Lost and found: notes from last summer

Tajikistan, June 25, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps

I’m lost. Well, not completely. I know I’m in the remote Rasht Valley, looking for the village where my Tajik colleagues and I will sleep for the night. As our vehicle crawls along a rutted road, I look out the window and try to imagine what first drew the Tajiks to this land with no horizon, just sheer mountains in every direction. The sun sinks into the imposing peaks and summer’s lush landscape becomes muted. Velvety emerald fields fade. Snowy mountain crevices lose their shimmer. There is a cool bite in the air after a scorching day.

It's the summer of 2008 and I’ve been traversing this region for several weeks, conducting interviews with young mothers about their family’s food security. This is the first time we’ve lost our way. While it's best that we never travel after dark, dusk sets in as we turn down another road. The temperamental tape player skips like a record with each dip in the road and the tinny local pop music comes in bursts now.

Abdul-Rahmon drives with both hands wrapped around the steering wheel as his grey eyes stay fixed on the road. I call him "the Bear" because he lumbers more than he walks. He tells me that true Tajiks are fair-skinned and not like Sher-Mahkamah, my translator, with his nearly-black eyes and dark skin.

Sitting next to me in the backseat, Sher-Mahkamah takes this subtle criticism in stride. I’m not too surprised because his family comes from neighboring Uzbekistan, although he’s a proud Tajik who favors the idea of an Islamic state. Both men pray five times daily.

Just this afternoon, we took extra time to pray after a woman breast-fed her baby during an interview. Although she turned her back to us, Sher-Mahkamah was distressed when we left her home because he had been in the presence of what he described as an “immodest woman.”

“Why do you need to ask God to forgive you for seeing a mother feed her baby?” I asked. We begin a lot of our conversations with antagonistic questions, asked good-naturedly with a genuine goal to better understand each other. He sighed. “More than 50,000 men died in our civil war, many fighting for Islam,” he told me. “Was it for nothing? Now we have immodest women like this one.”

This is the same man who innocently flirts with the women we interview, slips wild flowers behind his ear and teases me when he catches a glimpse of my ankle — the only exposed skin other than my hands. We even joke that he may have to start praying six or seven times a day to redeem himself.

Tajikistan’s fragile peace was hard won 11 years ago, but the civil war still haunts daily life. Women talk about husbands who died in the fighting. Abandoned tanks serve as reminders that war once raged in this quiet landscape, right here on this unpaved road. Once, while drinking tea with several men, a Mercy Corps staff member leaned toward me and identified one of the men as a former soldier who pressed a gun to his head during the war. My stomach tightened.

“Don’t worry. We don’t want more fighting. We’ll have peace now. Insha’Allah,” he told me. The Arabic phrase translates as "God willing." And every facet of daily life in Rasht is God willing. Tajik friends smile sympathetically when they hear me talk of future plans. Insha’Allah, they gently remind me. Only God chooses your future.

When I announced to my family and friends back home that I was spending the summer here, they responded in chorus: “Where?” When they realized that the country shares a border with Afghanistan, they also responded similarly: “Is it safe over there?” I certainly feel safe. The Tajiks tell me that all guests are a gift from Allah and I am treated as such. There is a spirit of tranquility and warmth among the families who welcome me into their homes each night.

Another burst of music and my head bumps against the window. Abdul-Rahmon slows the vehicle and asks for directions from young soldiers wearing fatigues and cutting grass for fodder. They point to where we just came from. Abdul-Rahmon apologizes.

“We don’t have maps,” he says. Here, life unfolds minute by minute. I’m starting to accept that daily life is unpredictable, despite my planning and organizing. I’m forced to live in the moment and trust everyone around me. Alone, I could never find my way out of these mountains if my life depended on it.

We make another turn. And another. It’s dark now. It takes effort for the half-moon to climb above the craggy horizon and illuminate the sky. Finally, Abdul-Rahmon stops the vehicle and sighs.

He slides his hands down across his face and brings them to prayer. It’s been a long day: a day that began before sunrise when the men rose for prayer and I drank warm goat’s milk with the women.

We’re quiet and then Sher-Mahkamah reaches forward and turns up the music. Really cranks it. He hops out and starts to dance with arms extended, shoulders shrugging and fingers snapping. Abdul-Rahmon slowly smiles. I burst out laughing and clap along to the music. He shimmies toward my door and opens it. He grasps my hands and pulls me out of the car. I clumsily twirl my wrists as I’ve observed Tajik women do at wedding parties. We stomp up dust. We laugh. The brisk air moves with us. Suddenly, I don’t feel lost anymore.

Insha’Allah, I’m exactly where I should be.