A Trip To Varzob

Iraj Bashiri

copyright, Bashiri 2000



My most memorable recollection of Dushanbe Dushanbe, is my first trip to the Varzob Valley. I had read about the valley in a brochure about the republic--a green hell among the highlands that have given birth to the Iranian race; where the Persian language is in its purest form and where tall Tajik men court gazelle-eyed beauties carrying water from the purest springs; the home of Rustam in the neighborhood of the legendary castle of Afrasiyab. At the time, I was involved in a study of Firdowsi's Shahname, or Book of Kings, looking for elements that might distinguish the Central Asian Turks from the famed Turanian warriors of the epic. Varzob sounded just like the place for me. In fact, I decided there and then that if ever an opportunity to visit Dushanbe should arise, a visit to Varzob should be at the top of the priority list. Quite a while later, I received a letter from the Ministry of Education of Tajikistan. The Minister had invited me to visit Dushanbe for ten days and participate in the celebrations honoring the 1500 anniversary of the birth of the Sassanian musician and singer, Borbad.

I decided to undertake the trip for several reasons. I had branched out of Iranian studies
into Central Asian studies and wanted to teach classes that were informed about the events in Soviet Central Asia on a day-to-day basis, carry out further research on the actual homeland of the heroes of the Shahname. I also wanted to examine the consequences of Soviet takeover of the region after sevety years of conflict between Communist ideology and Islam. In addition, the publication of the translation of my Black Tulip into Tajiki was being held up by Tajik censors. The publishers thought my presence there might give them leverage to free it to be published.

The trip to Dushanbe was hectic. It was the first time in over twenty-five years that I left Minneapolis and my family. It was also a trip to areas of the world that I knew very little about. In fact, beyond Frankfurt, I felt, I was in uncharted territory.

The flight to New York went well as did the flight to Frankfurt. At the Frankfurt airport, where I had a long layover, I felt exhausted. Looking ahead was a flight to Moscow and from there to Dushanbe. This latter part was a total unknown situation, definitely lengthy and tiresome. I felt very much like sleeping but I could not, lest I lose all my money, passport and baggage. Not long ago my daughter and her friend, traveling between Athens and Madrid, had felt tireed and slept. Someone had rummaged through their belongings and had taken all their money and their passports. I could not afford losing everything this early in the game.

I managed a bit of sleep on the Frankfurt-Moscow plane but that, too, was sleeping while staying alert. Perhaps it is part of my latent survival mechanism, I don't know. I cannot sleep on planes, trains or buses. And it has paid off. I guess the reason is that I feel obliged to know not only where I have been and what has transpired but where I am heading for. Expecting the unexpected, as it were. Events that you anticipate may not happen this very moment, but the fact that they are likely to happen keeps you on your toes.

The Moscow airport was hectic and chaos began from where the passengers deplaned, on the tarmac. I had to look for Kelly Wahl, a friend who at the time was working in Moscow and who had promised to help me with that part of the trip. So my goal was to reach the terminal and find him. My luggage, however, was heavy and, for some reason, had been placed in what seemed like a yard. I had to have them look for it everywhere until they found it. Meanwhile, I missed the so-called "yellow bus" that would have comfortably taken me to the terminal.

Let me clarify that when I say luggage, I don't mean our standard light suitcase and clothes carrier. I mean two large suitcases fully packed with gifts for almost everyone imaginable from the Minister of Education to the doorkeeper who takes your name down and directs you to the right divisional office. I had read that Tajiks liked receiving gifts and I did not intend to disappoint any of them. Additionally, I was also carrying copies of my books to show the academicians the type of work a university professor in the States is expected to do as part of the development of his career.

As I struggled with the suitcases in a restricted area of the airport, a black limousine stopped in front of me, almost running me over. The driver got out and, without saying a word, grabbed my suitcases and, literally, threw them on the back seat. He then motioned, I can even say ordered, me to get in the back seat as well. I tried to explain where I was going and who I was meeting, but he did not pay any attention. Maybe he did not speak English. Neither did another man in the limousine whom I saw after I got in. With the doors secured, the limousine began to roll. "Where are you taking me?" I protested. The driver simply nodded his head indicating ahead and continued driving. "I need to meet a friend," I insisted to get a word out of them. "He is waiting for me." The driver just nodded and carried on his conversation with the person next to him.

