And there is Ashan!  my host at the apartment when I first arrived said as he waved his hand in the direction of a big neon sign behind the building in which we now stood, on the 10th floor.

All I could see was AWAH although, the W did  look more like an upside down lower case “m” than it did a W.   Again he waved at the building.  And like the coins in a slot machine lining up to a winning row of similar pictures, the light dawned and I remembered.  Once again, I am illiterate and the letters A-upside-down-m-A-H probably do spell Ashan.

The letter representing the sound “n” in Tajik is written exactly as our capital “H”.   “A” is both “A” and “a”, “O” is still [ow], as in “boat”.   “K” is still [k} as in “kite”, and “T” is still [t], as in “toy”,   But after that, things go downhill.  The [ii], as in “eat” or “beat” is written with a capital N that is written backwards.  It took me a week just to learn to write this with any ease whatsoever, so ingrained is “N” written forwards is into my literate brain.    Lower case “y” represents the sound [u], as in shoe, the letter “P” represents a trilled “r” like the “r” in Spanish.   The sound [g], as in goat or girl, is written with a right angle facing to the right, like an “F” which lost its lower cross bard.   F, in fact, is the sound “gh” which we don’t have in English, but is pronounced more-or-less like the French “r”.   We do have it in Swahili, so I’m fine pronouncing it but in neither of the two other languages where I use it is it written with an “F”.   The crowning glory is a backwards facing capital R, pronounced as [ay], as in the English pronoun “I”.   My favorite two letters are ones that look like a side view of a pilgrim’s hat sitting upon two tiny legs,  and the one that looks like a six-legged insect, in addition to the upside-down “m” {sh] and H [n] to which I have a sentimental attachment because of my first experience reading then on the side of the building when I first arrived in Dushanbe.

To the uniformed, the alphabet, which I just learned today is, in fact, the Cyrillic alphabet,  introduced into Tajikistan as a writing system to replace their native alphabet which is, apparently still alive and well, but often not used in signage or school books, looks like some child who can’t get his letters quite straight, a mixture of upper case and lower case letters with a few odd characters thrown in to keep things interesting.  It certainly is not the elegant swirling Devenagari script, used to write both Sanskrit and Nepali.  And, if the internet is correct, Tajik,  is apparently the same language (more-or-less) as Farsi in Iran, and Dari in Afghanistan.  That is, each country has its own name for what is the same language, difference in accent notwithstanding and, of course, they will each have their own orthography for their dialect.   All three are  modern versions of the Persian language.   Which means, of course, that if you learn one, you have a  sort of linguistic “free pass” to use to get around in three different countries.

AWaH (pronounced ashan, remember) is located in the only mall in Dushanbe, a tiny affair that is more like a small Walmart in the center of a square horseshoe, the outer sides of which contain various shops that sell items that are not sold in AWaH, such as clothing.   Whoever designed the mall most definitely did not have a practical bone in his (presumably) body.   First of all, you have to climb a series set of stairs to enter the mall in the first place so you cannot roll your cart full of purchases out the door and to your car.  Secondly, the food section of the store is at the far back of the store, and this is where the check-out is as well, which means you have to lug your purchases the full length of the store via the outer corridors of shops because the front entrance is the only way to get in or out of the mall.

Now if you find Walmart overwhelming, as I do, imagine that every package you see is written in alphabet you do not recognize and the feelings of being overwhelmed mount exponentially.  When I first went into AWaH, on my second day here, the first thing that caught my eye were bags with picture of cats on them at the end of one of the first displays that you see when you first enter the store.

Ah, ah, cat food, I know that, I thought with some sense of being “at home” midst what was otherwise a huge vat of alphabet soup.   Upon further scrutiny, the bags were revealed to contain cat litter, the likes of which I never saw in Nepal.  Nepal has dog supplied galore, but when it comes to cats, it is like the situation with dogs in Tajikistan (previous post).  Of course, one advantage to being illiterate in a supermarket, is that you can only buy things that you recognize so, of course, my diet here consists of only fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and this week, I finally added a little meat and rice because I seemed to be tiring more easily just eating veggies and fruit.   My one attempt to venture into packaged foods was to buy a bag of potato chips but my logic at the time had one fatal flaw — the picture of barbecued meat on the bag did not mean “to each at BBQ’s” but rather that they were BBQed flavored.  Actually, I should have known this as it is the same in the U.S.    Sour cream and chive-flavored chips have pictures of sour cream and chives on them, both in the U.S. and here, as I discovered when I started scrutinizing the packages more closely.   As in the U.S. these days, especially in gas stations and corner shops, for example, designer chips are the norm.   The small market near my hotel in Arizona when I went there for my pre-departure orientation, did not have a SINGLE bag of plain chips of any variety, corn or potato.     You also have to watch out for what I call “fake” potato chips which, like Pringles, I think, are not made of slices of potatoes but rather some sort of potato mash that has been made into chip-shaped snacks.  I do miss the wide variety of healthy snacks in Nepal although, I am happy to say that they have a variety of nuts, including apricots seeds, that look like minature almonds, and dried garbanzo beans.

