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Uzbekistan in retrospect

November 8, 2008

            7/11/08 Shymkent, Kazakhstan

            I am aware that my writing during the three weeks that I spent in Uzbekistan has not been as stimulating as it was while I was in Iran, nor has it offered as many interpretative ‘snapshots’ of Uzbek people or life as I feel my Iran writings did. I think this is because I engaged much less with Uzbekistan, in the sense that I both learned less about it and felt that what I did learn was, perhaps, somewhat superficial. I feel like I left Uzbekistan with a piecemeal idea about its history and a glimpse of its geography, but no comprehensive sense of Uzbek social dynamics, no hint of individual perceptions, tastes or hopes, which are aspects that I felt I gained a minimal yet significant exposure to in Iran.

 

            One of the biggest causes of this sense of lack was definitely due to the fact that I experienced much less interaction with Uzbek people than with Iranians. In Iran, I felt that I had several meaningful encounters with different people, even within the frame of ‘foreigner’ or ‘tourist’ to which I am inescapably bound in my travels. Generally, I suppose, I found Iranians to be more open, more curious, more eager to strike up a conversation in which they inquired about me and spoke about themselves. Moreover, while they actively sought my point of view on ‘touchy’ subjects such as politics or religion, I was surprised to find them willing to express often dissident opinions about those matters. When I expressed such surprise to one Iranian man quite early on in my trip, he said that he was not afraid to voice his disapproval to foreigners (when asked his opinion about Ahmedinejad, he had replied, without a second’s hesitation,: ”asshole”), but that he would never choose to act on his feelings because he felt that there was too much at stake. I found that his comment shed light on the ideas that condition the circumstances under which many Iranians feel more or less able to manifest their opinions.

 

            In Uzbekistan, I was privy to only a handful of conversations with Uzbeks, and their scope was far more standard: origins, education, family. On one hand, I think it had something to do with the language barrier: more people spoke English in Iran, and Arabic is far closer to Farsi than it is to both Russian and Uzbek, which had proven very useful at times. (I managed to make some headway with the ethnic Tajiks we met near Bukhara and Samarkand, because Tajik and Farsi overlap quite heavily).

 

            But language aside, I felt that many Uzbeks reacted to my foreignness with a certain distance. In the rural areas, I felt this translated into amusement, where my linguistic ignorance was often met with laughter.  In the cities it expressed itself less endearingly, and, especially Tashkent, I felt general apathy, manifested in a scarcity of smiling faces and a lack of willingness to help. This stood in such drastic contrast to the hospitality of the Iranians, the scale of which I had never encountered before. Perhaps mistakenly, I attribute the relative disinterest, even coldness that i experienced in urban Uzbekistan to a combination of the proliferation of mass tourism and the indifference and anonymity that accompanies the way that Central Asia has come to be atomized along post-Soviet Russo-European lines.

 

            By the same token, I must acknowledge my own agency in not connecting as much with Uzbeks as I felt i did with Iranians. Two months of travel (coupled with a week’s worth of traveller’s diarrhea) have doubtlessly drained my explorational energies. My laziness manifested itself as much in my lack of efforts to learn Uzbek or Russian as in my favouring  early bed-times over nights out in local haunts, which is where I could have potentially met and chatted to more people.

 

            The amalgamation of these factors, set against the frequency and depth that characterised my conversations with the Iranians I met, led me to feel that my interactions with Uzbeks revealed to me less about aspects of Uzbek society. This might sound patronising, but I did not find that my conversations with Uzbeks were as eye-opening or as insightful as those that I had with Iranians.

 

*          *          *

 

            Personal interaction is not, of course, the only source of knowledge, but unfortunately, the information that I acquired through other channels proved hardly illuminating either. There is undoubtedly a plethora of material artifacts and architectural structures that bear testimony to the hayday of Uzbek history, the glorious days when the Silk Road was the centre of the world. However, I failed to find the curation and presentation of these stimulating. Something that i found particularly offputting in the ancient Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand was that each mosque and madrasa was being used more as a market stall than a place of archaeological import. When one enters through the huge, arched, blue mosaic-tiled entrances of the centuries-old structures, instead of being able to absorb the characteristics and imagine the past life of the building, one is encountered with flocks of old ladies clad in colourful head-scarves peddling embroidered bags, throws and carpets; terra cotta plates and bowls with intricate geometric designs; and small boxes with hand-painted miniature scenes of courting, music and feasting.

