Big Smiles and Slaps on Our Backs
Volume 1, Chapter 25
S u n d a y J u n e 1 1
After a short morning program with the twenty devotees of the Samarkand yatra, we left in two cars for the city of Dushanbe in Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan. Boris’s yellow Mercedes led the way with Govinda Maharaja and four other devotees inside. The rest of us followed in another car. Considering the dangers of traveling through the mountains, we decided to take a longer route that was less risky. The further south we drove the hotter it got.
We stopped to get petrol at the fiirst “petrol station” that I had seen in Uzbekistan. The men at the station brought out a strange contraption that mixed petrol with oil. After mixing the substances, they poured the petrol by hand into our gas tank. It took half an hour to fiill the tank of each car.
About an hour after fiilling up, one of the red lights on our car’s dashboard lit up and our driver, Alexander, pulled over to the side of the road. Taking a screwdriver and wrench he jumped out, opened the hood of the car and cleared the gas lines in the engine. He said the petrol we took was of such poor quality that it had blocked the gas lines. It was a good thing he knew how to fiix cars. Otherwise, what in the world would we do if we broke down out there in the desert of Uzbekistan?
Boris, who has driven trucks through this area for 25 years, told us that if you stop at the side of the road at night and leave your headlights on, thousands of tarantulas will come out from the desert on to the road attracted by the light. He also said some of the deadliest scorpions and snakes in the world are in this region.
It took us eleven hours to reach the Tajikistan border. After passing through three checkpoints on the Uzbekistan side, we had to pass another three border controls on the Tajikistan side. As we came to the fiirst checkpoint on the Tajikistan side, four soldiers approached our car each carrying an AK-47.
In the process of searching our cars for weapons, a soldier found my money belt, which I had stupidly left in the glove compartment. Opening it, he found the several hundred dollars I was keeping there. It was a tense moment. He asked why I was carrying so much money, and I replied it was to help our Food for Life program in Dushanbe. I explained that we give free food to people who are in need there because of the war. He seemed to appreciate that, and with a sly smile gave me back my money belt. We were questioned and held for half an hour at each of the other two checkpoints.
At the last checkpoint, one of the border guards told Boris that we were lucky we were coming into Dushanbe from this direction. He said that 50 kilometers on the other side of the city a battle was raging between government forces and the rebels.
“But be prepared to duck the bullets from either side as you enter the city,” he said. We were all a bit tense, and I chanted some Nrsimha prayers as we drove towards Dushanbe, 30 kilometers away.
Then the most amazing thing happened. About three kilometers from the border, as we were passing through a village we saw a huge Muslim wedding ceremony taking place. It was 9:00 p.m., and all the villagers were singing and dancing in an illuminated fiield. A small band was playing traditional Islamic music and there were several rows of tables where men and women in Muslim dress were feasting. The bride and the groom sat with their relatives at a table on one side of the fiield, and many people, young and old, were dancing for their pleasure. It was a joyful and colorful scene.
“It would be really interesting to visit that ceremony,” I thought.
Just at that moment, Govinda Maharaja’s car stopped ahead of us and he jumped out and came back to our car. “What do you think Govinda Maharaja?” he said. “Shall we go down there?”
“Sure,” I said. “Lets go.”
We walked down to the fiield with the rest of the devotees. We had no idea how we were going to be received, but we had always been warmly and kindly treated by the Islamic people so we had no fear.
And just as we expected, as soon as the people saw us, they welcomed us with the traditional Muslim gesture, a hand to the heart. With big smiles and slaps on our backs they swept us forward to sit with the men at the tables. When they offered us food we politely refused, saying we were Hindustani Mullahs observing our own Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
They then respectfully gave us water. After a few minutes of discussion, the elders of the village asked us to lead the singing.
Uttamasloka ran back to the cars and got our mrdangas and karatalas and Sri Prahlada’s accordion.
The leading men of the village then took us to where the musicians were playing and introduced us to the crowd of two thousand villagers over an antique loudspeaker system. I spoke through a translator for a few minutes, thanking the villagers for receiving us so warmly. When I mentioned that we felt like part of the family, a huge roar of approval came from the crowd.
Then we began kirtana. At fiirst the people watched us with curious faces, the men with their big mustaches and the women and girls with their heads covered by scarves. Then one by one, men and women came out on the fiield and danced with us. It was an incredible scene: Muslims and Hindus dancing together like the best of friends.
After the fifteen minutes of kirtana we were all given seats of respect with the elders of the village. They tried again to give us meat and vodka, but we again pleaded that we were observing a fast. Then the local band played again, and hundreds of people came forward to dance in a traditional Islamic way. The leaders asked us to dance also. To refuse would have been seen as a great offense, so we got up and danced like them.
A few minutes later the crowd roared for us to sing Hare Krsna again. So as Sri Prahlada and Govinda Maharaja sang over the loudspeakers, Uttamasloka, Vinod Bihari, Krsna Prasadam, and I danced on the fiield. At one point we approached the bride and groom’s table of honor. They stood up and respectfully received us, and the groom’s friends all shook our hands. The bride’s face was completely covered, so I couldn’t see her.
Just as we were getting ready to leave, the village elders came and insisted that we go to another festival fiive kilometers away. By now it was 10:00 pm., but we agreed to go because again, if we refused it would be seen as disrespectful. Besides, it was a rare chance to spread the glories of chanting Hare Krsna in the Muslim world, so off we went.
As we were driving to the next village, Govinda Maharaja became a little anxious. “They could take us anywhere,” he said, “and do anything they wanted to us.”
A few minutes later we arrived at the next festival, which turned out to be the celebration of a newborn boy’s circumcision. The whole village was there enjoying the singing and dancing, and we were once again met with hearty approval and applause by the people, many of whom must not have seen foreigners before. The village children gaped at us.
Soon we were having another big kirtana as people came forward to dance. And there I was again, watching in amazement as the modern- day miracles of Lord Caitanya’s pastimes unfolded. There we were in a Muslim country torn apart by a civil war, a battle raging only a few kilometers away, yet chanting in unabated happiness with the people in a remote village.
Who could ever imagine? What miracles are still to be seen for those who serve the mission of Lord Caitanya within this world? Oh, Srila Prabhupada, please give me the privilege to serve you like this birth after birth.
We arrived at the Dushanbe temple at 1:30 a.m., passing through four more police checkpoints on the way. At each checkpoint the police were nervous because of the battle on the other side of the city, but each time they let us pass, recognizing us as some sort of holy men.