Ive been putting off writing this blog and up until this evening and I wasn’t sure why. I think it may be because the roles that both women and men play in this country are, well, heady. Maybe Im naive. Maybe its just a matter of being overly dramatic. But I think that this topic by far is the most tragic yet absolutely fascinating thing that I have observed in this country. Is it religion? Is it culture based? What is it that makes the roll of women and men here so different, so incredibly different than what I grew up knowing in the States? It is hard for me to even begin, how do I attempt to explain from all sides. I cant really and that bothers me. It isn’t as simple as “men suck, they’re pompous asses and the women are trapped.” No, how did it get this way? Or rather, why is it still this way? That is a discussion that I for one, dont want to have by myself, blog writing style, I dont know enough to give you my opinion honestly. With that said, I can share with you what I have seen within my host family specifically and a bit about the rest of what I observe daily in my community. And a little bit about how I observe it or sometimes sorta unavoidably fumble around with it. Dually noted that this is not representative of all or even most typical Uzbek families yet it this situation does happen, especially in the villages of Uzbekistan. So now. Why now am I sitting down and writing this blog? Well, Ive found my starting point, so here we go. Get ready.
Today I went into Jizzakh to send out a few emails, hit up the bazar for some fresh fruits and veggies as well as swing by the pochta to see if I had any mail, ahem. The sun was still intense at 4:30 when I was sitting in the back of a taxi at the Jizzakh bus station waiting 3 more passengers to fill up the car so I could finally make my way home. After a few minutes a pretty young girl slides in next to me. One down, two to go. Straight away, she is quite friendly and wants to chat. I put away my book and decide to be social and practice my Uzbek with a friendly face…
(by the way, let me take a sec to tell you, in the village people arent very open with strangers in random settings such as on the street, or in a shop or in a taxi, esp. a foreigner like me. Not unfriendly, just a bit indifferent, possibly intimidated or apprehensive or simply just not used to seeing an unfamiliar face. Everyone knows everyone. So I get allot of blank stares when I walk down the street. And thats mostly talking about the women. The men, I dont generally say hello to and dont really make eye contact. Except for the old men, out of respect I say hello but usually get blank stares in return. Its cool, no matter. As for the other men, for one, they dont say hello back if I do say hello and some of them the sort of leer at me and that aint cool and two, for a boy anywhere near my age it wouldn’t really be appropriate to say hello or socialize unless we are already acquaintances. My rule of thumb is if I get a nice smile or some sort of acknowledgment first, I jump at the opportunity and say hello. If they are younger than me they need to greet me with some sort of respect, not that I really care but I know in there culture the younger should always say hello first and its quite a big deal to be disrespectful or not acknowledge an elder if passing them on the street. I dont answer to people who yell “HEY!! HA! HEY! HELLO! GIRL! HELLO!!!” Esp. teenage boys. Most kids are great though, they are the ones I love passing by. And women, I generally suck it up, say hello but dont expect anything in return yet am pleasantly surprised when I get a big grin and a Salom! in return. Makes my day. Dont get me wrong, Ive made my friends at certain places in the bazar and a few nice taxi drivers so, its all good. Its all just small town mentality. Nice people, just not used to strange faces.) …
So, a young friendly face, nice to see. She was wearing a head scarf in such a way that it is tied around her neck which is the way more strict Muslims were their head scarfs, just like you would see in America (almost all women where head scarfs but not in such a way, not so conservatively, and young girls, my age, dont wear scarfs often, unless a strict Muslim). So we start chatting it up, I practice asking questions in Uzbek. Where do you live? She says she lives in my town. How old are you? 20. Do you live with your parents? No! Im married. I tell her wow! shes so young, and she is married, wow! What were you doing in Zarbdor today? She says she was taking cooking classes. Where do you live in town? I live close to you, she says. I think, wow, how does she know were I live? But then again, everyone knows were I live. She says that she knows my host sister, and says, a few times over, that she is going or has taught my host sister in the past how to read Arabic. I say wow, thats really, well I tried to tell her that that was interesting, that she can read Arabic but I forget the word for interesting. Another girl gets in the Taxi, her friend. Two down, one more body and were on the road. We are introduced, she isn’t as friendly, got the stare again, they are talking fast and I cant really follow all of what they are saying. I tune out. A minute later, a guy jumps in the front seat. Thats four, were off! We ride in silence for the most part. Im thinking to myself. THis could be cool, she seems nice, and maybe I could learn a little more about Islam from her on the walk home, Im always trying to learn more from whoever will talk to me and is interested in schooling me. Im a dork, I know. She did say she lives by me, so I wait for her to pay the taxi and we walk towards home together. A minute into our walking, she asks me what religion I am. Bingo, I didn’t even have to say a word. Its really hard to talk about religion and other complicated topics in depth, if at all, with the language barrier but we muddle through. She tells me again about the Arabic lessons and my host sister. She seems a little disappointed when I explain to her that Im not really a practicing christian, I couldn’t explain in Uzbek, “well really, I dont practice any really organized religion at all now but I grew up blah blah blah, but religion fascinates me, and its something I question and wonder about frequently, and Im particularly interested in people like you who seem so devoted and committed to your faith…” and on and on. So I said interesting, interesting (remembered the word) and said that I dont go to church but sometimes I pray but I think I mostly confused her so I shut up and listened to her tell me this and that. And by then, I was about to turn down my street so we parted ways and I walked the rest of the way trying to memorize her name so one, I could tell my host sister she said hello and two, so next time I see her I wouldn’t forget.