It was getting dark and I was becoming frustrated. Worse yet, it seemed that the limousine had left the airport. I did not know quite how to react. I tried to open the door. But I could not. I just sat back, hand on hand, leaving things to sort themselves out. I was now absolutely sure that I would lose my flight to Dushanbe, a flight the tickets for which had been obtained with great difficulty.

After going quite a distance, the limo turned around a building and stopped at an entrance. I was then ordered to get out. While I was getting out on the right side, the other person tossed my suitcases out onto the ground on the sidewalk.

"Where are you going, sir?" asked a clean-shaven Russian youth in uniform, walking towards me from the entrance.
"I am going to Dushanbe, Tajikistan," I said.
"Passport," he said, extending his arm.
"Here it is," I said, handing him my passport.
"You are at the wrong airport, sir," he said, handing me the passport.
"I am supposed to meet a friend. His name is Kelly Whal."
"Are you arriving then?"
"Yes, I am. I just didn't make it to the yellow bus."
"Will your friend wait for you? Or do you need help to get to the city?"
"I am sure my friend will wait. But I don't know where, a long distance from here, I am sure..."
"Stay put. Right here, sir. I shall be back," he said this and left.
Several minutes passed and nothing happened. I started to really worry. I knew I had been taken quite some distance away from where I was supposed to have been. But I had no choice but to wait. Then, when I was about to give up and find a way to the city, the clean-shaven Russian youth appeared. "Sir," he said. "I talked to your friend. He is still waiting for you. But first you have to clear the customs..."

Kelly confirmed that the Dushanbe plane would leave from Domodedovo, a small regional airport some two hundred kilometers from Moscow. It was already early evening when we left Sheremetyevo International but, thanks to Kelly, I had a good dinner and some rest before the taxi came to take us to the other airport.

Once Kelly left and I checked my baggage in, midnight was approaching. The small airport
was deserted. I felt alone. Looking ahead in my mind's eye, I saw nothing but pitch black
space ahead of me. I did not know exactly where I was, but, more poignantly, I did not know where I was heading for. If things up until then had been murky, from there on they looked absolutely opaque.
Secretly, however, I liked the uncertainty and I could have actually enjoyed it had it not been for the fear of getting sick, being robbed and, worse yet, getting killed. Reports from the region as well as passenger accounts that I had studied while preparing for the trip had cautioned srongly against travel beyond Moscow, definitely beyond Alma-Ata (present-day Almaty).

Early the next morning, however, I arrived in the beautiful city of Dushanbe. Dr. Askarali Rajabov of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan picked me up at the airport and took me to Hotel Tajikistan in a car provided by the Academy of Sciences. On the road we passed newly-painted buildings, freshly-washed streets, well-dressed passersby, and shops of all types announcing their merchandise in both Cyrillic and Farsi scripts. The combination of western dress and native attire created a wonderful urban and rural mix as did trucks and trolley buses versus horse-drawn carriages and carts.

"A busy place," I commented to Dr. Rajabov.
"Yes," he agreed with a pleasant smile that indicated his contentment with the state of affairs in his republic. "We are a working people. Tajiks like to work. And we are a social
people. People visit each other, discuss affairs with each other, and accomplish things. That
keeps them and the streets busy."

At the hotel, Dr. Rajabov registered me and made sure that I was well taken care of.
Before leaving he said, "Today you need to rest. You have come a long way. Everything
that you need is at the hotel. Just ask for it. I will come back tomorrow to set the schedule
for the visit."
"Thanks for coming to the airport," I said.
"By all means," he said and added, "By the way, Ustod. Let me introduce this young man. He is assigned as your guide while you are here."

Dr. Rajabov did not say the young man's name. The young man introduced himself as Rasul. Later on, I found out that Rasul had been assigned to me to make sure that I did not leave the hotel, meet with unauthorized people, or leave the city on excursions even though without my passport which they had already taken I could not go anywhere.

