The day I returned from Tajikistan, I ate half a Reuben. I put the other half of the sandwich in my handbag, and then I went to the Shirin Neshat exhibit at the Hirshhorn, in DC.
I moved lightly, as if in a dream. Sometimes I felt as if my feet never touched the floor. I barely spoke. My mouth became dry and papery. I thought about eating the rest of the sandwich there, sitting on a bench in the cold, sterile museum.
I wonder often what to say to people who ask me how Tajikistan is. What can I say, in three sentences or four that will both hold their attention and leave them with a deeper understanding of the country? I am faced with the same basic problem as every traveler: how to meet the expectation that I will translate my experiences abroad into a comprehensible and easily-digestible format for consumption at home. I am essentially of the opinion that this problem is unsolvable—not because it can’t be done, but because I don’t quite know what the source text means.
I have tried. It should be easy. I have the exposition: Stepping onto the Dushanbe tarmac at 5 AM on a misty January morning was like a new beginning. And all that is good and fresh and pure.
And the rising action: 5 AM any day in Tajikistan brings back the same feeling. In April, on a shepherd’s path halfway up a mountain in Panjakent, 5 AM watches the sun lick the valley below. In May, running in the plum orchards to the east of the city, 5 AM knows dew suspended in cobwebs and the smell of long wet grass. More rising action: in July, 5 AM brings the first fingers of warmth after a night spent shivering in a tent on a high alpine lake.
But I maintain that this task I have set myself—of trying to describe what it was like to pass nine months in Tajikistan—is not an easy one. I have not spent enough time in that country to call myself an expert, and god knows, even if I had, the idea of a 23 year-old self-proclaimed expert on anything is enough to make one shudder. To translate shambolic experience into delineated structure necessarily consigns a great deal to what remains unsaid.
I usually say, “It’s nice.” I usually say, “Great hiking.”
A persistent trouble in translation, or so my translation teachers tell me and I assume they are paraphrasing Casanova, is that the source text is often devoured by the language of translation. Devoured, so nothing remains—maybe scraps or crumbs, but otherwise totally eaten up. (I note here that Casanova writes in reference to the German Romantics, authors like Goethe, who sought to reinvigorate their own culture by borrowing in translation from the “eternal Orient.”)
Honestly, I don’t see how translating a whole country or even a piece of a country or even a vignette of a piece of one person’s experience in a country into 2,500 words of personal narrative is much different. Where is the story here? I have been trying to find the story here.
I cannot find it because I cannot in good faith bind those strange and wondrous months into a plot arc. Like clay forced into a mold, much is bound to be scraped off the top and squeezed through the sides.
My work is made more difficult by the fact that I am not even sure of how I ended up in Tajikistan. When Tajiks asked, I said “Accidentally.” That seemed to fly all right. Not so in America, where people assume I am joking and just repeat the question.
Proximate cause for getting on a plane to Tajikistan: after being deservedly dumped by an ex-boyfriend, I wanted to punish myself via exile, deprivation. Cause-in-fact: I had won what seemed at the time, and still seems, a mind-boggling amount of money to study Farsi abroad. “Study Farsi abroad” was a thinly-veiled synonym for “study in Tajikistan,” because Americans are not at present terribly welcome in either Iran or Afghanistan. The agency writing my checks was a thinly-veiled synonym for the Defense Department, their basic idea behind giving me this money being that I would come back home Possessing Superior Professional Fluency in a Middle Eastern Language and be recruited by one of the many Agencies that send Americans to all corners of the earth to undertake Nefarious and Unsavory Work.
I had different ideas, but took their money anyway.
In Tajikistan’s capital city Dushanbe, all the satellite dishes point north, towards Russia and TV-Novosti and Moskva 24. Drive five miles outside the city, and they change direction: West, to Iran, to Gem TV and Turkish soap operas dubbed in Persian. I can’t count how many times I’ve taken the northern road out of the city and watched the dishes turn, a graceful, slow-motion pirouette. The road wends through hills turning into mountains. There’s a house with a red waterwheel covered in morning glories at kilometer marker 49.