 

            Now, do not doubt the craftsmanship and consequent appeal of their wares, for both are evident. But I felt that it was inappropriate to allow four hundred year-old courtyards, celebrated as prestigious centres of learning of Islamic world some 500 years ago, to serve as platforms from which unsuspecting tourists could be wielded out of a few dollars. Although it could be seen as infusing otherwise ‘dead’ places with a new commercial life, I found that it distracted me from being able to imagine their histories. The vaulted rooms which were once the classrooms of the Islamic world’s most ground-breaking philosophers, doctors, astronomers and poets had been transformed into tourist bazaars. Sight-seeing came to be quickly replaced by browsing and, eventually, shopping. Yes, time and time again, i was sucked right in.

 

            Even the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan, aka national museum, offered a shallow overview of over 10,000 years of human history, beginning with the stone tools of Neanderthal man and ending with fragments that represent the modernity of post-Soviet Uzbekistan: the production quota of chemical plants; various Olympic medals; Visa cards and Mastercards. Admittedly, some of the more interesting material concerning popular Uzbek uprisings against Russian and then Soviet imperialism was not translated into English, so again language proved a significant barrier to learning.

 

            Thankfully, one avenue of cultural/historical discovery was opened for us: we were fortunate to be able to get tickets for a production at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent which had English subtitles. Ecstasy with the Pomegranate told the story of a Russian painter who had been sent to live in Tashkent in 1916, as part of the Russian conquest of Central Asia. Against the background of the ‘civilizing’ mission of imperial Russia which sought to replace traditional Uzbek culture with Russified values, the painter finds his objects of both artistic and social interest in a group of ‘bachas’, male dancers that perform in a sexual, homoerotic style similar to Arab belly-dancing. The themes were multi-faceted, ranging from traditional Uzbek gender roles (one character is a girl who dresses as a boy in order to be able to fulfill her passion for dancing); the dynamics of the colonial encounter, including the sexualisation of the cultural other which stimulates unconventional affections (a Russian soldier who falls for a young bacha) and the difficulties in blindly applying the Russian legal system in a completely different cultural context; and the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on both Russians and non-Russians.

 

            It was a long production, almost 3 hours, and though i nodded off during the last act (shame!), I found it was the most interesting representation of Uzbek history and culture that I had encountered in Uzbekistan. I left the theatre feeling like I had engaged emotionally with Uzbek history as well as having witnessed a snippet of the avant-garde contemporary arts scene, which, judging from the fact that the show was sold out, seems to be in full bloom.

 

            *          *          *

 

            I think that ultimately, though, my overall disappointment with my time spent travelling in Uzbekistan is a consequence of the fact that all experiences are perceived of comparatively. Generally, the interpretation of any experience is significantly influenced by the past, and therefore the ways in which we come to think about or see something new will always be imbued with previous encounters. Our perceptions will always be influenced by the many factors of our own construction. We can never experience something as it is; but only according to the conditions that structure our encounter with it.

 

            In my mind, my experiences in Uzbekistan will always stand in relation to my experiences in Iran because I visited the two countries as part of the same trip, in which one followed nearly immediately after the other (save the brief four-day transit through Turkmenistan). I believe that this relationality dampened my appreciation of the country, which also means that should have made extra efforts to break through my high-expectations. Therefore, I wish to mediate my previous negative comments about Uzbeks, their hospitality, the organization of their tourism etc by stating that I realise that my interpretation is equally, if not more responsible for the mediocraty of my experience than any of the flaws i previosly pointed out.

 

            And this is not a disclaimer! It is only the meager efforts of a wandering wonderer to bring sense and meaning to the many different, often conflicting emotions that the (largely indulgent) act of perpetual vagabonding entails….

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