Summer in Samarkand, Part II

Composite Camel With Attendant, 16th century, Safavid Period, from present-day Uzbekistan, Gouache on Paper, 6 × 8". Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource.

If i didn’t really resist the circumstances that pushed me to Uzbekistan that summer, it was because I believed that out-of-the-way places and literatures are never wasted on writers. But I never did write about Samarkand, not for many years.

Since I didn’t write about Samarkand, I didn’t think about it much either. I was reminded of this anomalous episode only some years later, when I was reading “Onegin’s Journey,” the excised chapter of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, intended to bridge the three years that pass between chapters 7 and 8—three fatal years during which Onegin wanders around Russia and the Caucasus, and Tatiana transforms into a Moscow grande dame. Whatever Pushkin wrote in the first draft of “Onegin’s Journey,” he didn’t like it—he burned the manuscript, publishing some fragments only in later editions of Onegin, as a footnote or appendix. All that anyone really knows about these fragments is that Pushkin rewrote them in 1829, upon returning from his own journey to the Caucasus, the subject of his travelogue Journey to Arzrum. Pushkin had last been to the south at 21, when he wrote Prisoner of the Caucasus, and nothing was the same: “Whatever feelings I harbored then—no longer exist. They all either passed or changed.” Pushkin turned 30 on that second trip.


If there is one thing I heard a thousand times in Samarkand, it was how they have the greatest bread in Uzbekistan because of their amazingly clean water and air. The famous bread of Samarkand comes in round, flat loaves, known in Russian as lepyoshka. As legend has it, the Emir of Bukhara once summoned the best baker of Samarkand to bake him some Samarkand bread. The baker arrived in Bukhara, bringing his own flour and water and firewood, and baked some Samarkand-style bread. But, according to some kind of international bread arbiter, it didn’t taste the same as the bread actually in Samarkand. The Emir decided to have the baker executed, pausing only to ask if he had anything to say in his own defense. “Well,” the baker replied, “there isn’t any Samarkand air here, to leaven the bread.”

The Emir was so impressed by these words that he spared the baker’s life, which you would think was a story about the baker’s cleverness, rather than about any actual properties of the Samarkand air. But that’s how this story was cited: “Even all the way back then, Samarkand was famous for its clean air and water . . .”

Instead of relying on one of the abstract or inedible representations of “bread” so popular in other parts of the world, the Samarkand bread sellers used, as signage, an actual lepyoshka hammered to a board with a large iron nail, like the body of Christ. Looking at those signs was like witnessing the first glimmerings of abstract thought. How is a loaf of bread nailed to a board different from a loaf of bread in a store window at an unmarked bakery? Both indicate the sale of bread . . . but you can actually buy and eat the bread that you see in a bakery window. In Samarkand, the bread has been sacrificed—rendered inedible, by being nailed to a board and hung out all day, or maybe for multiple days, in the sun—in the name of signification.

My introduction to the lepyoshka of Samarkand took place on that first evening at my host mother Gulya’s house. I was just back from my first meeting at the university with Vice-Rector Safarov and my future language teacher Muzaffar. I was so tired I could barely walk. I thought Adam would be asleep, but found him in the dining room, which was covered with Bukhara-style carpets, with long ghostly gauze curtains floating in front of the window.

He was sitting in a fake Louis XV chair at a long Louis XV table, solving chess problems. The sun was setting outside and orange light filled the room, bouncing off the mirrored walls and the crystal chandelier.

“You’re awake!” I said.

“I waited for you,” said Adam.

We stumbled into the next room and collapsed onto the bed. In my dream, the poor ward was trying to move Jane Fairfax’s piano. “Emma! Emma!” shouted the ward, but the piano was still falling down the stairs, falling and continuing to fall, making a terrible racket. Gulya was rapping on the window. “Emma!” she called. “Em-ma!” I staggered out of bed and fumbled with the window latch. The sky outside was a deep, liquid blue. “Emma, dinner!” Gulya said. She was standing outside the window, just below eye level. Her features looked exaggerated, cartoonish; the black-outlined eyes, the cartoonishly mouth-shaped mouth.

“Thank you very much,” I said, “but I think we need to sleep some more. I think we need to sleep until the morning.”

We had a conversation then, which seemed to last an incredibly long time, about how Gulya had cooked a whole dinner for us, and how my “husband” would wake up in the night and become very angry when he learned that I had kept dinner a secret from him.

“Wake him up,” Gulya suggested, with steely playfulness. “Go on, Emma, wake him up.”

I woke Adam up. He gazed at me with sleep-clouded eyes. “I think the easiest thing to do would be to just go eat dinner,” he said.

Clutching each other’s hands, we trudged across the courtyard to the annex kitchen where we were to eat all our meals: a narrow room with gas burners, a long table, a row of cabinets, and a refrigerator. The refrigerator was unplugged most of the time, to save electricity. Gulya handed us two enormous bowls of borscht, redolent of mutton and covered by a thin film of orange grease.

“This looks great,” Adam said in a woolly, gentle voice. The kind of person who could eat anything at any time, Adam once ate one thousand dumplings in one week, just to make some kind of a point.

I ate a piece of Samarkand bread and drank cup after cup of bitter green tea, while fielding Gulya’s questions about our fictional wedding. We had been instructed to tell her that we were married. Conveniently enough, we already owned platinum wedding bands—we had bought them two years earlier, as engagement rings. (We liked the idea of two identical rings better than the idea of one ring for me—this way we were exactly the same.) We had managed to afford them even on our tiny savings, thanks to Adam’s clever investments in Irish banks and especially in some Mexican corn-processing plants, whose stock had skyrocketed because of an unexpected US subsidy for ethanol production. I had stopped wearing mine after a few months. It started giving me a rash, which I interpreted as a hysterical symptom, because it said online that platinum was the world’s most hypoallergenic metal. Later it turned out that the rash was really caused by dishwashing detergent getting trapped under the ring, which was slightly too big. But it also turned out Adam’s and my terrible love for each other didn’t make us happy. To the contrary, it made him anxious and overprotective, and it made me sad.

Nonetheless we were wearing the rings again now, and Adam had already finished his borscht, whereas I had managed only a few spoonfuls.

“You don’t have to eat it, dear thing,” he told me. When Gulya wasn’t looking, we traded bowls and he ate all of my borscht too.

Gulya wanted to know when and where the wedding had taken place, how many guests had attended, what kind of a hat I had worn. I told her that we had had a small wedding, one and a half years ago, on a boat, in Canada.

“Where did you spend your honeymoon?” Gulya asked.

“On the boat,” I said.

After dinner we rushed back to bed. I was too wound up to fall asleep and started to read. Gradually I became aware of Adam rolling and kicking beside me, apparently in his sleep. He suddenly opened his eyes and said, “Black king to e7.” Closing his eyes, he then added, “Black knight to j4.”

I put down my novel and picked up the book of chess problems that lay next to his pillow.

“There is no j4,” I said, worried. “It only goes up to h.”

