By Dora Ohrenstein
Khorog is a lovely small city with one good restaurant along the river. I took Yorali to lunch there and we spoke at length about how I could lend support once home, and how we might be able to arrange a longer visit for me in the future. Then Zuhro took me to the Khorog museum, where I knew there were old Pamiri socks I must try to photograph. We were greeted by an unkempt fellow with bottle-thick glasses who did not seem inclined to grant my request. I refused to give up, however, and he finally opened the case containing the socks and gave me a spot to lay them out for photos. They were absolutely stunning, and it was magical to see these treasures in the flesh that I’d been gazing at in photos for months. Sadly, the socks were not well stored and some of their color was fading from light exposure. We were unable to find out anything about them except that they were collected in 1979. I made Zuhro put one on her pretty leg, and the fashion possibilities were evident. Immediately I thought – Barney’s!
The next day we spent with Pamir artisans in the village of Suchan. The group of charming women showed me how they dyed yarn using onions (for brown) and apple tree leaves (for green) on a wood burning stove, and we spent a lovely day sharing crochet. I showed them my photos of the Khorog Museum socks and they said they’d never seen them before. They got excited and promised to make socks like those. Over a fine home-cooked meal, we talked about family vs. single life, with Zuhro doing her best to translate. So much can be said without words though. And that day I really understood that crochet is like music, a way to cross barriers with ease.
The women had been accustomed to make acrylic socks in bright machine-dyed colors to sell for $5 or $10 to tourists. Despite Yorali’s high aims, he hadn’t been able to convince them of the merits of making a more high quality product. The women had very busy lives raising crops, animals and children and couldn’t see the value of spending the extra time spinning softer yarns and using natural dyes. The dying demonstration they did for me, it turned out, was just for show, but I hope my visit made an impression and maybe changed their minds. The interview of Yorali in this issue gives further insight on how recently a market mentality arrived in Tajikistan.
In the evening I retired to my guest house, a small apartment I was sharing with a fellow so far unseen. Eventually, a young man appeared, Volcker, a 32 year old German working as an agricultural engineer in Afghanistan with a German NGO. Over a liquor, he told me his fascinating life story: born in East Germany, once a committed Communist, he’d gone to Cuba to study, then spent several years working professionaly in China and had just completed two years working in Afghanistan. He identified the bites all over my body as bed bugs and told me to put my clothes in the freezer when I got home. A charming and animated fellow, he nevertheless told me his head was in a bad place, his life at an impasse, he was sick of Afghanistan and didn’t know what to do next. He wanted to get his doctorate, and I encouraged him to apply to a university in the States. It was high time he saw capitalism in action, and who wouldn’t grab a guy with his extraordinary professional experience? He seemed quite interested and promised to write and let me know his decision.
He’d met many American soldiers in Afghanistan, and thought the war was a mess. The Americans would be best off, he said, leaving the situation for the Afghans to resolve themselves.
After this fascinating conversation, it was hard to sleep. Next morning I was hoping to fly out of the Pamirs to Dushanbe and on to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. I knew many hours of travel would be involved, and had a plane to catch from Tashkent to Kiev in a couple of days.