The Gray Plague

Dushanbe, Tajikistan -- 08 October 2007 | Permalink

I have been in Dushanbe less than twenty-four hours, and already I have had far too many encounters with the police.

Our first encounter happens the night of our arrival in town. Two traffic cops look on in amusement as we struggle out of a taxi whose driver began by assuring us he knew where to find our guesthouse — and then pulled over after a hundred metres to ask directions from the cops. The cops seem to take a perverse pleasure in listing all the European languages that they don't speak and all the Central Asian ones that we don't, just to make it clear that we have no possible basis for communication. I interrupt them somewhere between Shugni and Uzbek and, by pointing and gesticulating, get them to agree that Meydoni Azadi is that way. End of the first encounter.

My second encounter comes the next day, as I am trying to photograph the giant statue of Ismail Somoni that looms over prospekt Rudaki. The statue appears to have been designed by someone who drew their inspiration more from “The Lord of the Rings” than the actual history of the Samanid dynasty and I can't decide how best to capture the late king's Nazgul-defying pose given the double constraints of an insufficiently wide-angle lens and powerful backlighting.

As I tiptoe up the red marble steps towards the monument, a gray-uniformed leprechaun springs from among the flower beds, blowing his whistle and waving furiously. I make apologetic gestures and retrace my steps, but a second policeman moves to intercept me. He shakes my hand — even traffic stops in Tajikistan start with a handshake — and then grills me on my origin, purpose of visit and future plans before informing me that the monument is ‘under reconstruction’. Tajikistan, as a country, is a little economical with its signage, so this fact wasn't immediately evident. No matter. I have now been briefed, and the gray-clad minions of order will be keeping an eye on me from now on.

In truth, they have some grounds to be suspicious of me. Police in Tajikistan wear Really Big Hats, those Soviet-style peaked caps with the oversized crown that I find irresistibly comic. I have been stalking them most of the day, trying to get a shot of one of the traffic cops who, in Dushanbe at least, seem to be stationed in ones and twos in the middle of every block, doing their best to interrupt the orderly flow of traffic by pulling over every third driver. If they were to examine my camera, things might go hard with me.

After an aimless drift up and down Rudaki, I return to the gardens behind the statue of Ismail Somoni where I spend what is clearly a suspicious amount of time taking photographs of the sinking sun, fountains, mynah birds, the statue, flowerbeds and so forth. As I move towards the statue, I catch sight of my whistling nemesis from earlier, moving towards me with the determined air of a man who is preparing to deliver a stern rebuke for the offense of photographing the Kingly Posterior without due respect and decorum.

I am in no mood for it. I dart down a side-path between the flowerbeds and quicken my pace. If we wants me, he will have to play hide and seek among the roses. The gamble pays off. He loses interest, and goes off to harass a French tourist by the fountain.

But I am not out of the woods yet. I see — too late — a second cop loitering at the corner of the lawn. This one has a buzzcut and a KGB gleam in his eye. I affect an expression of benign indifference and avoid eye contact, but it is no good. He has me.

“Passaporte.” he orders. No handshake this time. He means business.

I hand over the photocopy of my passport that I keep in my camera bag. He scrutinizes it minutely.

“Amerika” he observes.

“Da, Amerika.”


“Da, turist.” I concede.

“Visa!” he demands. I turn the paper over to show the photocopied visa on the other side, hoping he doesn't ask for my OVIR registration, which is back at the guesthouse.

He doesn't, because his eye has already been caught by something else. The photocopy has not only my passport and visa on it, but M's as well. He looks at her picture inquiringly.

“You baby?” he hazards.

Is she is or is she ain't my baby, I wonder.

“Wife”, I suggest, going for the least controversial option. The word apparently means nothing to him.

“Zheyna” he says. I nod. She's probably my 'zheyna', whatever that is. Whatever you say, officer.

“You girlfrien'”, he says, still hunting for exactitude.

“Yes, she's my girlfriend.” I retrieve the photocopy from him and stow it away. But he's not done yet. He says something else in Russian.

“He wants to know what you have in your bag.” says a helpful adolescent who has materialized at my elbow.

I suspect that ‘the right of the people to be secure in their persons and effects against unreasonable searches’ doesn't apply here, so I have no option but to comply. I'm not quite sure what they tell them at cop school that tourists usually carry in their bags, but for a moment I'm tempted to tell him that I'm carrying a brace of grenades and a smallish handgun. Also an ornamental dagger, four ounces of blow and a scurrilous pamphlet comparing the head of state to a turnip. I'm only tempted for a moment, though. He only needs to understand one of the words for me to be in real trouble.

“My camera.” I tell him.

“Fotoapparat” supplies my self-appointed translator. The cop wants to see the camera, and then he wants to see what's underneath it. He stops just short of making me take out the bag holding my second lens and all the accessories. At long last, he lets me go.

On my way to supper later that evening, I pass the presidential palace. The traffic cops are five deep in front of it, furiously directing blameless cars to go where they are already going — only faster — with shrill whistle blasts and great sweeps of their reflective batons. A plainclothesman with a walkie-talkie eyes me suspiciously, and I have a momentary feeling of ‘here we go again’. At the last moment, however, he thinks better of whatever he had in mind and lets me go on my way.