“Oh, I’m really sorry,” Adam said. Eyes still closed, he had furrowed his brow, and looked really sorry. “I thought it was one of those times when the knight goes outside, like to Kazakhstan.”

I touched his forehead. It was cold and clammy. “Are you feeling OK?” I asked.

“Oh no my friend,” he said apologetically, “I’m really sick.” A moment later he sat up, put on his sweatpants, and shuffled out the door and into the courtyard.

He came back a few minutes later and climbed into bed. His skin was an indescribable color. My heart began to pound. Why, why had I let him eat that borscht? What if his mother found out? She already disliked me, Adam’s mother. I heard Irina Paperno’s voice in my head: “Four thousand dollars for the body bag to send you home.” Pulling on some shorts, I went out into the courtyard to look for Gulya.

Gulya said it was nothing to worry about. Foreigners always got sick. “Why aren’t you sick?” she asked, suddenly looking suspicious.

She put some water to boil, brewed a pot of tea, and took from a shelf a tin box, from which she produced various mysterious items: a resinous amber log, and a pink glassy rock. With a sharp knife, she shaved pieces off these presumably medicinal objects, and dissolved them in the tea.

Back in our room, Adam had fallen asleep. I struggled to lift him to a sitting position. His T-shirt was soaked through. It was like trying to pull a bear cub out of a river.

The Judgment of Two Languages

All happy families are alike; all unhappy families are unhappy after their own fashion. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1925. Tajikistan became its own SSR in 1929. Samarkand, a predominantly Tajik city, remained in Uzbekistan.

Nobody from ACTR mentioned to me that half the Samarkand population spoke Tajik, a form of Farsi grammatically unrelated, except by borrowing, to the Turkic languages. Furthermore, my host family was actually Tajik. Gulya and her 19-year-old son Inom knew Uzbek, from spending vacations with Gulya’s aunt in the Fergana Valley—now the center of Uzbekistan’s Islamist underground, where an average of two dead bodies per month turn up in the canals. President Karimov had recently taken the precaution of placing land mines in Fergana, all along what he said was the Tajik border, except that nobody knew where exactly the border was, so every few weeks some civilian or other would be blown up by a land mine. Nobody vacationed in Fergana anymore. At home, Gulya and Inom spoke only Russian and Tajik—usually Russian. Out of an obscure pan-Turkic guilt I did sometimes try speaking Uzbek with Gulya, but she would switch to Russian almost immediately, pointing out that we would understand each other better. Like most people, she was more interested in communicating her own thoughts and feelings than in helping to keep alight the flame of Eastern Chagatai languages.

Every morning at seven-thirty I walked to the university to pursue my study of Uzbek. Gulya’s street was still quiet and deserted. A few times I saw a chicken walking around importantly, like some kind of regional manager. There was a police station at the corner of the main road. Large numbers of police officers sat on benches in a yard, talking loudly and looking bored. All along Sharof Rashidov Street, old men in skullcaps sat at card tables, selling lottery tickets and single cigarettes. The proprietors of teahouses hosed down the sidewalks, waking up the stray dogs.

Despite these and other interesting sights, I spent most of the walk staring at the ground, trying not to fall into the yawning chasms that appeared every few blocks. The people of Samarkand probably weren’t thrilled to have all these yawning chasms in their sidewalks, but they made the most of them by using them to incinerate their household garbage. Newspapers, watermelon rinds, and other items smoldered obscurely in the depths. Often, the only way to traverse the yawning chasms of burning garbage was via wooden or metal beams. I was impressed by the agility with which the Russian girls in particular trotted across these makeshift bridges in their high-heeled sandals, with their somehow empty facial expressions—so unlike my own facial expression which, I felt, probably conveyed a kind of deep literary trepidation.

The last part of the walk passed through a past or future construction site, a vast expanse of orange clayey soil and crumbly rocks. Walking on this terrain gave you the hopeless feeling of running in a dream. Afterwards you knew it had been real because your shoes were orange. Eventually the orange clay gave way to sparse grass, and there was my destination: “the nine-story building,” the biggest building in the university. A janitor at this building, with whom I later struck up a friendship, gave me his mailing address as “Samarkand University, nine-story building, janitor Habib.” “That’s how I get most of my mail,” he explained.

In the morning, the lobby of the nine-story building was filled with serious young people. The girls wore bright red lipstick and brilliantly colored ankle-length dresses, the boys light shirts, dark pants, and pointy-toed shoes. When they smiled, their gold teeth glinted in the sunlight. Uniformed guards at the door checked your pass and made you walk through a metal detector, which didn’t appear to be plugged into anything.

The elevator was always broken, so I walked up to the fifth floor where I met my language teacher, Muzaffar, a depressed philosophy graduate student specializing in the Marburg school of neo-Kantians. Muzaffar’s Uzbek language teaching materials consisted of a 1973 Soviet textbook that presented the Uzbek language exclusively through the lens of cotton production. It was a valuable lesson in how monomania structures the world. The unit about the months and seasons was about the months and seasons in which cotton was sown or harvested. The unit about families was about the roles played by different family members in the production of cotton.

“Rustam works in a cotton mill all year round, but his younger sister Nargiza is still a student,” I read. “She picks cotton only in the summer, with the other students.”

“Did you understand?” Muzaffar asked.

“I did.”

Muzaffar nodded. “I thought so.”

We finished the textbook in two weeks. The basic grammar was nearly the same as in Turkish, and so was some of the vocabulary, although the usage was sometimes different. The word it, for example, means “dog” in both Uzbek and Turkish—but whereas in Uzbek it just means a regular dog, in Turkish it means a contemptible lowdown cur. As a Turkish person in Uzbekistan, one was always wondering why the Uzbeks spoke so insultingly about their dogs. Conversely, the standard Turkish future-tense verb ending exists in Uzbek, and is also a future-tense ending, but has a pompous or literary-heroic connotation. “You can use it to say, President Karimov will cover his nation in glory,” Muzaffar explained, “but not to say that Muzaffar will drive to Tashkent to pick up Safarov’s friend’s visa.” (Muzaffar worked part-time as Vice-Rector Safarov’s secretary.)

Muzaffar started making up his own grammatical texts, usually featuring these recurring characters: President Karimov and poor Muzaffar. I especially liked to hear about poor Muzaffar’s troubles as a graduate student. One morning, for example, Muzaffar went to the library to get books for his dissertation. Samarkand State University had a closed-stack library, and no catalog, so you just had to write what kind of books you wanted on a request form, and hope for the best. Muzaffar turned in his request at opening time. It hadn’t been processed yet by lunch, and the library was closed for an hour and a half. After lunch the librarian disappeared for several hours, at which time he was found asleep in some corner. Somebody woke up the librarian and sent him to the philosophy stacks in the basement, where he again vanished. The library closed for the day. Muzaffar had to go home with no books. Finally, two days later, he got a phone call: his books had arrived at the library. He rushed to the circulation desk and there really was a big pile of books . . . written in Arabic script. Muzaffar had to get his grandfather to read him the books. “But my grandfather isn’t interested in philosophy—he would read to me only after I spent all Saturday pulling weeds from his cabbage garden.”

