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Tajikistan's Littlest Patriot Becomes Instant Celebrity

All eyes were on Tajikistan's most powerful man during his recent tour of southern Tajikistan. That is, until the country's littlest patriot stole the show.

Local and national television channels interrupted their regular programming to cover President Emomali Rahmon's arrival in Khatlon Province's Farkhor district.

The cameras were rolling on October 27 as Rahmon disembarked from his helicopter and walked the red carpet to address the gaggle of locals and dignitaries who had assembled to greet him.

But it was 3-year-old Gulnigor Najmiddin who would win the hearts of the Tajik people that day.

As Rahmon bent over to meet children who had been selected to read out poems to the president, Najmiddin's voice rang out: "Oh, I'm so cold."

With a presidential election just days away, Rahmon seized on the moment. "Oh, you're cold?" he asked, "come here." He lifted and hugged the girl to the applause and laughter of surrounding dignitaries.

"Where did you come from?" Gulnigor asked the president. "Why don't you take me to your [helicopter]?"

Rahmon lightly rebuked local officials standing nearby, telling them "you shouldn't put children through this in such cold weather," before asking Gulnigor to read her poem.

The unscripted moment turned Gulnigor into an instant celebrity in Tajikistan, where she is now known as "the little girl who didn't recognize Rahmon."

Later at her home in the village of Komsomol, where she lives with her parents and grandparents, Gulnigor recounted the incident.

The bubbly and eloquent Gulnigor recalled how she had met "Grandpa" Emomali, who came from Dushanbe and gave her a doll, chocolates, and money.

Her proud grandparents, Zuhro Rahmonova and Najmiddin Qiyomiddinov, explained that later that day Rahmon presented Gulnigor with the gifts, and extended an offer for her to visit him in the capital.

Explaining that their granddaughter loves poetry, they boasted that she had memorized nearly 300 lines of poetry about the president.

In front of the camera, Gulnigor named several famous Tajik poets, listed official symbols of the country, and then burst into Tajikistan's national anthem.

"Who do you want to be when you grow up?" she is asked.

Ignoring promptings by her grandparents, who whisper "doctor, doctor," Gulnigor says she simply wants to be "Gulnigor."

Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Mumin Ahmadi in Kulob.