I left Tajikistan fifteen days ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. About the warmth of the people there, the impossibly beautiful landscape, and the subtle charm of a country that at first glance seems to be in a winter sleep.
However my first impressions of Tajikistan were a blur. On the thirty hour flight to Dushanbe I couldn’t sleep, so I struggled for those first few hours to stay awake and process being there. Todd and Mahmud, from the American Embassy in Tajikistan picked me up from the airport and we headed straight into the mountains.
We turned a bend on the dilapidated Soviet Union-era road and all of a sudden the snow capped mountains hidden between the country hills were exposed. They were imposingly beautiful. Mahmud told me about the snow leopards that roamed their peaks and I was mesmerized. That’s the first lesson I learned in Tajikistan. There are secrets and hidden gems behind every corner. A country so rich in history that almost nothing is what it appears to be on the surface.
After getting settled in my tiny jewel-box hotel, and falling into a rhythm with my screening schedule I started to notice more hidden details and the warmth of Tajikistan. We’d drive for hours through the yellow rolling hills and Texas-sized pastures to our events and Mahmud would tell me that in the Spring the hills would be green, covered in wild tulips and lavender as far as the eye can seen. We’d pass restaurants with outdoor seating along the river that were abandoned from the cold, and it was clear Tajikistan was in hibernation. Waiting for the sun to come alive.
Most of my screenings were with students curious about American life: how old I was, if I was married, and if black and white people got along – Russian propaganda shows American police brutality regularly, which is heartbreaking and gut wrenching.
However, my favorite event was at the American Corner in Qurghonteppa. Nine female entrepreneurs attended the screening, and sat in the front row. After speaking to mostly students, I was ready to hear about and learn from the women in Tajikistan pursuing their dreams.
Once Dream, Girl finished playing, and I answered a couple of questions and an older woman in the crowd asked if she could say a few words. Giving her the floor, she shared a message for young women and men in the audience. She asked them to not be afraid to follow their passion, to take themselves seriously, and to explore options of entrepreneurship inside the home. She told the young men in the room that they are a big part of the future of the country, and that in order for women to be able to advance they had to be supportive partners. She then promoted the work she was doing as well as a few other women in the audience.
Every casual greeting or encounter in Tajikistan is met with a welcome gesture, a slight bowing of the head, and placing your hand on your heart. Waiters, students, people you meet for the first time, and strangers who see you on the street all do this gesture. It’s a sign of respect and a sign of a warm welcome.
Being a blonde woman, they assumed I was Russian and so I was met with this gesture all the time. It took me a few days to notice it, but once I did I saw it everywhere. And I started to reciprocate the gesture back to people.
The feeling of belonging even as an outsider was immeasurable and I felt the openness where-ever I went. How many times have we seen an outsider in American and ignored them? What if welcoming those who are new was part of our cultural identity?
The quiet openness and warmth of Tajikistan was embedded in this gesture and in the sleepy and majestic hills of the countryside.
It’s a country waiting to break open and come alive. Welcoming all those who join it.
In 2017, Erin was selected to be part of the American Film Showcase, which is part of the U.S. Department of State in coordination with U.S. embassies and consulates. They send American documentarians on trips to various countries around the globe to engage with audiences. Through her work with the showcase, Erin has travelled to Tajikistan and Egypt to screen Dream, Girl and lead filmmaking workshops.