Things were easier for me, though not by much. Studying Uzbek in Samarkand sometimes felt like studying a language invented by a secret cabal in a story by Borges. In fact, “Uzbekness” and Uzbek language were largely invented by a cabal of Soviet academicians.

The term Uzbek dates to the fourteenth or fifteenth century, when it was used to designate a loose confederation of nomadic Turkic-Mongolian tribes in Central Asia: a region where people primarily identified themselves by their tribes or clans, rather than by any national or “ethnogenetic” supergroups. In the nineteenth century, Russians started colonizing Central Asia to gain leverage against British India, initiating a century-long strategic rivalry marked by proxy wars, puppet khans, and double agents. The British called this conflict “The Great Game,” but no Russian people called it that. In 1867, Russia established the Russian Turkestan Governor-Generalship, with its administrative capital in Tashkent. When approached by skeptical Muslim envoys, the Russian Governor-General would show them an impressive document bound in gold: an enumeration of his plenary powers. Uzbeks called him the “semi-tsar.”

As of 1917, there was no standard written or spoken language called Uzbek. There was just a continuum of uncodified Turkic dialects, many of them mutually incomprehensible. There was a common literary language, Chagatai Turkish, but it was unknown to most “Uzbeks,” whose estimated rate of literacy was 2 percent. In 1921, a Language and Orthography Congress met in Tashkent, with the aim of standardizing the region’s vernaculars, as well as their varying Arabic orthographies.

Just five years later, a new commission was appointed to replace the standardized Arabic script with a Latin alphabet. There was much discord, in this All-Union Central Committee of the New Turkic Alphabet, between the Caucasian and Central Asian Turkidic representatives, particularly over the inclusion of uppercase letters, which did not exist in Arabic. While the Azeris felt that capital letters were universal and beautiful, as well as necessary for students of mathematics, chemistry, and foreign languages, the Uzbeks countered that the language reforms were targeted, not at mathematicians, but at the illiterate masses, for whom an extra form of each letter was a “superfluous luxury.” Though the Central Asians lost this debate, and were eventually forced to accept uppercase, a concession was won by the poet Fitrat: capital letters would look just like lowercase letters, only bigger. Fitrat and the other Turkic “nationalists” also succeeded in preserving vowel harmony in the new alphabet, which had nine different vowels (designated by diacritics).1

These vowels perished in the Stalin years. In the 1940s and ’50s, each Central Asian SSR was outfitted with its own local variant of Cyrillic orthography. The Turkic languages were closer than ever to Russian—and further than ever from each other. The poet Fitrat was arrested and convicted of “bourgeois nationalism” and espionage. He was shot in 1938. Vowel harmony, which Fitrat had upheld as the “iron law” of Turkic languages, was eliminated from Uzbek orthography. (To Turkish people, the near-lack of vowel harmony makes Uzbek sound harsh and toneless.)

Meanwhile, throughout the Soviet era, the state universities, the post offices, and all other government agencies operated in Russian. During perestroika, the Soviets proposed a bill declaring Uzbek the “state language,” which was supposed to be a concession to the Uzbek nationalists . . . but the bill preserved Russian as the official “language of inter-ethnic communication” and ended up infuriating the Uzbek Writers’ Union. The poet Vahidov maintained that, according to his textual analysis, the document itself had been translated into Uzbek from a Russian original; other writers determined that the bill used the word “Russian” fifty-one times, and “Uzbek” only forty-seven times. The Uzbek youth magazine Gulkhan received hundreds of angry letters. The editors wrote back, addressing their replies in Uzbek; the envelopes were all returned by the post office, with a note in Russian: “Indicate address!” The bill was modified in 1995, specifying that by September 1, 2005, the state language was to be Uzbek, written with a new Latin alphabet. It hadn’t been implemented yet when I was there.

The Soviets invented not just a language, but an entire national identity for the “Uzbek people.” Tamerlane, a.k.a. Amir Timur—historically an enemy of the real Uzbek tribes—was retroactively dubbed the founding father of Uzbek statehood. “Old Uzbek literature,” the subject I had apparently come to Samarkand to study, was said to begin with Mir Ali-Shir Navai (1441–1501), the greatest poet of Timur’s court. His name was Uzbekified as Alisher Navoi (the aristocratic title “Mir” had to be removed). Navoi was born and died in Herat, in present-day Afghanistan, and had previously been claimed as a shared patrimony by all of Chagatai literary culture. When Chagatai was renamed Old Uzbek, “Chagataism” was declared anti-Soviet. Today, modern Uzbek and Uyghur are considered to be the closest living languages to Chagatai Turkish. I’m not sure how comprehensible Chagatai is to someone who speaks Uzbek well. To me it was almost completely impenetrable. Nonetheless, every day for two hours, after my modern Uzbek language class with Muzaffar, I studied Uzbek and “Old Uzbek” literature with Dilorom Salohiy, a professor from the literature department.

Dilorom, who had doctoral degrees in both Russian and Uzbek literature, was in her early forties, with high cheekbones, olive skin, and slightly Asiatic eyes, outlined heavily in kohl. She wore small gold hoop earrings and long silk dresses printed with tiny, amazingly variegated flowers. One dress had so many amazing colors that I wrote them all down: brown, fuchsia, green, yellow, white, pink, purple, black, and orange-red. Unlike Muzaffar, Dilorom spoke perfect Russian, but she didn’t know any English at all. Her voice was soft and regretful, as if she were gently breaking you some terrible news. She often addressed me as qizim (my girl, my daughter), and told me to call her Dilorom opa (big sister, a respectful form). I had to call Muzaffar “big brother,” too, even though I don’t think he was much older than me.

Dilorom related to me the ideology of Uzbek nationhood. She spoke in Uzbek most of the time, very slowly, in her regretful voice. To my surprise, I understood most of what she said—or at least I understood something. Dilorom held Genghis Khan to be the superhuman nemesis of the Uzbek people, wrecker of the “First Uzbek Renaissance.” She told me that Genghis Khan rode a bull and didn’t wear any pants. Dilorom shook her head sorrowfully when she said this, and said that God should forgive her for talking about such things to me. “But, he didn’t wear any pants.” He didn’t have the technology to make swords, so he carried a wooden stick.

In the next weeks, Dilorom set out to teach me the entire history of Uzbek literature, starting with Alisher Navoi. Navoi was the first important poet to write in a Turkic language, rather than Persian. In his last known work, the Muhakamat al-lughatayn, or Judgment of Two Languages (1499), he sets out to prove mathematically the superiority of Old Uzbek, a language so rich that it had words for seventy different species of duck. Persian just had “duck.” Impoverished Persian writers had to use the same words for: a burr and a thorn; to be adorned and to be really adorned; older and younger sister; hunting and fowling; a beauty mark on a woman’s face, and a beauty mark somewhere else; deer and elands; drinking something down all at once in a refined way, and drinking slowly while savoring each drop; male, female, and infant boars.

