Tajikistan

A novel about Tajikistan! A review of The disobedient wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley

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I wrote this review some time ago (at the point this book first came out in 2016), but for various reasons it has not yet been published. To avoid any further delay, I decided to publish it here include it on my blog and hope that it encourages you to purchase a copy of the book (available for purchase from the publisher and the usual array of other booksellers) or see whether your local library has one for you to borrow.

disobedient wife coverReview of The disobedient wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley

Published by Cinnamon Press, 2016

What an oppressive and constrained world the two main characters, Harriet and Nargis, inhabit in this book. Harriet is a young, bored British expat wife, struggling to make sense of her new surroundings in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan. Nargis is a young, harried Tajik woman, struggling to make ends meet to care for her family and keep her repugnant and unwanted second husband away.

The disobedient wife is billed as the first English language book to be set in contemporary Tajikistan, the poorest former republic of the Soviet Union, located in Central Asia and bordered by Afghanistan and China. It tells the story of these two women as they grapple with the fundamental problem of finding their place in society and in the world. Their lives intertwine when Nargis comes to work part-time for Harriet and both share the story-telling, although we primarily hear Harriet’s perspective through her journal entries as well as narrative.

I found the opening chapters somewhat stark, painting a truly depressing picture of living conditions in the Tajik capital and creating a strong sense of “them” (the Tajiks) and “us” (the expats) that in some respects was reminiscent of a bygone European colonial era. Harriet’s American acquaintance Patty plays the role of superior foreigner, unable to comprehend that the world looks and feels different from her native Texas and unwilling to make any effort to get under the skin of her Tajik surroundings.

Harriet’s discomfort with this artificial delineation of worlds grows as the story progresses but she never quite manages to see Nargis as an equal. For her part, Nargis doesn’t seem to express a desire to have Harriet as a friend. Both women are more occupied by the men in their lives: Harriet with cosmopolitan workaholic husband Henri, whose increasingly frequent and sometimes unexplained absences only serve to heighten her sense of isolation; Nargis with the memory of her beloved late first husband as well as the legacy left by second husband Poulod, whom she has controversially walked out on, despite being married off to him against her will and having to deal with his abusive behaviour.

As the novel progresses, what had seemed like an insurmountable cultural divide between Tajikistan and the “West” begins to soften; the claustrophobic atmosphere beginning to lighten. The depictions both of people and surroundings become more balanced and sympathetic, and it was at this stage that I found myself gripped, immersed in the pages as they sped by. Harriet slowly becomes more self-aware, and despite the odds, Nargis is able to assert more control over her future.

I won’t give away the eventual plotline but I was relieved – if slightly surprised – by the bittersweet ending. I had come to care about both women in a way that surprised me because of the somewhat unpromising start, and was very tense as I read through the last few chapters where their destinies unfold. Both were deserving of a fresh start, but given the circumstances of Harriet’s closeted expat life and the societal expectations weighing on Nargis, I wasn’t at all sure whether or how they would succeed.

As someone who knows Tajikistan well, it was a great pleasure to experience a strong sense of place emanating from the novel, and I could easily visualise the scenes author Annika Milisic-Stanley creates. Some hints as to the country’s potential are offered through, for example, attractive portrayals of the rugged beauty of the surrounding countryside and the images of Harriet’s garden on a summer’s evening, but I did wonder whether anyone unfamiliar with Tajikistan would ever seriously contemplate a visit after reading this book. It does all seem so bleak.

I was slightly unconvinced by some of the characters, who seemed to lack some of the “greyness” in their behaviour that make us the inconsistent and irrational humans we all are. As noted above, the American Patty was practically grotesque in her hatred of her life in Tajikistan and her attitude towards the “natives”. Poulod is unequivocally the “bad guy” with his black leather jacket and penchant for violence. At the other extreme, taxi driver Zavon, Nargis’ old school friend, is noble and sympathetic, ready to help out with a moment’s notice and never with any other motive than kindness. Overall, however, this does not detract the reader from the bigger picture Milisic-Stanley presents.

Whilst the location of The disobedient wife will be unfamiliar and even alien to many fiction lovers, the overarching theme of female redemption traverses the setting and allows the reader to readily engage with the novel. Told through the eyes of two ostensibly quite different women, their lives separated by the accident of where they were born, it is in fact the similarities that enable Harriet and Nargis to alter their trajectories that makes The disobedient wife so compelling.

