No Blue Mondays in Dushanbe: Up, Running and Ready to Research in Tajikistan

After a few annoying travel mishaps (Turkish Airlines screwed up with my baggage, leaving me to inhabit the same sweaty pair of jeans and a polo shirt for several days), I’ve landed in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, ready to begin Round One of the last big push of dissertation research. While Dushanbe is, well, a bit short on attractions, and while the summer weather means it’s sweltering by ten or eleven in the morning, I’m excited to dive in.

In terms of concrete academic work, beyond taking courses in Persian to improve my knowledge of that language and revising existing dissertation chapters in the evenings (… I hope), I’ll be looking through archives to examine how economists and policymakers in the Soviet Union thought about economic development in this, the poorest and most economically backwards Union Republic throughout the existence of the USSR. While some might find that question on its own interesting, what I’m hoping to do is to paint a small picture of how élites tried to manage ‘development’ in the Tajik SSR in the 1960s and 1970s, so as to set that in comparative context with Afghanistan and Iran, the two other Persian-speaking countries and ones that had their own development challenges, but which they approached in very, very different ways. Add to that the hunt for former Soviet advisers on projects in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and it should make for a pleasant six-week wild goose chase both in the archives as well as elsewhere around the country, before setting off to bigger, wealthier, and more glamorous neighboring Uzbekistan for more of the same for a month, before departing to Moscow.

Beyond all of the academic stuff, though, it’s fascinating to be in a city and country so different from most I’ve been in. Dushanbe (the name means ‘Monday’ in Persian, hence the title of this blog post) is becoming more and more a weird pastiche of 1950s-era pastel-hued Stalinist Italianate Neo-Classical ministries and apartment buildings, 1960s and 1970s-era falling-apart apartment complexes, libraries, and academic institutions, many of which are in increasingly desperate condition, and – even moreso than when I was here the last time – an emerging neoliberal topography to the city: fancy private banks, a swank condominium complex whose gym I splurged on a membership to, and the Lexus and Mercedes SUVs that zip from one to the other.

Italy in Central Asia: one example of the bizarre architecture of Tajikistan’s capital

It all makes for a schizophrenic montage. I can begin the day in a well-equipped gym watching Polish (or Italian, or Kazakh, or Chinese) pop music videos on the TV screens built into the Chinese treadmills. But as I make my way to the office of IREX (the organization sponsoring my research here), I walk by people selling kvas (a Russian fermented beverage) out of very industrial, utilitarian-looking tanks. Frequently, there are no disposable cups – the beverage seller (there are also vendors selling cherry nectar) simply reuses the same glass again and again, maybe giving it a token dunk in a questionable-looking vat of water. After checking my e-mail and making any phone calls to the West, it will be (assuming my letters of introduction are in order … always an uncertainty here) off on a creaky 1960s-era bus to the archive, where a day of work is punctuated by lunch in a ‘worker’s cafeteria’, where the prices are cheap, the food generally delicious, but the financial setup of the institution (who owns it? does it need to make a profit? how does it buy its food?) remains unclear. After another bus ride, I’m doing work in a posh Italian café over a teapot of black tea, and by the evening, I’m back at my host family’s home, reading novels on my Kindle under apple trees and trying not to have a falling piece of fruit bonk me in the head.

It’s true that there are friends and places from Oxford that I miss, but the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ is, maybe too frequently, a place where my days are often too predictable, or where it’s supremely difficult to put together the kind of eclectic day that I like best. In Los Angeles, it might involve Salvadorean Cuisine, looking through Special Collections at the LA Public Library to see stuff that Spanish missionaries wrote, all followed by chilling with friends over Korean food closer to the beach. Here in Dushanbe, it’s about similarly obscure research, rotating my way through the Turkish, Korean, Indian, Chinese, and Central Asian restaurants here, frantically downing tea and water to beat the crushing, dusty heat – and waking up before it gets too hot again the next day to repeat it all. If only the introductions to the archives (the big challenge for next week) go well, I should be set – and that’s even before getting into a likely trip to Khujand, the second city of Tajikistan located in the even more sweltering Ferghana Valley.

Sanitation be damned, we want our kvas! Upgrade these tanks with mango lassis or coconut boba tea and I’ll be set …

There might be a tad fewer blog updates from me over the coming months, as I have only intermittent Internet access here. Further, once (if?) I get access to the various archives around town, my time is better served by actually going to them and looking through the relevant documents than engaging in navel gazing. Still, I hope to keep updating as frequently as possible as ideas for essays and posts arise.


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