Persian had only one word for crying; Old Uzbek had 100. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to; for being caused to sob by something; loudly crying like thunder in the clouds; crying in gasps; weeping inwardly or secretly; crying ceaselessly in a high voice; crying in hiccups; and for crying while uttering the sound hay hay. Old Uzbek had special verbs for being unable to sleep; speaking while feeding animals; being a hypocrite; gazing imploringly into a lover’s face; dispersing a crowd. It felt like being a character in a Borges story, except Borges stories are always so short, whereas life in Samarkand kept dragging obscurely on and on. In Borges stories, the different peculiar languages yielded up, in a matter of pages, some kind of interesting philosophical import. The languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlön have no nouns, and this immediately turned out to represent an extreme of Berkeleyan idealism whereby the world is perceived as a sequence of shifting shapes. The Chinese encyclopedia had different words for animals drawn with a fine camel’s-hair brush or animals who have just broken a flower vase—dramatizing, again in a very short space, the impossibility of an “analytic language” in which morphology and phonetics reflect semantics.

But in real life, what did you learn about Uzbeks when you knew their language? What did you know about Uzbekistan when you knew that Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying? I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem to bode well for my summer vacation.


In the sixteenth century there lived a religious fanatic called Mashrab, which means “wine drinker.” In fact Mashrab didn’t drink at all . . . except for the Wine of Love. Mashrab got his name when his pregnant mother went to the market, stole two grapes and ate them. The baby in her womb kicked and shouted: “Give back the price of two grapes, otherwise I’ll leave this house!” Because grapes had such a strong effect on his temperament, scholars named the unborn child Mashrab. Even in adulthood Mashrab was concerned about injustice. He was constantly giving away his clothes to poor people. As a result, he often walked around naked. He was in love with God, and at age 3 could tell by looking at a man’s shoes whether he would go to heaven or hell. Mashrab single-handedly fought society, by defecating on the king’s throne—right there in front of the odalisques. He refused to eat anything gained through labor. At difficult times he would spin with a nail between his toes with one arm in the air, until he achieved ecstasy and lost consciousness.

A great sultan wanted Mashrab to marry his daughter. Mashrab put his hand on the bride’s belly, and heard voices saying: “Father—food—water.” He explained to the Sultan that he was unable to stay home and support a baby, and then he left. On the way home he fell asleep and dreamed that his mother was rubbing his feet. When he woke up, a lion was licking his feet. This continued for three or four hours.

Mashrab loved owls, because they live in deserted places. He had an owl who was his constant companion.

“Give me one thousand houses,” the sultan once commanded this owl.

“One thousand houses? I’ll give you two thousand because they are hungry. So go take their houses.” Only Mashrab’s owl had the courage to speak candidly to the sultan about the current economic situation.

In class with Dilorom, we often read Old Uzbek verse line by line. Reading on my own, I understood about three words out of ten, which wasn’t enough to even get the most basic gist. But Dilorom provided modern Uzbek and Russian translations, so eventually I was able to form some impressions about the basic lessons of Uzbek didactic literature.

From earliest childhood, I learned, we are all slaves to desire. Desire follows a precise timetable. From birth to age 5, we desire affection and petting. From age 5 to puberty, we desire candy and sweets. From puberty to 25, we desire sex. For the next twenty years, our desires turn toward children. Only from 45 to 60 do we desire fruits of the intellect. In intellectual terms, 45 to 60 is the “cream on the milk.” (“Soon, I will be 45,” Dilorom said, with a shy smile. “I’m hoping to finish writing my book.”) After 60, we desire quietude and remembrance.

Saints alone in this world are free from the timetable of desires, which they learn to subdue. This achievement often brings with it the ability to converse with animals and ghosts. Although women can’t be saints, they may occasionally attain saintly qualities. Dilorom experienced this firsthand, after the fall of the USSR. In the 1970s, as a student, Dilorom had been at the top of her class in scientific communism, scientific atheism, and Marxism-Leninism. She had never bothered reading the Koran, the Bible, or the Talmud, which were bound to be full of empty superstitions. But one day, one of her classmates asked the professor of scientific atheism, “If these books are just full of empty superstitions, why are we discouraged from reading them? As a scientist, you should want us to read them so we will see for ourselves how empty and superstitious they are.”

“Who’s discouraging you?” said the professor, shrugging. “If you’re so curious, go ahead and take a whiff of the Opium of the People.”

Infused with the spirit of science, Dilorom and her classmates went to the library, filled out the necessary forms, and were given the Koran and the Bible. (The university library had one copy of each.) “We read parts of them,” Dilorom said, “but we lacked context. There was no commentary in those books. None of it made sense.”

I nodded, familiar with this phenomenon.

“We decided our professor was right: these books were full of superstition and nonsense. This is how we were robbed of our own enlightenment by scientific communism.”

In January 1992, Dilorom experienced a renewed curiosity about religion. She went back to the library and checked out the Talmud, the Bible, and the Koran, this time in editions with commentaries. She read each book all the way through, one after another, looking up everything she didn’t understand. She read nonstop for three months, during which she briefly acquired the saintly virtue of communicating with animals.

Unhappy Families

The housecleaning at Gulya’s was attended to every few days by Delia, a cheerful middle-aged woman with fair skin and dark hair. Bent double, she swept the entire courtyard and all the steps using a little whisk broom with no handle. Why didn’t she have a normal broom? Probably the same reason why Old Uzbek has 100 different words for crying. (“All these things are the proof of God’s conscious creation.”) Delia spoke perfect Russian, which seemed strange for an Uzbek cleaning lady; this mystery was explained when it turned out she was one of Gulya’s old high school friends. (“I help her out,” said Gulya, of her practice of hiring a school friend to clean her house.)

I learned many interesting things from Delia, for example that she and Gulya had both married alcoholics, but Delia’s alcoholic had taken all her money, whereas Gulya had managed her alcoholic well and taken all his money. This seemed strange, since Gulya had told us that her husband was in California studying to be a yogi.

“California? Oh no, he lives just two streets away from here—I saw him last week.” Delia thought a moment. “Maybe he was in a bar called ‘California’?”

Delia’s version of the story was supported, some five weeks into our stay, by the reappearance of the missing yogi. Sharif, a familiar Soviet physical type, had a shiny bald head, muscular shoulders, and a paunch; he seemed not to have spent any time in California, which he thought shared a border with New York. On the other hand, he was always trying to make us listen to some cassette recordings of a Swedish yogi choir, which he said could produce trances. His dominant characteristic was the incredibly irritating habit of repeating the same sentence over and over, for inconceivably long periods of time. One afternoon when Adam and I were sitting in the courtyard drinking tea, for example, Sharif came out with a stale lepyoshka and proceeded to tell us at least thirty times that Uzbeks love to tear up lepyoshka, put it in their tea, and call it duck soup.