 

 

Internot: Wi-fi access in Tajikistan’s universities still a pipe dream

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no wi fi

Fast, reliable and free internet access is widespread across many university and college campuses these days. In fact, access to the world wide web, often delivered wirelessly by wi-fi, is so much of an everyday expectation that those working on campus tend to take it for granted, noticing only on those rare occasions when the internet goes down for a few hours.

Not so in Tajikistan, where Asia-Plus reported recently on the ongoing challenges for students and faculty in obtaining access to the internet [ru] on the country’s campuses.

Even the country’s leading university, Tajik National University, has not yet been able to roll out free wi-fi across all of its departments, and that’s with additional funding from China (see also my previous post on China’s generous financing of infrastructure in Tajikistan).

And whilst there seems to be general agreement that decent internet access can support distance learning and provide greater access to learning resources and electronic libraries, the jury appears to be out on whether Tajikistani students should be trusted to make sensible use of free wi-fi – were such a facility to be available.

There appears to be some scepticism that greater access to the internet might lend itself to non-learning outcomes (basically because students would be stuck on social media), leading the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Journalism at Tajik National University to suggest that the internet “should be controlled”.

(That the government regularly closes down websites such as Facebook and YouTube at the first hint of a scandal or unrest goes unsurprisingly unmentioned in the article – and neither does the article note the many workarounds that Tajikistanis – students and otherwise – employ to get around such restrictions.)

But let’s take a step back before weighing in on whether and how students’ access to the internet should be monitored. The bigger picture is that students, faculty and staff in Tajikistan are currently living with limitations on the information they can access and the possibilities that the web can offer to enhance their teaching and learning practices.

Beyond free internet, there’s also the question of electronic journals and books that sit behind expensive paywalls. There are so many of these that the cost of subscribing is generally prohibitive to all bar the richest institutions.

As one student notes in the article, the introduction of web-based learning techniques – even in face-to-face lessons – could significantly improve the student experience. This could be asking students to do online research or using web-based polls/quizzes in large classes. Right now, the student reported, classes are “sometimes so boring that students fall asleep”.

Mobile phone use in Tajikistan is huge: on average, there is just over one phone for each and every citizen in the country. This suggests huge potential not just for higher education but for government and a wide range public service providers to develop creative ways to use that high level of mobile phone penetration to support learning and service delivery.

Nevertheless, with access to the internet is limited to around 20% of the overall population, there remain significant challenges to rolling out web-based technologies that could also be used in higher education.

Until internet access becomes more reliable and widely available in Tajikistan, those of us who have the luxury of being able to access academic sources and online teaching/learning resources at the click of a mouse might do well to think about ways we can redistribute those resources to promote broad, open access to the world’s vast repository of knowledge.

Today at CESS 2018: Roundtable on Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area

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The wonderfully named Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh

If you should find yourself in Pittsburgh, PA, today – October 27, 2018 – please join us at the Central Eurasian Studies Society’s 2018 Annual Conference for our roundable on Global Bolognaization: Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area.

Followers of my blog may remember the call for proposals that co-convenor Aliya Akatayeva and I put out at the end of last year when we first started planning the roundtable. We had an excellent response and our original line-up of panellists included colleagues from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (and me!) all ready to share experiences and analyses of the impact of the European Union inspired Bologna Process reforms on higher education in Central Asia.

Fast forward several months and here we are at an excellent CESS conference in Pittsburgh (check out conference activity on Twitter: #CESS2018atPitt).

At our roundtable today, we will be taking three directions of travel to reflect the research and experiences of the three panellists who will be present:

Professor Gulnara Mendikulova, a distinguished scholar of Kazakh and world history, will set the general scene for the roundtable, considering questions such as: what is the history of the Bologna Process across Central Asia? What were the drivers for Kazakhstan to adopt the Bologna Process? What have been the challenges and opportunities presented by the reforms?

Aliya Akatayeva, Head of the Social Studies Department at Satbayev University (Kazakhstan), will focus on the knotty issue of academic freedom. Whilst academic freedom – including autonomy for universities – is a core value of the European Union higher education ‘package’, there are a number of tensions and challenges in embedding this broad principle in Kazakhstan. As one of the universities in the country that has been given some degree of autonomy under a 2017 law, she will offer a case study of the journey of Satbayev University towards academic freedom.

I will discuss Tajikistan, not (yet) a signatory to the Bologna Process but aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Kazakhstan and become one. By highlighting findings from in-depth interviews in two cities in the country, I will draw out the experiences of some of the faculty members who are on the front line in living with the new higher education reforms. Whilst many are positive about the potential of related changes to the curriculum on the quality of the learning experience, others expressed resistance and resentment towards a series of changes they felt they were not consulted on or given time to adapt to.

