Monday, 10 August 2020

When strangers meet….

In Moscow, Soviet Union, in 1988, a Tatar Muslim screenwriter Vakhit Sharipov happened to meet a Russian film journalist Alexei Melnikov. Vakhit described a bridge-building project he wanted to do about the Cold War with any western anthropologist to try to dispel some of the misconceptions of the other. Alexei happened to know me, and introduced us.

Koozma and Vakhit in Kazan TASSR, 1988

I was delighted to do it. We both believed that the Cold War was a foolish and dangerous threat for nuclear war. It was essential to get to know the stranger as a necessity for the human survival of our civilization. We agreed to pay our own expenses.

First, Vakhit invited me to the Soviet Union for one month, then I arranged for him to come to Canada for a month. We hosted each other in our homes. Vakhit lived in Kazan city, the capital of the province of Tatar ASSR, renamed the Republic of Tatarstan. I lived in Ottawa, capital of Canada.

As an anthropologist, in the early 1960s, I studied the Cree and Saulteaux peoples of Saskatchewan and soon discovered that our attitude is an important ingredient for effective communication and human understanding. Becoming friends requires overcoming negative images of the other  and dispelling fear and misunderstanding of the unknown. Rubbing shoulders with our neighbour and stepping into the shoes of the other are useful metaphors in working across cultural boundaries.

Click here to see a large map of all places mentioned.

When strangers become friends, as with Vakhit and I, we were deeply affected. Our lives were changed forever. I experienced this first-hand as we traveled in Russia to Moscow, Kazan, Naberezhnye Chelny, Yelabuga, Nizhnekamsk; and later in Canada to Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, and Saskatoon.

In each country, doors were flung open as photographers, yachtsmen, hikers, teacher, artists, students, professors, public school administrators, religious leaders, union organizers, peace workers, writers, and even millionaires have come forth to meet the international stranger.

In Kazan, I met Misha and Evgeny, who took us on the Volga river in their small yacht, named 'Tempest 04'. We were together for two-days, traveling by boat (50 km, 30 mi.) east on the Volga, camping on a river island overnight, then to their dacha (cabin) with banya (sauna) at the riverside village of Kurochkino. Living together gave us plenty of time for intimate serious discussions on perestroika, glasnost, Stalin, religion, the nationalities question, and more.

I felt like Saint Exupery’s fairy tale figure of Little Prince who travelled the planets and came to Earth, where he learned finally, from nature, the secret of what is truly important to life.

As a traveller, I learned about the beauty of nature that transcends political boundaries and ideologies. Its colours, shapes, and sounds decorate our gaze and rejuvenate our bodies and minds. That beauty is precious, yet vulnerable to destruction if we pollute our waters, air and soil, and if fail to work cooperatively and sensitively as one family on our common planet.

From Vakhit, I learned that cleanliness is a cultural trait of the Tatar people. When you enter their home, you take off your shoes and are offered a pair of slippers. I have used this practice in my Canadian home.

More profoundly, from Murat, Bulat and Alexei, I learned that war is a human tragedy that few of us in the West can relate to. We need to acknowledge the fact that the Soviet peoples lost over 27 million in defending themselves during WWII.

I learned that gift-giving is an old tribal custom that has persisted through the centuries and has transformed strangers into friends. On my departure home, Vakhit and his wife Galiya presented me with a beautiful handcrafted woolen rug.

From strangers and newfound friends I learned that diverting money from the arms race can provide us with all the infrastructure we need, the architecture, clean water, universal education and free health care to make life livable and make peace possible in the world. Our human family aches for that shift in evolutionary thinking.

Opening doors with strangers is a good first step in this thinking by peacefully bridging two or more realities on Planet Earth.

Photo album, 19 images: Canada — Tatariya 1988 Friendship Project. To see photo captions on a hand-held tablet or smart-phone, swipe image up; on a laptop or desktop computer, toggle the upper-right "info" button shown here in the yellow box: 

This article updated from: Koozma J. Tarasoff. 'When strangers meet….', 150 Canadian Stories of Peace (2017). Compiled by Gordon Breedyk, Mony Dojeiji, Koozma J. Tarasoff, and Evelyn Voigt.
My Kazan trip was mentioned in: Black, J.L. Canada in the Soviet Mirror: Ideology and Perception in Soviet Foreign Affairs, 1917-1991. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, Apr 15, 1998, page 326. — I met Professor J. L. Black when he was teaching at Carleton University, Ottawa. Some of his students came to my Living Room Discussion in 1984-1985. I met Soviet historian and Ambassador A. Yakovlev who borrowed many of my books on the Doukhobors and published a long essay on the group.

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