With hindsight, it was surprising that we had no plans for Dušanbe; it was meant to be the last leg of our journey, a simple stop-gap, an interlude between the last leg of the Highway and the flight home. In a tightly-packed schedule, Dušanbe stood out with a simple question mark. Not knowing what to do, we began by walking the city.
It was only fitting that a strange nation had a strange capital. From an architectural point of view, Dušanbe was a confused melange of styles, a hosh-posh of half-hearted Soviet cityscaping – the usual wide boulevards and stuccoed buildings – combined with Tajik profligacy under the form of one-storey compounds only minimally more florid than those of Murghab. Here and there this texture was peppered with examples of a new style that I’d christened “New Tajik Stalinism”, the country’s approach to the sort of megalomania that seemed all the rage throughout the region as newly-independent nations tried, with various degrees of success, to build their own national identity.
It so happened that a stroll in Dušanbe would begin under the shades of a tree-lined alley, where buildings like TSUM Magazin and the Opera stood sentry, dusty relics of a long-gone colonial past. It would continue past neat rows of houses, each with their own bread kiln, pergola and veggie patch. A quick traverse of the bazaar would ensue, where the stench of over-ripe meat soon gave way to glorious mounds of fruit and bread, and where storytellers patrolled the stalls, playing the komuz and picking raspberries for bulging buckets. It would then end in a downtown park, contoured by official buildings looking like a cheaper, hurried version of the White House, under the watchful eye of a colossal statue of Ismail Somoni, in the shadow of the world’s largest flag, obviously hanging from the world’s tallest flagpole.
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It felt all but genuine and all but open. A cloud of circumspection hung above the city, something we hadn’t seen elsewhere in the country, not even where the Afghan border was a handful of meters away, and the Taliban rumoured not to be too far behind.
Our cameras drew a lot of attention. Security guards stopped us in the bazaar, struggled with our GoPros and then kicked us out. Cops chased us away from monuments, or waved us closer if they caught us approaching something even remotely official-looking. All was done with indolence and half-heartedly, as if they had a job to do but, really, couldn’t be arsed to perform it.
It felt a greater deal more serious for the locals. Conversations with the throngs of youths who loitered about the hostel proved that the longa manu of the law weighted a great deal more on them than on foreigners. I sported a long, ruffled beard, fruit of weeks without so much of a razor. This, they told me, wasn’t allowed for them, who were required – by law – to shave, lest a goatee led automatically to Salafism. For similar reasons, youngsters under the age of 18 weren’t allowed to attend the mosque, or even pray. Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, was allowed only for pensioners. Tajikistan preached atheism to teenagers and, if the reverse psychology that works so well for all schoolkids was to be followed, was succeeding in being the only country making religion cool to the eyes of millenials.
It wasn’t long before the atmosphere began to infect us. We stopped bringing cameras with us, and learned to change sidewalk whenever we spotted more than three cops hanging around together. What lied behind all this secrecy, this paranoia? Banning religion was only likely to make it more desirable to those who were prevented from approaching it and as far as photography went, it was anyone’s guess. It was possible to understand that, perhaps, those gigantic murals of President Rahmon weren’t to be photographed, but what about the apricots at the bazaar, or the Arc de Triomphe-Esque monument to Ismail Somoni?
Perhaps the reason was that, like it’s often the case with fabricated heritage, the link between Tajikistan and the great Samanid king was a feeble one, and that the powers that be didn’t want to trump it too much, lest its cover was blown. Or, perhaps, it was a long-lasting inheritance to the Soviet Union, whose motto seemed to have been “Prohibit and intimidate first, think second”.