Years abroad gave Jennifer Murtazashvili a better understanding of community
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Foreign serviceSquirrel Hill resident talks about her time abroad

Years abroad gave Jennifer Murtazashvili a better understanding of community

She grew up in Squirrel Hill and is now raising her children there but spent time working as a teacher, activist and researcher in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in between.

Jennifer Murtazashvili in Baghdad Valley, Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Murtazashvili)
Jennifer Murtazashvili in Baghdad Valley, Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Murtazashvili)

Jennifer Murtazashvili may be one of the more interesting board members you meet at a synagogue function. Although the story of someone who grew up in Squirrel Hill, celebrated her bat mitzvah in Squirrel Hill and is now raising a family in Squirrel Hill is not uncommon, it’s Murtazashvili’s interim years that really make her experiences interesting.

As a student at Taylor Allderdice High School in the early 1990s, Murtazashvili (née Brick) studied Russian.

“It was a really interesting time because there were all of the refuseniks who were coming over,” she said.

Class and interactions with native speakers fostered linguistic comprehension, and after graduating in 1993, Murtazashvili kept up the language at Georgetown University.

“The foreign service program at Georgetown required you to be proficient in a foreign language…so I decided to continue Russian, because I had already studied it for so many years at Allderdice,” she explained. “[I] remember in the early ’90s the Soviet Union had just collapsed. I had started Allderdice in 1989, there was Perestroika — it was really an exciting time to be studying Russian.”

So with interests abroad and a domestically garnered understanding of the language, Murtazashvili traveled to Moscow in the fall of 1995.

“That’s when the war in Chechnya was really kicking off,” and while prior schooling had introduced such figures as Catherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible, there had been little focus on “these minority groups,” she said.

Upon the semester’s conclusion, Murtazashvili returned to Georgetown intrigued by the conflicts and with a heightened interest in “development issues.” She studied anthropology, Islam and Turkish, the latter because many of the languages in the former Soviet Union’s Muslim lands were linguistically related.

Shortly before graduation, a mentor who had served in the Peace Corps suggested that Murtazashvili would be a “perfect fit” for the two-year volunteer program. She applied, and during a phone call in which a representative boasted about opportunities in Lithuania, Poland and places in the former Soviet Union, Murtazashvili inquired about Central Asia.

They told me that “no one really wants to go there,” she recalled. They then suggested Uzbekistan, which Murtazashvili thought “sounded amazing.”

Considering that “Uzbek is a Turkic language and I understood that many of the minority populations in the Caucasus and Central Asia spoke Turkic languages,” Uzbekistan would be a great place to go, she explained.

Before 9/11 there was a lot of freedom; we could do a lot, so I traveled everywhere in the country. The interesting thing for me was getting to speak to people and understand their needs.

So in 1997, Murtazashvili headed out. “It was a really interesting time because the Soviet Union had fallen just a few years before and people couldn’t understand that I was American. They had never met an American. They had just met Russians.”

She spent three months in Guliston learning Uzbek, pedagogy and relevant histories, and then another 24 months in Samarkand, where she learned Tajik, which she described as “a funny dialect of Farsi.” She taught English at a physics and mathematics high school.

The students, who were “incredibly brilliant,” possessed a mastery of physics and mathematics that “blows American high school students out of the water,” she said.

As Murtazashvili was finishing her time with the Peace Corps, a job opened up at the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan. The position required the management of USAID’s democracy and governance portfolio. Murtazashvili got the job, and spent three years working with human rights activists, learning about U.S. foreign policy, writing diplomatic cables and monitoring and strategizing local projects.

The experience was tremendous, she said. “Because I had language skills, I could just hop on a bus and monitor the projects that USAID was implementing in Uzbekistan. Those were amazing days. Before 9/11 there was a lot of freedom; we could do a lot, so I traveled everywhere in the country.

“The interesting thing for me was getting to speak to people and understand their needs,” she added.

Jennifer Murtazashvili now serves on the board of directors at Congregation Beth Shalom. (Photo by Libby Hilf)
Murtazashvili realized that in continuing on she needed greater comprehension of events and cultures, so in the fall of 2001 she applied for graduate school in the United States. But then 9/11 happened. Still in Uzbekistan, Murtazashvili’s workload dramatically increased.

Between providing humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan before the military campaign commenced, establishing a base in Uzbekistan and dealing with members of Congress, Murtazashvili was swamped. She met cabinet official Colin Powell and Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain. At one point, she even served as a translator for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Nonetheless, in 2002, Murtazashvili returned to the States to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. She planned to write a dissertation on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and after traveling to Afghanistan in 2005, believed that a suitable topic might be comparing community governance in the three countries.

Murtazashvili had collected about $40,000 in grants, but a political uprising that year redirected her pursuits. Uzbekistan’s government had become fearful of revolutions and “shut down all U.S. agencies with anything having to do with democracy and governance.”

Given her work with USAID, obtaining a visa became virtually “impossible,” and with an inability to perform field work in Uzbekistan, Murtazashvili returned all of her research money.

At the time, a friend had encouraged her to explore Afghanistan. Murtazashvili went and found a similarly intriguing opportunity. With new money collected, she hired six rural Afghans, spent a year alongside them and traveled to 30 villages across six provinces without security accompaniment.

“We would drive around in two minivans and just talk to people,” she said.

I studied community, so it’s really fun for me to be back here and be part of my own community, and see all the changes and see how things evolve.

Researching how individuals govern themselves when their government is “unwilling or unable to do so” was not only “a lot of fun,” but became her dissertation and subsequent book. Published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press, “Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan” explored how “during decades of conflict people learned to cope without the
state,” she said.

“The most interesting part for me in doing this research was to see how custom evolved. We talk about this in Judaism too,” she said. “This customary system of governance [in Afghanistan] was not static; it had really changed during the war and people’s expectations of it had changed. In fact I found women who were leading their villages, and these were not feudal lords — there was a lot of participation in these villages.

“In communities where people emigrated and came back, they resurrected their traditional systems very quickly,” she added, “so it really speaks to people’s ability to solve problems and get things done. People are not as helpless as we imagine them to be.”

Since those days, Murtazashvili, who is now an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, has continued to explore Afghanistan.

“One of the things that I have written about since is that the government of Afghanistan has not done a really good job of working with these individuals. Nor have the donors, the westerners, who have tried to replace them or just ignore them,” she said. “I just thought it was a real lost opportunity when we think about state building in Afghanistan.”

Murtazashvili, who serves on the board of directors at Congregation Beth Shalom, said that her time overseas also introduced her to Bukharian Jews, what she called “a generic term for Persian speaking Jews of Central Asia,” and the “different foods that they had.” When it came time for Passover, “I knew the bakeries to go to to find matzah. It wasn’t in a box, it was all handmade.” Even so, given the Jewish community’s “very small” size, seders were often spent in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital and largest city, with American friends.

Reflecting on her journey, she said: “I studied community, so it’s really fun for me to be back here and be part of my own community, and see all the changes and see how things evolve.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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