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Central Asia's ultimate melting pot

UZBEKISTAN | Thursday, 9 April 2009 | Views [3999] | Comments [1]

March 18: Rainy Day Beats

The drive to Bukhara was rainy and relatively uneventful. We met a friend of a friend upon arrival, who notably brought me a bouquet of field flowers to welcome me to the city (how sweet!). He also speaks Tajik, which I enjoyed… many Uzbeks living in Bukhara and Samarkand are ethnically Tajik and speak an interesting dialect somewhere between Uzbek (a Turkic language) and Tajik (a Persian language), with the ubiquitous odd Russian phrase ingrained for good measure. Their friend also helped with my registration, which thankfully went smoothly and with no threats of deportation. Since we were staying in one of his apartments, however, I had to be registered as his (second) wife, which his real wife was not particularly pleased about, especially after learning my young age!

Later that evening, we went to Underground, one of Bukhara’s most popular nightclubs, but found ourselves as the sole patrons. The guys were quick to explain that people are currently saving up money and partying energy for Navruz (March 21st). The lack of a crowd didn’t stop me from hitting the dance floor though, as I took the opportunity to request so many of my favourite club songs that the DJ had no choice but to play at least some of them. He still managed to squeeze in a healthy dose of ear-bleedingly loud Russian pop, though…

March 19: The highs and lows of being a foreigner

My first full day in Bukhara, once considered the capital of the Islamic world, was an exemplar of its vast array of historical and cultural influences. We left first thing in the morning to a rural district outside of the city for a friend of a friend’s khudoyi, which is basically a big gathering hosted by someone who has had a bad, usually near-death experience to give thanks to God and pray for a successful future. It was interesting to go to and, as a foreigner, I was allowed to sit with the men rather than be banished to the hidden-from-view women’s side. I also quite enjoyed meeting another friend-of-a-friend who works for an oil and gas exploration company up in the Aral Sea; I promptly peppered him with as many questions as appropriate for the setting.

Unfortunately, however, I did not fare well with the traditional dish. Khalisa is a thick, sticky, slightly chunky warm porridge with liquefied meat and bones (cooked continuously over the previous 12 hours) and topped with a layer of oil and melted fat and a few chick peas in the middle (the Central Asian version of a 'cherry on top'??). It was by far the single most horrid thing I've ever eaten – not for the taste, but the texture. I gagged just watching people eat it and got a couple of tiny mouthfuls in before I was literally about to throw up. What made it even worse was that it was 7:30 in the morning; not that I would have liked it for dinner, but there’s something particularly unpleasant about trying to stomach liquefied meat and bones that early in the day. Although I’m well aware that it's quite disrespectful to leave food on your plate in Central Asia, particularly at a celebration such as a khudoyi, I figured it would be much worse to vomit in it.

(I’m actually about to gag just writing and thinking about it… UGH.)

As we made our way back to the city’s historical centre, I watched the ubiquitous government-sponsored billboards flash by – most were typical of the Central Asian Stans, such as the president beaming proudly among Photo-Shopped cotton fields, but others notably more socially progressive, such as one of a little girl in a wheelchair. After volunteering with kids with disabilities in Tajikistan, where the president allegedly considers people with disabilities a national shame that should be out of sight and out of mind, I was pleasantly surprised to see a sign (literally and figuratively) of at least advertised social diversity.

Back in the centre, we explored Arc, the impressive fortress built in 4th-century BC and last housed Emir Alim Khan. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and parts of Afghanistan were divided into the three khanates (kingdoms) of Kokand, Bukhara, and Khiva, and ruled by Emirs/Khans (kings). The emirs were brutal rulers and constantly battled with their neighbours to expand and defend their khanates, with peculiar emphasis on the amount of land procured rather than the health and happiness of their constituents. The Arc was like a city within a city for the royal family and other wealthy citizens and had its own mosque, coronation hall, ‘greeting’ hall, and stables. It was in front of the Arc that the Great Game-era British spies Alexander Barnes and Arthur Connolly were infamously beheaded in 1865, setting off quite the diplomatic fuss back in England and sparking some of the simultaneous fear and romanticism of the dangerously exotic lands of Bukhara. Eighty percent of the Arc was destroyed in the wake of the Russian invasion in 1920 and Emir Alim Khan fled to Afghanistan, effectively making himself the last Emir of Bukhara.

