Clay Westrope is a M.A. Candidate in Sustainable International Development at the Heller School for Social Policy & Management.
“Parranda,” he says, pointing to the gray and white dove hopping from branch to branch of the grape trellis above.
“Gul,” he says, plucking a brightly colored red flower from the lush central courtyard of his home.
“Ahh, flower! It’s beautiful,” I say with a feeling of relief, thinking to myself that I’ve got the hang of this whole Tajik thing.
This is usually how my conversations go with Anvar, the owner of the home in which I’m currently living and the father of my Tajik teacher, Hayom. Basic as they may be, I have grown to understand him, his family and Tajik culture much better through our simple exchanges of mutual understanding.
But then there are those moments when both myself and the person to whom I’m speaking are at loss for understanding . . .
“His kidney hurts because he just got married,” Hayom says, with a devious smile while holding his lower back.
“His kidney? Gurda? Or do you mean lower back? Pusht?” I ask with a look of complete confusion.
“Yes, kindney! Gurda!” He exclaims, continuing to smile a mischievous smile.
Hmm, either the Tajik wedding night involves something a whole lot more risky than its American counterpart or I’ve been missing out on something. Or maybe it’s just lost in translation.
Through the travels I have been fortunate enough to experience, I have often found that human understanding transcends the limitations of language and translation if there is a genuine attempt to do so. There are times, however, when simple communication fails to convey the needs and desires of a person or a group of people. It is often our unwillingness to listen or to attempt to understand the other person that causes misunderstanding or conflict. This happens both within the same culture among people speaking the same language as well as between people from different traditions around the world.
Tajikistan is currently embroiled in a conflict of misunderstanding, unwillingness to listen and fear of what would happen if the other side got what it wants. The conflict seems to lie between the government and those who desire a more deliberate Islamic influence on the laws and traditions of the country. This also happens to be largely between a small minority of the individuals who were on the losing side of the civil war and the current administration.
Tajikistan has experienced some of the worst violence in the past month since its civil war ended in 1997. From bombs in the northern city of Khujand to a bomb at a nightclub in Dushanbe to the ambush and subsequent killing of 28 troops in the restive Rasht Valley east of Dushanbe, the government is growing increasingly paranoid and is falling back on its usual rhetoric denouncing the activities of “Islamic militants”. There are reports that recent directives have prohibited the wearing of hijab in some regions of the country and encouraged the parents of students at foreign madrassas to bring their children home. While the veracity of these reports is still in question, what is clear is that the government is growing increasingly nervous of the country’s movement toward more conservative Muslim traditions (especially among the youth) as the country moves further away from Soviet influence.
It is unclear as to who exactly has been engaging government troops in fighting the past month, but what is clear is that they don’t intend to stop their attacks until their desires are at least given an ear. I am certainly not advocating for an Islamic state or the implementation of policies intended to force traditional values and traditions on the country’s populace – quite the contrary. The reality is that the majority of people in Tajikistan are wholeheartedly opposed to radical Islam. The individuals that are perpetrating these acts of violence are squarely in the minority, but their feeling of being ignored or marginalized by the government are shared by a much larger number of people. The voices of opposition groups left over from the war have largely been ignored and their dissatisfaction has spread. Moreover, youth who are presented with few options for employment, have turned to more radical forms of Islam as an alternative to the current situation and as a referendum on the government, largely viewed as corrupt and morally deficient. It seems that the current heavy-handed approach by the government against Islamists has proven to be counter-productive and may actually be inflaming feelings of disapproval by the majority and acts of violence by a small minority. This disfavor has even brought in radical Islamist sympathizers from regions such as Chechnya and Afghanistan. Military power may suppress the current acts of violence for a while, but the motivation behind those attacks will remain.
It is my hope that both sides will make the effort to listen to each other and find common understanding. Yes, this may be overly simplistic and perhaps a bit too idealistic, but unless there is an attempt to understand and be understood; to listen and be heard; to have both a voice and an ear, it all risks being lost in translation.