I gallup in to the courtyard and my Opa and the gardener are sitting outside the kitchen. In the high spirits that I am in, I tell her that I just met a really nice girl, I told her what her name was and that she said to say hi, well she really said to say hi to my host sister but no matter right. She looks at me in a way that I can obviously tell she doesn’t think all that highly of this girl. Marat also gives me a look, which is strange, all he usually does is smile. I ask her “what, dont you like her? She seems like a good girl. She said she is going to or already did (cant always get my tenses straight) teach my host sister Arabic.” in a way that indicated that I thought that was pretty cool. She says no. That it is not ‘cool’ and she is not good. Then I think, ohhh, I get it, shes really religious and my mother I know is not, she is Russian and is not Muslim, at least not by choice if you can even say that. My Aka, her husband is quite religious and in the past has made her conform, wearing the conservative dress, praying, wouldn’t let her socialize, very tight reign. Not any more, I heard she had gone back to Russia where her family is at one point and he came after her and promised her that she didn’t have to ‘practice’ anymore if she would just come home. So I think, ok, I get it, Aka is making my host sister take these lessons, in order to be able to read the Koran and Opa doesn’t approve. I understand. So I do my little snicker that indicates, ‘got ya, I understand’ and decide to end the conversation there. I think its interesting but she obviously does not. So I go inside, change my clothes and come out into the main room to find Opa sitting there, sorta waiting for me. I sit down and she starts in again about the girl Id met. Wanting more details about how I met her, then I think. Oh shit. Oh no.
Now, let me tell you now, actually, Ive mentioned this in other blogs but, my Aka has a second wife somewhere in town. Yea. Now up until a week or two ago, I had only learned of this through the old volunteer and my counterpart. My Aka is quite wealthy, as are his brothers, some of whom also have second wives, and I think, I think its a mixture of twisted religious beliefs and a cultural thing that, with the pressure from his family, he felt that he should have a second wife. Especially because in my family there is only one daughter. ANd he must have a son, its shameful not to have a son. So I knew that he had taken a second wife in the fall. I knew this from the get go, coming here. And it has definitely been strange for me. Sometimes, all the time actually, when he is around, which is fairly often, he comes and goes, comes and goes, all that goes through my head is ‘you have a second wife, you have a second wife.” But besides that its not talked about, Opa seems distracted and disturbed every once and a while and doest generally seem to excited to be around him. I say that but sometimes I catch them smiling and comfortable around each other so I dont know, I dont understand it. He buys them everything under the sun they want so maybe that has something to do with the highs and the lows. Well I know it does, no one really tries to hide that part. And he generally is a ‘nice’ man, he is always nice to me, doesn’t say much but smiles allot. He obviously loves his daughter, takes her places, jokes with her. Again, I just dont get it. It seems unreal that this is how life goes. Only once so far did Opa hint to me about it all and that was the other week when she said one night when she was in a real foul mood, quite rightly, that she has tired, and feeling crazy in the head and had had it up to here with her husband, I said I understood and tried to indicate that I knew and that she didn’t have to say anything further. She excused herself from the table and left me and my host sister to finish up dinner and that was when my sister said “My Dada has two wife’s. I am bad.” in English. Shes 10. I at first didn’t know what to say to her. I mean, whata ya say to that, to a 10 year old. I told her “You mean your sad huh. Not bad, of course your sad. But you are not bad.” I wanted to make that clear, obviously she had gotten the words mixed up. “No,” she said,” Im bad, Im bad.” Just that way too, sad but not dramatic. And that she didn’t really like her dad. I tried to sorta shift the subject and told her how much both her mom and dad obviously loved her bunches and bunches. The next day I was talking to my counterpart and she told me that no, she really did mean that she thinks, or ‘knows’ shes bad. Shes a girl. Aka needs a boy. And my host sister, only 10, knows that. Again, I didn’t know what to say.
So Im thinking, oh no. I bet this girl I had just met in the taxi knows wife #2. Shit. Then Opa starts in, asking me if I knew that Aka had another wife? Uh, yes, yes I did. And that that was who you were talking to. Excuse me. Yes, Jen, that was her. Double shit. I had just paraded around town with ‘the other woman.’ That cant be good.