Самир and I drove up that road when he took me hiking along the bed of a rushing ice-blue river swollen with glacial melt. We pitched the tent under an oak tree in a meadow straight out of a fairy tale—with pollen spiralling through shafts of sun and purple Persian Slippers rising out of waist-high grass so green it made my eyes hurt. Above us, mountains crowded out the sky. In Tajiki, a dialect of Persian written in the Cyrillic alphabet, they’re called осмон бус, the sky-kissers; in Persian, آسمان بوس. I grew dizzy watching that little patch of indigo between the mountains’ upturned faces fill with clouds and empty, fill and empty. Stars rose, and then the moon. Lying in the grass while the air grew frostier, I watched the heavens spinning and dipping above me.
In a speech honoring the September 1st National Day of Knowledge, Tajik President Эмомалӣ Раҳмон announced that the Tajik Union of Astrophysicists had discovered a new planet in our solar system located between Mars and Jupiter. The planet, the president said, will be named Tajikistan to commemorate the scientists’ work. Obviously, there is no such planet. Less obviously, neither is there a Tajik Union of Astrophysicists.
Ин сайёраи хаели дар фикри ифтихори гурухи дар кишвари хурд дар миени Осиеи Маркази вуҷуд дорад.
این کور ٔه جیالی در خلاء ابتکار جم ِع این کشور کوچک و بیدریا در مرکز آسیا میانه وجود دارد.
Now, in English: This no-such-planet exists in the collective imagination of one small landlocked country in the middle of Central Asia. It exists in the language of top-down authoritarianism, but it also inhabits that place in people’s minds where inspiration makes its nest. It exists in its own language and no other.
The academic study of Asian and African languages in the West has almost always been linked to colonial power dynamics. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, burgeoning European empires established schools of “Oriental philology” in order to plumb the secrets of the “timeless essence” of so-called Islamic civilization—and also to train colonial administrators to divide and rule. Those schools formed the bedrock of today’s Middle East Studies programs, which continue to have close ties with American and British national security interests. During the Second World War, Iran was quite literally divided between the USSR and Britain; it is from the Soviet Union that Tajikistan takes its modern boundaries and ethos of nationhood.
The collective imagination of one small landlocked country in the middle of Central Asia does not follow narrative convention. It is a story of false starts and falsities, sagging under the weight of daily imponderabilia. It is not a story for the telling; it exists in gestures to an absence, hushed whispers towards a void. How does one read such an archive? Go native, young Orientalist.
Dushanbe is one of those half-dilapidated, half-exoticized cities in which it is easy to imagine intrigue around every corner. The signs are all mostly Cyrillic, but retrophiles and Iranians use Arabic script. The language is Tajiki, with some Uzbek and a lot of Russian—another vestige of Tajikistan’s Soviet past. Almost everyone is multilingual from a young age. The language people choose to speak says a lot about how they see themselves: staunch pan-Iranian nationalists choose Farsi; Tajiki nationalists and villagers speak Tajiki; the business and government elite all learn Russian and sometimes Turkish; the young and wealthy focus on English.
Абдулло spoke Farsi but I am keeping his name in Tajiki because I know he would hate it. He is the only person I have ever dreamed about skinning alive with a rusty butter knife, whose kneecaps I wanted to jump on to hear them shatter, whose eyeballs I imagined removing delicately with an oyster fork and watching as he ate them. I think he guessed the extent of my hatred for him because one day شاهزیه said he wouldn’t let me come over any more. Then I was scared there was even less between her and his cunning, bruising fingers.
He wore—I presume still wears—sweater vests and has an attitude of a man 50 years older than he is. He is so tall and brittle I think if I bent him over my knee he would break in two. After شاهزیه came to school crying for the fifth or sixth time, I would derive much pleasure imagining that.
They lived together in his grandfather’s old apartment in a second-wave Khrushchevian sleeping district with a mosaic of The Factory Woman Performing Her Civic Duty on the western façade. Inside, I remember everything seemed to glow softly gold: Red-gold pillows, creamy gold curtains, sweet golden candy گز. Maybe it was just her; she’s one of those people who beautifies everything she touches until it shimmers around her, like the straw in Rumpelstiltskin. In one corner of the living room she set up her easel and the miniature painting of شاهنامه heroes she’d been working on for years.
