Archive for Language
Dushanbe. Do, Shanbe! Douche-on-Bay.
That’s the one that sticks — the city’s name like a news headline, one in some buried middle England sports section: some asshole is out yachting.
Douche-on-Bay. That’s the legend, in my mind, and now the whole town is named for it. The day when the patriarchal douche took to the lee side of a crescent harbor, not for sport but for better beer access. For chicks.
Every summer, there is a festival in Douche-on-Bay. We remember our heritage, of lazy questing and selfish relaxation, and we take to overcalm waters.
What I mean is: today, I am a lazy explorer. Body tired (too much to learn the ways of the marshrutka skittering about the flat city), my mind wanders around the capital I don’t know.
I know its name, though. That’s all I have. Dushanbe. It means “Monday” in Tajik. The country’s largest city by fourfold, and it’s christened for everyone’s least favorite part of the week. What a downer.
Local cognac and shisha. No hands but for sipping. Rooftop in the Dushanbe “twin towers” — a new pastel centerpiece already scarred with electrical burn marks. “If there’s an earthquake, run,” said one UN guy. “It’s coming down.”
A salad in the menu: “Salmon of weakly salted.” That’s about how I feel — a fish just about as far from an ocean as it can be, still on earth. Weakly salted. Maybe they are only salted weekly. Today is not this city’s day, but one day — I’m looking out at the world’s tallest flagpole — I think it may be worth its salt.
I’ve been scolded for taking a picture. Not allowed. You can see the whole city here, and it’s all off limits. Forget about the close up — after the Soviet Union left, and the sound came up on the young republics — our Tajik Norma isn’t ready even for the wide shot.
It’s Thursday evening now — as far as I can get from the city’s namesake. I won’t know it now. Instead, I’ll quest lazily and selfish, a reckless wanderer through total nonsense. I like spending time that way — tethered by just a few real letters. I’m at sea, but I’m sheltered somehow by the faintest hints of something true. What a way to travel.
Hell, it beats most Mondays.
Story-hunting in one of the world’s top seven -stan countries — let’s blame the terrible titling on the 80 hours it took to get here.
But at least there are the cultural car crashes that expose man’s natural urge to play pop culture Battleship. We’ve got no languages in common, among the three Tajiks know well, and the three I can make sentences in, but we do have a code: those references. It’s hard to know anyone without talking — it’s easy to get crazy, to assume the worst, to find fault — and yet, when the Wandering Tajik fires a random name at a Wandering Jew, and when there’s a sound not of empty echo but of a clink against something solid — we know we’re at least playing the same game. Direct hit.
So, here: a conversation in the shared taxi “terminal” in Dushanbe, waiting hopelessly to set out on the the “15-” (read: 35-) hour trip to Khorog.
A man, smiley: “London?”
He seemed to be searching for more points of connection. I was out. “Ruski znayet?”
“No.” It was strange: me, the caucasian, ignorant in the lingua franca of the whole Caucasus. But I was too hot to be apologetic.
“Vandum, Vandum: Vandam.”
“Jean-Claude Van Damme.”
I asked my cheeks to lift into what I thought would be a smile. Looking satisfied, he walked away.
He handed me the card below:
“GRAND MOSQUE: western perception of islam dept.” Wow. I don’t think anyone has ever cared so much about what I think. He was our tour guide, Khalil, a short man with a long beard who spoke bits and larger bits of a million languages and answered his phone with, “I hope it’s not my wife!” He knew just how to make us laugh.
Gulf countries are, for the most part, young and successful parvenus that don’t seem to need your help or give half a damn whatchu think, but it isn’t so. In Kuwait especially, where George Bush the First finds his framed place among family photos, allies are more precious than gold, and blood runs thicker than oil.
