News Single

13.09.09 03:12 Age: 9 yrs

What's in a name?

By: Roger and Megan

A comparison of the lives of two Tajik men we met in our travels

During our stay in the far Northern section of Tajikistan we visited the two major towns of Khojand and Isfara. In these towns we met two men of the same name, Froddo (name changed for privacy), and the same age, 35, who were in vastly contrasting situations. The respective predicaments of these men really highlighted to us the roles and expectations of the men (and women) in Tajik communities, and what life is like when you're popular and in-the-mix of the community, or an outsider.

In Khojand, we met Froddo 1 after he was introduced to us as a very good English speaker (29/8/09). He turned up at our designated meeting place in a freshly ironed shirt and tie - dressed to impress. Froddo invited us to stay at his place, as he always likes to brush up on hs English with native speakers. We followed him as he walked to his house (he had no car) on the other side of the Syr-Darya river, where he lived a one bedroom apartment with his three young children, aged 5, 7 and 9.

Within the first hour of meeting him we could tell that Froddo was doing his best for his work and his children. He was very dedicated to his work an as English teacher. In fact, he had devoted an entire room (the biggest room) of his one-bedroom apartment to teaching. In this room, hints and English grammar and vocabulary tests were stuck all over the walls, like wallpaper.

After a while we worked out that his wife did not live with them, and he later revealed to us that yes, they were divorced. Now he had the three children to look after on his own, and although he was struggling, they were still happy. This situation would normally not be so difficult for a Tajik man, however Froddo was originally from Dushanbe and thus had not grown up in the town where he now lived. This meant that now, he didn't have the support of his immediate or extended family around him, as they were back in Dushanbe. He had originally moved North to marry his future wife in Khojand, but after the marriage fell apart he was left with the 3 kids all on his own. Luckily for him, one of his best friends had also moved from Dushanbe had also moved North at a similar time to him, so he did still have a social network of support (albeit small).

It seemed that in the move to Khojand he also had to assimilate to a degree. He described to us the slight differences between the Northern vs. Southern Tajiks and how he had to learn to speak more politely, to fit in, also telling us an interesting anecdote about a friend of his who used his advice (about the difference in northern and southern tajik language) to help himself.

He also told us about the different styles of discipline that he was trying with his children. In Tajik culture, the usual way of punishing a child is with a quick clip over the ear (or worse). He had decided that he didn't want to use violence but instead wanted to punish them by eg. not letting them watch their favourite TV show (or removing other privileges from them) if the children fought with each other. He had learnt this new style of discpline from the foreigners he had met in Dushanbe - he was very impressed by this clever style of discipline and it had never occurred to him to not use violence until he heard about it from them.

On the first day of the school year, Froddo wanted to look his best when taking his children to school. He was unsure of what to wear and even asked Megan's opinion on which tie he should wear. Roger made a casual suggestion that he match his sons and wear a jacket too, and so he quickly raced back to change into his full suit with jacket. He seemed so concerned about looking perfect for his children (and seemed so lost when it came to being a parent or house husband), he even took the advice from us near-strangers!

Froddo was trying very hard to provide for his children, but one aspect he was having particular difficulty with was cooking. In Central Asia, the men are generally not allowed in the kitchen (and thus not allowed to cook), unless they are a chef by profession. This law had also applied to Froddo's family as he was growing up in Dushanbe. He told us that only his mother or sisters ever cooked, and then when he was married and moved away from home his wife cooked. Now that he was divorced, he was stranded without any idea how to move around the kitchen. He warned us when we first arrived that he could only cook fried eggs or fried potatoes, and we thought that was a figure of speech. But no it wasn't. He really could only prepare these two simple dishes, in his whole house there was no other edible products (not even flour or rice or garlic) besides this, just eggs and potatoes. While we were there we tried to teach him how to prepare a simple vegetable pasta dish (the real student's meal!) but he seemed confused by the whole process, from how to wash the vegetables, to how to cut them, to how much food to make. At one point, we even had to remove some fresh peaches and pears from the freezer and explain to him why it is not a good idea to store them there!

