Friday, November 20, 2009

Kurgan-Teppa, Part One

Maybe it's strange to have waited so many months to write about my trip, but I was in Tajikistan in May and June, and it was...fairly indescribable. Therefore, describing it? Difficult.

Kurgan-Teppa is also spelled Qurghonteppa or Kurganteppa. Or Қурғонтеппа in Tajik. Formerly known as Курган-Тюбе (Kurgan-Tyube) in Soviet times. Don't ask where my particular hyphenated spelling comes from, because I don't actually know.

We drove through the city, then south, past mixed flocks of sheep and goats being herded along the road, over hills green as Scotland ("Fuck Scotland," I said), where men, women, and children used scythes to cut the grass, laying down another shade of green in squares and rectangles, sometimes on improbable slopes that seemed to threaten to dump the harvesters off into the valleys.

The grass packed on donkeys, or on bicycles, or in the trunks and backseats of cars, or piled onto square two-wheeled metal wagons, pulled by horses, or donkeys, or men, or boys. Mud towns, with corrugated tin roofs, in the distance or, twice or three times, surrounding the two-lane highway. The highway like a road and a farm road and a trail and a sidewalk all at once. The towns all shades of cream and ivory and tan and light brown, with the women's gowns and scarves flashes of color, vivid and strange.

A choikhana with tapchans on both sides of a small steep arroyo, seemingly advertising itself with a few abandoned tent frames over empty tapchans, set a hundred meters before the real teahouse.

In a village, a whole empty bazaar, with concrete-and-tin stalls and frames for sun shades, and tables and places for tables. Is it a weekly bazaar? Does it fill up? Or is there nothing to sell; does everything get sent on to the capital?

At a curve in the road, a line of brightly-dressed (always brightly-dressed) women, each sitting at a little table, each displaying the same small selection of sodas and snacks. Why there? And how does one choose which woman, that day, will take one's money?

A mural on the face of the road cutting, with an eagle and a deer and some nature. Very fetching, but what is it meant to tell us?

We get to Kurgan-Teppa, and pass a tractor--old, spare, awesone--on a pedestal, backed by a park with a collection of arching white cement pieces making a vaguely half-egg-shaped dingus. A monument to the greatness of the TRACTOR, a monument to nothing, as I have only seen the fields being worked by hand, groups of men, women, and children using hoes and shovels, stooping or crouching, working acres by hand, all by hand, the stupidest use of human labor imaginable. While at the moment what appears to be the only thing that the Industrial Revolution did to really, materially, improve people's lives is to make a tractor. Then make tractors.

No fuel? No parts? Just no damn tractors? What's the issue? That would be my NGO: Get the People Tractors. Give them a fuel allowance. Train tractor mechanics. Smuggle in the parts or pay the bribes and keep doing it over and over and over because each hour of working the fields by hand is another hour without rest, literacy, or (so I imagine, barreling by in our fancy Lada Niva four-wheel drive) hopefulness.


Never mind. Tractors can't take away dogtiredness and no doubt the hours freed from the fields would be focused anew, to new back-breaking chores.

Neal Stephenson writes that, "In the real world--Planet Earth, Reality--there are somewhere between six and ten billion people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or field-stripping their AK-47s." That's the choice. I have other choices but my place is so privileged that the spot I take up cannot be doubled. The only way to free my spot would be for me to leave that spot, which I cannot do, because even were I to become a Tajik fieldhand, I would still carry my place of privilege with me; I would be choosing to act downtrodden.

Only when I die will my place be empty, but when that happens, that place will not be available to a Tajik fieldhand. No, it'll go to a nice infant, born of Western parents in a clean Western hospital. Maybe being born in a place with modern sanitation is the initiating mark of privilege. Maybe clean water and disinfectants are the baptismal fluids, holy, altering.