“Have some of our Uzbek ‘duck soup.’ We love ‘duck soup’ here. This ‘duck soup’ is the best kind of soup—filling, inexpensive, and above all delicious. Uzbek people love to eat delicious ‘duck soup.’ We call it ‘duck soup,’ when we put lepyoshka in tea.” In desperation I ate an entire bowl of the tea-soaked bread, hoping it would make him stop. “You ate our ‘duck soup,’ eh? So you love our ‘duck soup,’ do you?” He himself didn’t eat any “duck soup.”

Another statement Sharif liked to repeat was that Satan wasn’t outside us, in the world, but within us. “You think Satan is out there” (pointing in the bushes); “but Satan is everywhere—above all, inside us!” (pointing at his stomach).

“What’s wrong with his stomach?” Adam asked, looking interested.

“He thinks Satan lives there.”

“Tell him!” Sharif urged me. “Tell your husband! Satan is everywhere!”

“He wants me to tell you that Satan is everywhere, including
his stomach.”

Adam narrowed his eyes, assessing Sharif’s stomach.

One day the neighborhood water was shut off. Gulya sent Inom and Adam to get water from a fountain one kilometer away. Inom skulked off somewhere, so Adam carried the household’s water all by himself. When I got back from class, Sharif was sitting shirtless in a plastic chair in the courtyard. He started to explain to me that Uzbeks can live without electricity or fire, but they can’t live without water, because water is an essential human need for Uzbek people. That’s why they can’t live without water. Then, when Adam came in lugging three enormous jugs of water: “Do you see what we have to do in Uzbekistan?” Sharif demanded. “We have to carry water, because sometimes our water doesn’t come to our house, and we can’t live without it.” This train of thought, like so many others, eventually led us back to the subject of Satan being everywhere. “Not somewhere out there—but inside every one of us!” Sharif shouted, pointing at his stomach, as Adam came out of the kitchen after depositing the water. “What’s the matter?” Adam said casually. “Satan in his stomach again?”

Often, Adam was enlisted to babysit Shirin. He would “swim” with her in the “pool”: a square stone basin in the middle of the courtyard, filled three feet deep with tepid green water. I went in with them once—the bottom of the pool was completely covered with warm alginous vegetation. Long strings of it oozed between your toes and stuck to your calves. Adam claimed to find it kind of relaxing. He and Shirin would splash around for hours, playing a game they had invented about capitalism. Gulya would come out every now and then and exclaim: “How fine it is to bathe in the pool!”

My household responsibility was to help Inom with his English lessons.

“A book is at table,” Inom said.

“Right, almost . . . the book is on the table.”

“Uh-huh, right . . . you know Emma, it’s hard for me to take En-
glish seriously, since I already speak three languages: Tajik, Russian, and Uzbek. English is much easier and simpler than these languages, so I can’t take it seriously.”

Soon Inom’s failure to practice English with me had been incorporated into Gulya’s ongoing litany against her son. “There’s an American right here in our house, and you won’t be bothered to talk English with her! You care nothing about your future! All you care about is washing your car, you no-good muzhik!”

After I left for class every morning, Gulya and Inom reportedly started the day off with a screaming argument. Once they had worn themselves out, they got into Inom’s car and drove to Gulya’s travel agency, where she processed visas and organized tours for foreigners. One day Gulya got so mad at Inom that she picked up a brick from the ground and threw it at him, shrieking “Muzhik! Muzhik!” I didn’t believe Adam at first when he told me about it, but he showed me the broken brick in the courtyard, where it had shattered against a wall.

While I was at the university, Adam walked to the city to buy mineral water, which he hid under the bed or in our suitcases—we couldn’t leave bottled water in the refrigerator or even in plain sight in our room, because Gulya would grandly thank us for buying water and then drink it all. Every few days Adam changed dollars for sum. Without speaking any Uzbek or Russian, he somehow got a much better rate than the exchange offices, and better too than the discount rate that Gulya offered us. In his free time, he read and annotated the ACTR regional guide for Uzbekistan, underlining various interesting phrases: “several hostage-taking incidents in the Kyrgyz Republic”; “certificates verifying legal conversion of foreign currency”; “South Korea: 14 percent”; “purchasing power parity: $2,400”; “Islamic insurgents based in Tajikistan”; “generally valid for four years with multiple entries”; “only boiled water”; “only sporadically enforced.” Strangest of all, Adam also occupied himself by writing poetry—I found several poems scribbled on the back of the regional guide, one about baseball, another about DNA.

Around sunset every day, when the temperatures began to drop slightly, Adam went to play in a regular soccer game he had found at a decrepit stadium nearby (called, like all Soviet stadiums, Dynamo). I went with him a couple of times to use the track, which consisted of irregular rubberized panels laid on top of a bed of sand and gravel. Some of the panels overlapped, creating little ledges on which it was easy to trip. Other panels were separated by chasms in which one might twist one’s ankle. It was by far the worst track I have ever seen in my life. The enclosed soccer field was also riddled with holes and burrows, in which unknown small creatures lived out their mysterious existences. As the sky grew darker, the soccer players—mostly high school students—twisted their ankles with increasing frequency. “See you later, kids!” they would shout bravely to their teammates, and hobble off the field.

Adam was befriended by one of his teammates, a 16-year-old Uzbek boy called Shurik, who wanted to join the CIA when he grew up. One night Shurik invited us to dinner. His whole family—7-year-old identical twin sisters, a grandfather, and a baby—were sitting on pillows at a low table in a courtyard one quarter the size of Gulya’s. The parents came out of a tiny wooden lean-to with a huge pot of plov, fragrant with saffron, lamb, and dried apricots. The grandfather took a great liking to Adam and gave him a history book in Uzbek—“You can translate it for him,” he told me. He wrote a completely illegible inscription on the flyleaf, possibly in Arabic script.

When we came back, Gulya was furious. We weren’t allowed to go out after dark unless someone from the university had cleared it with her first. “You can’t just walk out of here and eat with strangers!”

“But it wasn’t a stranger, it was Adam’s friend.”

“Those kinds of friends will drug you and cut you to pieces and eat you!” Gulya said. She even had a social worker called Matluba call us on the phone. “Don’t go out after dark,” Matluba said. “Your mother worries about you. She loves you very much.”

Eventually we stopped trying to leave the house in the evenings.

Gulya’s favorite activities included: showing us photo albums of all the communist prizes she had won in different countries (“I’ve been to every country in the world, except for Africa, Japan, Brazil, and America”); and painting my eyebrows together using henna, so I had a unibrow. “You really should pay more attention to your appearance,” she told me, surveying her handiwork with satisfaction.

During our first week in Samarkand, Gulya gave a party for her school friends (minus Delia, for whom they all felt very sorry). They sat in the courtyard listening to Tajik pop music, draining vodka toasts to their beautiful friendship. To be polite, I drank a glass of vodka and even recited a toast about how great it was that Gulya had such great friends. This was a big mistake, because after that they wanted me to drink vodka and recite toasts with them every time they had a party, which was two or three times a week. This was not compatible with my program of study of the great Uzbek language.