The day before we left it appeared that he had put his foot down and decided he would learn how to cook. He had called his good friend in Dushanbe asking for advice and had gotten a recipe from him. His friend had said to buy pasta, he didnt know which one so he bought 8 different varieties to be safe. His friend said buy 4 carrots and 1 kg of meat, so he bought 20 carrots and 4 kg of meat to be safe, as he didnt know which parts of the carrots or meat to eat. His friend also said to buy 750 ml of oil so he bought 5 litres. This sauce he was to make would be a big one, and could be frozen down and reheated with whichever carbohydrate base he desired. Seeing all this going on, we helped him with his mission as best we could, but he didn't want too much help as he really needed to learn to cook without extra hands as helpers. It turned out to be an all-night affair (literally....till 7am the next day) and he fell asleep twice during the incubation steps, leaving it to boil for some 8 hours...in 750ml of oil. However, in the morning when we went in to assess the damage, it actually looked like it had worked well. So we all settled in for a nice breakfast after, enjoying his first successful cooking venture. Hopefull the time this dish took to cook, and the lack of sleep it entailed hasn't turned him off trying again!

Another thing we noticed at Froddo's apartment was the abundance of Bibles, all different versions in several different languages. So further adding to his social troubles was the fact he was Christian. This is a very big deal for Tajik (and Kazakh and Uzbek) peoples. We have seen that most people don't understand the distinction between race, nationality and religion in Central Asia. People always assume that if a person is Kazakh, then they are Muslim, whereas all Russians are Christian. All Central Asian people are purportedly (to the Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Kazak, and Turkmen people) Muslim, that is the Central Asian religion they say. In his youth, Froddo had been heavily involved in the alcohol and drugs scene and it was through interaction with Christian groups in Dushanbe that had allowed him to get off the drugs. The Bible had become his favourite book and had helped him to learn English (and thus other languages to since he could get it in other languages). But not all was good when he converted from his family's religion (Islam) to Christianity. As is custom, his father had taken a knife and cut him, symbolising the cutting of him from the family. It was only his brother that remained in contact with him after that (as he is just happy he is off drugs, no matter his religion), and they are still good friends now.

Interestingly, there were a few other Islamic traditions that had remained despite his conversion to Christianity. For example, even though he had raised his three children as Christians from birth, the two boys had both been circumcised in the Muslim way (at the age of about 3 to 7 years old). He explained to us that this was a Tajik tradition (as the purpose of doing it in Tajik culture, is to show a committment to the Islamic god), but this is actually a Muslim practice, not a Tajik one. This is another example of how Islamic practices get confused for being Central Asian traditions, and over time they get hard to separate from one another.

So here we had this man, a Southern Tajik in Northern Tajikistan, a divorcee, and worst of all, a Christian! All of these factors made him seem like a social outcast. A good man, but with little hope of climbing the social ranks. But really, for him this didn't matter, as all he was concerned about was bringing up his children as best he could.

We met the other Froddo on the road to Isfara (7/9/09). He was driving with his friends/colleagues in a smooth black new Mercedes, with a Kyrgyzstan registration and flag. Froddo wore the latest fashion shirts and jeans and had a matching fashionable haircut. There on the side of the road the men gave us a few mobile phone numbers and instructed us to call them when we got into town.

A few hours later we were in the outskirts of town, riding toward the centre, when the same Mercedes pulled up along side us, asking why had we not called them yet. They instructed us to follow them into the town centre, and then drove off. When we saw that the road to the centre was a steep downhill, we decided to just wait at the top of the hill to save us coming back up the hill, if need be. Eventually they came and retrieved us and told us to follow them in the opposite direction, just a few hundred meters to a car-washing business. Once there, they asked what we wanted to eat, and since we gave no clear response within the first few seconds, Froddo told one of the other men to go get us some Shashliks. And would we like Coke, or vodka, or water, or juice with that too?

When the man returned with the food we all sat down on the chai platform, but Froddo told us we were the only ones eating, as they were taking Rosa. They all just sat around, relaxing and watching us eat, until we were done. It was clear that Froddo was the alpha male in this group of men. It seemed (on the surface at least) that he was so highly respected (or feared) by them that whatever he asked them to do, they would without question.

After lunch, Froddo got one of the men to drive us around the town for the afternoon, accommodating our every desire. We said we simply wanted to wash, and so he took us to the best banya house in town. Next, he took us out to see the more scenic and picturesque places in town - down to the river bank and to the most expensive wedding reception venue - which wasn't exactly what we wanted to do, but it didn't look like we had a choice. It was a kind gesture anyway!

In between showing us the sights, the driver also was completing some errands for Froddo's businesses. One peculiar thing was that he withdrew 50,000 rubles in cash via western union, and then handed it to Roger to count, before dropping it in at a house in the backstreets of town. This is when we began wondering about what type of people we'd landed ourselves with!

