top of page

"The Dushanbe Market Woman"

There is so much going on here. A thousand words might not cover it.


She is the Dushanbe market woman, selling leeks on this day. Leeks are ingredients for the Tajik sambusa, or samsa, which I’m told is baked instead of deep fried. Anyway, that is where I found her, in a Dushanbe market, selling leeks.


It was the winter of 2001. You may recall that was the winter after 9/11 and the U.S. government was very serious about Afghanistan. In case you missed it, check out Doug Stanton’s’ account, Horse Soldiers, or 12 Strong, which despite the movie, is a true story. I was a member of a disaster assistance response team assigned to Afghanistan during that winter of 2001, based in Islamabad, Pakistan and then assigned to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Yes, that’s how serious the U.S. government was about Afghanistan.


My job in Dushanbe was to monitor and report on Russian wheat convoys moving south into northern Afghanistan. To its credit, the United States government wanted to avoid food shortages in Northern Afghanistan. That little project is another photo story.


For reasons beyond me, visitors are attracted to local markets in exotic foreign locations. It is certainly not the smell that attracts them, perhaps stench is a better word, as I find most local markets reeking with the smells of rotting fish, aging cow and other mystery meats and their associated viscera and unrecognizable animal parts. Even when the meat department is off in a corner, the stench does not dissipate. It hangs over the market like a sour fog. No, it’s not the smell that attracts visitors.


Bright colors are cited as a reason to abide the odors and its true, the rows of baskets overflowing with spices and herbs and flowers. Good photo op if you so desire. I don’t remember seeing visitors actually buying any spices, herbs, or flowers at these busy centers of commerce. But my, my, the colors are brilliant.


I go to find faces. And wow, did I find one.


I swear the photo was not setup. It was not a pose. I did not ask either, which was rude, but not an issue. She turned to me with arms crossed, daring me. Go ahead, take my photo. Spirited doesn’t quite cover it. Think Megan Rapinoe with something to say.


Before we get to the main point here, a brief comment about her attire. A solid color is unusual in Tajikistan. I found that most Tajik women wore bright, multi-colored velvet yaktah. Think Technicolored Dreamcoat. The market men? They pretty much wear Tajik black. It’s a thing with Tajik men. The women wore the colors. Clearly, she knows that green worked for her.


The white head scarf is common in Tajikistan. She wore hers more like a shawl, lazily draped upon her head and shoulders, defying the traditional tightly wrapped style worn by Muslim women. The Clorox-white of the cloth contrasts with the deep emerald-green flawlessly. Then the hint of a very discreet, second head covering underneath, just in case anyone was paying attention. Very coy.


Then we move to the face. A broken nose? When and how did that happen? I understand that in 2013, Tajikistan enacted a "prevention of domestic violence law." Honestly, great for them. I don't know if since 2013, there are fewer broken noses reported Amon Tajik women. Yes, that's a statement. No,I won't overplay it.


Whatever, the cause, the nose curvature works, as does the mole on the right side of her face, impeccably posited among the under curvature of her cheek. Her wrinkles shamelessly revealing an age but here it's hard to discern.


These are not sun damaged or squinting wrinkles. They well, wrinkles. Her skin color is preserved. Maybe she's 100 percent market woman, always under the tent shade ever since and never having to work in the sunos fields. A guess at her age? Could be anywhere between 50 and 70 in my book. No surprise if she were younger.


Her eyes are kind, yet stern; understanding, yet direct; all-knowing, yet curious. They are grandmother eyes. I do not know the cultural practices of grandmother in Tajikistan, but my money is that she is one of these eyes take care any grandchildren nonsense. fi you look closely, her left eye seems a bit cocked, telling you she knows what's up. she is a Dushambe market woman. She know the deal.


Finally the gold smile. I am told that in Tajikistan, gold is an essential status symbol and has been for centuries. Maybe it's also a savings account. I never asked. If you visit, you will se the gold teeth everywhere. I never got used to it and to be honest, never saw a set that gave me an impression of status until this one. Maybe she has a talented dentist and that's the difference.


I think she is happy with her gold work. Not shy about it anyway. Beyond its retail value, it's a smile to contend with. It is the wrapping of the package with the clothes, the nose, the eyes, the attitude. It is also the exclamation point, instantly disarming but somehow perilous.


"How many leeks do ou want me to buy?" Followed by, "Please don't hit me."


I see similar faces at times in this often cruel and unfair world where peel suffer every day yet fake it face on with a defiant smile and spirit. Maybe it's survival. Maybe desperation. The people of Takijistan suffer. The women of Pakistan suffer more. The magic about her face, capped by these teeth of gold is that you do not see suffering, it is well hidden. She makes you look for it. Maybe she hides the suffering of a hard life by embracing it. She has her peeps, her brilliant green velvet gown, her 24-karat gold smile. It dares you to ask her what is going on underneath the shimmy.


Perhaps It's the grandchildren after all.

bottom of page