No Country for Honest Men

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No Country for Honest Men
Story by Marco Ferrarese, photos by Kit Yeng Chan



In Tajikistan, an unmarried couple learns quickly that a small lie can go a long way in keeping gender balance—and sanity—on the road


Tajikstan travel

I never imagined that a Couchsurfing experience would put the udders of a Tajik cow in my girlfriend's hands.

 

"Try again. You have to pull hard and rub the tip before each stroke," suggests Sam, our host. He stands between me and the bovine under a blazing mid-morning sun. On the horizon behind us a line of cracked, hash-grey mountains separate the northern Sughd district of Tajikistan from Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley. Hat slanting over his forehead, an ear of corn dangling from his lips, Sam monitors the scene with the military rigor of those who'd never dirty their hands doing such menial work.

That's stuff for women: like a proverbial deus ex machina, our new friend's wife walks towards my girlfriend Kit, kneels besides her to help her complete her first-time milking, a job designed for their subordinate kind. To this hardened young woman, the udder feels like a well-oiled machine: with a few strokes, the milk sprays out of the teats and fills the tin bucket she stuck between the clods. "Grab, pull firmly, and milk it," the wife gestures to teach us the basics of 'Milking for Dummies'. But when Kit has her umpteenth go at it, the udders turn into dry, finger-like oblong hoses. Maybe the job only applies to local women?

 

"It feels like pulling a rubber glove," Kit comments as she moves a lock of hair away from her lucid forehead. The wife, still smiling with mercy, takes off the teat from her hands, and the milk magically starts pouring anew.

 

milking cow

"Can I try?" I ask. I barely take two steps in the cow's direction when the animal slips off the wife's expert hands, dashing ten meters forward. That's how I realize that in Tajikistan, besides preferring local hands, cows also respect this society's well-separated gender roles.


In the Valley of the Golden-Toothed Ultra-Vixens

We arrived in the remote northern Sughd valley of Tajikistan after accepting the invitation of Sam—our host's fictitious English name—by detouring 80 km to the north of Khujand. Truth be told, we didn't mind getting out of our way west to experience the hospitality of such a remote member of Couchsurfing, the famous hospitality network. We were well aware that we'd find a rural and conservative society, but not such a huge crack between male and female roles.

We meet Sam at the dusty roadside of his one-horse town. He gets out of his car alone, his baseball hat painting a globalized stroke over his otherwise very traditionally attired persona.

Sam

"Glad to see you here," he greets us in pretty good English. It's a pleasure to be finally able to communicate with a citizen of Tajikistan after the limited array of "helo", "auaiou" and "uatsiorneim" we have heard since the Kyrgyz border. "Couchsurfers generally change their minds as soon as they find out I live so far out of Khujand," he explains. As the good Muslim he is, he shakes hands with me and puts his open palm over his heart to greet Kit, the woman. Someone he certainly doesn't dare touch.

Sam's house doesn't show its quaint opulence from the outside. High walls conceal an inner courtyard where two generations live together… or so it seems. When Sam opens the tall gates, we enter into a big courtyard where wooden trellises laden with huge grapes rise creating a natural shelter from the blistering sun. The father, mother, Sam's wife and his two sisters stand in single-file before us, keeping a composed yet warm expression. The women touch Kit's hands, while the father only comes forward to shake mine. He doesn't dare look at my girlfriend until I make introductions, but even then, he keeps still and distant.

"You must be tired," Sam says. "Let me prepare your bath."

We notice that behind us, the family's beasts of burden roam free between the garden and a dedicated shed at the back of the house. All around, a series of doors show that there are a number of different quarters. We help Sam unload some water tanks from his car's trunk. That's the family's daily supply, and also our shower. Getting clean is an oxymoron: we are ushered with great care into a big bathroom with red carpets, purple walls and a golden claw foot tub equipped with all sorts of bath and beauty products. What is missing, however, is plumbing. gold teethNothing to worry about though, because Sam promptly comes in, setting two buckets filled with cold water and ladles on the floor.

Once refreshed, it's time for real social skills. Sam's mother doesn't speak a word of English and has a row of golden teeth that dazzles me every time she smiles under the bright lights of the dining room. She has placed an endless series of cups on the low table around which we are all crouching. Pistachios, walnuts, raisins, fruits, candies, big and small grapes and huge slabs of succulent watermelon lay before us, ready to bring us down into the maelstrom of the welcome tea ceremony. A fat white jug painted with the blue arabesque lines that mark the borders of the world from Andijan to Mashhad towers like an emperor over a court of saucers. And here comes the bread: a few days old, round and hard, almost impossible to chew. You have to suck it up to dissolve it into edible chunks, but that's all part of the ceremony.  The mother loosens her tight smile as soon as we start eating, and shades of gold command for more consumption.




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