Tuesday, 18 September 2007
The Roof of the World
Owen Powell - 18th September 2007
I'm sitting in the front room of a terraced house in suburban Ilford. It's about as normal and English as you could get (on the bus, I went past fourteen consecutive streets with the suffix " – Gardens"). But above me, over the door, is a vast portrait of stern but warm-looking presidential figure, pen poised to sign a decree, and over by the window is a huge red, green and white flag. Most of the books on the shelves have titles in what looks like some kind of Arabic or Persian script, and the smell of some exotic cooking drifts in from further into the house.
A man I know only as Latif comes back in from moving his car. "My name is not Latif," he says, shaking my hand. "I am Behzad." He nods down the hall. "She is cooking," he says, and wafts his hand in front of his face while smiling broadly.
Behzad sits, and looks momentarily worried. "How long will this take?" he asks. "It's just that I have to pick some of my kids up from school." I say, perhaps slightly disappointed, that we can do it in ten minutes. I try to get the basics established pretty swiftly.
Behzad came to London from Tajikistan nine years ago, with his wife and two young children, and they have had two more since then (the kids range in age from twelve to six, and the eldest, who I meet, says that she doesn't remember much about her pre-London life). He's a TFL-registered minicab driver, studies English and IT in his spare time, and is considering applying for a British passport soon, although he's been granted indefinite leave to remain. But he's itching to tell me more about Tajikistan.
"We have a very strong culture. We are a very new country, but also very ancient." I ask about the books, and also notice some inscriptions hanging in frames on the wall. "It is Persian," he says, "like in Iran and Afghanistan. It is my main language, but I also speak Russian. Some people use Sanskrit." Behzad shifts in his seat, and his eyes light up. "Tajikistan is a wonderful country! Full of mountains - we call our land 'The Roof of the World'! If you go there, you will find the people are very kind, very ... what is the word? Like 'hostage', or 'hostile'?" Hospitable, I suggest? "Yes. Very friendly." He glances at his watch and makes a face. "Ah. I must go to pick up my kids. Where are you going?" Umm, I say ... back to the station? "I will give you a lift. We can talk more in the car. Come on!"
Behind the wheel, where I guess Behzad spends most of his working day, he really opens up. "I will tell you everything about Tajikistan!" he announces, as he pulls away from the kerb. Taxi drivers probably have an unfair press as far as their opinions on religion and culture go, but even the most enlightened is likely to compare quite badly to Behzad.
"I am a Zoroastrian," he says. "You have heard of this?" (I nod, slightly unsurely. My brother, fascinated by religion, has mentioned it once or twice to me, I think). "It is an ancient religion. Four thousand years old. Before Moses. In all other religions, God is a man – the bible says 'He did this' or 'He did that'. In Zoroastrianism, God is both man and woman. Men and women are equal!” Behzad holds his fingers up. “There are also six angels, three men and three women. One for every day of the week, and God for the seventh day. In these other new religions like Judaism, they say there are seven days because that’s how long it took God to make the world.” Behzad puts his indicator on and turns left. “They made this up.”
I’m desperately scribbling away, loving how Behzad (partly with tongue in cheek, it must be admitted) dismisses Judaism as a “new” religion, and I don’t really have to ask any questions.
“In Tajik culture, men and women are the same. In English, you have different words for ‘he’ and ‘she’, but in Tajik we have one word for both. Now, this is true also in the Georgian language, but that is mainly because it is a poor language without many words. In Tajik, it is because we see men and women as one thing. Everything is logical. In English, you have ‘husband’ and ‘wife’.” We’re sitting in traffic, and Behzad holds up a finger from each hand to illustrate how far apart these words are. “There is no connection. In my language, it is the same word.” He brings his fingers together. “Hansa. My wife is my hansa, and I am her hansa. Han-sa. It means, ‘same-head’. It means, once you have your hansa, you share your brain, you have the same mind.” Behzad laughs. “It’s a good idea, yes?”
I’m still scribbling, my notebook a mess of ideas and religions and half-heard, phonetically spelt words. Behzad looks over at me, perhaps having his doubts about whether I am really a writer (or, more fundamentally, whether I am really interviewing him). “If you do not ask me a question,” he playfully admonishes, “I will ask one myself! What do Zoroastrians believe in? Well, there are three parts to our religion: good thoughts, good words, good deeds. We do not want to kill unbelievers, do suicide bombings, it is a religion of peace, very thoughtful. If a Christian has a child, or a Muslim has a child, that child is Christian or Muslim. In our culture, we cannot understand that. It is a child! When they get to sixteen, seventeen years old, then they can choose which religion they want. But nothing is forced. We never say, ‘You have to do this, or that’.”
“I worry about the Muslim religion. In my country, you are free to worship how you want. We have churches, temples, mosques. People are free. But in Arabic countries – more restrictions. In some countries, women are not allowed to drive!” Behzad hits his steering wheel, incredulously. “There are lots of Tajik people in the north of Afghanistan, where it is peaceful. In the south, that is where the violence is.” I think at this point, my face betrays the fact that (despite some research) I don’t really know where Tajikistan is. Behzad leads me carefully through the history of the Tajiks.
“The Tajik people were first called ‘Tajik’ eight hundred years ago,” he explains. “It is an ancient land, on the border of Russian, Persia, China and Afghanistan. I was in Uzbekistan recently, and there, there are many millions of Tajik people, but the government has forced them to change their names in their passports – they are scared to speak the Persian language. I was in Samarqand, and I looked around – no Persian newspapers or books. They don’t want the Tajik people to understand that they are Tajik. I tried to take a Persian book with me, and the police told me to throw it away or I could not travel any further. I said, ‘If you give me the whole of Uzbekistan, I will not put this book in the bin.’ In my culture, books are very precious. You do not throw them in the bin.”
Behzad has travelled home to Tajikistan over the years, although not as often as he would like as there are no direct flights and it’s very expensive. I ask if he has seen many changes in the last few years. “Yes! Things are getting much better,” he says. “The new President has made things better.” The man in the photograph, I say? “Yes. A very intelligent man who likes his culture very much.” Behzad looks out of the window as we crawl through East London. “It would be good to make more links between Tajikistan and Britain. The government should encourage more students to come here. And – more than anything – you in Britain should visit my country. There is lots to see!”
The lights were waiting at turn green, and Behzad zooms off, excitedly. “The Christmas tree! You live in a Christian culture, but no-one knows why you decorate a tree at Christmas. It is a Tajik custom! The father of the Persian language was Tajik! Everything in the world – anything of any importance – can be linked back, traced back to Tajikistan! Here. We are at Stratford.” He pulls over and I get out, my head spinning. “Anything else you need – you want to talk about religion, culture, anything – come and see me again. Goodbye! It was nice to meet you!” Me too, I say, me too, as Behzad drives off to pick up his kids.