We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
Anabelle Suitor is currently volunteering in Dushanbe, Tajikistan at the Bactria Cultural Center as part of AUA’s Summer Service Program. Anabelle describes transitioning into Tajik culture and the differences and similarities within language and customs between the Muslim Community at her school, George Washington University, and the one in Dushanbe.
Being in Tajikistan and teaching at the Bactria Cultural Center has been an amazing experience. I came to Tajikistan haven taken 2 years of Persian and 1 year of Russian, so I’ve become the unofficial translator for our group when we are not accompanied by Faridun, our in-country coordinator (and better and more official translator). One of my goals upon traveling to Tajikistan was to improve my Persian and I think I have improved, at least to some degree. I’m able to use my language skills in class sometimes, when explaining concepts or homework. The Tajik dialect was and still is very difficult for me. There are times where I won’t understand anything that is being said to me. I did expect some difficulties and differences in dialect. My Afghan and Iranian friends have told me that they sometimes can’t even understand Tajiki dialect. I thought since I learned a more formalized dialect I could understand anything. I was mistaken, though I do think I am getting a lot better at understanding. I have definitely become more confident when speaking and I even spoke to these kids the in the first days of our orientation, and I was excited to see that I was conversational enough to joke around with them.
With language shock, I also experienced culture shock. I had studied Tajikistan and Central Asia for a while and I’ve written a lot of papers, and read a lot of books and articles about the culture of the area, but there were some things that I wasn’t expecting. We had a strange incident for example, at the bazaar. I was having a conversation with the woman I was buying a scarf. I was wearing a headscarf and one of the girls in our group, who was also Muslim wasn’t. She asked me why she didn’t wear headscarf if she was Muslim. This was odd for me because I don’t wear hijab in the US, and nobody has ever asked me this question before. I told her my name was Anabelle and she told me I should change my name to Amina. I’ve heard of, and know converts who change their name upon converting, but nobody has ever told me to change my name before. People have suggested it – and I have taken offense at the suggestion. However, I realized her comment was out of a place of genuine concern. She was speaking in the best intentions. Muslims in Tajikistan are similar but also very different from Muslims in the US, I was aware of this to some extent – but seeing the differences face-to-face was still shocking.
I’ve realized in Tajikistan that there are certain things I take for granted about my Muslim community at home. I assumed because I interacted with a more ‘international’ Muslim community in America – groups of Saudis, Afghans, Syrians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, and yes, other American converts – that this community was almost de-culturized. I’d swear ‘wallahi, or use another expression I assumed to be used by all Muslims, because it was used by my friends. I would sometimes receive blind stares from my Tajik friends. I assumed, because much I’ve read has said this, that Islam in Tajikistan was deeply based on culture. However, I’ve really, until now, failed to realize that I was part of an American-Muslim culture that was often tied to and informed by a unique diaspora culture. Islam and culture plays out in unique ways wherever you go – and there is no society that can really hold the standard as ‘Islamically pure’.
I’ve already created close relationships with my students. One of my students invited us all to her dacha in Varzob, a city right outside of Dushanbe. This was our first time going outside of Dushanbe. Dushanbe is a city framed by lush and beautiful mountains; however, our trip to Varzob was the first time in which we could personally engage in the natural beauty of which Tajikistan is famed for. We went hiking and it was exhausting, as the path was not well maintained and very steep and the distance was very far. However, the views we were affronted by were totally rewarding. After our hike we had dishes of delicious plov prepared for us by Raxmatjon, our kind driver.
All in all I’ve been able to talk with people about some of these differences at my placement. and I truly am enjoying my placement a lot. I am teaching English, but I’m also learning from my students and coworkers. I was nervous at first about teaching, as it was my first time. Teaching requires a lot of work, and preparing lessons can be tiring at times. I’ve been making material and finding materials for my students. Despite the work, the experience in the classroom and the relationships created between myself and my students is completely rewarding.