Far From My Mom’s St. Petersburg – A Conversation about Tajikistan with Leora Eisenberg

 

Today is the Independence day of Tajikistan, a place that is fascinating to many people throughout the globe but nonetheless relatively unknown by many. For the future I’ll be partnering with curious souls like you in order to share stories. Today I brought Leora Eisenberg, who had the marvelous privilege of spending the past summer in Tajikistan. Here she is discussing the many sides of her Tajiki story and how it left her greatly changed for the better!

1.What sort of background do you come from and how did you get interested in Tajiki / Persian culture in general? How have your experiences been with either prior to visiting Tajikistan?

My mom and stepdad (and consequently, their whole family) are from St. Petersburg, although they refer to it as Leningrad; they grew up and were educated there. At home, I grew up in a very… Russian household. That is to say that I grew up watching Soviet children’s cartoons, eating Russian food, and speaking the language at home. There was also a very strong Russian-Jewish work ethic. (That is to say I had to be the best.) My awareness of the former USSR was part of my identity, but I still never knew that much; I had never taken a class or written a paper on the topic. That said, I was certainly more aware of the Soviet Union than most of my fellow Russian-Jewish birth cohort. I was always interested in Soviet history and culture… to such an extent that I’m now majoring in the field!

As for Tajiki/Persian culture… regardless of the fact that I was aware of the USSR, I didn’t think much about Tajikistan. I mean, sure, I knew that its capital was Dushanbe, but that was it. To be fair, I attribute a lot of this to my parents who are very proud of being Europeans from St. Petersburg, for better or for worse. Tajikistan wasn’t part of their consciousness, and consequently, it wasn’t part of mine.

I stumbled onto Tajiki and Persian culture completely accidentally. I thought I was going to major in Near (Middle) Eastern Studies, so I chose Persian as a foreign language. I ended up falling in love with it, and I applied for the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program in Tajikistan, which teaches primarily Farsi, at the encouragement of my professor.

 

2. What makes Tajikistan and its culture stand out? How about the Tajik language?

It’s important to note that I came to Tajikistan to learn Iranian Persian, i.e. Farsi. As a government program, CLS cannot send American students to Iran to learn the language, so it is, then, left with the two other Persian-speaking countries: Afghanistan (which speaks Dari) and Tajikistan (which speaks Tajiki). They certainly couldn’t send us to Afghanistan, so Tajikistan was the only option left.

We had almost all of our class in Farsi, but we had 2-4 hours of Tajiki class a week. That said, I spoke almost exclusively Tajiki at home with my host family, which I ended up learning, more or less, by osmosis.

Contrary to what people might say, it’s not the same as Farsi. The literary language is indeed close to it, but the everyday, conversational language is substantially different due to the heavy Russian influence, both in the standardization of the language itself and in pure vocabulary. There’s also a significant Turkic influence coming from Uzbek, since about 25% of Tajikistan’s population is ethnically Uzbek.

As for the culture… it’s unlike anything I’ve ever known. As a whole, what I noted about the culture was that people truly had an inclination to do good. If given a choice between a good and a bad action, Tajiks almost inevitably went for the good one. For example, if someone on a bus offered me their seat (which they almost always did, even if they didn’t know I was a foreigner) and I refused, they would almost always offer to hold my bags because “I looked tired.” I was no anomaly; I’ve seen Tajiks do the same to dozens of other people. It’s just the way they are.

I could write extensively on the topic. A few other things that I noticed were the importance of hospitality and the prominence of color and vivacity in everyday life.

 

3. How was your experience learning and using Tajik in Tajikistan? What sort of reactions did you get and what sort of struggles did you face?

In the beginning, it was very hard simply because I had had no exposure to the Tajiki language before. I only knew Farsi. For the first two weeks or so, I just didn’t understand anything.

A story to illustrate the point: one evening during my first week, we went to my host aunt and uncle’s house. Many family members, whom I didn’t yet know, were there. I didn’t know much Tajiki yet, and I didn’t understand what people were saying. They would ask me questions occasionally, and I would just freeze, unable to answer. I was so embarrassed. Sometimes, they would switch to Russian entirely for my benefit; other times, they continued with their conversations. Since they wouldn’t let me, a guest, clear the table (my activity of choice when under duress), I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for about ten minutes. I didn’t want to face them because I was so ashamed of my lack of knowledge. I only spoke Farsi at that point — not Tajiki.

That said, as time progressed, I understood more and more. If the “older generation” (40+ years) was talking, I could understand 40-70% of what they said by the end of the trip. (With young people, the number was much lower.) I learned primarily by osmosis; Tajiki class wasn’t very helpful at all since we primarily focused on learning the alphabet, which I already knew.

Whenever I spoke Tajiki, Tajiks were, naturally, proud. I was speaking their language. I remember that my host dad was particularly excited about this. He liked to read me poems sometimes and hope I would understand. Toward the end of the trip, Tajiks on the street used to sometimes think I was Tajik even after I had said something, which was a sign that my language skills had really improved.

