honest plane notes about my racism and uzbekistan
I find a closed space full of Uzbek people difficult to tolerate, as was repeatedly proven on trains and planes this week. Another startling discovery is that I am similarly averse to closed spaces full of Indians. This is because (a) I am a notoriously xenophobic European, or (b) I can’t stand it when people speak loudly and interminably to each other when they’re too close to me and I am trying to sleep. The correct answer, for those who find it difficult to follow, is (b).
This point was established by a girl and older man at Tashkent’s train station where we were spending the night on metal chairs and had unwisely left a gap between us, in which the girl unscrupulously plopped down and proceeded to chatter in what sounded like a succession of the same highly irritating syllables to her husband/father/unspecified male liaison until I raised my head groggily from my backpack-in-lap sleep arrangement, which caused her to say cheerfully “Oh sorry, miss, I must have woken you!” – then turn right back to her conversation.
The point was driven home further by the four Muslim Indians we shared a compartment with on the way to Samarkand, who kept speaking about Allah in patronizing, sermon-like voices, and one of whom was prone to talking loudly for 40 to 90-minute stretches at a time. (“Young man, are you Muslim? Christian? Tourist? There are Muslim historic sites where we’re going, I thought you might like to know,” was their only communiqué to us save for offering crisps and “Hello, miss” when we ran into them at said historic site later in the day.)
It was stamped and finalized by the man sitting behind us on the plane home, who for the entire time of boarding kept telling each and every passenger that the plane was not full, so everyone should sit anywhere free, which I took to be a technique to insure a neighbor-free flight, until someone did sit down next to him despite several hints to the effect of underbooking, which turned him round, ostensibly, and he spent the best part of the flight talking to his neighbor loudly in a grating voice while I was operating on very few hours of sleep and being kicked regularly in the small of the back by the neighbor and leaned on by the guy in front.
Not to mention the constant line-cutting and the train rides where we were subjected to televisions blaring Uzbek and Russian series at full volume. Maybe I only take these things so hard when I’m sleep-deprived and experiencing invasions of my physical and sensory personal space. However, there is no explaining away the fact that I did not find life in Uzbekistan comfortable in many ways. It became increasingly obvious that while I may not be a xenophobic European, I certainly am a pampered European who likes her streets paved and lit, and solves any and all problems via Visa cards and internet. Where neither option is available, I am flummoxed.
No amount of beautiful architecture interspersed with picturesque quarters can help me brave the old town of Bukhara at night after a day of rain, for my hipster-European sneakers are ill-suited to sliding in the mud and trying to avoid winding mid-street aryks (irrigation ditches). Food that induces cramps and constant awareness of my entire digestive tract, added to the fact that not a single man and only about a third of the local women look attractive*, plus hordes of small children who turn into beggars at the sight of foreigners, chirping “hilow” and “bonzhor”, and once even following us for two blocks begging in a droning monotone and stroking our arms in a disturbing manner, and I’m sure you’ll be asking how I managed to enjoy any of the trip.
The answer to that lies in the terrain of impressionistic prose, to which I lean when writing about the better things in life (hence, incidentally, the lack of report about Venice; perhaps when I’m there again and not so stunned by the universal beauty of it that I can find something to complain about in the beginning). Most of the things I liked, however, go back to the same: all of it being so very unusual and different.
The insular organization of the cities (slum –> expansive stone square, home to three towering madāris –> slum known as “the old mahala”, i.e. “the old quarter” –> another religious complex –> etc.) is not what I’m used to in my more frequent destinations, where narrow, inbred character and architectural polish are distributed evenly throughout most streets. Not that the slums do not encroach on the immaculate palaces. They establish themselves in the shape of souvenir stalls, punctuating the yard of every mosque and madrasah, as well as their immediate environs. Small wonder, as tourists rarely venture into the slums themselves, prefering the ancient and monumental to the living and breathing.
The life experience is also as different as can be. Twice, a friend and I wandered to a chaikhana with the rather urgent purpose of working each on our respective assignment, and found ourselves instead chugging endless cups of tea, talking and leaning back on the bench, affected by the blissful slow atmosphere of the place, the view of the pond framed by magnificent buildings, and the twang of rubābs from the speakers in the trees overhead. Countless times we bought things or stayed and admired things, or listened to stories we otherwise wouldn’t have, lured in by the Arabian Nights accents and inflections of the locals and turns of phrase like “do not go away, a present for you” after buying a dress, or “half-price for you now, the evening bazaar” (at 5 pm, because at 6 it’s dark and everything closes). In our Soviet childhoods, everything to do with Aladdin and Harun al-Rashid was spoken with the same lilt and set against the same white, sandy, and blue backdrop. I find this very hard to resist, so I listen, gaze, and buy away.
In Uzbekistan, one is constantly amazed at how much can be built from very little. This goes for the food, which, while disagreeing with me and being largely meat-based, is nonetheless varied and interesting, comprised though it is of vegetables, rice, and the ubiquitous flatbread. This goes also for the local handicrafts, most woven or embroidered, mere fabrics and thread blossoming in delicate, intricate, colorful designs which made me stare. I saw an Afghan carpet resembling Native American ones, the pattern only a sparse set of chevron stripes and arrows, but I would have paid dearly for it, such was the aesthetic impact. Luckily, it was in a museum, not a shop, and I didn’t see any knock-offs, though I did look.
The list of other things which impressed me is very long, comprising such things as the strikingly welcoming style of communication at all hours of the day and night, the matter-of-fact kindness, the homes and communal buildings and their surprising similarity, the divine fruit and nuts, the abundance of kittens, the Jewish community, which like everywhere else has merged entirely with its surroundings, adopting all the prominent traits of the local culture and becoming an interesting local blend of Uzbek-faced Jewish people called either variations of Rovshan and Alisher or something deeply archaic and Biblical, who typically consider a medieval poetry recital a wedding reception kind of entertainment on a par with singing and dancing, and night-time readings in Jewish texts led by one of the most charming, most charismatic geniuses I’ve met.
I do not, however, have enough pages left in this notebook, the plane is very shaky (I doubt I’ll be able to read my handwriting after), and the gabber behind me has (temporarily?) shut up, so that’s a sorely needed opportunity to catch up on the work I was in no mood to do in Bukhara.
P.S. When I got up to stretch my legs after writing this, I saw that the young man who’d been leaning on me the entire time was whiling away the time by drawing impeccably even patterns of arches and minarets in his notebook. The unfathomable aesthetic sense of these people! One’s only left to wonder why they dress in pleather, velour, and rhinestone-studded jersey all the time.
*Credit where credit is due: the 1/3 of the women who are beautiful, are so in a stunning, uncompromising way.