In all honestly, since I eschew processed foods in the U.S. anyway, it actually doesn’t make that much difference to me in terms of diet, but certainly, the experience of shopping when you can’t read the labels if you want to can be disorienting.  Plus, I haven’t a prayer of finding out, for example, if they have any mayonaise without sugar added, and even buy canned fish, like tuna or salmon, can be tricky because the pics aren’t always that clear and I have no idea if the fish is packed in water or oil.  Even when I had someone with me, they had to get out their phone to translate the Russian into Tajik to figure out what was in the can. Forget ever being able to rule out products with preservatives or food coloring.   You either have to take a chance and see what you get, or avoid it altogether.  Luckily, I have gotten a bit more philosophical in my old age and, while I won’t use mayonnaise sweetened with sugar, I figure than an occasional preservative here and there, or a bit of sugar, aren’t going to kill me at this late day in life.  I am quite sure that I have bigger fish to fry, so-to-speak, than worrying about an errant bit of food coloring.

There is also a trick to buying vegetables and fruit, which I learned about on my first day when, upon arriving at the check-out with various plastic bags containing different fruits and veggies, the clerk looked at each bag and threw up his arms and waved me away.  He finally had to take me back to the fruit and veggies section and show me the scale, next to which a young man stood, waiting to weigh my purchases and put price labels on them, something that I was supposed to do before heading to the check-out counter.

Then there is the issue of the shopping carts.  There are two varieties, one the familiar big baskets like we have in the U.S., and a smaller type which consists of a metal frame in which two (one on top and one below) baskets normally carried in one’s hands, snugly fit.  I like the better, as they are smaller and, since I never buy more than I can carry, they appeared to be the best choice on my first foray into the wilds of AWaH.    Again, more hand-waving and jumping up and down as I tried to leave the check-out line after paying with my smaller cart.   Turns out that if you get a BIG cart, you can use it to wheel your goods down to the front of the store where you must give up the cart in order to get down the stairs.  But if you use a SMALL one, you cannot take it with you.  It must stay within the borders of AWaH itself.  And so you must carry everything you bought all the way down the length of the mall, in addition to wherever else you are carrying it when you leave the store.

Another interesting fact about the store is that many of the people who work there don’t know where everything is.  This is not unlike mammoth stores in the U.S. like Walmart and Home Depot, but, there, in those stores, they can whip out their handheld devices and look up wherever the thing is that you are looking for.   Now, of course, I have the added problem of not being able to tell anyone in words what I am looking for, so there is always a period of figuring out what I want, after which we still have to find where it is.   For example, finding the string (couldn’t find any rope) with which to make a slip knot for a leash for Bhakti, involved me pointing to the string on my knapsack, the lanyard around the shop assistant whom I had cornered for this transaction, and pulling my hands widely apart, with my fingers closed, my attempt to mime a piece of string.

When my first target finally figured out what I wanted, he had no idea where it was.  First he wandered the aisles, with me trailing behind, much as I had already done myself, muttering to myself  I already did this, I was hoping you would be able to tell me where to go.   After the assistant-guided tour of the store, he finally asked someone who then had to ask someone else who eventually led us to a little box of string on the bottom shelf of a huge display of tools and such.  Never in a million years would I have found it.

Asking for things that you need when you don’t speak any language in common with the person to whom you have gone for help requires good miming skills,nthe willingness to look stupid and, of course, a sense of humor.  I have worked on these skills for many years now and I am happy to say that I am utterly comfortable looking stupid if it gets my what I want.  I feel no embarrassment, no shame, and not ever any any remorse for dragging whatever hapless stranger I find to help me solve my problem into what might be, perhaps, for them, one of the stranger interactions which they have ever had with anyone.   After all, we’ve all been children trying to get things that we want before we learned to talk.  Those skills are never lost, they just need to be dragged out of the attic where all those skills you don’t need anymore are stored after forty, fifty, sixty or seventy years of disuse, dusted off and brought out into the light for all to see.   I get better with time, I have noticed, and now I carry a pen and paper for those times when gestures fail to make my meaning clear.     I don’t know how much Tajik I am going to learn while I am here, but I am certainly not going to waste precious memory, limited at it may be at my age, learning words like “hanger” or “comb” when I can draw a perfectly good picture.

One thought on “AWAH

  1. Ahhhh – language lessons. I can’t draw so I’d really be in trouble.

    On Thu, Sep 19, 2019 at 9:59 AM THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED wrote:

    > Ani posted: “And there is Ashan! my host at the apartment when I first > arrived said as he waved his hand in the direction of a big neon sign > behind the building in which we now stood, on the 10th floor. All I could > see was AWAH although, the W looked more like an up” >


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