But, I’m not a Republican

Why are some countries rich and others poor? Specifically, why is the United States rich and Tajikistan poor? The answer is simply. The United States isn’t rich because we have a democratic political system or because we have a capitalist economic system. And we’re not any more intelligent or harder working than any other people in the world. It’s certainly not because we’re a Christian country. We’re more likely to kill someone we don’t like than any other people in the world. We definitely have more of our people in prison than any other country.

The United States is rich because we’re incredibly rich in natural resources available to us in a hospitable climate.

And:

The United States was lucky enough to have had small pox introduced into the New World, decimating an otherwise healthy, happy native population and clearing the way for our unopposed expansion.

We were lucky enough to import slaves to do the heavy lifting of building our nation.

After slavery was abolished, we were lucky enough to import cheap labor by the millions.

And yes, the United States was lucky enough to be controlled by oligarchs for most of our history. In fact, some say it still is an oligarchy. We’re not a democracy, we have a representative form of government largely controlled by money and propaganda.

 

Capitalism is man’s natural way to insure survival. Native Americans traded shells, copper, and exotic stone to become powerful capitalists within their own culture. People trading commodities along the Silk Roads of Asia were capitalists. All those men and women selling their wares in the medieval markets towns of Europe were capitalists. The world of men and women has always been capitalist. It’s probably the real definition of civilization. Contrary to popular belief, America didn’t invent any of the forms of capitalism. We do well with capitalism simply because of the natural wealth of America.

 

So, Tajikistan is poor because it has few natural resources and a climate of extremes. The people understand capitalism better than we do and are intelligent and hardworking. What can they do to improve their living conditions, their fortunes and their continued survival? I don’t know.

 

Has anyone noticed the Islamic State is trying to fight its way out of the deserts of Syria and Iraq? They didn’t start fighting to keep what they have which is largely sand. They say it’s about religion.

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On the Street of the Knife Makers, Istaravshan, Tajikistan

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To see and hear a little traditional Uzbek music and dance, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8agnbAz0zU

These great horns are a colorful bit of Uzbek culture, although I’ve seen them used to announce the wedding of a Tajik couple in a Zoroastrian ceremony. The sounds they make, (are they musical notes?) are similar to a bleating sheep, perhaps deeper and richer but lasting only about as long. Tourists love them.

In countless villages and on the open steppe of Central Asia, these horns serve an important purpose. Like every element of a culture, there’s a good reason for their existence.

I’ve heard men call to each other from a half mile away on the open steppe imitating the sound of these horns. To announce an important event, four or five men walk through a village, stopping occasionally to raise their horns high into the air to blow a note or two. Like a call to prayer from a high minaret, the sound is heard from one end of a village to the other washing over walls and rooftops.

Last week the New York Times ran an article reporting on the popular re-election of the president of Uzbekistan. The reporter went on to say the president had no serious opponent because political dissent is not tolerated. He’s a dictator. The article went on at great length to inform its readers that something evil held Uzbekistan in its grasp.

And yet they have a vibrant culture and a generally happy population. Their television programing, theatre and contemporary music are unequaled across all of Central Asia. Somehow, they manage to dance and sing, laugh and joke, all without America’s form of democracy.

On the Street of the Knife Makers, Istaravshan, Tajikistan

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The windows are always closed on the public mini-buses in Yerevan, Armenia. Those windows stay closed even though it may be 115 degrees inside and a beautiful 80 degrees outside. This is a part of the culture in the Republic of Armenia.

There’s a valid reason for this behavior. The air quality in the Yerevan valley during the summer months is very polluted. Respiratory infections are common. Residents are far more likely to become seriously sick if this air is blowing on them.

Every type of behavior we attribute to the general term “culture” has a valid reason for existing. The people may no longer know the reasons behind most of what they do, but they innately trust that it’s for their benefit. Most of it is accepted without question. I say most, because culture does slowly evolve to adapt to new or changing conditions. Above all, culture is a human survival strategy for every community on this planet. Because humans exist in so many different environments, we have different cultures.

 

In Central Asia, the survival of the family takes precedence over the survival of the individual. It’s their culture. It’s an extremely difficult place in which to survive. The people living in Central Asia don’t have a moderate climate or the natural resources we have in the United States. Over time, only a family working together can assure survival for their next generation. It’s a survival concept that is part of their culture.

