Uzbek People

Uzbekistan is the most ancient and the most populous country in Central Asia. Samarqand and Bukhara, two storied cities made famous by their importance to the Silk Road (they were the jewels to be captured by the hordes which continuously swept through the region), are in Uzbekistan. If there were such thing as a time-machine, one of the times/places I would like to visit would be this area during the height of the Silk Road. (I’d also like to have been in Philadephia at the time of the Continental Congresses. Or in Boston during the Tea Party.) Uzbekistan is the heartland of Central Asia. It has borders with all of the other “stans”, as well as a small border with Afghanistan.

There are two ancient rivers flowing through Uzbekistan: the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya. Because of these two great rivers, oases were able to spring up left and right throughout the desert country, where people flourished and survived, in the middle of nothingness. Another example of geography as destiny. Bukhara and Samarqand would never have been so important without those two rivers.

The Uzbek people are of Turkic origin, but they have genetic connections with Iranians. This makes for a very interesting mix, because Iranians are, historically, looked down upon throughout this area, because they are of Indo-European stock, not Turkic, and they are also Shiites, not Sunni. So the Uzbek people bridge that gap, uneasily at times. The Uzbeks were latecomers to the area, having migrated south at the end of the 15th century.

Uzbeks trace their lineage back to Uzbek Khan (1312-1340), from whom they take their name. Uzbek Khan was the great-grandson of the feared and infamous Genghis Khan. Uzbek Khan’s forebears were part of Genghis’ original Turko-Mongolian horde.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to get that because of all this, Uzbek society is based on clan traditions. The notion of a nation-state is still very weak. The tradition is that of desert nomads, they traveled throughout the centuries from oasis to oasis … and the oasis was the center, the oasis was the basis of your identity. You did not say, “Yes, I am an Uzbek.” You said, “I am from Samarqand.” Stalin’s repressive programs in this region certainly did not help! Russians poured into Uzbekistan, as colonizers. There are a ton of them still there.

Uzbeks are, traditionally, Sunni Muslim, but they have some interesting twists in it. There are elements of shamanism in their practice (anathema to traditional Sunnis … you can be killed for this stuff in Saudi Arabia). They have a deep undercurrent of Persian philosophy in their faith, of Sufism (the whirling dervishes, you will recall). Uzbeks are a very proud and independent people. They don’t accept central authority. But they have handled being dominated in an interesting way: it’s like they take on the attributes of their oppressor, as protective coloring, while underneath they remain committed to their own traditions, their own ways.

I have an awesome passage which illustrates this. Ryszard Kapuscinski, one of my favorite authors, traveled all through the “Soviet Imperium” throughout his life as a Polish foreign correspondent. Kapuscinski lived under Soviet domination. He suffered. So he wrote books about the tyranny of the last Shah in Iran, of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, of revolutions in Central America, as a way to criticize the terrible regime Poles lived under at home. But he could not have gotten away with writing about his own country. He went at it another way. Finally, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kapuscinski wrote Imperium, a panoramic view of the USSR over the years. From 1939, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Kapuscinski’s home town when he was a small boy, to the incredible years of 1989-1991. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

But back to Uzbekistan, and the trait of the Uzbek people I was talking about: their ability to take on the protective coloring of the dominant power:

Kapuscinski travels through all the “stans” in 1967. The Soviet Union has these republics on a short leash. But the leash is never short enough, as it turns out. And here is Kapuscinski’s description of a town square in Bukhara, during the Soviet years:

It is noon. I go out of the fortress onto a large, dusty square. On the opposite side is a chaykhana. At this time of day the chaykhanas are full of Uzbeks. They squat, colorful skullcaps on their heads, drinking green tea. They drink like this for hours, often all day. It’s a pleasant life, spent in the shadow of a tree, on a little carpet, among close friends. I sat down on the grass and ordered a pot of tea. On one side I had a view of the fortress, as big as Krakow’s Vavel Castle, only made of clay. But on the other side I had an even better view.

On the other side stood a glorious mosque.

The mosque caught my attention because it was made of wood, which is extremely rare in Muslim architecture, whose materials are typically stone and clay. Furthermore, in the hot, numb silence of the desert at noon, one could hear a knocking inside the mosque. I put aside my teapot and went to investigate the matter.

It was billard balls knocking.

The mosque is called Bolo-Khauz. It is a unique example of 18th century Central Asian architecture, virtually the only structure from that period to have survived. The portal and exterior walls of Bolo-Khauz are decorated with a wooden ornamentation whose beauty and precision have no equal. One cannot help but be enraptured.

I looked inside. There were six green tables, and at each one young boys with tousled blond hair were playing billiards. A crowd of onlookers rooted for the various competitors. It cost eighty kopecks to rent a table for an hour, so it was cheap, and there were so many willing customers that there was a line in front of the entrance. I didn’t feel like standing in it and so couldn’t get a good look at the interior. I returned to the chaykhana.

Blinding sun fell on the square. Dogs wandered about. Tour groups were coming out of the fortress … Between the fortress-turned-museum and the mosque-turned-billiards hall sat Uzbeks drinking tea. They sat in silence, facing the mosque, in accordance with the ways of the fathers. There was a kind of dignity in the silent presence of these people, and despite their worn gray smocks, they looked distinguished. I had the urge to walk up to them and shake their hands. I wanted to express my respect in some way, but I didn’t know how. In these men, in their bearing, in their wise calm, was something that aroused my spontaneous and genuine admiration. They have sat for generations in this chaykhana, which is old, perhaps older than the fortress and the mosque. Many things are different now — many, but not all. One can say that the world is changing, but it is not changing completely; in any case it is not changing to the degree that an Uzbek cannot sit in a chaykhana and drink tea even during working hours.

Russians moved into their country, and turned Uzbek mosques into billiard halls. Terrible. Stalin closed down 26,000 mosques and only allowed 22 people to study in the madrassahs, when before they overflowed with people. Islam dove underground. The other thing Stalin attacked was the Uzbek language. Their language is Turkic, and was was born during the 16th century, and has survived through all of the chaos that has followed. Stalin prohibited the language to be used starting in 1937. This was an assault on the identity of the Uzbeks. History was cut off. Young Uzbeks today, kids who are 20 years old or whatever, have no sense of the ancient history of their culture. They are now trying to re-invent the past, mythologizing themselves, creating a glorious past that never really existed, because no accurate information has survived.

The Uzbeks, traditionally, like their great-great-great-granddaddy Genghis, were warriors. Nomadic warriors. They disdained trade. They were not sedentary. They were always on the move. They have a lot of ethnic pride, but that pride has not coalesced or transformed into a nationalistic thing. Maybe a good thing.

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