August 15, 2021: Weddings Galore
Hisor is a town 30 kilometers west of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Hisor is known for its 3,000-year old fortress and is probably the top half-day trip destination from the city. I visited because had a free day before embarking on the Pamir Highway after spending two days in the Fann Mountains.
To get to Hisor, I could have taken a taxi. However, the cheaper and more fun way was via public transportation. I walked from my hostel to the main street. There, I picked up a local share taxi (basically a taxi that follows a set route where you only book a single seat) which took me to a random bus station on the outskirts of Dushanbe. From there, I waited for the minibus with the sign Ҳисор (Hisor in Cyrillic) on the windshield. The minibus typically seats 16 but we crammed 22 people in there. It was not comfortable. The ride took 25 minutes into Hisor town.
Once in Hisor, I found a taxi driver who could take me roundtrip to the fortress which is slightly outside of the town.
The taxi driver, named Furkat, decided to walk in and see the fortress with me. This is an unusual move, as typically these drivers hang out in the car. I welcomed the company.
As we neared the fortress, we could hear festive music. It turns out that this was a Sunday, the big day for weddings and everyone wanted to take pictures at the Hisor fort. It wasn´t just the couples- entire families with hired bands showed up for the photo shoots. The families were dancing, but all the brides and especially the grooms looked somber. I hope they are happy with their choices!
The Hisor fort has a long history, but it is not very well documented. The oldest records date back to 1,000 BC. Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, also played a role in building the fort in 550 BC. Since then, various buildings have been constructed over the centuries. Today, the fortress is a total mishmash of styles. Throughout its history, it was captured 21 times, making it a pretty ineffective fortress.
The main attraction at the Hisor Fort is the main gate, which dates to 500 AD. It has been very nicely restored. The front gate is featured on the 20 somoni bill.
Behind the main gate, there are a few shops, an artificial pond and mostly vacant land. The shops sold traditional Tajik fabrics. I ended up buying one.
As we walked away, Furkat asked me why I made such a stupid purchase. I said I liked the fabric but felt like it was too large. He was able to help me swap the fabric out for a smaller one…and negotiate a much lower price than I could have imagined ever getting.
This broke the ice and we ended up chatting the rest of the trip using Google Translate. We even video chatted his family. He invited me over to stay at his house. I probably would have taken him up on it, for tea at least, but I had other plans.
Furkat dropped me off back in the center of town, where I met up with Mehroj. Mehroj is a friend of my college friend acquaintance Dan. Dan had previously lived in Tajikistan where Mehroj was his Farsi (Tajik is a dialect of Farsi) language teacher. I reached out to Dan and he connected me with Mehroj. I had thought that Mehroj lived in Dushanbe, but while at the fort, I learned that he actually was in Hisor. What luck!!!
Even luckier is that today is Merhoj´s sister´s wedding and I scored an invite!
Mehroj is in his mid 20´s. He speaks perfect English and will soon be leaving Tajikistan to start a Master´s degree in the UK. He previously was a language teacher at an American cultural center in Dushanbe.
Mehroj and I walked over from the town center for 5 minutes to reach his home: two stories with a big patio and covered carpeted seating area out front. As his family served us lunch, Mehroj explained how Tajik weddings work.
Tajik weddings are elaborate affairs that last multiple days. The weddings were so elaborate that the weddings regularly pushed families into debt. A 2017 law tried to put an end to this by limiting the number of guests to 150 and allowing only 1 hot dish of food to be served. So far, the law has been popular, although families skirt the law by bribing the local police.
This particular wedding would last 3 days. I don’t remember what happened on the first day, but I would guess that the civil ceremony took place because it was a Friday when the government offices were open. In Tajikistan, couples must submit many documents to the government to show that they are fit for marriage. Those include STD tests, virginity tests (for brides), and physical exams. These tests, while onerous, are meant to lessen the chance of arguments between the families later on should bad things happen (such as the woman not producing a child).
On the second day, the bride´s family threw a huge party at their house for everyone. I believe the Islamic ceremony also took place on this day. Mehroj mentioned that the imam told the couple that the wife should be subservient to the husband and the families were not happy to hear that. Mehroj said that his sister is feisty and will definitely be the one in control of this relationship.
Today is the third day. The day would begin with the “kidnapping” of the bride. In ancient times (and today in much of Kyrgyzstan), men would kidnap brides and force them to get married. Today, most marriages are arranged by the couple´s parents instead. But the kidnapping ritual has survived.
For the kidnapping today, all the wedding guests arrived at the bride´s house around 14:00. A band also was there. Finally, at around 14:30, the groom arrived in a tuxedo with his friends. As the band played, the groom slowly walked towards the house, then inside the house and up the stairs to the bride´s bedroom.
Mehroj´s sister stood in the balloon-filled room wearing her wedding dress surrounded by at least 5 photographers. The couple then posed for pictures before walking out of the house together.
The couple looked eerily serious, which is apparently a cultural thing. Right before walking into the groom´s waiting car, the bride broke down in tears-finally the first sign of emotion! I hope they were tears of joy instead of tears of sorrow. An aunt led everyone in a Muslim prayer.
After the couple got in a car and zoomed off (presumably to the fort take some pictures), Mehroj´s friends gave me a ride to the wedding party, which was conveniently in Dushanbe. Typically, the wedding parties are at the groom´s house/town, but since he lives two hours away, they decided to have the wedding in Dushanbe instead.
We walked into the humongous banquet hall and were greeted by dancers and all the wedding guests. Each table had an enormous spread of Tajik food including salads and horse sausage and two varieties of RC Cola (the national drink of Tajikistan).
After a performance from professional dancers and a few speeches from family members, it was time for dancing! Tajik dancing is very simple: move your hands from side to side and shuffle in a tight circle. I really enjoyed the dancing…and the other wedding guests really enjoyed watching me dance. I wonder what they thought of a random very tall Western guy showing up at the wedding in a t-shirt.
The couple did not dance. Instead, they watched stone-faced from their table. Wedding guests would go over to say hello and get a picture with the couple, which I did!
The party ended at 7pm (after a long day). At that point, Mehroj and I headed into the city center to get a beer. Rumor had it that Kabul fell to the Taliban today and Gharzi the Afghan president fled to Tajikistan (he actually fled to Oman). But based on the street life and the attitudes of the people, you would never know it.
Hisor is not worth visiting unless you have a spare day in Dushanbe. The ancient sites in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and even the rest of Tajikistan are more impressive.
There is something to be said for immersing oneself in local culture and it is easier to do that when in these offbeat places. Taking the public transit, chatting with the rural cab drivers, and being open to new activities are all part of the experience of being in a new country and experiencing a new culture. It is not only about the landmarks.
I have found that oftentimes the best and most interesting stories come in the places where you least expect it. Perhaps this is because you are less burdened by things to see and therefore have a schedule and attitude that are more open to new experiences. Additionally, rural people are generally more friendly than urban people.
The wedding was easily one of the highlights of my time in Tajikistan. I loved the dancing and perhaps even more I loved being able to have Merhoj explain everything to me.