Well we ended up talking for about an hour or two about the entire situation. I tried to keep it informational, not really letting on to what I thought about the situation beyond that I was very very sorry and I was honest about how shocked and foreign this concept of having two wifes is to me. The details of the whole thing were like blows to the pit of my stomach. It made me a bit sick with pity for the people involved to hear it all but at the same time I was fascinated. This has been a long blog already so I wont go into all of it but as it turns out, this is the 4th wife he has taken. His first wife died just months after they married. My Opa was his second wife, which was not ‘blessed’ per-say by his family, she is after all Russian and not Uzbek (well, her parents are Russian, she was born here but is not traditional Uzbek which is I guess a problem for seriously traditional Uzbek folk) and then he had taken his first ‘second’ wife when my host sister was about 5. Only this wife lived in this house with them. In the same house. This was during the period that Aka had Opa very much living as a strict Muslim wife, obviously. This was also the point where she went to Russia and refused to come back if he kept the second wife and continued to make her live so conservatively. He agreed to it all, she came back and now, five years later, she is dressing like the average Uzbek woman, not being forced to practice any religion from what I can tell, but he obviously hasn’t kept his promise about the no more wifes rule. He met #2 through his Islamic teacher. She is his daughter. A few years ago she started teaching my host sister how to read Arabic, she came over to the house, guested with her father, befriended my Opa as much as I guess you would with the age difference, she was 17ish at the time. She married another man, although a romance was said to have been between Aka and her but he had promised Opa no more wifes. But that marriage didn’t last long. So now, they are married. A real ceremony took place. Slightly hush hush but it happened. Opa tells me it was all about money though she did mention the fact that she did not give him a boy, only my host sister. She tells me that #2’s family is poor yet to Aka appealingly religious. Money being the reason that #2’s father not only approved but encouraged this marriage. She tells me purposefully that he doesn’t spend any money on #2 nor her house and that she cant cook and doesn’t keep a clean house. One of the only questions I foolishly asked her was how or why she, my Opa, stays and how she thinks #2 could be or is happy this way. Foolish, because for one, I should know better than to fuel the fire or to get involved and two, like she is going to have an answer for how the other wife feels or what she is thinking. So she says she stays cause one, how is she to get to her family in Russia, she has no money, no way to get money. Aka makes sure to come home at least once a day to be sure of that, and he has told her she can go visit but my sister can not go with her. And she tells me of course, that #2 is totally fine with her place as a second wife. Though this is what my Opa told me, from what my counterpart told me afterward, and how she, #2 herself, behaved around me, I believe it. Well sort of. I cant imagine that this arrangement is like a bundle of roses for her but I do now believe that she, because of her religious beliefs (as warped as they seem to me) weather put into her head by her family or weather she firmly believes that this is ok, I think she believes in her roll as a second wife to Aka.
So thats the story. Its so hard to believe that its all true. Am I dramatic? I dont know.
I think the strangest thing now is that I find myself not being AS shocked at times by the evidence of the situation. Oh, good, Aka looks like hes leaving in a minute, Ill be able to have a quite dinner with Opa and my sister. Opa will be relaxed and we can be silly and have a few laughs. Nevermind the fact that hes leaving to spend the evening or night at his second house. Or, when recently I had a conversation with him about the current political situation in this country, current events and we see eye to eye on so many things and I seemingly forget who Im talking to. Sometimes my oblivious attitude towards it scares me. I feel like for a moment Im ok with it all and then I remember, “Wait! No, this is shit! You suck and you should know better than to live this way and hurt people this way you pompous ignorant man!” Thats a little frightening, when I forget. Its all to weird. By the way, I just found out that #2 is pregnant. Well see how things go when that becomes known for the rest of the house.
One more thought that I have after quite often after I talk about things like this. I realize Ive put myself in this situation and whose to say Im not, well I wont say as sick, but whose to say that Im not twisted for being here and sitting back and observing all this and lets be honest, making judgments. But no, I remember what I really believe above all about me being here. Simply, its two sided. There are people who want me here, want to learn from me and to show me things in return. I represent someone from a different place. A place that is mostly envied or hated for the exact same things. I do not throw around my ideas of what life is all about, what my independence means to me. My ideas of democracy and freedom Im sure arent fully for this country as a whole. When given the opportunity and someone show an interest in my opinions I love to share with them but forcing others to believe in what you believe, well, thats just another way of suffocating of the basic right to choose. Its a hard line, what is cowardly and what is respectful. We are all different, different ancestry, history, culture. I appreciate that, and that is, more than anything, why I am fascinated by what I see here. But I think we all can learn from eachother just by observing eachother. I for sure am learning allot from the people I have met here so far. What it means to work hard, and not just with your hands. How it feels to be miss understood and to be such a minority. I have been humbled and elevated by what Ive seen and done here. Realized my, and others, ignorance but also our potential. So I go on just being myself and if anyone gets anything out of me being here that makes me feel, purposeful. I dont know what you will get out of me telling you this story or me telling it but it is definitely one side of this experience here. What else is there to say?
(By the way, I put up a few pictures on the last 2 blogs that I have posted, so check them out! They are of my house (boring but there) and of a few of my kids at my school!)