From the Archives: “Showdown in Shaydon” (Tajikistan)

The following was originally published on November 12, 2008 as part of “Pixillated Peregrinations,” a chronicle of my Central Asia and Turkey, which was hosted on the TravBuddy blog site that shuttered in April 2018. 

Sunday morning was another cloudy day, but not rainy. I think I slept until around 9am, but Halim and I had to sleep in the computer room because the family members were in the living room so I got up after his brother came in to check email, though I’d been awake already. After checking emails, I called Nekbakht to see if he could host me that night and he said to come as soon as possible because his friend was having a wedding later that afternoon so we could go. I quickly packed an overnight bag and Halim escorted me by marshrutka to the bus station where I squeezed into the last seat aboard another full marshrutka bound for Shaydon, Halim’s and Nekbakht’s hometown and the place we’d spent Friday night waiting for the doctors.

It was a shorter ride, about an hour and a half, and before I had a chance to call Nekbakht to let him know I was there, he was walking across the street to greet me coming out of the marshrutka. Halim must have called him to tell him I hadn’t eaten yet so we went to the same cafe we’d waited at on Friday and I ordered chicken. It was a huge portion, nearly half a chicken if not more, and had been pleasantly cut into manageable pieces I could eat. What’s more, there were no chunks of gristle or fat, so I devoured the plate of it and washed it down with a beer mug full of coffee.

We next stopped at the butcher’s where he picked up some meat for the house. I watched the butcher grab a huge section of a beef, put it on the chopping block and whack bits of it off to give to Nekbakht in a plastic bag. I posed by a hanging carcass of sheep as he snapped my picture, with onlookers baffled at the scene. Then we drove through the crooked streets with many sharp turns and bumps to go to his house and I was wondering how on earth I would ever be able to find it if I had to walk. It wasn’t far, but very isolated in the back streets, which of course offered a cozy privacy. His house was very different than most houses I’d seen and contained a beautiful courtyard with several separate buildings in addition to the house, which was connected to a semi-separate sleeping porch and a haymow. Behind his house was the beginning of another mountain range that separated Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and eventually bled into the Fergana Range and the Tian Shan mountains.

After meeting Nekbakht’s wife, mother and father, we ventured out again to pick up Nekbakht’s friends before the wedding. In piled three fun-loving guys who would provide most of the evening’s entertainment. Momin, Ulmas and Shobgo had likely begun celebrating the wedding earlier that day, and they were animated and curious about the sober American who just joined them. Momin was the jokester in the group, telling me in English that Nekbakht was our chauffeur and he was the bodyguard and his friend Shobgo was an office manager. Ulmas was the most curious and continued to say “thank you” to me in English while speaking to me mostly in Russian, despite my explanation in Uzbek that I didn’t understand (he spoke Uzbek fluently but forgot to use it with me). Shobgo was rather quiet, but not timid as I was to later learn.

The itinerary was organized in order of priority, and our first stop was the liquor store. We bought a 2.5-liter plastic bottle of Russian beer and the other guys bought a bottle of vodka. Then they took me to a hidden spring in a corner of town next to a mountain and river, saying that Shaydon is known for its fresh water. The cavern containing the spring was a little spooky, kind of like a jail because there was a ramshackle door made of chicken wire and splintered wood at the entrance and inside there was no light to determine just how far back it went. After the spring, we crossed a tributary river and found a spot on the banks where we squatted or sat on rocks and prepared to get our drink on for the wedding. Nekbakht and I drank only a few plastic Dixie cup-size shots of beer while the guys pounded the vodka, with Shobgo putting the pressure on. When the bottle had been drained, Shobgo lobbed it at the opposite bank where it crashed within feet of someone’s back yard and chicken farm. Nekbakht explained that the bottle-crashing was a symbol of good luck for the wedding as well as our newfound friendship. I decided to forgive the public littering in the interest of friendship and we continued on our journey.

