(BBC) In this episode, Ben Zand travels to Tajikistan to experience the sinister and at times bizarre side to living in a dictatorship.
But before he gets there, Ben has some preparation to do: in the airplane toilet, he shaves his beard off. This is a country in which people have been dragged off the streets for sporting overly long facial hair.
Landing in the capital city Dushanbe, Ben heads to see one of Tajikistan’s biggest claims to fame: the second tallest flagpole in the world. Of course it was built as the tallest, but has now been pipped to the top spot by Saudi Arabia, another dictatorship. Other authoritarian regimes dominate the Big Five when it comes to flagpoles – countries like North Korea, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Could it be, wonders Ben, that while rich middle-aged men get a fast car as a midlife crisis-inspired penis enlargement, dictators go for giant flagpoles instead?
Still wowed by the size of the pole, Ben goes to meet a man called Rustam, who was forcibly shaved by the police a couple of years ago. He finds out that the president of Tajikistan is worried about beards because he’s terrified of Islamic radicalism. To find out more about how the government is keeping control of radical Islam, Ben heads to meet Aslideen, a youth activist who set up a movement that does the government’s dirty work for it – keeping an eye on people out on the streets, reporting any suspicious behaviour to the police and generally terrorising the locals. Tajikistan is starting to feel like a police state in which independent thought is quickly stifled.
On a mission to find some signs of dissent, Ben goes to meet a prominent young hip-hop artist. Around the world, hip-hop is a way for the youth to express their frustration; surely the rapper Baron will tell Ben what’s wrong with this country? Instead, Ben finds Baron rapping about how great the president is, and he tells Ben that it would be stupid for him to rap about anything critical of the regime.
It seems the population is so well trained that the government barely even needs to censor people. Though of course if it has to, it will, and it’s more than happy to shut down any social media sites that become a problem. When a video of the president dancing embarrassingly at his son’s wedding ended up doing the rounds online, the president did what any self-respecting dictator would do – he shut down YouTube in the country.
As Ben is shown a beautiful but simple mountain village, surrounded by snow-capped peaks in the middle of nowhere, the secret police suddenly turn up. The country may be poor, but there’s always money for flagpoles and the surveillance of dissent.