As the clock struck 5, I reminded the guys that I wanted to hear the azan (the call to prayer, one of my favourite things about being in Islamic countries) at the Great Mosque around the corner. Though we would visit the mosque and adjoining Kalon Minaret and medrassa the next day, something drew me towards it. We entered the courtyard in time to catch the last few somber notes of the azan lilting through the air atop rays of the setting sun, which set the already dazzling azure tiles of the mosque’s dome ablaze. Though we were in the middle of the city, a powerful silence like nothing I had ever experienced filled my every pore. I’m not religious at all, but I was suddenly overcome with something – let’s call it spiritual, for argument’s sake – and my eyes filled with tears. As much fear and division as organized religion can inflict upon our world, there is something incredibly beautiful and mysterious about it as well…

When the guys were finally able to drag me away from the mosque, we stopped for a snack of samsas (the Uzbek version of the Tajik sambusa and, more distantly, the Indian samosa). The guys swore that it was the best samsa joint in town and I braced myself for what that inevitably meant: imbedded large chunks of warm mutton fat that, when congealed on the roof of your mouth afterwards, make for a rather unpleasant waxy sensation. I’m not going to say that I didn’t like it (particularly with the earlier khalisa still fresh on my mind), but I found the subsequent éclair that I consoled my palate with particularly more enjoyable! As much as I appreciate and am in awe of the hospitality of Central Asians, one of the drawbacks of traveling with acquaintances or friends-of-friends is that they always insist (again and again) on me trying all of their traditional foods, regardless of their degree of (in)edibility to non-Central Asians and former vegetarians, which I do my best to oblige with a smile out of respect.

For both lunch and dinner, we attended different portions of an asandi, a traditional Korean celebration for one of their friend's adorable 1-year old niece. In the years leading up the World War II, Koreans were forcibly relocated to Uzbekistan by the Soviets for fear of their potential to become spies for or allies of the Japanese enemies. Since then, they have established strong communities in Uzbekistan’s main urban areas and retain some Korean traditions like asandi and following the 12-year Chinese calendar, rather than celebrating annual birthdays. At the lunch-time portion of the asandi, the girl 'chose her destiny' by picking up money and a book out of a table of assorted items meant to symbolize her future. The lunch and later evening party were filled with people making speeches to wish her happiness, health, and success in life, and of course, being the lone foreigner and automatically an object of great interest and honour, I was asked to make speeches as well. The lunch party was only about 15 people – i.e. not a major concern – but there were well over 100 people at the dinner surely wondering who on earth I was, as well as a microphone and huge video cameras being thrust into my face. Thankfully I'm getting better at being put on the spot and managed to say something remotely intelligible to avoid completely losing face.

March 20: Religious and political domination at its best (worst)

Whereas Samarkand's historical sights are somewhat spread out, almost everything is more or less in one area of Bukhara. After climbing a very rickety viewing tower from the Soviet era, we returned to the Kalon Minaret/Great Mosque/Mir-i-Arab Medrassa complex. We were joined by another friend-of-a-friend who speaks a whopping 8 languages and is quite well-versed in his city’s history (and thus makes a stellar guide for yours truly!). The Mir-i-Arab Medrassa was built in the 17th century and remained one of only two functioning medrassas in Central Asia during the Soviet era. The four-year curriculum requires the (all-male) students to specialize as either an expert of Islamic religion, Imam, or Arabic language teacher, and includes courses in the history of Islam, Qiroat (correct ways to read the Koran), Tafsir (translating and explaining the meaning of the Koran), Aqoid (fundamentals of Islamic belief), Sarf and Nahv (morphology and syntax of Arabic language), and Hatoba (rhetoric); they also learn Uzbek, English, and Russian, and study maths, sciences, IT, physical culture, and sports.

The Great Mosque, which I was so blown away by last night, was built in the 16th century and can hold up to 10 000 people, but shamefully was used as a warehouse during the Soviet era and only recently reopened. The vast majority places of worship under the reign of the ‘militant atheists’ were shut down or used for more industrial purposes; imams (spiritual leaders, sort of similar to priests) were arrested and executed by the dozens. Still, Islam survived throughout the Soviet era through underground networks and is now practiced by approximately 90% of Central Asians. Most are Sunni but some pockets, including the Ismailis in Tajikistan’s Pamirs, are of the Shi’a branch.