When we arrived at the wedding, it was just about ready to start. We took our seats outside on cold, yellow plastic chairs. The bride arrived, bowing repeatedly as she was was escorted by a circle of mostly older women. Eventually she joined the groom on the platform and they paused, made rounds and bowed some more at each table while the kamcorder rolled. Soon toasts were being made from the microphone and the emcee turned it over to the band or the toastmaker to sing a song. It wasn’t long before bottles of vodka made their way onto the table, although we hadn’t touched much of the food. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but there were several things of interest on the table. One was a crown-shaped funnel cake especially designed for weddings, several pastries and the delicious melons that Central Asia is famous for. Eventually we munched on these items as the afternoon went on. It was quite chilly sitting outside in 40-degree weather, and the tea was of minimal help to warm us up. Nekbakht and I didn’t drink the vodka, although I wouldn’t have minded having a couple shots, but not knowing where the evening was headed (it was still late afternoon), I decided to heed his advice and refrain.
Momin suggested we get up and dance, so when it was the men’s turn to dance (the sexes danced separately) we got up and stood in a circle, clapping our hands to the music. Someone initiated the dancing and entered the circle and quickly came over to me to join. We fluttered our arms around and moved in circles, occasionally bumping into someone else. It is customary to approach the groom and bride and dance in front of them, at which point they will stand while the bride bows and groom nods, accepting the gift of dance. Most of us weren’t as keen on dancing, especially Momin who had been cracking me up with his animated facial gestures. We went back to sit down and nibbled on more snacks before the meat and potatoes arrived, sans silverware. We tore off pieces of bread and ground them into the potatoes, although some people grabbed pieces with their hands.

Nekbakht showed me to a relative’s house nearby to use the bathroom and when we were heading back, our friend Ulmos was yelling at another guy I’d recognized from dancing and who sat at the table next to us. It wasn’t long before he tore off his own jacket and started charging at him. He was quite clearly livid and ready to fight. It took several people to hold him back, but regardless the two of them ended up on the ground in a tussle. Nekbakht and I went back to the table, where he sent a few other friends over to intervene. It was far enough away from the wedding party that I don’t think everyone took notice. It was at least 20 minutes before Ulmos came back, after the other guy had come back. It appeared that things were going well for awhile after a few nearly false starts at another fight. Finally the other guy came over and offered his hand in peace, but the look on Ulmas’s face suggested he wasn’t quite ready. He asked him to cover over to him instead, and when the guy didn’t agree it looked like they might meet in the middle, but Ulmas got up and tore into the guy, knocking over a couple tables and sent plates, soda bottles and fruit flying. This time it was clearly noticeable to everyone and I felt so embarrassed for the bride and groom. Ulmas was taken home but the other guy returned to the table with his ear bleeding. After about 20 minutes he left, but stopped by our table and punched it, sending the melon I was eating onto the lap of a guy next to me who was the size of a refrigerator. I was sure all hell would break loose, but most of us were just shocked and the guy left. Eventually Momin and I were able to joke about it and pretended that we were going to go fight each other, rubbing our fists together and nodding our heads. But in all seriousness, I really felt bad for the wedding party that a fight broke out and for my guilt by association.

It was really cold and thankfully we left to go to Momin’s where we helped him push a car with a stalled battery back into his driveway. I thought we were all going to go back to Nekbakht’s but Momin got out of the car at the liquor store and we didn’t see him again. I was looking forward to more of his jokes, but Nekbakht told me he went to see his girlfriend. Apparently they are getting married next weekend. I had been invited to the wedding but with an expiring visa on Thursday I couldn’t do it. The evening turned out to be quiet but fun with just Nekbakht, Shobgo and I eating dinner and then drinking the rest of the beer, some rosehip juice (non-alcoholic) and then some Tajik cognac, which started out mild and ended up strong. We had many toasts as we watched videos of Nekbakht’s and Shobgo’s weddings before switching to satellite TV. It was another eventful day in Tajikistan, in a village I hadn’t heard of and can’t be found on any map I’ve seen. I fell comfortably asleep on a real bed in a warm room.


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