“I have to do my homework,” I would say.

“You’ll learn more from us than from studying those books—isn’t that right, Betty?”

“And how!” agreed the one called Betty.

One day Gulya was waiting for me when I got back from the university. “Emma, you have to go back to the university. It’s very important. It’s about your bill. Inom will drive you.” I didn’t want to go—I had already paid the $4,000 for my body bag. But Inom opened the door of his Opel and Gulya started shrieking, “Emma, Emma, get in the car!”

I got in the car. Inom drove me to the university where I was met by the social worker, Matluba, who told me that, after my tuition had been divided up among all the necessary parties, $100 was left over.

“It’s a lot of money—your money,” she said. “You can decide what to do with it. You can give it to Vice-Rector Safarov, as thanks for using the university facilities, or to Gulya, who has been your host and your mother for all this time . . .”

Matluba said that Vice-Rector Safarov had already received $1,000 from my tuition, and she thought it was enough. But Gulya had received only $2,000 for our room and board. “Maybe you should give the money to her,” Matluba suggested.

“What about Muzaffar and Dilorom?” I asked.

“They have already been paid. They received $150!”

I stared at her. “Do you mean $1,500?”

Matluba smiled pityingly. “$1,500—what for? You didn’t stay at their house. You met them in Safarov’s department.”

In short, as payment for meeting with me five days a week for two months, Muzaffar and Dilorom had received $75 each. I asked for the $100 to be divided between them.

“You really don’t want to give this money to Gulya? Did she do something to offend you?”

Matluba drove me back to Gulya’s house in a Daewoo hatchback. The two women sat a while talking in the kitchen, but I don’t know
what they said.

I have never been so hungry in my life as I was in Samarkand. I remember lying across the bed with Adam, fantasizing about how when we went back to Mountain View, we could just walk across the street to the twenty-four-hour Safeway and buy anything we wanted. When we first moved to Mountain View, I used to think it was depressing to look out the window and see a gigantic Safeway parking lot, but that was before I spent any time in the “Fourth Paradise.”

Breakfast consisted of “soft-boiled” eggs, dipped briefly in warm (not boiling) water. I ate jam instead. The jam came from a vat under the sink; when Gulya lifted its oilcloth cover, you could see a Conference of Ants roving over the surface of the jam, probably looking for their great Sufi ant leader.

Our relationship with Gulya reached a new level of unspoken antagonism the day Adam discovered that there was another kitchen in the other wing of the house, where the jam container had a rubberized lid, and no ants—she only gave us the jam with ants. In the absence of any visible jam shortage, this behavior was difficult to understand. Adam said it was characteristic of the Tajik communist elite. In a closet next to the secret kitchen, Adam had also discovered a secret flushing toilet. The toilet in the main bathroom was broken, and Gulya said the man who fixed toilets was on vacation, so Adam and I had to use the “Uzbek-style” toilet. When you lifted the wooden cover over the Uzbek-style toilet, a dense black cloud of flies buzzed out in your face; sometimes the Uzbek-style toilet clogged, and then you had to poke in it with a big pointed stick. Our feelings were very hurt when we learned that we were the only ones who had to use this toilet.

When I came back from class every day at noon, we had lunch: kholodets, a cold Ukrainian meat jelly, which Gulya prepared in unfathomable quantities. I’m not a huge kholodets fan, and her particular recipe came out not only lumpy, but also full of tiny bones. Adam ate it anyway. I ate bread and raw tomatoes. After lunch, we took turns hosing each other’s heads with the garden hose, and walked to the city. To cool off, we bought small permafrost-hard ice cream sandwiches, of Russian manufacture, from a tiny boy called Elbek whose father owned the tobacco store. You could see that Elbek was really proud of the big steel freezer where they kept the ice cream. When we were leaving Samarkand, we tried to give Elbek a gift—we couldn’t find anything to buy, so we just gave him $20. He looked crestfallen. He didn’t want any money. His father came outside, and he also wouldn’t take the $20.

“We like your son so much,” I explained. “Can we at least buy him an ice cream?”

After some negotiation, Elbek’s father let us buy him a small bottle of orange Fanta. Then he gave us each a small bottle of orange Fanta,
for free.

We ate our ice cream as fast as we could, before it started to melt; then we rushed to Gorky park, to ride the ancient, clattering Ferris wheel. The Ferris wheel was operated by a gloomy, taciturn Turkish guy from Trabzon. Because he missed the Black Sea so much, he let us ride around three times per ticket. When the wheel paused at the top, you could feel a faint, pleasant breeze, which sometimes even rocked the seat and produced a loud braying.

In the evenings we watched a lot of TV: Bollywood movies, Russian variety shows, Kazakh war epics, Uzbek music videos. One video showed an overwrought young man in a car, singing a ballad, while purposefully parking the car in a bush. “Why did he park his car in that bush?”
you initially wondered. Then you saw the singer lying on the ground with blood coming out of his nose, amid the flashing lights of ambulances, and you realized that he was supposed to have crashed his car into a tree and died.

The World Cup was still on—incredibly, the same contest whose beginnings we had seen in California. The Turkish national team amazed everyone by advancing to the semifinals. The match against Brazil was broadcasted on the Uzbek national channel, in a dubbed
Russian telecast. I was dismayed and even somewhat offended to see that all the Uzbek people were rooting for Brazil. “Show me the Brazilian girl who came here to learn about your stupid national literature,” I remember thinking.

As the Brazilian soccer team defeated the team of my ancestral homeland 1-0, and people in the streets of Samarkand shouted “Ronaldo! Ronaldinho!” I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. It’s difficult to articulate, but I had somehow thought of knowledge as a network of connections—connections that somehow preserve and safeguard the memory of what they are connecting. But the truth is that it’s only people who remember things—words and ideas have no memory. In a historical-lexicographical sense, the Uzbek language really does overlap with both Turkish and Russian . . . but that doesn’t mean that, when you learn Uzbek, you learn anything about the relationship between Turkish and Russian. All you’re learning is a bunch of words.

The upshot is that you can’t travel to some faraway location and expect it to reconcile “who” you are with “what” you are, or where you come from with what you like. The fact that Uzbek soccer fans felt no connection to the Turkish national team was one of many signs that Uzbekistan wasn’t a middle-point on some continuum between Turkishness and Russianness. Uzbekistan was more like a worse-off Turkey, with an even more depressing national literature. I was always making fun of Orhan Pamuk, but even I could see that if Orhan Pamuk were somehow magically ceded over to the Uzbeks, they would have cause for a national holiday.


After we finished the cotton language book, Muzaffar taught me about important parts of Uzbek culture. One day we learned about watermelons. Muzaffar taught me a folk expression: “The watermelon fell out of its armchair.” “Can you guess what it means?” he asked.

I thought about it. “A usurper will always eventually be deposed?”


