Home in New Jersey, unofficial ambassador Rob Handerhan reflects on his summer in Tajikistan
Our Country, Tajikistan
By Robert Handerhan
During my final week in Dushanbe, one seemingly simple question worked its way into nearly every conversation I had with my Tajik friends, students, and co-workers: “What did you think of our Tajikistan?”I was asked to describe my opinions on everything from the country’s education system to its national foods.How did I feel while I was in Tajikistan? What did I think of the Tajik people? And when would I be coming back?
As I sat on the other end of these friendly interrogation sessions, I fumbled for words to describe how special Tajikistan was to me; my six weeks there had been characterized by experiences of friendship and generosity, and I can confidently say that I will be coming back as soon as I can afford the plane ticket.Now that I have returned to New Jersey, I continue to be asked to summarize my experiences into a few simple words. Of course, many of the questions asked by my friends and family here in America are skewed in a much different direction: Did you ever feel threatened? How awful was the food? Was it safe? Thank goodness you’re home.
Once again I find myself scrambling for words. I begin to explain how fortunate I feel to have served my local community in Dushanbe, and that by the end of my internship there, I really did feel at home. But how can I encapsulate a seemingly endless number of joyful and insightful interactions into a few simple statements?
At this point in the conversation, I am reminded of a lesson that I did with my students regarding the effects of stereotypes on our perceptions of the world. Inspired by a similar lesson developed by my fellow Unofficial Ambassador Amaris Prince, I used Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” as the foundation for our conversation. Adichie’s talk focuses on the dangers inherent in conflating a skewed or limited perception of a person (or an entire people) and using this as the basis for one’s understanding of that entity or idea. Shifting the focus of our discussion to something more personal, I asked my students if they ever felt that the perception of their country and of the Tajik people in general suffered from the propagation of harmful stereotypes.
My students responded by explaining that people in other countries may wrongly fear Tajikistan because of its Muslim majority; they powerfully asserted, “we are Muslim and we are peaceful. We are not terrorists and we are against all terrorism in the world.” I was moved by their responses and decided to widen the scope of the question even further: What would you like to share with the world about your country? Pushing stereotypes aside, what do you want the world to know about Tajikistan?
My class agreed that the world should know about Tajikistan’s physical beauty, and they began rattling off statistics that boasted of its incredible landscape: “Our Tajikistan is 93% mountains;” “Teacher, have you seen the beautiful lake, Iskanderkul?” “What about our rivers?” But they also wanted to assure the world that Tajikistan had a major urban center, and they expressed pride for Dushanbe’s continued growth and development. I commented on the fact that,without an accurate mental image of Tajikistan, my American friends will likely be surprised to know I was living in a very comfortable apartment in a beautiful, bustling city.
Most importantly, my students wanted the world to know about the kindness of the Tajik people and the importance of hospitality within Tajik culture. The tourism industry’s slogan is “Tajikistan: Feel the Friendship,” and my students emphasized their love for foreign guests and visitors. Connecting back to our discussion of Islam as a religion of peace, they spoke to me about the tolerance and acceptance that exists in Tajikistan and that all people are welcome. And now as I reflect on my time there, I can truly state that I felt incredibly welcome; these students who spoke to me about the kindness and generosity of the Tajik people are the same students who wanted to spend time with me outside of class, to invite me to their homes to meet their families, and to shower me with gifts on our last day together. I hope that I am able to maintain these friendships into the future, and I am looking forward to seeing everyone again when I return.
So I believe that my students have provided me with the best possible description of Tajikistan. What might I add? The people that I met were as hard working as they were hospitable. Due to economic hardships, parents may work two or even three jobs in order to provide for their families. My students were completely dedicated to their studies at the Bactria Cultural Center, and they strongly believed that by improving their language skills, they were working towards a future filled with limitless opportunities. Much like my students, I want to share the kindness and generosity that I experienced in Tajikistan with the world. And I suppose I would finally like to add that the bread there is really, really good.