Vegetarians in Central Asia must often explain to well-meaning restaurant staff that chicken and lamb (even when it’s ground) are meat. The idea that someone would purposely choose to avoid eating meat can be perplexing in a region where lamb, beef and sometimes horse are considered the heart of any good meal. Vegetarians have been known to swoon with joy over a plate of fried eggs at a truck stop -- after politely pushing aside the greasy hot dogs, of course.
Vegans? Stay at home.
In this desolate landscape, impoverished Tajikistan offers some traditional peasant fare that gives solace to Central Asia’s meat-avoiders, and anyone else looking for an alternative to shashlik.
Not just any eatery will do. In Dushanbe, seek out a café called Hojiyon – “pilgrims” in Tajik – in the city’s 112th “micro-district,” a Soviet-built suburb of faded, five-story cement blocks surrounded by kitchen gardens and rusting playgrounds.
Hojiyon’s specialties are kurtob and shakarob -- similar dishes, both eaten from shared wooden bowls, usually by hand. Kurtob is a jumble of flaky bread called fatir, fresh tomato and onion, oil (your choice of flax seed or vegetable) and kefir, a mildly fermented milk drink. A bit lighter and less soupy is the shakarob – fatir, tomatoes, onion and yoghurt, without the oil. Add salt and slices of hot, green pepper to taste. The result brings to mind a Central Asian take on Tuscan panzanella, a mushy salad of day-old ciabatta, tomatoes, onions and vinaigrette whose name comes from the word for “little swamp.”
Interethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan have slipped out of the headlines, but analysts say the threat of renewed violence is still a real concern. And if there’s one Kyrgyz politician who loves to stoke the tensions, it’s Jyldyz Joldosheva, a parliamentary deputy from the ultranationalist Ata-Jurt party.
Since the June 2010 ethnic violence, when approximately 450 people died, Joldosheva has regularly traded on anti-Uzbek sentiment. She has often claimed to have proof that members of the Uzbek “diaspora” are plotting against their hosts, the Kyrgyz. Her language relegates Uzbeks to outsider status, although they have lived in the area that is now southern Kyrgyzstan for hundreds of years.
Now she’s getting her supporters riled up with the newsflash that Uzbek high school students are taking their state exams in their native language. This displeases people, AKIpress cited Joldosheva as saying on April 18. She’s demanding an explanation from Education Minister Kanat Sadykov, while other deputies, perhaps bowing to the xenophobic climate, are falling in line behind her. One warns that his constituents are rallying at parliament’s gates, demanding the exams be stopped. The Education Ministry says the tests have been carried out in Kyrgyz, Russian and Uzbek since 2001; of approximately 40,000 students who took the exam last year, about 1,000 took it in Uzbek.
Joldosheva’s rhetoric is divisive in and of itself, but in a post-conflict situation it could be explosive.
A poet and scholar before he was a diplomat, Tehran’s long-serving ambassador to Dushanbe, Ali Asghar Sheardoost, is known about town for his devotion to Iranian and Tajik cultural and linguistic ties. But he also serves as an emissary to one of Iran’s few friends.
Muslims in northeastern Kazakhstan have been scandalized by the appearance of a new brand of vodka bearing the name of God.
KTK television reports that vodka bottles with the Arabic inscription, “Allah’s strength is enough for everybody," have appeared in shops all over the city of Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk) for approximately $4.40 a pop.
“Imams are outraged: They haven’t seen a bigger sin,” says the report.
“It’s difficult for me to even speak about this. The only salvation for those who did this is to repent. After all, Allah is against alcohol. And here you have such mockery,” Imam Bekzat Boranbai uly told KTK.
A representative of the Aktobe factory that produces the vodka denied intentional blasphemy, insisting the labels and caps are manufactured in Russia.
Drinkers in the former Soviet Union often have dozens of choices when it comes to vodka, which enjoys pride of place in any self-respecting corner store. In Khorog, Tajikistan, I once saw Marlboro Vodka, with a red and white label that looked like a pack of the American cigarettes. Sitting next to that was Mercedes Vodka, stamped with the iconic luxury car emblem.
Turkmenistan has refused to extend the visas of half a dozen Peace Corps volunteers who had been in the country for two years, but has not (yet?) booted the program out of the country, as has happened in other parts of the former Soviet Union. An official at the US Embassy in Ashgabat confirms that 18 volunteers continue to work in all five of the country’s regions.