I accompanied Dr. Rajabov from the eighth floor to the lobby and saw him on his way. Rasul stayed in the room. My intention was to go upstairs and rest. But, before entering the elevator, two young men stopped me and asked, "Are you Ustod Bashiri?"
"I am," I said.
"We were waiting for you at the airport. We thought you had decided not to come."
"No. I am here," I said. "I was picked up by Dr. Rajabov from the Academy."
"We know. That's why we hurried back here," said one of them who identified himself as
Vose Voseov."
I knew Vose through correspondence, but had never met him. We shook hands and he introduced his friend Jamshid. "We both work at Kino Studio, friends of Margarita Kasimova, whom you met in Minneapolis."
"Yes, I know," I said, "Glad to meet you both." We then proceeded with the usual Tajik hugging and kissing.
"So, Ustod, what is your plan for the day?"
"My plan for the day is to rest and get some sleep," I said quite matter of factly.
"No, Ustod," said Vose. "That can't be. We have made plans for your stay. Right now the plan is that we go to the Varzob Valley."
"The Varzob Valley," I repeated. "But is that not far from here?"
"Not very far. We are going to stop and buy some bread and nuts and stuff, pick up Saif on the way. He is kind of our resident philosopher, and a couple of other friends from the studio and head for Varzob."

It seemed quite useless for me to argue with them. They had made my mind up for me even before meeting me! So, I said, "Can I run up and get my camera?"
"No, Ustod, no need for that. We will be going back again. You can take pictures then. This trip is strictly to welcome you to Tajikistan."

"How about Rasul?" I asked. "I understand that he is assigned to me. He is waiting upstairs."
"Don't worry about him," they said. "We will call him and let him know."
The manner in which they looked at each other when they repeated Rasul's name and smiled made me somewhat uneasy about Rasul. At the same time there was my opportunity of a lifetime to see the Varzob Valley.
"My passport, too, was taken from me."
"That stays with the hotel clerk. You really don't need it."
"O.K.," I said. "I am ready to go."
"Don't you want to take your camera?" Vose asked.
"Well,..." I said.
"That's all right," he said with the same breath. "This trip is strictly to welcome you to our
beautiful city. There will be other occasions," he continued, leading me in the direction of the door.

This first encounter told me that, unlike Middle Easterners, the Tajiks are quite simple and unceremonious. It also told me that they value friendship more than anything else. Vose had corresponded with me for some six months prior to this trip. He was a film director, as were Jamshid Usmonov and Saif Rahim.

Saif was the colorful one among the members of the group. We picked him up from his house. At thirty-five or so, he walked with a cane, although he did not limp, wore his hair and beard long, and behaved like a local Plato. Everyone asked him questions, even where to stop, where to eat, what to eat, and when to leave. Everything depended on his wishes.

As we entered the valley, Saif explained, "We are in western Tajikistan. The river's source is in the glaciers high up in the Hissar mountains ahead of us. After passing through this valley, it enters Dushanbe and joins the Kofarnihon. Together, they cross the Hissar Canal and irrigate the lands to our south and west in the Lenin, Hissar, and Regar rayons (districts).

Out of the city proper, the road meandered like a thin line at the bottom of the valley. On its right was the mountain and to its left the turbulent Varzob river. Two high mountains, decorated with beautiful tulips, bluebells, columbine, and fireweed flowers rose on each side. The fireweeds were the most visible due to their concentration in various spots and their bright purple color. The serpentine road connected Khujand and Panjekent to Dushanbe, I was told. Later on, I also learned that it connected a string of teahouses, restaurants, and soviet relaxation centers as well. In the make-shift restaurants, alongside tea and kabob, three types of delicious fish--shirmohi, gulmohi, and laqqah mohi--were also served.

For reasons that gradually emerged from our conversation, my hosts did not go far down the Varzob Valley. In fact, they stopped at the very first kabob shop, ordered vodka and kabob, and headed for the water. "Ustod," said Vose, "please touch the water and feel how cold it is!"

I ran my hand through the water. It was icy cold.
"Does the name 'Varzob' mean anything?" I asked.
"Yes, indeed it does. It means tumultuous or rushing water," said Saif and added, "there are
also other folk etymologies but, I believe, this is the best meaning for it."
I enjoyed looking at the foam-capped waves as they gushed around the boulders, roots, and shore irregularities.
"There are no impurities in this water," Jamshid added with his broken Tajik. "You can drink it as it is, very tasty."
"I am sure you can. But I don't think I will," I said, without thinking where actually I was or whether this was a proper thing to say. Meanwhile, the kabob-shop owner, having prepared a table and set the rickety chairs in place, announced that the kabobs were ready.

