I realized as I sat and listened to my landlord go on and on about all the damage that my cats caused, knowing the reality that they had never been in the room about which she was complaining, that I was being confronted by a depth of fear and disgust of animals the likes of which I had never seen before. The house was spotless. One corner of one wall in the kitency was damaged, not by cats, but by a puppy before I moved her to the farm outside of Dushanbe. She was so busy ranting and raving that she could not even hear what I had to say. This is what prejudice is like. This is how utterly affronted people are by things that they cannot understand.
There is no doubt that another cat had lived in the house before mine. If the litter scoop in the bathroom that I found when I arrived had not told me this, the scratches on the wall in the two inch crack between the wall and refrigerator, which she discovered after going into her meltdown, were undoubtedly caused by a cat, but not mine. As far as I can tell, the refrigerator must have been located somewhere else before and something else, perhaps even a smaller refrigerator had sat in its place. No animal would try to scratch a wall up that high and in that confined a space. But…if you do not understand the basic facts about animals, you have no way of knowing this. And if you are convinced that your very life — your way of experiencing the world — is somehow threatened by their existence, you will not listen to reason. Reason cannot co-exist with prejudice.
I now know that there is nothing that I can say to this woman that she will be able to hear. That she can hear. Because to actually listen to me would mean that she would have to let go of her beliefs and she is much too entrenched in them to do so.
I am sorry that she is so upset. Given that I knew cats had lived in the house before, I believed that my spotless maintenance, and the fact that the cats were kept in cages whenever I was not supervising them, was all I needed to do to gain her approval. I knew that she would not like dogs, and I had moved them to the local farm for this reason. But the generalized dislike, distrust, disgust of animals in this country is palpable. My colleague, who adopted the first kitten I found, has commented upon this more than once. The Tajik woman who came up to me one day when I was out walking Shakti sporting her post-spaying French-braided cotton gauze jacket asked if she could take a picture.
As you know, Tajik people don’t like animals very much. We have a website, we are trying to teach the Tajik people about animals so that they will understand them better.
The reality is that I truly underestimated the level of prejudice that would be stirred up in my landlord when faced with a cat. Had I been smarter, I would have moved out earlier, despite my love for the neighborhood. But I have committed the unthinkable crime in Tajikistan and I am now receiving my just rewards for having committed it. If ever there was a cross-cultural incident worthy of analysis in a training course on cross-cultural communication, this would be it.
I have decided not to try to speak directly with her again. According to the Embassy, in the absence of a rental agreement, and in the presence of a conflict between tenant and landlord, it is the realtor who brokered the deal who must act as a go-between. The landlord should have known this and probably did. She will not be happy if I do not speak with her directly again but I will not. I am responsible for covering any damage that I, or my animals, did, but I am not required to put up with verbal assault.
I am not sorry for anything that I have done for the animals. If I can get them all safely to the United States, including the one my colleague has, I will have saved 9 souls from living a life in a place where their very presence disgusts the people around them. I did not know that my rescue efforts this year would place me in a war against prejudice but I understand this now. In this instance, I have utterly failed to make a difference and, if anything, my actions have only further deepened the hatred that this woman has for animals and, for all I know, of Americans. It is difficult to know what else was going on beneath the endless diatribe that that I encountered on Christmas day. What I do know, however, is that the reaction which I encountered was much much greater than the circumstances merited in any objective sense, and was grounded in a personal and cultural worldview to which I have no access.
I deeply regret disturbing this woman’s sensibilities and personal boundaries. I have no right to come to a country and challenge the values of people in another culture, no matter how misguided I believe they might be. But I do not regret my choice to save a life and will submit to my just rewards without further attempts to deny the significance of what I did for her. My only question now is — Is this what it is like growing up dark-skinned in white America? Having to interact on a regular basis with people who are utterly and completely disgusted that you even exist because you believe something different from they, and who do not even attempt to disguise their contempt?
I don’t know how the rest of my year here is going to be. There is a part of me that does not even want to stay. But then I watch the animals trying to work out their differences (one female kitten is still not convinced that the newly neutered male is worthy of her friendship) and realize that the only thing to do in a situation like this is to pick myself off, dust myself off, and see what happens next. But I will say this, I don’t like being the object of someone’s contempt… This is how extremism is born and, in this respect, it is terrifying.