“Six US Peace Corps Volunteers departed Turkmenistan at the end of March 2012. They departed after 24 months in Turkmenistan, but a few months earlier than originally scheduled because their visas were not extended,” the official wrote on April 3 in reply to emailed questions. “Peace Corps leadership and the US Embassy leadership are in an on-going dialogue with the Turkmen government about the future of the program, including its size and scope.”
The Peace Corps program in Turkmenistan, which has seen 750 volunteers rotate through since September 1993, has had its fair share of visa problems, delays, and other uncertainties in the last few years, so closure of the program would not come as a complete surprise to Central Asia watchers.
Indeed, it would fit into a larger trend. Kazakhstan last year abruptly closed its Peace Corps program, citing its “great progress” in development as a reason it no longer needed young American volunteers teaching health, business development and English, and providing information about the United States. Volunteers in Kazakhstan also circulated reports, as EurasiaNet.org wrote at the time, of “sexual assaults, the threat of terrorism, and an uncomfortable operating environment, in which allegations of espionage have been aired in the mass media.”
Nothing highlights the Tajik government's efforts to forge a distinct national identity better than the country's annual Novruz festivities. This year, officials emphasized Tajikistan's Persian roots during the week-long celebration. Carefully stage-managed public events steered clear of religion and politics.
In the Soviet Union, March 8 meant gifts for women and some heavy drinking. In post-Soviet Turkmenistan, March 8 means gifts for women and more glory to the president (and maybe a bit of drinking, too).
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has decreed that, for the fourth year, all women in Turkmenistan shall receive 40 manats (about $14) in cash to mark International Women’s Day on March 8. Celebrations are to be “well organized,” the president has said.
International Women’s Day, a popular public holiday in the Soviet Union that dates back to equal rights movements in the early 20th century, continues to be important throughout the post-Soviet successor countries. It is something of a cross between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
But this year in Turkmenistan, one man is being celebrated on March 8 as well, according to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a news site run by the exiled Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.
A sculpture of Berdymukhamedov on a horse is the centerpiece of an exhibition of flowers in Ashgabat entitled, “Flowers as Sublime as a Woman’s Soul,” offering yet another example of the persistent insertion of the president into every aspect of public life. On March 7, a gala concert was scheduled at Ashgabat’s Palace of Happiness, entitled, “Glory to the Protector, the hero who gave the people happiness,” referring to the president by his moniker.
The only member of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s family to be imprisoned following the ex-president’s bloody 2010 overthrow has gone missing, according to Kyrgyzstan’s penal service.
On March 6, parliament deputies began inquiring about rumors that Akhmat Bakiyev – who was charged with organizing unrest in Jalal-Abad following his brother’s ouster and sentenced to seven years in a high-security penitentiary – had disappeared from a Bishkek hospital. He had been taken to the hospital in late January, after getting transferred to Bishkek’s lower-security Penal Colony No. 35, where he was not required to reside permanently but to check in at regular intervals. According to local press reports, Akhmat Bakiyev’s sentence, which was reduced by about 1.5 years, was due to end in September 2014. The penal service says Bakiyev disappeared a few days ago, though one lawmaker is publicly saying he’s been gone for a month.
Deputy Shirin Aitmatova went to the penal colony to try to find the former first brother. She reports he was actually discharged from the hospital a month ago and argues that Akhmat Bakiyev received some help escaping. He’s long gone by now, she suspects. Some posts from her Twitter feed, translated from Russian:
As explained by the prison warden, the judge issued a ruling on A. Bakiyev’s free movement and the prosecutor didn’t appeal. And here’s the result))
Akhmat Bakiyev was released from the hospital a MONTH ago!
During a trip to Moscow last weekend, when Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev said his country doesn’t need Russian bases on its soil, some thought his talk was just political theater. After all, Atambayev generally enjoys rosy relations with Russian leaders and had just succeeded in getting them to cough up some overdue base rent. But could he have missed his cues?
Shortly after meetings with Prime Minister/President-to-Be Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, Atambayev launched a volley of complaints that suggests something didn’t go right in Moscow. His accusations, followed by a sharp Russian rebuke, have brought back memories of the Kremlin’s role in Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s swift fall almost two years ago.
Regularly featured in Atambayev’s Moscow meetings are the stalled negotiations over the sale of Kyrgyz energy infrastructure to Russia’s state-run gas monopoly, Gazprom, and – connected, perhaps? – Moscow’s unfulfilled promise to help Kyrgyzstan’s economy back on track with a large infusion of cash. This time, after his meetings, Atambayev told Kommersant that Kyrgyzstan would no longer beg for aid (Bishkek already owes Moscow almost $500 million).