve become accustomed to at certain American fast food chains). The garden setting and running stream through the outdoor patio inspired short naps, and even a quick duck underwater for Alex. After inspecting the ruins, briefly due to the 107-degree heat, we moved on to the gardens at the Palace of Nations, home to the world’s tallest flagpole, and many impressive buildings, statues and water fountains. For some reason, we thought it would be a great idea to get a round of double-dark chocolate Magnum ice creams, which were the furthest thing from refreshing, but still delicious. Alex then went with Mahmud to a musical instruments shop, where the owner played a two-string sitar for the camera, and unveiled an exquisite 14th century Qur’an, from which he sang several verses. Our time in Tajikistan proved to be exciting, dynamic, and surprising, and I think we’re both looking forward to seeing Mahmud, Said, and our new Tajik friends again in future travels.

– Alex Ago, AFS Staff

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