It turned out that the Turkish word for “armchair” is the Uzbek word for “armpit,” so the expression actually meant “The watermelon fell out from under his arm,” and was used to denote a great disillusionment. “Muzaffar is walking back from the market, proud of his watermelon,” Muzaffar explained. “And all of a sudden something happens . . . he isn’t proud anymore.”

Muzaffar tried to teach me to buy a watermelon at the market.
“In my family,” he explained, “Muzaffar is famous for always buying the worst watermelon. ‘Send Muzaffar,’ they say. ‘He will bring us a
big round beautiful melon and eating it will be like chewing on some old dry grass.’”

Muzaffar said that his grandfather chose the best watermelons, which were often ugly in appearance, and which he identified by holding them up to his ear and listening to them “talk.” Muzaffar had tried listening to watermelons, but he never heard anything. He had tried deliberately buying ugly melons, but then he ended up with a melon that was not only pale, dry, and tasteless, but also ugly.

Some people said a watermelon should be heavy and dense, others that it should be large and light. So, that was no help. A good watermelon had to have an orange spot, to show where it had sat in the sun, and a dry belly button, to show that the vine had broken naturally. When you tapped it with your right hand, it had to resonate against your left hand. As to the rind, the important thing wasn’t the color itself, but the contrast between the different colors. Muzaffar and I kept planning to go to the market together, but he had too much work. Eventually he said I should go and buy a watermelon by myself, but he had impressed upon me so seriously that they would try to sell me the worst watermelon and overcharge me for it that I got demoralized and never went.

One afternoon, to make up for not taking me watermelon shopping, Muzaffar invited me to his English translation workshop. The workshop was taught by a wiry, incredibly energetic, mosquito-like American in his thirties, wearing a goatee and probably the single oldest and most tattered T-shirt I have ever seen being used as clothing. The class was collaborating on an Uzbek translation of Maupassant’s “Le Petit,” working from a nonsensical English edition. When the cuckolded widow erupts at the nursemaid, “Dehors, va-t’en!” is was rendered into the great living English language as: “Done with you!” Nine Uzbek graduate students debated for half an hour how to translate the English phrase “Done with you!”

Muzaffar told me that the Uzbeks are basically empiricists, and believe only what they have seen themselves. For example, the Americans said they had sent a man to the moon. The Russians said those pictures were staged: that “weightless” American flag was nothing but a wooden board. “But we Uzbeks, we don’t get into these ideological debates. We keep an open mind. We don’t know if there was a man on the moon, or if there wasn’t a man on the moon. We weren’t there!”

Muzaffar started assigning me compositions as homework. These compositions took me literally hours to write. I wrote a composition about Istanbul, and another one about corn bread. I wrote a satirical dialogue between two frogs on the subject of a water outage. Another composition was supposed to use the special vocabulary that Uzbek people use to summon or dismiss animals. (Turkish has it too: to call a dog, you say “Hav!” and to make it go away you say “Hosht!”) I wrote a composition based on Kisht, the word Uzbek people use to repel birds. It was written from the perspective of a farmer who found a strange bird ripping up his orange trees, singing a strange song that made him incredibly sick. It turned out it was a qaqnus bird, but the farmer didn’t want a qaqnus bird ripping up his orange trees, so he told it “Kisht” and it went away.

“Today we’re going to talk about love,” Muzaffar said.

“OK,” I said.

“Love is a difficult condition . . .”

Muzaffar had fallen in love once, with a Bulgarian girl whom he met in Germany. He was at Heidelberg studying Kant. They had spent every minute together. He told her that if she loved him, she would quit smoking. She said that love and smoking were completely unrelated.

“We came from two different worlds,” Muzaffar concluded.

Muzaffar still dreamed of finishing his doctorate abroad, in Germany or the United States. I thought this was a great idea so, for one of my compositions, I explained in great detail, in Uzbek, how to apply to the comp lit and philosophy departments at Stanford, stressing the importance of the statement of purpose.

“This is interesting,” Muzaffar said cautiously, crossing out all the wrong verb tenses in pencil.

“Last night I had a funny adventure,” Muzaffar said. After dinner, his parents had piled the entire family into the car and told Muzaffar to drive. They said it was to get some medicine for his father, which was obviously untrue since the pharmacy had been closed for hours. They gave directions and he drove, and eventually found himself on a dark residential street, near the house of some people his parents knew.

“Are we visiting the Buranovs at this hour?” Muzaffar asked.

“No,” they said. “Just park the car . . . not here under the lamp—better under that tree . . .”

Well, it turned out that Muzaffar’s parents had once asked him what he thought of the Buranovs’ daughter; to which he had replied, “How do I know what to think, I’ve never seen her.” Muzaffar himself had no recollection of this exchange but now he found himself in a parked car on her street, where the entire family proceeded to sit for two hours, watching for the Buranov girl.

“I was so scared. What if she came outside and saw us—my entire family sitting outside her house in a dark car? She would think we were criminals. Once I thought I heard her coming and I was really nervous, but it was only a cat. I think it was very funny for my sisters. We sat in the car for two hours and my sisters made fun of me this whole time.”

“So you still haven’t seen her?”

“No—we have to go back! On Thursday!”

We both burst out laughing, but after a moment Muzaffar looked serious. “My parents think I’ve been a student long enough,” he said. “I think they want to say, to the student Muzaffar: ‘Done with you!’”


As England is a network of locations where Queen Elizabeth once slept, so is Uzbekistan a network of locations where Timur once wished to be buried. It seems that the great Amir never passed a nice sunny patch without measuring it for the capacity of an eternal resting place. In Shahrisabz, where Timur was born—I am told the name is Persian for Green City, although in Turkish it sounds more like City of Vegetables—he went so far as to construct a dynastic crypt. The crypt was built to house Timur’s son Jahangir, after his untimely death at age 20; it was big enough to fit the whole family. We made a day trip there one weekend, bringing Adam’s little friend Shurik. The crypt was called Dar-al Siyadat, or the Repository of Power, and was crowned by a conical dome of vaguely organic, beehive-like appearance. Nearby stood the ruins of Aqsaray, Timur’s summer palace, of which nothing remained but a colossal vaulted entranceway, whose geometrically patterned tiles reportedly spelled the message: “If you challenge our power—look at our buildings!” It was sad. The palace had been destroyed in the sixteenth century by Uzbek nomads—the ones who were always destroying the Timurids’ stuff. Today the Uzbeks thought of the Timurids as their ancestors, and came to look at the ruins. Stark, vertical, out of place, the walls shimmered in the hot still afternoon.

Walking back to the bus stop, we crossed a concrete footbridge where two old men in doppis were sitting on crates. One of them jumped up and announced that we had to buy admission tickets. This often happened in Uzbekistan: old men would turn up from nowhere and make you buy tickets. The tickets were marked “Historical Site,” and came in four denominations: regular Uzbek, reduced Uzbek, regular foreigner, and reduced foreigner. “Keep your tickets, uncle,” said Shurik. “We don’t want to see any historical site.”

