The holiday season in Tajikistan is somewhat different than back home. The first thing to remember is that this is a Muslim country, so Christmas does not get any attention at all. Last week was a normal week at the office.
However, New Year’s is a different story. The end of the year and the beginning of a new one brings much celebration and many festivities.
The first and most obvious of these is the endless firecrackers that can be heard all day in most parts of the city. For those of you seeking a civil war experience, it sounds enough like small arms fire to satisfy your quest for adventure without the adoption of any real risks. The frequency of these fireworks skirmishes has been on the rise, with an endless battle being fought all through the day today. Fortunately it has not escalated into any larger a conflict.
The second thing you notice is the appearance of many Santa Clauses (known in Russian as “Santa Claus” in a sort of gutteral way) all over the city. Both in picture on signs and banners and in real life with people wearing costumes. The main difference is that these Santa Clauses is that they are somewhat less rotund than back home and they can’t say “What do you want for Christmas, little boy?” because they don’t celebrate Christmas and the don’t speak English. They do, however, seem to go around handing out treats and walnuts, which are easy to open even in the absence of a nutcracker because your apartment and office walls are made of concrete. This is great, even if for no other reason than your mother would never let you do this at home.
The other difference is that these Santa Clauses go around drinking shots of vodka at every opportunity, which the average mall Santa in North American might have trouble getting away with. Now that’s not to say that the average mall Santa doesn’t sneak shots of vodka, but he would have to be far more secretive about it to keep his job than these fellows over here.
The other obvious benefit of no Christmas celebration in this part of the world is that it greatly lightens Santa’s load on Christmas Eve. We may think he’s bringing gifts to all the children in the world on that one night, but he’s actually saving a good chunk of the world for a week later. I think this is in his collective agreement.
For New Year’s, our office held a party at a local restaurant on the 30th. Back home we might have had a private room or something, but here we were set up at a bunch of connected tables located sort of in the middle of the room. In the corner was a small stage containing an electronic keyboard and some speakers. We started to arrive a bit after 6 pm. There was already food on our tables.
Not even everyone had arrived when some members of the group decided to start eating. The rest of the group trickled in, and we ate various cold meat slices, breads, salads, etc. The vodka flowed. Eventually, a small band started playing Russian pop, traditional Tajik music, and other random tunes. I even recognized a couple. The band was all men: one on the keyboard, one played sax and clarinet, and two roamed the room with wireless mikes and sang. People (especially the Russians in the room) started dancing crazily. This went on for a while, and then the games began.
First a Santa Claus figure appeared. After a while, a bleached blonde woman with a squeaky voice took over running the show. She ran various contests amid the dancing, while Santa Claus ran around doing vodka shots with the audience. Then a crazy Monkey Man with a banana appeared. He ran around the room, pretending to pick fleas out of people’s hair and eating them. More dancing. And then the Chicken Man(?) appeared. He cruised the room clucking occasionally.
Monkey – Note the vodka glass in Santa’s hand
I believe this is going to be the Year of the Chicken. A traffic circle spotted last Sunday features a large multi-coloured chicken.
After watching a bunch of grown men have vodka drinking contests from baby bottles, Max and I decided to go. We slipped out, and ran into one of our local colleagues outside. He volunteered to help us find a taxi. Walking over the to curb, he flagged down the first passing car. After a few words with the driver telling him where we were going and negotiating the fare, he told that that it would cost 5 Somoni (less than US$2) for the whole trip. (Back home, the meter starts running at a higher amount than this.)
The driver then opened his door, got out, attached a magnetized illuminated taxi sign to the roof, we hopped in, and away we went.
On the 31st, after a day at the office listening to endless firecrackers, I went home briefly to get my webcam and saw that all over the city there were various fireworks being fired off balconies, people (young men) throwing fireworks at each other and passing cars, and hundreds of people standing around the Somoni monument across from the Parliament shooting off fireworks right from the middle of the crowd. No fire marshalls here, so there’s lots of fun and games (oh yeah, at least until somebody loses an eye – right mom).
After a late dinner (more turkey – I think the Chief of Party slaughtered an entire turkey farm), three of us headed out about 11 pm to check out the official festivities. Walking from my apartment, we headed up toward Rudaki, where the street had been blocked off by the strategic placement of city slinky buses – the ones with the bend in the middle. There were many police on the streets. An old Russian army truck towing what looked like a water cannon drove by.
In the midst of all this, it was a continuous cacaphony of firecrackers (remember the small arms fire). Little boys throwing firecrackers at each other, trying to toss them right under their mothers’ and sisters’ skirts and scare them. The air was thick with firecracker smoke.
Walking down Rudaki, we can to the central square between the Parliament buildings and the Somoni monument (the big arch in earlier photos). More police presence, including a quick pat down by one officer. A stage had been set up under the big video screen that graces the square and various acts were performing Russian pop, traditional Tajik, and many other kinds and styles of music. A light show was going on involving the use of green lasers, and there were costumed dancers on and off the stage. It felt like we could have been just about anywhere in the world, including the fact that I didn’t recognize the songs or understand the lyrics.
The square was jammed with people – about 80 percent of them young men wearing various combinations of black leather jackets who had too much alcohol in their systems. In an effort to avoid getting a firecracker in the eye, we tried to stay near groups of families or women, who tended to be somewhat less rambunctious than the male groups. There were bizarre shows of machismo involving some kind of dancing duels. To the outside observer, these dances would not be classified anywhere close to displays of machismo, but Victor’s observation (Victor is a Latino from Costa Rica) is that Tajikistan is an even more macho culture than his own – something he didn’t think was possible.
Everywhere you looked you could identify what would be violations of various laws and bylaws back home. People were firing off fireworks, right out of the middle of the crowd, and the din of firecrackers never let up. People walked by with open bottles of beer and it was obvious that there were other mixed drinks making the rounds of small packs of young men.
Other people were busy taking photographs and videotaping the festivities with video cameras, digital cameras and camera phones that obviously cost more than a few months’ worth of the minimum wage. For a society in which the minimum wage is US$4 per month, the display of relative affluence in this crowd was obvious. However, this display is not unique to this crowd – I would say it is generally felt right across the city, except for the old men digging around in my garbage dumpster for scraps of food. And since I saw at least 2 BMW X5 SUV’s within minutes of leaving the event, there is some money floating around in this economy, legitimate and not.
At midnight, there was a great fireworks display that was at least on a par with fireworks displays back home in Regina (although this may not be saying much). (See photo in previous entry.) The great thing about the show here is that they didn’t belabour the situation. They fired them off with as much gusto and speed as possible. The show didn’t last as long as at home, but it was much more exciting. Within a few minutes, the crowd began to disperse as many headed for home.
We joined them, planning to drop Elizabeth off at her apartment (up a flight of stairs and around corners in the pitch dark – this will be the subject of a future entry) before Victor and I would head for home. We were getting ready to leave when we received a call warning about violent riots in the square. Victor is a veteran of various political skirmishes in Nicaragua and other places, so we decided to set out for home anyway.
Other than the continuing sound of firecrackers (which almost seem normal by now), nothing really seemed out of place and we made our way home safely. Rudaki was open to traffic again, and people seemed to be headed home.
Apparently many fights broke out between drunk partiers and drunk police officers. Both sides started beating each other up. We heard later that two sons and a nephew of a colleague had joined the festivities and got swarmed by a group of over 60 young men. After being pummelled about, they ran for it while yelling into their cell phones to their mother that they were in trouble. Their father jumped in the vehicle and raced down to pick them up. They were OK, but it could have been worse.
It was a different way to spend New Year’s, but interesting nonetheless.