Welcome to Tajikistan!
By Haideh Salehi-Esfahani and Khodadad Kaviani
Haideh Salehi-Esfahani in a bazaar in Khujand with a hat-selling lady.
In late August 2010, we traveled to Tajikistan on a trip designed mainly for visiting tourist and cultural sites. Being academicians, we soon found ourselves in institutions of higher education and connecting with our colleagues in universities in Dushanbe and Khujand (a regional city in the north of Tajikistan). In this article we bring together our cultural and educational findings, as we experienced on our trip to this magnificent country.
We found Tajik people to be models of hospitality and generosity. In this Persian-speaking country, it is common to find large signs in Cyrillic, welcoming visitors to towns, museums, schools, and other public places. “Khosh Aamadeed!” (“Welcome!”) is not an empty slogan but a way of life in Tajikistan. The Cyrillic alphabet is a legacy of the former Soviet Union’s dominance of Tajikistan. During the 21 days that we travelled in Dushanbe, Khujand and surrounding areas, and Koolab in the south, we spent time with several Tajik families and individuals who shared with us the best of what they had and went out of their ways to please us. As the Tajik saying goes, “Guests are gifts from God!” and they sure know how to treat their guests.
A typical Tajik presentation of various foods when greeting guests.
Tajik people have a beautiful tradition of setting up a special space (about 8 x 7 feet) for their guests. A raised wooden platform about two feet above ground with back support is covered with carpets and cushions for comfort. A table cloth is spread in the center and filled with fresh bread, sweets, nuts, dried fruits, yogurt, tea, and other foods. People remove their shoes and sit around the table cloth. Hot tea is served and guests are treated royally. In rural areas, spring water flows freely to homes through small streams and people water their plants and trees as well as use the water for cooking and washing. The pace of life seems slow relative to our lives in the West and everyone relies on one another to make things work.
Tajikistan became an independent country following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; however, 70 years of Soviet occupation has left tangible marks on Tajikistan’s socio-economic and political life. The most obvious sign is the Cyrillic alphabet that continues to be used for education and official communications, despite efforts to replace it. Tajikistan experienced a civil war that began in May 1992 and raged for seven years. A weak central government was unable to prevent the civil war between supporters of an Islamic state and promoters of a liberal democracy. It is estimated that over a million people were displaced and over a hundred thousand people lost their lives.
Scenery along the drive between Dushanbe and Khujand (in the north). The road is the thin line in the picture.
Since late 1990s, stability has returned and life feels normal in the regions we visited. Tajikistan celebrated its 19th year of independence on September 9, 2010. The country continues to face many challenges as it builds much needed infrastructure and basic services for its citizens. Throughout the country, large billboards prominently feature images of the current president, Imamali Rahman, inaugurating large and small infrastructure projects with slogans that promote unity, a pride in the country, and a hopeful future for Tajikistan. The new identity that Tajikistan is forging is also based partly on a rich literary tradition that includes Omar Khayyaam, Ferdowsi, Rudaki, Hamadani, Ibn Sina, and other Persian writers and scholars. In the center of Dushanbe, where a prominent statue of Lenin once stood, a beautiful statue of Rudaki now stands in a park by that name. The parks in Tajikistan’s cities are picturesque, filled with flowers and plants, and fountains.
In addition to our cultural touring, we also visited a few of the country's universities, including Tajikistan University of Technology and Pedagogical Institute, both in Dushanbe, and the State University of Khujand in the city of Khujand in Tajikistan’s northern region. We conducted meetings and short interviews with various faculties in economics and education in these universities.
Haideh Salehi-Esfahani with colleagues at the Tajikistan University of Technology in Dushanbe.
One of the more impressive findings is that the teaching of economics in universities in Tajikistan is undergoing a major improvement, especially compared to the 1990s. We observed efforts to improve the curriculum and methods of pedagogy in higher education. The economics curriculum includes principles of economics, mathematics, and several specialized fields in economics and business that teach marketing, management, and the world economy. These are different than the teaching of economics from Marxist-Leninist approach that used to dominate their curriculum. The textbooks in economics consist of translations of English language textbooks as well as other texts written by the Tajik faculty. Copies of the textbooks are available in the library for students to borrow. Although textbooks are still not available to students to purchase, students do have access to electronic lecture notes which they can download from computers at their institutions.
Khodadad Kaviani with the curator of a natural history museum in Koolab region.
Most importantly, since 2005, a complete transition of higher education toward the credit based system -- which is similar to the U.S. and other industrial countries’ higher education systems -- has begun in Tajikistan. In this venue, students have choices of courses and fields of study and completion of the undergraduate degree involves a marked increase in both student and faculty responsibility. The methods of pedagogy have been improved as professors have an incentive to teach well in order to encourage students to take their courses. We observed use of PowerPoint with lively illustrations as well as use of graphs and charts of Tajikistan’s economic trends to accompany lectures in principles of economics classes.
The issues of faculty governance and pay seem to be evolving much more slowly. These institutional changes will take more years to improve. The political system in the country is not sufficiently open to allow independent faculty committees and organizations to operate. Almost all that is taught requires the approval of the Ministry of Higher Education which still carries its Soviet era form and function. While the faculty salaries are slowly rising, the purchasing power of university employees remains quite low in the face of rising prices for goods and services. Several accounts provided by people we talked to put the monthly salary figures for teachers and university professors at around $70-$100 a month. This amount supports a family of four in Dushanbe for only one week. The low faculty pay is an important source of alleged corruption (grade buying) in the system of higher education in Tajikistan.
The authors with the mother of our host in her village home in the Asht region in Northern Tajikistan.
In our visit to Tajikistan, we found the Tajik people to be hospitable, generous, and eager to learn about the world. While Tajikistan is still in the midst of a difficult economic transition, people value their independence and relative stability. The country’s political path resembles its mountainous and treacherous roads that secular and Islamic groups are navigating while competing for power. This country has numerous historical sites that await archaeologists and historians to tell their stories. Tajikistan was on the path of the ancient Silk Road and has the potential to once again become a hub for culture and trade in Central Asia.
Haideh Salehi-Esfahani is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Washington. firstname.lastname@example.org
Khodadad Kaviani is an assistant professor of education at Central Washington University. He also teaches a class on Middle East for teachers at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. email@example.com