We’d love to see you at the roundtable – 11am today in Posvar 4217!

Uzbek-Tajik higher education relations are warming up

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Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev and Tajikistan’s Rahmon – new BFFs??

The honeymoon period of Uzbekistan’s now not-so-new President Mirziyoyev just keeps on going. Even hardened critics of what was once a solidly authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan are having to admit that the reform-driven new leader, who took the reins after the death of longstanding President Karimov following his death in December 2016, may be serious about making serious and positive change in the country.

I have already reported on a historic recent trip by Mirziyoyev to the United States as one indication of the country’s new openness and readiness to engage with the world.

Today, I want to focus on Uzbekistan’s relations with neighbour Tajikistan. Historically frosty at best, the two countries mainly seem to disagree about water and borders – but of course the relationship is more complex than that. Yet in recent months, international roads that have long been closed are beginning to open and there are a small but growing number of direct flights between the two countries. There is a buzz around the possibilities for bilateral tourism and trade, the turnover of which has already doubled.

Following a state visit by Mirziyoyev to Tajikistan this March, his Tajik counterpart Rahmon has this week made a return visit. The agenda for the two day visit was wide-ranging, with talks and agreements planned spanning commerce to music. It was the first official visit by a Tajik leader to Uzbekistan since 1998, according to news agency Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In the field of education, bilateral relations have been warming up since before this week’s official state visit. At the start of this month, an agreement between Tajikistan’s top ranked National University and Uzbekistan’s Samarqand State University was signed. It’s quite a broad agreement to cooperate on research, but is an important addition to Tajik National University’s existing partnerships with states universities in the Uzbek cities of Andijon, Ferghana and Tashkent.

Hopefully the relationships between universities and colleges in both countries will continue to improve, paving the way for greater exchanges of people and ideas. And improving cooperation in education may also help underpin a strong foundation for the countries’ broader bilateral relations.

A good news story to end the week!

Chinese corporate social responsibility in Tajikistan, or, How to build a school for free

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Cats may not be qualified to build schools. But Chinese businesses in Tajikistan are.

The might of Chinese businesses operating in Tajikistan is growing, with news emerging of one company alone that will build three new schools in the country [ru] later this year, supporting over 1,000 students. This is not the first such initiative, which is being posited as evidence of Chinese corporate social responsibility. Other road-building companies have already financed the construction of of seven large schools in Tajikistan.

As the article on Radio Ozodi’s website [ru] points out, China is the largest foreign investor in Tajikistan. For a number of years it has been providing goods for markets and financing and undertaking a great number of construction and infrastructure projects for new roads, buildings and factories.

Chinese companies engaging in extra-mural activities to build schools is in keeping with the Chinese government’s foreign policy on education towards Tajikistan and Central Asia as a whole. In higher education, for example, Chinese efforts have led to the creation of initiatives such as the Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road which includes a Kazakh university partner and the Belt and Road Scholarship scheme targeted at students from Central, South, and South-East Asia.

Radio Ozodi also notes a proposed new Chinese-funded International University in Tajikistan which would accommodate an enormous 40,000 students (to put that into context, the entire tertiary student population of Tajikistan is around 250,000, so this new university would be able to teach nearly a fifth of that number!).

On the one hand, this is a clear example of a foreign government extending its ‘soft power‘ to another state, in this case China continuing to grow its influence in the Central Asia region through marketing-friendly projects in education.

On the other hand, there are also indications that the Tajik government is not just blindly accepting foreign cash. From my thesis research, for example, I’ve found that whilst the government is happy to allow such investment, it is far less content to accept Chinese cultural influence, something that often comes as a by-product of soft power initiatives. So yes, the government takes the money – and goodness knows it needs it – and it’s great that it is being invested in education, but once it’s in Tajikistan, the line is drawn and the money/investment is controlled locally.

Oh, and one of the three new schools – the biggest of the trio – will be in the President’s home region of Dangara. That must be a coincidence. Right?

New article: Fake dissertation scandal in Tajikistan

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My new article is now out in University World News, in which I investigate a growing scandal in Tajikistan with a rash of plagiarised doctoral dissertations exposed. Vindicated in this highly embarrassing scandal include high level government officials and senior academics.

Read the full story at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20180428053554356.

A Multinational University in Central Asia

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I’m sharing a post I wrote for the Centre for Canadian & International Higher Education‘s blog about the University of Central Asia. The post was published today at https://ciheblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/a-multinational-university-in-central-asia/ and is also copied below:

A Multinational University in Central Asia

It’s the early 1990s and 15 new countries have emerged from the colossal historical moment that was the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of these new countries have never experienced statehood with their current set of borders before – including the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

With the collapse of a huge unified political and economic system, questions of nationhood and national culture exist alongside a great number of urgent problems for these new countries. Unemployment is growing – as much as 30% in some countries –  and as many as 40-70% of the population are falling below the poverty line. How can the new national governments create economic opportunities when jobs have vanished overnight?