I’ve often heard my friends say, “They don’t value human life in that part of the world.” Of course they do. In American, our natural environment makes it possible to place a greater value on the individual. Survival for our future generations is not difficult.

Perhaps a better way to look at our cultural differences in is to realize our culture could not possibly survive in the natural environment of most of Central Asia. Or, their culture would thrive in our natural environment.

 

A village in Tajikistan

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It’s really a religious holiday, a rite of spring that will go on all night under the Milky Way. The huge caldron will boil the tender, young wheat shoots until it’s almost a porridge. It’s a time for high spirits, dancing around fire light and young boys and girls slipping away into the dark. There will be laughter and good will all around.

I bought a new car. It’s a 2007, BMW 328xi. It makes me feel important when I’m driving somewhere and even when it’s just sitting in my driveway. If I’m home, I’ll sometimes look out the window to admire it.

My previous car was a 2005 VW Jetta with paint on the seats and a broken heater, emergency brake and muffler. Some say it was an embarrassment. If I had to park on a hill, I had a block of wood to put behind a tire so it wouldn’t roll away. There was something very earthy about doing that.

   In the village, to help them stay healthy there’s a medical clinic, a recognized shaman and many interesting home remedies that have been passed down through the generations. The people use them all to solve their physical problems. It’s a little like holistic medicine.

I went to a local restaurant the other evening with some friends to celebrate the completion of a novel I wrote. We laughed and joked and had a good time.

I understand our cultures are different. I don’t think they’re any happier in their tradition/family oriented culture than we are in our materialistic /feel good culture. We’re as devoted to ours as they are to theirs.

Generally speaking, our culture is Christian. But, it doesn’t seem to make any difference. We treat each other just like everyone else in the world does.

Of course, Americans think our way is best. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. How would know. I’m a product of the American culture. I do believe Americans are hooked on material wealth. We feed on it. We drive our expensive cars to the shopping mall like cattle going to a lush pasture.

Our economy would collapse if we stopped being so materialistic. Businesses would fail overnight, jobs would be lost. Materialism is our culture. We created an artificial culture to keep us happy.

On the news today it was reported that 53% of Americans are feeling confident about the nation’s future. Great news! It means more of us will be going out to buy more stuff to feed their happiness addiction. Businesses will need to hire more people. Manufacturers will increase production. The stock market will rise. We’ll be richer than we already are! In our culture, all it takes are positive thoughts.

Northern Tajikistan

Flood Turned Cropped

It’s still light outside, the worst of the winter cold is behind you and the days are getting longer. There had even been a few sprinkles of rain earlier. That must mean spring isn’t far away. Those few drops of water were so unusual on this arid steppe, you stood outside hoping to get wet. But as soon as you felt their impact the dry air evaporated them.

Here comes Maftoon, a spunky nine year old girl to tell you dinner is ready. She sees you standing outside your room, glances at the entrance gate, turns around and runs back inside. That was unusual, even for her. A moment later, she reappears at a run, followed by her older brother.

In the corner of your eye, you see water gushing up under the metal entrance gates. You follow the children to a spot where you can peer over the compound wall and look into the alley. It’s turned into a fast flowing river! You stand there watching while her older brother explains this amazing sight. This is rain that had poured off the hills. It’s a flash flood. It’s rare, but it happens here.

Excerpt from the novel, Lenin’s Arm.

Khleed points to the village still below us, but there’s no need, we’re already staring at a wide swath of broken rock that has cut through half of the village compounds. The houses to the far side of the hundred-yard-wide river of broken stone look to be intact.

   “Avalanche,” Khleed says. “Look at the rock faces above that section. They’re a lighter, cleaner color. Last year, many families died here.”

Northern Tajikistan

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No wonder this culture is different from ours. What would your family’s plan be for surviving generation after generation in a place like this? People found a way to survive here. It’s called culture. They also found a belief system that helps them live together in some of the most intolerable environments in the world.  Sure, it’s a religion that’s been bogged down in dogma for a thousand years. We have some of those in the U.S. but it’s still a successful survival strategy. Would you want to change when it might mean your family’s extinction?

Excerpt from the novel, Lenin’s Am by Peter Kwasniewski  

“He fulfills his Islamic duty by taking this boy as his assistant and training him,” Javeed says in English as we leave the barber shop and stride off to find the woodcarving business.

Tajik vintage motorcycle

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“Does it run?” you pantomime with your hands.

The older man looks sad and says, “Magneto.” Then he jerks his head to one side and, for good measure, makes a slashing motion with his hand.