That evening, we were taken to a chai house for dinner. However, since it was Ramadan and business was slow for the month, the chai house was actually closed and undergoing renovations. It was owned by Froddo's uncle, and he'd opened up the place especially for our party that night (it was Roger's birthday). When we arrived there we found both Froddo and his uncle hard at work preparing a big tasty chicken dish for dinner. Some other men we could see were preparing some side dishes of fruits and salads to accompany our meal. When it was time to eat (after sunset) we all sat down at a chai platform outside and dined on the finest peaches, pears, and grapes of the region. Following that we enjoyed the very tasty chicken casserole that Froddo had prepared himself. And then when we thought it was all finished, out came the birthday cake. According to Froddo, this cake had been prepared by his wife no. 3. We took this to be a joke at the time...

After dinner we were taken to the apartment where we would stay for two nights (or however long we wanted to), and on the way Froddo pointed out one of the businesses he owned, a plastering company. The place where they dropped us was a fairly central, two bedroom apartment owned by one of Froddo's friends. They left us there, the place to ourselves, and then said goodnight with the promise that they'd come and collect us the next morning.

The next day we were again shouted to breakfast, lunch and dinner by Froddo. We also discovered what this secret business was that required the 50,000 rubles in cash - it was a dried fruit exporting business, collecting fruits from Uzbekistan and then selling them to Russia (or so we were told/shown). In the evening we went to his family's house for dinner, where we met his very big family. He had his parents, younger sisters, older brothers and their wives and children, plus his wife and four children, living in a big house, which turned out to be nextdoor to the Mayor's house. They had many different fruits and vegetables growing in the garden, some of which we tasted at dinner. We also saw there one of his other Mercedes, which had a Tajikistan registration. He explained to us that the Kyrgyzstan registration on the black Merc helps him to drive through Kyrgyzstan unnoticed.

After dinner we were dropped off back at "our" apartment, and then an hour or so later Froddo returned with two women and a young girl. He introduced one of the women as his wife no. 2 (his Russian wife, as compared to his other Tajik wife), and the girl as his daughter. This was no joke anymore, as there was a clear resemblance between his and his daughter's faces. So it was now quite possible that he did have three wives afterall. He explained to us that Muslim tradition allows each man to have four wives.

We were all packed and ready to leave the next morning when Froddo arrived at the apartment. However, he then informed us that the border was probably closed due to the Tajikistan Independence Day celebrations to be held that day (9/9/09). He called one of his good friends, a customs official, and confirmed that indeed it would be closed. Without much option of moving on (the border was only 20 km away) we decided to stay another night there in Isfara. Hearing that we were interested in the town's festival, Froddo arranged for us to sit with the important men for the day's concert and be driven around/chaperoned by another of his workers, for the concert, which was to be held in the central park.

Following the concert an important-looking man in a suit jumped in the car with us and asked to see our passports and visas. While we drove off to somewhere (we didn't know where) he was carefully perusing through all the pages. We arrived at the fruit-drying house where we found Froddo. The passport man and Froddo discussed our passports for a while and and made some phone calls. After what seemed like a long time his stern face finally broke into a smile and he handed back the passports. This man was the customs official that we had been told about. In the evening, we shared a big dinner of Samarkand-style plov with his Uzbekistani friends from the dried fruit business. One of the men had been smuggled into the country (by Faridon) without a passport, and had quickly rushed to hide when we'd brought the customs man to the house earlier in the day. After our meal Froddo quickly drove us back to the apartment as he had to drive to Khojand airport that night for business since a plane was arriving after midnight. A bit suspicious, but we didn't ask anymore questions.

In the morning just as we were really about to leave, Froddo pulled up in his car with his friend, one of the head KGB officers (very high up) from Batken Oblast (Kyrgyzstan). This man was instructed to see our safe passage through the Oblast, and through Uzbekistan... all without visas. We were also given the details of another man to call, as soon as we arrived in Batken, who would also help with our safe (illegal) passage through this region.

Thus Froddo No.2 was a stark contrast to Froddo No.1, a man with many wives, many Mercedes, many friends, and many houses. He was a high up, well connected and well respected Muslim and businessman (of what we do not know). We learned just how much importance is placed on religion in these societies, and how hard it can be foor someone who chooses to not follow the norm. Through our experiences with these two men, we learned quite a bit about Tajik men and the expectations placed on them in society.

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