They try to take their bundles and plastic bags and boxes of coffee machines and rice boilers on board the plane, but the girl at the gate is resistant and forces them to put their belongings through the frame. Because these don’t fit in and the girl says she doesn’t care they obediently go back to the end of the line like children that have been reprimanded at school.
On the plane, they sit where they want until another passenger comes and tells them to go away. Because they are travelling in groups, or at least they have formed groups at the airport or when boarding – it is easy for them to bond with other Tajiks –, they go and sit next to someone they know or stand close to them and chat with them until a flight attendant tells them to not block the aisle and find their seats. Some of them want to change their seats and try to engage the flight attendant in their arrangements. The flight attendants are visibly upset. Some women walk with coffee cups in hand before the plane has taken off.
A teenager sitting next to me leans slightly over the book that I have just opened, recognises the Latin alphabet and says to a boy travelling together with him – or did they just meet as well? – that it is in English (I am reading in Estonian). They exchange a few words and laugh. When I take out my phone he checks the brand and occasionally watches the pictures that I am organising.
When the boy sees that the flight attendants are coming to collect the meal boxes – we were served chicken, macaroni, a bun and black tea, no coffee, sanctions in Russia, I guess –, he pulls my sleeve. I smile and hand him my box and he gives it to the flight attendant. The teenager falls asleep. The boy chats to one of the flight attendants. She has grown fond of him and brings him another meal. He is hungry. The boy’s mother sitting behind me sleeps during the whole flight.
Even though I am the only European-looking person on the plane, nobody seems to notice me except for the Russian flight attendants, who are clearly more polite with me than with the others and who pay me farewell by saying «Всего хорошего!» and not «До свидания!» like to everyone else. But on the bus from the plane to the airport, a man at whose seat I am standing is looking at me, straight into my eyes. He doesn’t run to hide his gaze from me when he sees that I have noticed him. Why should I be ashamed if I am curious? He is not interested in my pose or my hair or what I am wearing. He is like a child.
I imagine that I could propose to them whatever I want and they would willingly accept it, not because they would think that it is important to please a foreigner in their country but because they would be sincerely curious about where I might lead them. I imagine that this curiosity would make them do things that they would never agree to do otherwise, at least without reflecting about them first, so if I led these innocent-looking men to sex they would probably act in accordance with my wish and they would kill me right after just as easily.
It is 3:30 AM. The airport is new. The flight was delayed for about an hour but the visa procedure goes smoothly. The border official doesn’t apologise when he leaves me to open a door for a colleague of his. He is dressed in a good-fitting suit made of blue shiny fabric, he speaks good English. Through the little glass window I see the portrait of Emomali Rahmon, the President of Tajikistan. His images are everywhere in the city, the dictator in a good suit, a confident pose and a determined gaze, in a fruit garden or on a rye field with a bunch of blades in his hands, the upcoming 25th anniversary of the republic, the 24th anniversary of his rule.
Tubeteikas and older men, white shirts and black trousers and young men – school uniform probably –, flip-flops that reveal handsome big toes, because the temperature is between 35 and 40 degrees every day, no rain, no clouds, no wind. Bushy eyebrows, sometimes grown together. Colourful clothes with elaborate patterns made of light material for women, dresses that reach just below the knees and are worn over trousers. Many headscarves, traditional rather than religious.
But then again news about closing down shops selling hijabs, about police shaving off beards of 13,000 men earlier this year, about the instalment of security cameras at mosques. Policemen at every corner on Rudaki Avenue. No calls to prayer.
The receptionist at my hotel doesn’t hear me enter. He is reading the Quran that is open on the desk, he notices me, he quickly performs the dua and wipes his face. The breakfast is from seven to ten, good night! He comes from behind his desk when I am already on the stairs and laughs, from seven to ten, don’t forget!
Another receptionist, a young man of about 20 years old, interrupts his suhur meal when I arrive to check out the following morning. He is eager to tell me all about Islam and Ramadan and fasting, and I encourage him by pretending that I don’t know much about it. He speaks slowly and clearly; he wants to practice his English. But when he begins to prepare my receipt, he becomes silent and measures his movements diligently. Once he’s done he makes sure he hasn’t forgotten anything. So did you enjoy your stay here? I’m glad to hear that. He shakes my hand as they usually do to conclude a deal or to say thank you. Have a nice trip!
The doorman at my hotel pushes the button that opens the gate to let our car pass and places his right hand on his heart. He stands immobile and guides the car with his eyes until we have left his sight.
The woman at the passport control takes a look at my immigration card, dismisses it immediately, smiles as if she knows something I don’t know, and says something. I don’t know what to say, I get nervous, “but I filled it in and I got the stamp at the entry!” She smirks again, clearly proud of herself that she has some influence over me, takes the card, sighs, and puts the stamp.