They moved to the US and got married. Абдулло is an American citizen. I think spitefully to myself sometimes that maybe she just wanted a new passport. I know this is only a partial truth. Escaping from that sort of cage is soul-numbingly difficult work. No one, least of all me, has the right to say she did wrong, no matter how despairingly much I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her and say, don’t do this! Leave him. Get out now, while you still can. And even if I did, those sorts of exhortary, injunctive expressions don’t translate very well into Farsi.
I know I sound different when I speak Farsi. My voice gets higher. I’m much more polite. I smile more. I touch people more. I affect a tinkling little laugh. I tell more white lies. This is how I have learned that people who speak Persian communicate. I wonder, sometimes, not just if I’d see Абдулло differently but if he’d actually be different if he were speaking another language.
Самир is one of those post-Soviet legacy babies from a once-mighty family. He hates speaking Tajiki and is much more comfortable in Russian. He has about six jobs but most of them involve translation, Russian-English, mainly, and the reverse. I’ve been told that his Russian is beautiful and literary, such that Russians’ eyes bug out from disbelief when they hear him, a kid from the sticks, speak the language.
All I know in this regard is that he has a habit of using Russian idioms when he speaks English; “a fist in every hole” for “a finger in every pot” was one slip-up. This has had the unfortunate effect of making Russian forever a little ludicrous to me.
Meanwhile, those in the know say that the Persian language has an inestimable richness and flexibility that makes it the most perfect language in the world for transmitting poetry. I am far from being in the know, but I tend to agree, if only because I have not yet been able to stand up to any Persian-speaker’s voracious and all-consuming irritation if I dare to contradict.
Russian is ludicrous and Persian is exalted. For no good reason.
Leaving for Tajikistan, I had flown out of DC. Like swimming laps in the pool, I returned to the same city. I was immediately blindsided by the feeling that I might not have left at all. There is nothing so disorienting as that feeling.
I went to the Hirshhorn that day for many reasons, but chief among them was that I needed hard, linguistic proof that I hadn’t dreamt the whole thing up. I thought to myself that if I had really gone, if I had really successfully poured hours and weeks and months into this language, I’d get the Shirin Neshat exhibit, just get it, like—instantaneously.
The main body of Neshat’s photography is composed of portraits on which she has copied, often in infinitesimally small script, Farsi-language poems from the era spanning WWII to the Islamic Revolution. People who study Farsi know Neshat; they know her work. My favorite pieces of hers have been the Our House is on Fire series, head-on larger-than-life portraits overflowing with Neshat’s round, childlike script:
“...خانه ام آتش گرفته است، آتش جانسوز...”
I’d seen them in textbooks, in lectures, in movies. Staring at them now, face-to-enormous-face, in the museum, I saw that some lines of poetry were abrogated; others repeated dozens of times. I read the poems to myself over and over. The letters bridged noses and hid in the crevices between fingers. They were infinitely more complex than I ever could have imagined. I translated them word for word but still the meaning eluded me. I stared, fixated, at one portrait in particular, willing myself to understand where the web of meaning was cast. It slipped through my fingers like so much ice-blue glacial melt.
Still, standing in the gallery, I scoffed silently at the other visitors, who wondered aloud, “If only I read Arabic!” and “Is it the Qur’an? Are they covered in the Qur’an?” and “Where’s the translation?”
Neshat did not include translations in the exhibit. Her work was to remain untranslated and untranslatable. She wanted her viewers to realize that they could not, ever, understand. The poems’ opacity filled every room. It was a type of suffocation. Neshat held necks and plunged faces into the deep choking blackness of unknowing.
I showed up in Tajikistan unsure of how I had gotten there, what purpose my being there would serve, and what would come after I left. I showed up at the Hirshhorn the day of my return with exactly the same amount of uncertainty.
The few times I worked as a simultaneous translator in Tajikistan, I remember thinking very plainly: “I could just make this all up.” Neither side knows what the other is saying. There is nothing except the thin translucent skein of my moral fiber keeping me from carrying on two completely unrelated conversations. To what end? Amusing myself, I suppose.
And I think the same when people ask me about Tajikistan. Does it really matter what I say?
If I made it all up, who would ever know the difference?
KATHERINE LONG B’15.5 can be found on Planet Tajikistan, fifth rock from the sun.