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Strange Customs

When doing academic research in the former Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, my colleague and I were habitually treated on our visits to homes and offices with "chai", or tea. However, tea isn't just tea, but a plethora of food and drink that does two things. One, it requires you to spend more time with someone than you were planning, and two, it limits how many people you can visit, not just because of the time, but on your appetite (or lack thereof). On our first day we had visited five people and were so stuffed we couldn't go out the next day.

I should say here that in Turkmenistan, as is true in most (nominal) Moslem cultures, that being a guest is the highest status one can have, and being a foreign guest is the greater still. Moreover, being the host of a foreign guest confers great status on the host from his fellow villages.

When we visited the small isolated village of Kona Kassir on the Iranian border, we stayed with the high school chemistry teacher and all the elders of the village came to get a good look at us. This village had been a staging area for the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan. No American had been there before, at least since 1922.

We were seated on beautiful Turkmen carpets (the finest in the world) around a ground cloth covered with plates of bread, mounds of rice, and lamb that had been slaughtered that morning. At noon, the "Ak Sakhals" (elders), dressed in their fleecy telpek hats and homespun robes, arrived en masse and took their places after a silent handshake with the host. They ate silently, observing that we fastidiously ate with our right hands only, and that we accepted second and third portions after demurring twice. It took some convincing diplomacy to refuse the brains and eyeballs of the lamb, pleading that the more venerable elders were more deserving than we.

This apparently satisfies them that we were sufficiently "civilized", and when we were arrested by the KGB (merely for being in that village), they came to our aid with forceful insistence that the KGB was out-of-line, and thus we were released.




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