Desert nomads

I’m going to talk about “Turkestan” again today, the larger area of Central Asia, divided up by Stalin, of which Turkmenistan is a big part. The whole nomad existence is something I would like to know more about. I can get glimpses here and there, but, after all, I’ve never met an actual nomad. If I did, I would be able to ask him questions about his life, what it’s like, what goes on in his mind, how his experience may differ from mine. In one of the many books I’ve read on the topic, I came across a description which I loved. It gave me a chill. I would cite the source, but unfortunately, I have no idea where it came from. It’s coming directly off my “Turkestan” index card, pulled from the pile. Anyway, the quote is: “Nomads mastered the art of conquering space.” I love that.

Nomads created the first global system of mass communication. Long before anyone even knew what exactly was “out there”, and what the “globe” may have looked like. Centuries ago, it was the nomads who helped cities like Bukhara and Tashkent rise up and be famous and prosperous and cosmopolitan. They helped spread information around the world. Incredible.

I read one essay about “The Death of the Uzboj”, which was a river in the Kara Kum Desert. The Uzboj dried up and disappeared over 400 years ago, and the writer of the essay surmised that this was the beginning of the end for the Turkomens. Fascinating. Here is the theory. And it sort of fits in with the whole “what the hell is a nomad and what is his life like?” thing I was talking about a moment ago.

The Kara Kum Desert is huge. It is 800 miles long. The temperatures regularly reach levels like 172 degrees Farenheit. The Turkmens lived here in scattered huts. The desert is endless. A complete wasteland. The Kara Kum is the largest desert not just in Turkmenistan but in all of Central Asia, a region of deserts. Of course, Turkestan was receptive to Islam, when it arrived. Islam seems to be the religion of desert people, of people who live in hot unforgiving climates. I wonder about that sometimes and if some theologian could explain why that might be, or even if I’m way off the mark here.

The Uzboj was a river which flowed through the Kara Kum monotony. Needless to say, oases sprang up along its banks. This is how civilization grows. This is how people survive. WATER. As long as the Uzboj flowed, things remained in equilibrium. Life flowed on beside the river, unchanging, fine, in balance.

400 years ago, the Uzboj dried up and disappeared. And took the equilibrium of the Turkmens with it. Tribes were sent into exile, people had to find other places to live, so people were sent on the move. An oasis is a very fragile entity. It can only hold so many people before things get out of whack. It sprouts up because it is near a source of water. But if too many people try to crowd their way in to this oasis, there isn’t enough water for everybody. So this is what happened to the Turkomens. Wandering desperate people tried to squeeze their way in to other oases, and were turned away. Sometimes violently.

And this is how the fratricidal wars of the Turkomens began. Over water. They never knew unity, as a people. Their first contacts with one another, with the Turkomens outside their own oasis, were violent. This is life and death stuff: fighting over water in a deadly desert. This is not a silly reason or a trivial reason to go to war. LET ME IN to this oasis…I have a wife (or maybe 2 or 3), and 15 children, and we are DYING. There is NO WATER. We live in a DESERT, remember?? Let me IN.

When the Russians arrived two and a half centuries later, it was a piece of cake to subdue the Turkomens. It is easy to conquer a divided people. (Now, I know you all know that I did not make that concept up myself!) It is one of the oldest rules of warfare in the book. Divide and conquer. Well, the Russians didn’t even need to worry about the first part. They came across this desert, and found a divided scattered people. No big deal to completely conquer them.

For those of you with the time, who want to read on, here’s a passage from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book Imperium. I’m going to quote specifically from his passage on The Death of the Uzboj. Anyone who has been reading this blog will probably think that I only read one book. And that is Kapuscinski’s Imperium. I understand how I might give that impression. To me, that book holds it all. It was also the beginning of it all, for me. I read that book, on a whim, years ago, because I was fascinated by the COVER of all things. It opened up my world, my mind…I had no idea what the hell the man was talking about but I knew I wanted to know more. Now I look at my book shelves and I have more books on Central Asia than I do poetry, or fiction. A strange transformation.

Anyway, here is a bit more on the Death of the Uzboj:

Everyone tried to live as close to the Uzboj as possible. The river carried water; it carried life. Along its banks ran the trails of caravans. In the currents of the Uzboj the army of Genghis Khan watered its horses. To its shores journeyed the merchants of Samarkand and the Yomud — slave traders.

The river’s agony, said Rashyd, began four hundred years ago. Having appeared suddenly on the desert, the river now just as suddenly began to vanish. The Uzboj had created a civilization in the very heart of the desert, had sustained three tribes, linked the west with the east; on the banks of the Uzboj stood dozens of cities and settlements, which Yusupov would excavate. Now the sands were swallowing up the river. Its energy began to weaken, its current to wane. It is not known who first noticed this. The Ali-Ali, Chyzr, and Tivedzij gathered on the banks to watch the river, the source of life, departing; they sat and they watched, because people like to observe their own misfortune. The water level fell from one day to the next; an abyss was yawning before them … People ran to the mullahs, ran to the ishans … Nothing helped. The fields were drying up and the trees withering. For a skin of water one would buy a Karakul sheep. Caravans, which before stopped here and there, now passed by in a hurry, as if an epidemic had befallen this land. The bazaars grew deserted; merchants closed their shops.

Yusupov, who excavated the former oases of the Uzboj, claims that there is a great disorder among the objects found there. People just abandoned everything they had. Children abandoned their toys; women abandoned their pots. They must have been seized with panic, hysteria, fear. No doubt the most fantastic rumors circulated. Perhaps prophets and fortune-tellers appeared. People felt the band of the desert tightening around them; the sand was whistling at their door.

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