Omeed Alidadi (Dushanbe Spring 2017)
Eurasian Regional Language Program alumnus Omeed Alidadi discusses his time abroad in Tajikistan and how his Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship helped him gain a sense of understanding and belonging halfway across the world .
About a month ago I returned to the United States after studying abroad for a semester in Tajikistan. The Republic of Tajikistan is a small landlocked country in Central Asia surrounded by Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Like many of its neighbors, Tajikistan was formerly a part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. It has a population of around 8.5 million people and its official religion is Islam. While many Tajiks speak fluent Russian and consume Russian media daily, Tajiki is the official language. And although Tajiki is closely related to Persian (Farsi), the official language of Iran, Tajiks no longer use Arabic script, instead opting to write in Cyrillic.
Still, the country shares long cultural and linguistic ties with Iran. Don't be alarmed if walking around the streets of Dushanbe — the country's capital — you feel as if you were in Tehran. Structures such as the Chaikhona Rohat, an old traditional teahouse, as well as monuments to great poets and kings, including Rudaki and Cyrus the Great — remind you of Tajikistan's historical past. Tajikistan's borders were once part of the ancient Persian Empire before it was conquered by Alexander the Great a few thousand years ago.
Omeed showing off some school pride in Tajikistan.
Looking back, I didn't know much about Tajikistan before I chose to study there. As a student learning Persian (Farsi), my options were limited. The language is only commonly spoken in three countries: Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. Of those three, Tajikistan is the most common destination for Americans. For instance, the U.S. Department of State even sponsors a program, the Critical Language Scholarship, which sends approximately thirty Americans there each summer.
Still, I couldn't find much information about the country online. I soon realized there is little information on the subject of Tajikistan or Central Asia as a whole. The five "-stans" in the region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are just not that frequently talked about on the news or in social media. And still, while films like Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat try to help us learn about, for example, Kazakh culture or customs, there is still a major gap. We lack a fundamental understanding of a region that is studied mainly because of its proximity to an unstable Afghanistan — a critical national security concern to the U.S. government, as well as its history under Soviet control.
For these reasons, I knew I couldn't stay at home and simply wait for another report from an American think tank or leading Central Asian scholar to be published. No amount of YouTube videos, blogs, or op-eds would satisfy my growing curiosity. I had to see this region firsthand in order to answer the questions that continued to perplex me. Is the region as weak and underdeveloped as we believe? Are signs of corruption and Islamic extremism rampant? Who has the edge in this region — the U.S. or Russia — and what are some of their public affairs initiatives?
And no — I couldn't back out at the last minute and opt for a study abroad adventure somewhere that felt seemingly closer to home — Barcelona, Rome, or Paris. I needed the most authentic cultural immersion experience you could imagine. Studying in Dushanbe for a semester was an opportunity I could not pass up.
Omeed watching a buzkashi match, a traditional Central Asian sport.
Still, I'd be joking if I told you I wasn't a little nervous to leave my friends and family and live with a host family on the other side of the world — a place where people not only speak differently, but also think differently. Where little acts of respect, such as placing your left hand on your heart when shaking a stranger's hand, and offering women and the elderly your seat on the bus, are valued greatly and taught at an early age. This is a society where, through the practice of arranged marriages, men and women marry in their late teens and early twenties, and where — according to the World Bank — the average Tajik makes less than $1000 a year.
Nonetheless, I tried my best to put these fears and reservations behind me. When I arrived in Dushanbe after a long flight from JFK, I was greeted by our program director, who saved us from a sea of Tajik taxi drivers who formed a ring around us as we left the baggage claim area. Once we regrouped, the six of us — five students in total — found our way to the parking lot. As our van left the Dushanbe International Airport, we started to get our first glimpses of the city. The city was modern, yet the amount of old and gray Soviet-looking buildings was astonishing. Admittedly, it was still six in the morning and all of us were still extremely jet-lagged, overcoming a ten-hour time difference. When I reached my new home, my host mom opened the door and helped me carry my luggage through her small courtyard. Few words were exchanged between us as I climbed up the stairs and entered the room I would call my own for the next four months. With little introduction, I went right to bed and waiting anxiously for the next day's activities.
In hindsight, words cannot express the thoughts running through my head as I woke up the next morning and slowly crept downstairs, trying to navigate the corridors of my new home as I searched for the family room, the nucleus of a Tajik house, and where the majority of my daily (and sometimes awkward) interactions with my host family took place. This is where my host mother introduced me to Tajik cuisine and where my host father would talk to me about Tajik history for hours long after we finished our meals. His stories about the Soviet era always captivated me — how open borders permitted him to travel across the region and attend Moscow State University for free. Other perks included free universal healthcare, regular food stamps, and equality before the law.
As we sipped traditional Tajik green tea, I felt like I was traveling back in time, uncovering parts of their cultural identity. It was during these moments that I started to feel more comfortable and excited about living in Tajikistan. It wasn't until I was completely immersed — i.e. watching Russian media daily, volunteering at local community centers, and spending time with my host brother and his friends — that I felt like I understood what it was like to be Tajik.
Omeed and other Eurasian Regional Language Program participants on an excursion to the Pamir Mountains in the eastern region of Tajikistan.
This feeling of not only belonging but understanding was a major inflection point of the semester. As I became more familiar with my surroundings, I started to take more risks, embarking on activities I've never done before. I hiked, rode Tajik horses, met an Argentine priest while on a weekend road trip, and traveled along the Pamir Highway — an incredibly scenic and beautiful route along the Afghan border. We even saw Kyrgyz nomads and stayed in small towns 10,000 feet above sea level. Above all, my most memorable memories from Tajikistan stem from my experiences playing soccer with local Tajiks, and hanging out at the fair with some of my closest students at the American Corner, Dushanbe — a place I regularly volunteered at.
While studying abroad in Tajikistan isn't for anyone, I hope that you may still learn from the experiences abroad. Studying outside of the U.S. and living in a foreign environment are no easy tasks. One must be prepared to make mistakes and oftentimes look foolish. But in the process of "becoming" a local, you will notice changes in your ability to navigate cultural differences. You will learn more about how the rest of the world works, and how the people from such places live very unique lives. And, above all, you will learn exciting ways to lend a hand and develop meaningful relationships with others. Hey, you never know — you might become the next biggest celebrity of Tajikistan or Kazakhstan in the process.
About Fulbright-Hays Scholarships from American Councils
American Councils for International Education has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, to provide scholarships for advanced overseas Russian and Persian language study. Learn more about the eligibility requirements here.
About Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad
The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, commonly referred to as the Fulbright-Hays Act, was made law by the 87th U.S. Congress under President John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1961. Senator J. William Fulbright and Representative Wayne Hays introduced the legislation, which represents the basic charter for U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. 2016 marks the 55th anniversary of this landmark legislation. More information about Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad can be found here.