Shamsiddin makes rock candy. Each week he receives a shipment of sugar in tall plastic sacks. He melts it with water in a cauldron as wide as my arm-span and boils it all day. Then he pours it off into basins strung with cross-hatched fishing line and lets it cool. The candy crystalizes on the string as the basins cool for three days. Then he tips them over, breaks the yellow crystals out and boxes them up for sale.
Shamsiddin was born a citizen of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan. He trained as a boxer, served in the army, then came home to take a job with the people’s silk weaving industry in the city of Khujand.
Life was good for his family. His father was a doctor—which earned him the distinction of a brand-new Lada automobile. His family arranged a marriage for him with an educated girl. She taught economics at the university.
When the Soviet Union broke apart Shamsiddin was bewildered. He’d been taught that the wise and peace-loving Communist Party would ensure prosperity in Central Asia for ages to come. In school he’d been the first with the answers:
“What is the ultimate end of capitalism?”
“And what country is the most imperialist nation in the world?”
“The United States!”
Now two decades later, reclining at the low table in the house he’d built with free market profits—the silk factory long privatized and relocated, but candy selling well—he regarded the new world order with a sort of quizzical wonder.
If he’d been told in 1987 that he’d have an American under his roof one day he would have been incredulous, and a little afraid—in the cartoons Americans had fangs. But here I was, drinking his tea, eating his bread, sleeping in his upper room, sponsored by the U.S. State Department to spread good will and English in independent Tajikistan.
Shamsiddin and I had so little to say to each other at first, so few shared words. But as I learned his language, and he learned to speak in the dumbed down child-like vocabulary I could understand, our rapport grew.
He told me about the army, about Islam, about his childhood, his mother’s village, his father’s medical practice, his hopes as a young man in the Tajik SSR. He was granting me, each evening as we sat after meals with the TV blaring, a piece of his irreducible consciousness.
One night we reclined at the low table, nursing our cups of tea. Tomorrow was Eidi Kurbon, the day of sacrifice. Tied in the courtyard, the chosen lamb bleated uncertainly.
“Let me tell you something,” Shamsiddin said in Tajik, leaning across the table.
“Yes?” I said.
“The sheep in the courtyard, it is for my mother. We will kill it tomorrow, and it will go ahead of her, to the Day of Judgment. It will walk across the pit of hell on a bridge the width of a single human hair. If it makes it across to the other side, so will my mother. If it falls into the flames, so will she.”
“That,” he said, pausing for dramatic emphasis, “is why we must choose a good sheep.”
I looked at him incredulously. Outside the sheep bleated again, tugging at its rope.
“The sheep is happy,” he assured me, “It knows it will be a sacrifice.”
I saw little cause for joy from the sheep’s perspective. But it was the hair-bridge and the mother’s fate resting on the nervous animal’s unsteady steps that occupied my mind.
Nothing I’d read in the Koran, or heard from the neighborhood mullah, or discussed with my eager students had prepared me for this story. Whatever insight I’d been granted over the past months seemed suddenly opaque. I was reminded that every day in such a place is a new opportunity to be surprised.
I’d been abroad before, but just for three months as a homesick undergraduate, wearing my culture-shock around Santo Domingo like a germophobe’s face mask. In Tajikistan I pushed through it.
I stayed a year, and when the twelve months were up—twelve months of effusive greetings, communal plates of pilaf, of kites armed with taut noisemakers buzzing through the sky—it hurt to leave.
For some time after returning to the States I curled my legs instinctively under me when I sat down, as if reclining on a cushion. It pained me to see bread dropped on the ground—in Central Asia bread is holy; if it is dropped it is picked up, kissed lovingly, and returned to the table.
My hand found itself at my heart during greetings, and my mind rehearsed the litany of polite inquiries required by good breeding in Khujand: “Are you good? Are you well? Is everything perfect? How’s your work? How’s your health?” When I entered a house I instinctively slipped my shoes off, and when I entered a room I ducked my head politely toward anyone older than me.
What was this strange overlay, this patina of manners I’d had accumulated? I had adapted, in a host of ways that, isolated, seemed superficial. But taken as a whole, they seemed at least something like empathy, a familiarity close enough to change what I noticed and how I reacted, to mold me into something a little more Tajik.
But still this capacity for surprise remained. No matter how much I learned or adapted, I was not a Tajik. I wasn’t born in a Soviet hospital, nor in an earth-brick house. I wasn’t swaddled into a wooden cradle, nor weaned on tandoori bread dipped in thick kefir; I wasn’t taught to name God and the Prophet five times a day facing southwest to Mecca. Twelve months does not a Tajik make.
Every detail, from civil wars to soda pop, contributes to the web of associations from which we build our minds. I could no more take on another culture than I could inhabit another brain.
But…we do collide. We do adapt. We live together for months or years, share homes and food, converse, debate, inquire and even convert. And from this we build the kind of “fellow-feeling” we call empathy.
Across the table from Shamsiddin, I want to know what I can know about him. About the ones I love at home. About others who might have thought they’d hate me before we met. And others who I thought I’d hate.
Thomas Nagel famously asked if we can really know what it is like to be a bat. His answer was no. But we could perhaps understand the shapes looming in the bat’s cave. We could imagine what inner light guides it, what kind of echoes lead it from room to room. What it approaches, from what it flees. Perhaps from this we could feel our way toward the bat, sense its flight through the darkness. But if we are wrong, we collide.
The question, “What is it like to be a bat?” begs the question, “What is it like to be that human?” What is it like to be a Muslim? Or a communist? Or an American Evangelical protestant?
And how much do we need to know to ensure a peace between us? Are we given the tools to cross these riven valleys of divergent experience?
That night before Eidi Khurbon, Shamsiddin and I stayed up late, talking about druzak—hell. He described for me pincers of flaming iron, bodies torn and repaired ceaselessly, the heat of God’s wrath radiating from the throne of judgment. I went to bed reeling, rehearsing the sheep’s traverse across hell, hair-bridge trembling under its weight.
I knew now a little of his fear, a little of his hope, a little more of the shapes bulging out of his teeming darkness. Were we united that night, sweating through the same nightmares? Can this granted insight ever be reversed?
I don’t know. But I’ll be returning soon. We’ll see then what remains between us.