Page 2 - No Country for Honest Men

No Country for Honest Men — Page 2
Story by Marco Ferrarese, photos by Kit Yeng Chan



Tajikstan travel

Sam finally comes back with his young wife. Her face is a pale oval under a dark yellow scarf wrapped around her head in that pirate-like way that only the Muslim women of Central Asia know. She brings in another tray full of crispy cookies and other delicacies, while Sam moves aside to let her continue with the honors. That's not a man's job, obviously. After bending forward over the table to cut more watermelon slices, the wife withdraws the leftovers from our plates, and ceremoniously refills our cups to the brim with more fresh tea. Once all's taken care of, she can sit next to the mother.

Both look at us smug and anxious: even if by now our stomachs are almost full, we know that the only way to maintain the good vibes is eating more. Didn't we want to Couchsurf in such a remote place? Well then, this is the time to suck it up.

meal

I let myself sink in the hard cotton of the silky cushions where Tajiks sit, eat and sleep. I cross my legs and start picking food from each saucer, one by one, as Kit follows suit. With our mouths full and feeling more and more satiated, we glance back at mother and wife. They finally get up pushing the flap of their loose dresses between their legs, bow at us, and then exit the room without looking back. After the women are gone, Sam can leave the room, too. Perhaps we have survived the first battle.


Damn the Importance of being Earnest

We spend the evening jumping between village households, showed around as two exotic trophies from a faraway outside world, until sleeping time. Sam drops the bomb right after we return to his home.

"You are married, aren't you?" I'm exhausted, and I let my guard down.

"No," I answer without thinking twice. I have just made a big mistake. Indeed, since crossing from China into Kyrgyzstan, we had decided to tell everybody that we are husband and wife. It's a small precaution to have all the cards in place and avoid unnecessary hassle while traveling in Muslim nations where single women travelers are seen as low class, very available itinerant prostitutes.

My honest answer, however, brings the ice age back into the room. Raising an eyebrow, Sam stares at me with his mouth half open trying to muster the right words. At the end, he makes a decision that burns like napalm.

"Okay, I understand. She will have a bed next to my mother and my sisters. And you… you can sleep next to my father. I am married and I will sleep with my wife." The last bit sounds emphatically sarcastic.

"Sam, I'm sorry. You want us to split up? We just want to sleep."

"Yes, but you're not married."

"And then?"

"Then you must sleep in separate rooms. That's the rule. "

"Look," I try to have the last word, "I really appreciate your concern, but I'd rather sleep next to her tonight. We are not married, but we've been living together for years."

"Impossible. We are Muslims," Sam gets defensive.

"Well," I play it all out, "you are, but we are not. And we just want to sleep."

Sam is undecided. He's struggling between respecting Islamic piousness and his love of Western culture, the same that prompts him to wear a baseball hat and invite foreigners to his home via Couchsurfing. He doesn't know whether or not he can morally accept my request.

Tajikstan town

In the end, without a word, he turns around and disappears beyond the door. When, instead of him, his wife returns brandishing blankets and pillows, I receive Sam's answer. Our fate has been decided. The wife grabs Kit's hand and pulls her away with her. I am left to wait in the room until Sam's father comes in. I gulp down when I realize he's only wearing a wife beater and a pair of shorts. Is this my punishment for having confronted Sam's authority?

Daddy waves at me, smiles under his thick moustache, sits down and turns the TV on. A Russian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire flickers on the screen. Damn you Sam, what did I do to deserve this?

I have no choice: I crawl on the floor, lay on my mattress while a relentless meat grinder of Russian blasts out of the TV speakers for almost an hour. And when it finally ends, I start hearing the chainsaw. It's the father, who drifted off to sleep, remote in hand, snoring like a metal blade tearing Siberian lumber apart.


Departing as One, or Two?

The next morning, I wake up early to find Kit waiting in the common room. Her sleepy eyes tell me that the ladies in the family were no less noisy than my lumberjack. We silently agree that it's time to leave.

We find Sam in the garden: at first, he seems a bit hurt by my request, but then agrees to drop us at the junction where we will take a marshrutka back to Khujand. The wife is mother cowwaiting next to him holding the car keys, but when it's time to get moving, it's Sam who jumps in the driver's seat. I just ask a most obvious question.

"Does she know how to drive?"

"Of course not," Sam says. "If she learns, she could take my car and leave anytime," he laughs, but we don't, petrifying in the backseat.

We part ways with Sam on the same dusty road where he picked us up the day before, wishing him and family all the best. We immediately notice that among the other waiting passengers, men stand in one group, and women in another a bit farther away up the road. We stand holding hands next to each other for a moment, and then I let go of Kit to join the row of wistful males.

I have learned my lesson. Who am I to go against the flow in a valley where even cows respect precise gender roles?



Marco Ferrarese is author of subcultural noir Nazi Goreng, freelance travel and culture writer, and metalpunk guitar-slinger based in Southeast Asia. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, hung out with Kurt Cobain's alleged murderer, and rode with truck drivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.


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Cutting the Cheese Mongolian Style by Marco Ferrarese

See other Asia travel stories from the archives


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