The relatively unceremonious mien of my companions, the early morning vodka and lamb kabob, and friendship growing out of trust and mutual understanding opened the way to a frank conversation.

"Ustod," Vose started because he was the one who knew me for a longer time than the others. "We barged in on you, not because we were unsympathetic to the fact that you need your rest and quiet after a grueling journey, but because we needed to talk to you before the others."
I was taken aback a little. "What others?" I asked.
"You see, Mr. Bashiri," said Saif drawing lines on the sand with a stick. "Technically you
are invited by the Ministry of Education to participate in the Borbad celebration. That is fine.
But in reality the Ministry invited you at the request of Kino Studio, our organization. So, we thought we should get to talk to you first and set the agenda for you."
"So what am I to say to them?"
"Nothing, Vose said with a note of finality. "We just want you to know how you got here.
They already know what we are telling you. So, from now on until you leave, we want you
to feel free to ask us for anything that you need."
"That's fine with me," I said. "But can I still attend the conference, give my paper, participate in the ceremonies and the..."
"Of course you can," said Jamshid whose contributions to the conversations were hampered by his being a native Uzbek in Dushanbe. "The thing is that some of the things that they do are less interesting than what we can arrange. So, maybe, you want to pick and choose."
"O.K., I am with you," I said. "What is the plan then?"
"First of all," said Saif, "our Boss, Davlat, is not here. He has been sick and is convalescing. He would like to see you. In fact, he was very instrumental in bringing you here. You need to set a day towards the end aside to visit with him."
"Can you tell me roughly what kinds of things he is interested in?" I asked. "I am coming cold into this thing. As a scholar of the region, I have certain interests and maybe able to accommodate certain others..."
"Nothing extraordinary. The last couple of decades, with the help of Davlat Khudanazarov and before that with the assistance of Bensiyon Arievich Kimiyagarov, our studio has produced a series of films on the Shahname of Firdowsi," said Saif. "We are interested in introducing these productions into the world market. We thought you might be able to help us in this."
"I might, once I know more about them," I said.
"Rustam and Suhrob," the story of "Siyavosh" in two parts, and the like."
"There are also a number of documentaries like "Ustod," the life history of the famous poet Abulqasim Lahuti and about Tajik history," added Jamshid.
"Are these films in Tajiki or Russian?"
"It depends. Some are in Russian."
"Do they have English subtitles?" I asked.
"Can they be subtitled?"
"They can," said Vose. "But that requires funds, which is one thing we are seeking. Besides, all such changes require permission."
"I think," I said, "I already see a couple of major problems that we need to talk about before
anything else.
"Exactly. And that's why we thought you need to talk to Davlat.

The conversation then turned away from me and centered itself on the agenda for the next few days. "He should visit the studio and become acquainted with our work in general. Also, Margarita is returning; she said before she left that she would like to see him," said Vose.
"That can be done tomorrow," said Jamshid.
"I think he should spend a day with a Tajik family and see how we live. My family is looking forward to his visit one of these days," said Saif, adding, "besides, I think Ustod and I have a lot in common in Zoroastrian studies. I would like to talk a few points over with him about the old cultures of the region."
"Fine," said Jamshid. Let's say one day there."
"And all of you, too, are invited," said Saif.
"We shall cross that bridge when we come to it," said Vose. "
"And I think we should take Ustod to Narak."
"You mean the town?"
"And the dam."
"But that is not allowed."
"We can do it. He can be a visiting actor. He can sit in the back seat. I'll do the talking," said Saif. The others agreed.
"I was hoping to make a trip to Bukhara and Samarqand," I said. "Is that a possibility?"
"You will be going to Samarqand. That's in the itinerary. Bukhara, however, is not ready for visitors. Besides, without your passport in your hand you will not be able to go anywhere, even out of the hotel."
"O, I see. I forgot that part," I said.
"And we will leave Ustod a whole afternoon in the care of Vose to show him the center of Tajik culture, our beautiful Choikhonas (teahouses)," said Saif, as he got up and motioned the driver to get ready to leave.
"With pleasure," said Vose, showing a genuine delight to have brought me to Varzob, all the way from Minneapolis.

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