Yet, to borrow the title question from one chapter of Werner’s Fassbinder’s 16-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, “How is One to Live if One Doesn’t Want to Die?” How can a country thrive it is afraid to be vulnerable? Good question. The answer, as always it appears, is spin. Perceptions are monitored and framed in a manner made possible by Kuwait’s particular circumstances: small population, strong governmental oversight, little economic disparity amongst citizens, high percentage of unassimilated residents, money. If this is starting to sound like a political science paper, it’s not. Look at this silly picture:
Hold on. This means all of these signs are written without the help of a computer or dictionary. (Unless a “bat teary” is something so unspeakable it can’t be written in standard English.) Against the Goliath of English spelling, it’s not surprising every time there is a spelling error — it’s amazing every time there isn’t. Also, how often do you read a sign printed with an accent?
(Soon, back to posts.)
Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة
Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)
Azerbaijan Five: Lost and Found — أاذربيجان خمس: مفقود وموجود
Baku was 360 kilometers away, and we had only a few hours before the flight. I drove fast. Another sign boasted “radar” on their new M2 highway. No worries, radar tickets show up delayed under the car’s registration — not my problem . Not the case.
The police flagged us down at the next checkpoint. Uh-oh. The man made no effort to speak slowly or with simply words — I made it clear I understood nothing (I understood some), but still he pressed on, repeating the same phrases, demanding that I comprehend. Yes, we are all guilty of wanting to grab and shake people onto our wavelength, but movements of complete unwillingness to try another approach, to rephrase, to use hand gestures, anything — are moments of plain, dumb ignorance. I needed to fight dumb with dumber.
Something about maschina which I knew meant car. “Maschina?” I frowned, and made a hammer-and-nail gesture. Let’s play the Confusion card.
He held on to my passport and license and motioned me out of the car; I stashed most of my money, and another policeman read me a list of typed English phrases and pointed to numbers he had penciled in a notebook. One was our license plate. One was the speed limit, 100 kph — a complete waste on one of the only 4-lane roads in Azerbaijan. Another was the speed I’d been going. We argued.
“Airport,” I kept saying. “Flight. Baku airport.” I’d make a plane taking-off hand gesture and point to my watch. I sharaded “running”. We’ve gotta move fast..
“You pay 100 manat,” said a cop.
“Airport Baku. Flight.”
Finally, I let on that I understood. “We don’t have 100 manat,” I showed him. Look. I had 12 manat in my wallet. He took them and leaned in. Omani rial, Qatari rial, Nicaraguan cordoba, Emirati dirham… and twenty greenback USA original dollars. Shit. He took those too.
I eyed my passport. We’ve got nothing else. “NO more manat!” They looked indifferent. Three cops. I needed my passport. Time slowed. They talked — now I really didn’t understand.
(Click photos to make big)
Stocked with only a hostel address and a belly full of McDonalds, we boarded an airplane in Dubai, half full with Brobdingnagian body builders and others who looked like they knew where they were going. We didn’t. Shouldn’t I feel like I’m going home at long last? said the Caucasian in me. It is, after all, the Caucasus. But the feeling didn’t take, and I settled in excitedly for our trip north (“it’s north right?”) — to a capital city whose name I’d learned a month earlier, in a country I couldn’t yet place on a globe.
Baku is calculated city filled with spontaneous people. Or is it the other way around… somehow, in the hustle and bustle that surrounds and penetrates the walls of the millenium-old “Inner City,” a sense of order prevails — the sense that someone knows exactly what’s supposed to be going on. The popular section of downtown near İçəri Şəhər (ih-cherry sha-har), the “Old” or “Inner’ City, could compete for most fountains per-capita, with wide, immaculate stone boulevards reminiscent of Vienna or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. In this small section of town where Medieval meets Soviet and the urban plans of a new and liberated city, folks mingle to the sounds of construction and cultures smashing together.
But a traveler also gets the feeling that most of the smashing is in yesterday’s history — that Persian traditions, Turkish culture and Russian influence have already been absorbed, and that the modern result is a cocktail that is almost exclusively Azeri. This is not like the New York of today, where we eat sitting on the floor to “try something new”. This is like the New York of tomorrow, where we pick up tacos with chopsticks because it’s what we’ve been doing for years.