 

4. What sort of tourist attractions throughout Tajikistan are not to be missed? How about local delicacies?

Tourist attractions:

Tajikistan is an absolutely beautiful country. I strongly, strongly recommend that any tourist go hiking. There is a great FB page called Hike Tajikistan which organizes for bimonthly (or so) hiking trips across the country. There are several good museums, like the National Museum in Dushanbe. The bazaar (there is one in every city and several in Dushanbe) is not to be missed; it’s a real glimpse into Tajik life, and it’s a micro-economy of its own. Also a great place to buy souvenirs.

 

Local delicacies:

Plov, also called osh, is rice, meat, chickpeas and carrots. It sounds bizarre, but is delicious. There are some tasty soups like ugro and lagman, but my favorite dish of all is called qurutob. There is no adequate way to describe it, but it, very crudely put, is a mix of hot oil, very thick puff pastry dough-type bread called fattir, tomato, cucumber and a type of sour cream-type liquid. You eat it — with your hands —  at a special restaurant designated for it.

 

5. What are some of your favorite words and/or idioms that you picked up during your time in Tajikistan?

Az pasha fil nasoz — lit. Don’t make an elephant out of a fly = don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill

Ba khoda = lit. “With God” = this could mean anything from “oh really?” To “yeah, right!”

 

6. What was your host family like and how were your interactions?

I cannot speak about my host family without smiling — and having a tear form in my eye. They became my family. My host mom always referred to me using the Russian word rodnaya, which means something like “biological” or “real.” I became her real daughter. My host dad always announced to everyone that I was his daughter. It was never a question.

My host family was very special because I didn’t just become close with my immediate family, but also with my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. I went over to my cousins’ house every evening; with the girls, I gossiped, danced, etc. With the boys, I played soccer, played practical jokes, etc. My host aunt texted me a few days ago. I still talk to my host cousins a few times a week.

To illustrate how close we became, let me tell a story. On my last day, my host parents, like all the other host parents, drove me to the pick-up site, where all of us were being met to be taken to the airport by bus. The other host parents hugged their students, took a picture, and left. In my case, my parents hovered around and weren’t leaving. My host mom would ask me a question; I would answer. At one point, my host dad surveyed the group and whispered to my host mom, “you know, out of all the kids, only our Leora looks like a Tajik.” Host parents kept coming and going, but mine stayed. They were the last ones to go. When they finally did, all three of us were crying. My host mom said that it was “as if they had known me all of their lives.” I’m getting teary-eyed just writing about it.

That's (in order from left to right) my cousin, me and my sister in traditional dress

That’s (in order from left to right) my cousin, me and my sister in traditional dress.

 

7. How did your time in Tajikistan leave you genuinely changed?

I noticed that when I came back to the United States, I laughed a lot more. I watched the same movies, heard the same jokes, etc — but I laughed at them this time. I was much freer with enjoyment of the world around me. Tajikistan taught me an appreciation of the beauty and joys of life. The experience also gave me, literally, a family whom I love and care about and can’t wait to see again next summer. Lastly, it gave me the confidence to experience the completely unknown and make it part of my soul.

On a more cosmetic note (pun intended), I pay a lot more attention to the way I look now. In Tajikistan, women pay much more attention to their physical appearance that women do in the United States, so dressing well/putting on makeup is a habit I certainly picked up there.

 

8. Any general concluding thoughts you’d like to share with the world, concerning anything at all?

I don’t think I can put into words how much I love Tajikistan and its people. After the program ended, I traveled straight from Tajikistan to Russia and had a very difficult time. I compared everything with Dushanbe. I cried a lot; I missed “home.” Distraught, I emailed my grandfather about this dilemma. He said that I had tried to make myself part of the country — and succeeded, and that separation from it was separation from a treasured part of my consciousness. It all sounds melodramatic, but I truly believe that I’ve taken a piece of the country in my heart.

On that note, if anyone knows of any good internships in the area, please feel free to let me know….

 

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This is from when I taught them how to swim 🙂
This is only part of my family; it was in reality much larger but I wanted to illustrate how large it was.


Definitely! Thanks for telling your stories for all of us! I hope that you can continue to be an inspiration not only to me but everyone else you know! Keep going from strength to strength!

 
Leora Eisenberg
Speaks: English, Russian, French, German, Hebrew, Farsi, Tajiki — also speaks Egyptian Arabic, Japanese and Somali very poorly

Leora Eisenberg is a current sophomore at Princeton University, where she is majoring in Slavic Studies. Shockingly, is fascinated by Soviet Central Asia. When not reading on the topic, she can be found biking, studying Talmud, seeking out new experiences, and inviting her friends over for Persian desserts. Leora hopes to return to Central Asia next summer, and every summer over the course of her academic career.

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