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Every now and then a curious passerby pokes his head in the small doorway of the cafe, which is housed in a prestigious downtown building. Inside, people are jostling for a seat behind one of the four computers, sipping coffee and looking around for someone to help them out with a technology entirely new to them.
The owner, who asked that his name be withheld, is an Internet expert and spends most of his time not in the back office crunching numbers, but working with his clients to teach them the ins and outs of navigating the web and using electronic mail. A simple sign saying "Internet Cafe" hangs unimpressively above the front door. And, like the sign suggests, the establishment itself is modest. Aside from the four Pentium 233 computers, the cafe offers one laser printer and a digital cameraand, of course, coffee. The atmosphere isn't one that is likely to be found in other countries in the region. The floors are bare, the computer desks hug the wall, and the only element of design is a few technology-oriented posters. But no one really cares. The cafe's interior is the least of their concernsthe chance to use the Internet for the first time is of much more importance. The rest will come later.
SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR
The prices, however, are not modest, especially in a country where the average salary is less than $50 per month, and where student stipends are almost nonexistent. An hour of connectivity at the Internet Cafe costs between $3.50 and $4 per hour, and for the time being only the well-to-do can consistently afford the luxury. The cafe's clients, so far, have mainly been foreigners from international businesses and nongovernmental organizations and students, many of whom just sit, watch, and learn. But according to Khakim, even poor students have been willing to spend what little they have on this new technology.
Sitting proudly behind one of the cafe's computers, Ahmad Askarov says "I'm very excited that I can be in touch with my friend, who is studying in the United States, by e-mail for the first time. Though it's expensive, it's still cheaper than a phone call." Ahmad and Khakim say they visit the cafe about twice a week now. They would like to go more often, but they can't afford it. Mostly, says Ahmad, "I would like to visit some of the entertainment sites on the Internet, but it takes too long and I use my money for other things." The students say that they primarily use the cafe's Internet services to send email and conduct educational research. Local libraries lack modern texts and students use the Internet to read contemporary works and news articles they couldn't find elsewhere in Tajikistan.
The Internet Cafe is a great leap forwardas well as a sign of new things to comefor a country that has seen extremely slow IT development. The Internet was only introduced in Tajikistan in January 1999. Presently, Tajikistan is home to only two Internet providersTelecom Technology, Ltd. and Babylon-T. Dushanbe's Internet Cafe is the first and only alternative for people who can't afford computers at home, or don't work in offices wired to the Internet.
Shavkat Khalilov, the director of the country's first ISP, Telecom Technology, Ltd., says that poverty and civil war have kept the Internet from developing, but that doesn't mean it has no future. Society is slowing learning about the Internet's existence and capabilities, and the idea of being connected is no longer such a remote one, Khalilov says. Presently, there are an estimated 100 organizations that are connected, though most of them are international agencies and foreign embassies.
Again, high service charges keep the local population from joining in. Per hour charges run anywhere from $4 to $6, depending on time of day, and the going rate for opening an e-mail account is about $20. These prices are expensive even by Western standards.
For now, Internet Cafe's owner realizes he's on to something bigsomething that could change the face of electronic communication in his country. His task, he says, is to ease Tajikistan's access into the information world. And he's got one up on his ISP colleagueshe is breaking into an untapped market by providing services to those who can't afford computers at home, but who could occasionally afford the luxury of a few hours a week at his cafe.
Ravsham Kasimov is a freelance writer
based in Tajikistan
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