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Dreamscapes in Tajikistan
Hotel Tajikistan
Larry Thompson

The sad wind of the steppes was in her piano. It was the sound of loss and abandonment, of never being able to go home again.

The dining room of the Hotel Tajikistan was cavernous. In the slow world of Central Asia I ate my meals there, often alone, never with more than a handful of people in a dining room that could seat hundreds.
She played the piano at breakfast. I never knew whether it was part of her job or simply a diversion from her duties in the pathetic gift shop of the hotel. It was a dark and melancholy dining room, but I would linger over my second and third cups of black, evil coffee to listen to her play. Many of the songs were Russian and unfamiliar to me, but she also played popular Western songs: Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Yesterday, A Time for Us, My Way. Whatever the song, she played it sadly and slowly.

She was barely five feet tall and slender. From a distance she appeared to be a girl but, closer, the lines around her eyes, a furrowed brow and the loosening skin on her neck revealed her age to be more than thirty years. She has a heart-shaped face and black hair and a touch of the Tartar in upturned eyes like twin commas lying on their sides.

I came to Dushambe often, although the potential for business in this deteriorating, fractional far corner of the former Soviet Union was far from promising. A better hotel attracted most of the few dollar-rich foreigners who made it to this outpost, but I liked the shabby pretensions of the Hotel Tajikistan and the aging, faded, quietly desperate Russian women who made up its bloated staff. Perhaps I felt a kinship with them.

It was not until my third or fourth visit to the Hotel Tajikistan that I spoke to her. One morning, listening to her play the piano for me alone, seated in the middle of that big, empty dining room, I rose from my chair without premeditation, walked to the piano, apologized in my poor Russian for interrupting her, and asked her if she knew "As Time Goes By."

She did not, nor was the song familiar to her when I hummed a few bars. She said she was sorry and I said that I enjoyed her playing and returned to my breakfast table and my black coffee
The next time I came to Dushambe I brought with me the sheet music to "As Time Goes By" and I marched up to her at the piano and gave her the sheets of music and asked her to play it. She nodded seriously at me and studied the notes a few minutes and experimented with bars of the melody. And then she played the song.

"As Time Goes By" had never been played that way, She began fortissimo with the drama of Rachmaninoff, but then it was gypsy sadness woven with quiet intensity into the melody. It was slow and symphonic in rhythm, and it told me of lost loves and unfulfilled passion for life.
When the last tinkling notes trailed away, I raised my hands and clapped twice and she smiled.

The affairs of the world and a serious illness intervened and it was a year before I returned to the Hotel Tajikistan. There was an anticipation my first morning when I took my seat in the dining room – which seemed to have become, as I had, a bit more worn and shrunken with time. I drank my coffee and ate my omelet and sour cheese and stale, crusty bread and waited…and waited.

When she had not appeared and I was on my third cup, I asked the waiter. "Where is the woman who plays the piano?" He shrugged, giving me that uniquely Russian dismissal. I was at fault for asking him a question which he could not answer.

Later, I also asked the attendant who sat at a desk down the hall from my room and was in charge of all the rooms and the several other women who worked on this floor attending to the guests – or guest, which at that time was only me. She was a woman of 60 years, tall and with an exuberant coiffure of a color never attempted by nature.
"She left." The statement had an air of finality.
"But why?" I asked casually. "I recall her playing the piano."
"She left."
"What was her name?" I made another attempt to elicit a response.
"Natacha." Of course, her name would be Natacha. What other name would be possible for a delicate woman with a heart-shaped face and black Oriental eyes?

I felt like Dr. Zhivago. I remembered the scene when the infirm doctor, riding a streetcar in Moscow, suddenly sees, after a separation of years, his one and only true love walking down a Moscow street. Frantically, he pushes his way off the streetcar and through the traffic and runs down the street to catch up with her. Suddenly, he is stricken with chest pains and he falters and he tries to call out to her but he cannot and he collapses, dead on the sidewalk. And she continues walking, never aware of his presence, only a few steps behind her….

Several months later I was again at the Hotel Tajikistan, in the bar drinking a bottle of strong, local beer. Two Russian men were a table next to mine and I heard one of them say the word "Natacha." I had nothing to do but sip my beer and listen.
"Yes," said the other. "I recall her husband was killed in Afghanistan. A great hero of the Soviet Union," he laughed harshly.
"She had been an embarrassment to him. One of those radicals…Because of her, his career was shit. So, after her husband was killed, she stayed here, scratching for a living because she was known to be a dissident and the communists were still in power. She could play the piano well enough to get a job now and then."
"Oh, yes. she played here, in the dining room. But I have not seen her for, what, one year?"
So, this was my Natacha they discussed!
"Almost a year." He took a long drink from the glass of vodka in front of him. "She fell in love. He was a fat foreigner, a German or a Frenchman, it does not matter," he shrugged. "He promised her the world. He would take her to the West. They would live in Paris and she would become a famous piano player. A star as big as Celine Dion." He named the Canadian singer from whose voice one cannot escape anywhere in the world.
"What happened?"
"One morning she woke up expecting him to call on her, but he did not. He was gone. He had taken the flight to Munich. Not a letter, not a word to her, but she thought he would be back. She waited a month. Nothing."
"And then?"
"She stole. She took the money from the gift shop and she took a bus to the south." He lit a cigarette. "It was stupid. She had little money. She had no passport. Perhaps she hoped that an oil sheik or a rich narcotics trafficker would take care of her. Stupid," he repeated. "She was no longer young. The rich men would have no interest in her," he snorted derisively.
"Where did she go?"
"She got only as far as Shartous. A miserable place. Full of sand bunnies and farmers as poor as their dirt. But there are Russian soldiers in Shartous, to guard the frontier against the Taliban in Afghanistan. So, she played the piano at the Russian officer’s club. And, I was told, she searched for a man to marry her among the Russian officers with an intensity bordering on madness. But, although they would applaud her playing and dance with her and take her to bed, they would not marry her. She was considered strange – and not entirely Russian. It was clear to everyone that all she wanted was a ticket back to Moscow or another civilized place."

"It seems she never lost her dream of leaving this God-forsaken country and finding a rich lover and becoming as famous as Celine Dion. She learned, apparently by some subterfuge the combination of the safe at the Officer’s club and, one night, after the club was closed, she took the money. Not much – a few rubles was all there were. The next morning she was gone.

"There was an investigation, of course. She had been seen getting on a bus near the bazar, and so the guards at the border were alerted. But she was never found, and the official conclusion of the investigation was that she had hired a "coyote" to take her illegally across the border to Uzbekistan. God knows why she would go there. He shrugged. "She was probably trying to get to Iran and then to Dubai. There’s money there – but it’s a long way and she had little money for the trip – and the ayatollahs in Iran don’t appreciate music. "Or this either," he laughed roughly as he raised his glass of vodka. "Who knows where she ended up? Probably not well –or famous."
"But I remember…" he took another drink and paused for a long time. "She played the piano moderately well and there was one song she used to play."
He summoned up his thoughts and hummed the melody of "As Time Goes By."

© Larry Thompson November 2003
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