The 12th century Kalon Minaret, which is used for the hauntingly beautiful azan (call to prayer), dominates the complex with its 47 m height. It was built in two stages, beginning with the architect laying the 10-meter deep foundation and the first third and then disappearing for 20 years. When he returned, he explained his absence by saying that the foundation ‘needed to set’ and that it would now stand forever. His method has proven quite accurate so far; the minaret even has the distinct honour of being probably the only structure ever spared by Genghis Khan during his 13th century campaign of destruction. Legend has it that as he stood before the minaret, he had to look up so far to see the top that the feathers on his helmet touched the ground behind him and he was sufficiently impressed! The minaret is also known as the Death Tower for its former alternative use of tossing out criminals and female adulterers to their deaths on the cobblestone street below. I find it rather curious that such an impressive structure could be simultaneously used for something as beautiful as the azan and something as gruesome as public executions.

The 4 M's, as I've come to call them (mosques, medrassas, minarets, and mausoleums), all tend to be located in close proximity to each other with bazaars, domas, and toqis (places of trade and goods and services exchange), and caravanserais (travellers’ guesthouses) a stone's throw away, making for quite compact and efficient city planning! Many domas and toqis were established in the 16th century to boost local economies as new sea routes to Africa devastated the trade monopoly that the Silk Road previously held as the nexus between the East and West.

At the top of one of the many nearby medrassas rests an empty stork’s nest; the stork is usually a symbol of prosperity, but the guys noted that they are increasingly rare in Uzbekistan. They were only half joking when they said that it is a sure sign of the global financial crisis…!

Another hundred meters away sits a former Zoroastrian temple from 4th century BC (!). Bukhara was once one of three centers of Zoroastrian culture, alongside India and China. During the 8th century’s Islamic invasion of Central Asia, a mosque was built overtop of the temple as a display of religious dominance. Islam gradually (and forcibly) gained believers by heavily taxing Zoroastrians and waiving taxes for Muslims. Although there are many marked differences between the two religions, there is still a surprising amount of Zoroastrian elements in Central Asian and Islamic culture. It is only in current hard-line Islamic states like Iran and Saudi Arabia that Zoroastrianism is completely marginalized and viewed as an abomination of Islam.

On our way to the Jewish Quarter is the communal Lebi Khaus, or large pond. It was established in 1620 and is surrounded by wonderfully expressive 300-year old mulberry trees and a particularly bold gaggle of ducks (the first non-farm animal wildlife I’ve seen in ages!). On one side of the pond is a large statue of Nesruddin Afandi on a donkey, one of Uzbekistan’s national ‘heroes’ and a Middle Ages version of Jon Stewart. His satirical jokes, laden with paradoxes and hidden morals, were considered ‘medicine for the soul’ and he risked his neck by making light of the religious clerks, who he considered ‘the most clever but not the most wise’.

As the sun disappeared once again behind Bukhara’s stunning ancient buildings, we meandered through the streets of the Jewish Quarter, where my octa-lingual friend’s family once lived. Originally established by a breakaway faction of Moses’ group, there are still some Jews living here and speaking Bukharacha, a fascinating hybrid of Hebrew, Tajik, and Russian. During the Soviet era, they were forced to wear a belt with a red stripe to identify themselves as Jews to others; many were quite wealthy, but they lost everything when all property was nationalized under the Soviets. Many have emigrated to Israel, but are often not accepted as ‘true Jews’ there because of their Central Asian roots. To be marginalized as a Jew in an Islamic area but not accepted by your own in the Holy Land must be quite the psychological slap in the face…

Earlier in the day, we had a lovely outdoors osh/pilov meal. I discreetly ate around the several cloves of garlic but after they were all that remained, I was told that as a guest, I had to finish every morsel on the plate. Damn. On another more interesting note, some nearby farmers had recently slaughtered a male sheep to prepare khalisa for Navruz tomorrow and I took the opportunity to ask them some questions about the halal process of slaughtering, which I had never seen before.

Next: Navruz




Dear shrummer16,
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is publishing a book on Islam in Uzbekistan and we were struck by your beautiful photo of the Great Mosque in Bukhara. I would love to be in touch with you about purchasing the rights to use this image for the cover of the book. You would, of course, receive full photo credit. Please email me as soon as convenient.
Kind regards,

  Ilonka Aug 12, 2011 12:15 AM

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