The Gray Plague

Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Traffic stop

A policeman inspects a motorist's driver's license

Dushanbe, Tajikistan

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 happened the night of our arrival in town. Two traffic cops looked on in amusement as we struggled out of a taxi whose driver had begun 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 seemed to take a perverse pleasure in listing all the European languages that they didn’t speak and all the Central Asian ones that we didn’t, just to make it clear that we have no possible basis for communication. I interrupted them somewhere between Shugni and Uzbek and, by pointing and gesticulating, got them to agree that Meydoni Azadi was that way. End of the first encounter.

My second encounter came the next day, as I was 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 tiptoed up the red marble steps towards the monument, a gray-uniformed leprechaun sprang from among the flower beds, blowing his whistle and waving furiously. I made apologetic gestures and retraced my steps, but a second policeman had already moved to intercept me. He shook my hand — even traffic stops in Tajikistan start with a handshake — and then grilled 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 returned to the gardens behind the statue of Ismail Somoni where I spent what was clearly a suspicious amount of time taking photographs of the sinking sun, fountains, mynah birds, the statue, flowerbeds and so forth. As I moved towards the statue, I caught sight of my whistling nemesis from earlier, moving towards me with the determined air of a man preparing to deliver a stern rebuke for the offense of photographing the Kingly Posterior without due respect and decorum.

I was in no mood for it. I darted down a side-path between the flowerbeds and quickened my pace. If we wanted me, he would have to play hide and seek among the roses. The gamble paid off. He lost interest, and went off to harass a French tourist by the fountain.

But I was not out of the woods yet. I saw — too late — a second cop loitering at the corner of the lawn. This one had a buzzcut and a KGB gleam in his eye. I affected an expression of benign indifference and avoided eye contact, but it was no good. He had me.

“Passaporte,” he ordered. No handshake this time. He meant business.

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

“Amerika,” he observed.

“Da, Amerika.”


“Da, turist,” I conceded.

“Visa!” he demanded. I turned the paper over to show the photocopied visa on the other side, hoping he wouldn’t ask for my OVIR registration, which is back at the guesthouse.

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

“You baby?” he hazarded.

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

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

“Zheyna,” he said. I nodded. She’s probably my ‘zheyna’, whatever that is. Whatever you say, officer.

“You girlfrien’,” he said, still hunting for exactitude.

“Yes, she’s my girlfriend.” I retrieved the photocopy from him and stowed it away. But he wasn’t not done yet. He said something else in Russian.

“He wants to know what you have in your bag,” said a helpful adolescent who had now materialized at my elbow.

I suspected that ‘the right of the people to be secure in their persons and effects against unreasonable searches’ doesn’t apply in Tajikistan, so I had 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 was tempted to tell him that I was 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 was only tempted for a moment, though. He only needed to understand one of the words for me to be in real trouble.

“My camera,” I told him.

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

On my way to supper later that evening, I walked in front of the presidential palace. The traffic cops were 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 eyed me suspiciously and I had a momentary feeling of ‘here we go again’. At the last moment, however, he thought better of whatever he had in mind and let me go on my way.