And yet at the same time, the new nation states inherited a legacy of well-developed social infrastructure that was particularly strong in healthcare and education. In Central Asia, for example, the first universities and Academies of Science (research institutes) were created during the Soviet era. Whilst the region has an incredibly rich heritage of learning and discovery stretching back more than a millennium, the 20th century saw the founding of the first formal institutions of higher education here.

It is into this context of economic crisis but highly developed education and social institutions that the University of Central Asia (UCA), a new institution equally based in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia, came into being. And it was UCA’s story that the university’s Chancellor Dr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha came to share with a large audience a joint CIHE/Munk School seminar held at OISE on March 2, 2018.

The story of the University of Central Asia

From 1995, agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a major international secular private foundation with a presence in 30 countries worldwide, began working with the Central Asian governments. At their request, agencies of the AKDN began to provide food assistance, education, and financial services. As the 1990s progressed and the economic situation stabilized across the region, education rose up the agenda as a priority area. A successful Humanities Project, initiated in Tajikistan in 1997 under the auspices of AKDN funding (and still running today), showed that innovation in higher education could work.

In 2000, the UCA was created. It is believed to be the only regional university in the world to be founded by international charter signed by the three host countries; the charter has since been lodged with the United Nations. It joins a tiny number of other regional universities such as the University of West Indies and the University of the South Pacific.

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A key aim of the UCA is to “create job creators, not job seekers”, according to Dr Kassim-Lakha. UCA is striving to fulfil this mission in a number of ways:

  • Providing very low cost continuing education across a widely disbursed area, including in neighbouring Afghanistan. Courses are vocationally oriented, covering subjects such as Business English, Accounting, and Car Mechanics;
  • Undergraduate education with two majors at each of the three UCA campuses. Two campuses – in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan and Khorog, Tajikistan – are operational; the Kazakh campus in Tekeli is expected to open within the next five years. Right now, there are just under 200 students and at capacity, UCA hopes to host 1,200 students on each campus. Graduate education will follow in the future;
  • Research in areas of relevance to the mountain societies that host UCA. The Mountain Societies Research Institute and Institute for Public Policy and Administration are already producing some interesting outputs;

Across all its activities, UCA is striving to engage the communities and countries around it. This ranges from a new Mountain University Partnershiplinking up UCA to existing higher education institutions in the towns it is operating in to substantial financial support for the majority of its undergraduate students.

The cost of creating a new university

Even though tuition fees are minimal compared to other higher education systems – US$5,000 plus $3,000 for accommodation and living costs – this is well beyond the means of most prospective students. Huge financial subsidies mean that most students are only paying a fraction of the true cost of their education, which Dr Kassim-Lakha put at $28,000.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 10.23.24 AMA huge amount of money has been put into the UCA initiative. There’s the financial subsidies for students, the cost of construction – the campuses have each cost nearly $100m to build – before you start to account for ongoing running costs.

Some of that cost has been met by generosity from Canada. To date, around C$20m of funding has been channeled from Canadian government agencies and non-governmental organizations into the creation of UCA, and Dr Kassim-Lakha expressed the university’s deep gratitude towards the Canadian people for this support. As well as direct funding, there are already concrete partnerships in place with the University of Toronto, Seneca College, University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria, each supporting UCA to develop a specific area of its curriculum.

Nevertheless, and perhaps understandably, working out how the university will be financially sustainable in the future is the issue Dr Kassim-Lakha said that keeps him up at night.

In the very specific former Soviet context it is based in, there are also potential challenges arising from an autonomous university attempting to set its own future direction within national higher education frameworks that remain heavily state-centric and bureaucratized.

And actively choosing to build a tri-campus university in small and remote mountain towns, as UCA has done, adds another dimension to the challenge. The guiding rationale for doing so – to reduce political, social and economic isolation – means that the university and other AKDN agencies are not just building a university, but a whole framework around it: from providing continuing education courses to qualify local people to work on the building sites to creating physical infrastructure such as building roads and pipelines.

UCA is an incredibly ambitious and exciting new endeavour. If the quality of its graduating students – the first of whom will reach the workplace in 2021 – come anywhere near matching the quality of financial investment and effort placed into creating UCA, then the results could be transformative for the mountain societies and the countries they are located in.