“Yes”, you know what a magneto is and squat down to look for it. It’s gone. “Where is it?” You say, again with your hands. This could be Cuba except on the opposite side of the world: old machines without the right parts to repair them.

A minute later it appears in his open hand. He points out the markings, the specs and even produces a little metric ruler. You write it all down. No, he doesn’t want to sell the bike. Yes, you’ll try to get a new magneto. Well, not you, but a friend back in the U.S., half a world away.

Excerpt from the novel Lenin’s Arm by Peter Kwasniewski

At the intersection of the alley and a road sits a hulking crawler tractor, cannibalized for parts, its dead weight likely to rest there forever. The corner of a compound wall had been indented to accommodate the metal mass, a likely sign of the tractor’s age. All five of us disappear into the space between the tractor and the wall and squat down in a row. None of us are tempted to touch the frozen metal just inches from our eyes.

 

4. Northern Tajikistan

Map of passage Turned Cropped

The Skewer of Gold, the Zarafshon River, is long and straight. Fed by the melting Fredrenko Glacier in the east and arriving at fabled Samarkand, 350 miles later in the west. Most of the way it flows in a deep gorge of its own making wedged securely between two mountain ranges. The slopes are dry and barren.

It’s a crazy idea! A 350 mile hike? No way. Maybe on a mountain bike. No. A kayak? That might be possible at the right time of year. There might be a two week window when it wasn’t too swollen with melt water or too dry with rocks. There’s a single road the entire distance with small villages at regular intervals and little else. After the first hundred miles, the scenery gets monotonous.

It’d be an arduous undertaking.

There’s a gold mine somewhere along the way.

 

Excerpt from Lenin’s Arm

I need another escape or a vacation. No, I need more than that. I need new culture because this one is too confusing, too complex. I need a real, longer lasting escape.

   If I said this aloud, people would be thinking, “This guy has problems.” I know I do.

 

 

3. Northern Tajikistan

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You rolled the dice and ended up playing third. In the board game of Settlers of Catan, third can be an advantage because you’re not likely to have both your House placements blocked by opponents. Aghhhh. You have been blocked, not completely but it looks bad. You have only a few routes to build roads and they all have risks. You can rule out ever getting The Longest Road. “Go for the Community Development Cards (they’re like gambling),” you tell yourself.

You’d like to go for the Ore and Wheat resources in that direction but… Okay, cross your fingers and pray you get the cards you need to build roads, fast.

 

Excerpt from Lenin’s Arm

He addresses Ryan at the table, “A father and his son, our neighbors,” he gestures to the north, “have died. They were caught in an avalanche on the National Highway. Their bodies were recovered today.” He continues to stand there, fiddling with his cell phone.

   Nozim silently gets up and leaves the warmth of the table to check on his rabbits in their hutch and boxes. Nadeem walks over and sits at the table with Ryan. He says, “The road through the mountains to Dushanbe is now closed. Our neighbors risked one last trip to sell their products in the capital.”

 

Dice and Cards Turned Cropped

1. Northern Tajikistan

Wolves Turned Cropped

You’re beginning to think no one here likes their neighbors, they’re obsessed with privacy and they’re afraid of being robbed. You’re the guest of a village family living in a walled compound. Everyone lives in a walled compound. Everything is inside an eight or nine foot high wall of mud brick: their vegetable garden, their nut trees, their livestock, their living quarters, everything. And yet, a visitor has only to call from the entrance before walking in through a small doorway set into bigger gates. Of course, that doorway is barred closed every night.

One cold night, before you could honestly say winter had set in, you’re reading a chapter in Lonely Planet, Central Asia by candle light. You hear dogs! A pack of dogs by the sound of it in the alley outside the compound. Their howling must have started softly and built in intensity before you became fully aware of the noise. It’s so unusual, you decide to find your host, if he’s not asleep yet, and ask if this is normal. You’d never heard of a pack of dogs roaming the village alleys before.

“Dogs? He says and laughs. “Not dogs. Wolves!”

 

Excerpt from Lenin’s Arm

“They come down from the mountains in the winter for the sheep on the steppe,” he says, looking over at me. “And this winter, they’ve come early. You don’t believe me?” He doesn’t wait for me to answer.

“Some night, we’ll borrow a car and drive out onto the steppe for you to see them. They attack the sheep pens when the snow becomes too deep on the higher slopes and they grow hungry.”

(Nadeem)