“But you already saw the historical site—the whole city is a historical site!”

Shurik, who had been looking more and more beleaguered as the afternoon wore on, looked around incredulously. “I don’t see any historical site—just some broken walls.”

“Of course they’re broken—they’re six hundred years old! What do you expect a historical site to look like?”

“Like the Registan in Samarkand,” Shurik said. “It’s not broken, and you can look at it for free.”


I hurriedly gave the old man the money for three tickets. “A very interesting city,” I said.

“But I didn’t think it was interesting,” Shurik objected.

The old man glowered at him for a minute before shrugging his shoulders. “What does a donkey understand about fruit compote!” he grumbled, handing me back one of the bills.

The Soviet part of the city had an internet lounge, where Adam and I reported once a week to notify our parents that we were still alive. The hot, stuffy, humid space was jam-packed with teenagers playing some kind of a networked computer game, manipulating avatars through gutted buildings and abandoned warehouses, shooting each other in the back with Uzis. Every now and then one of the players, shot in the back one too many times, would get up and leave; then the proprietor of the store rushed to his station and sprayed the chair and computer keyboard with a can of Sure deodorant.

I also tried to mail some postcards that Muzaffar had given me as a prize for memorizing all the monuments in Samarkand. The postcards all already had either poems or architectural descriptions printed on the back, but I squeezed messages in the margins. The main post office proved to be a cavernous hall where citizens stood in wooden stalls, filling out forms: they were paying telephone bills, collecting state pensions, or registering for different kinds of permits. I was the only person trying to mail anything. There was a special counter for mail, with no line. A middle-aged woman was sitting in the gloom behind the desk, eating something.

“Can’t mail these,” she said, glancing at the postcards, before leaning back in her chair.

“Why not?”

“You wrote all over them.”

After several minutes of debate I convinced her to sell me some envelopes and stamps. I brought the cards back in the stamped, addressed envelopes. The clerk stared at me incredulously.

“What am I supposed to do with these?”

“Well . . . I was hoping you might mail them.”

“Go put them in the box!”

The box was a massive wooden chest, covered with dust. It seem-
ed inconceivable that anything you put in it could end up in Cali-
fornia, at least not before the archaeological excavations of some
future civilization.

Past Days

In the last week of class, Dilorom taught me about the Russians. It had all started with Peter the so-called Great who, noticing that the English had colonies in India, decided that Russia had to have colonies in Central Asia. Peter availed himself of a book of governance and military strategy written by the Timurids: “So our own grandfather’s writings sold us into slavery.”

In those days Russian muzhiks bathed once a year in the Volga, without even taking off their shirts first. Central Asians steamed themselves daily in marble bathhouses—so who should have been colonizing whom? Dilorom told me about the time in 1868 when the Tsar relocated an entire Cossack village to Surkondaryo: “Now it’s yours,” the Tsar told the illiterate Cossacks, who were good for nothing but digging up mud and spoiling the riverbeds.

The Russians were very different from the English, who had sent to India not muzhiks, but aristocrats. “Things would have gone better for us if we had been colonized by the English,” Dilorom said. It was one of their idées reçues; they all thought of India as their missed fate­—even little Shurik, when he came over to borrow my Oxford pocket Russian-English dictionary. “If we had been colonized by the British, I would already speak English,” he said apologetically.

At the time of the Russian incursion, there were two groups of Uzbek writers: the aristocrats, who loved beautiful women, nature, and kings; and the democrats, who loved mud and head colds. Some Central Asian intellectuals were taken in by the promises of socialism and progress, and by the appearance of lycées, trains, and theaters. The poet Furqat (1859–1909) wrote poems called “Piano,” “Hermitage,” “Gymnasium,” “Science,” and “Suvorov.” With Dilorom we read Furqat’s ode to the Tashkent Exposition of 1890.

Dilorom said that exposition was an artificial concept, since the Uzbeks had beautiful things, bazaars, and the Silk Road for thousands of years. She said the poem was actually a critique of its artificiality. The Russians, evidently not sensing this critique, invited Furqat to a banquet, where Furqat expressed his Eastern courtesy by declaiming some extemporaneous verses to one of his hosts’ wives. The Russians banished Furqat to China, where he eventually died.

During the Soviet years, the Uzbeks forgot their own culture and scholarship. In 1924, Lenin turned up in Tashkent, saying he was going to liberate the proletariat. But there was no proletariat; he was just strengthening his colonial stronghold. Lenin deceived the people with socialism, producing generations of robots. New schools opened, but they churned out diplomats, and were not places of knowledge. By the 1930s, some of the Uzbek intellectuals had figured out the deception. Then they were murdered or sent to the Gulag.

G’afur G’ulom wrote anecdotes, prose, journalism, and narrative poems, and was known even to Ukrainians and Moldovans. He received an Order of Lenin and could produce a poem “at any moment.” He carried his problem inside him. Like his country, he appeared to be free, but wasn’t, and wept at home, in solitude: “The words I want to say are left in my heart.”

On our last afternoon in Samarkand, Adam and I went to the park to meet the janitor Habib, an enormous guy who had befriended me at the university and insisted on taking us to the amusement park with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. But when we got to the Ferris wheel, there was no wife or daughter—just Habib. We invited him on the Ferris wheel, and then he invited us on an incredibly nauseating ride where we sat in a rotating swing, suspended by chains from the rim of an enormous disk that simultaneously spun and tilted on an axis. The mechanism was jerky and irregular, accelerating and stopping, and seemed to run on forever. I held my breath, willing myself to lose consciousness, but it didn’t work.

“Did you like it?” Habib asked, when we got off. “Shall we do it again? No? Good.” Habib looked relieved. “It made me really sick. Some things, you want to do more than once. But with this thing, once was enough.”

We began to walk back to the university. Habib asked how old I was, and became very agitated when I told him. “Twenty-four? You’re only two years younger than my wife, and you don’t have any children! I thought you were 17 or 18! Are you sure you’re 24? . . . I have to have some words with your husband. Don’t worry, I won’t say anything bad. I’ll just explain to him, as one married man to another, what he has to do.” Suddenly bethinking himself, Habib lowered his voice. “Does he know what he has to do? And when he has to do it?”

“Well, I think so . . .”

“I’ll talk to him anyway,” he decided. “You wait here and look at
the flowers.”

We had reached the garden in front of the nine-story building, where from the dusty earth rows of waist-high, thick-stemmed, wild-looking plants had sprung up: flowering thistles, foxgloves, and some enormous purple dinner plate–shaped flowers I had never seen before.

“But he won’t understand you,” I told Habib. “He doesn’t speak

“He’ll understand enough.” Habib pulled Adam aside and started explaining something to him, gesticulating earnestly. Adam put his right hand over his heart and looked very polite. After a few minutes of conversation, Habib clapped Adam on the shoulder and they walked back to me. “He understood, right?” Habib said, shaking Adam’s shoulder. Adam nodded.

“Now we have to get you some flowers,” Habib told me. “You wait here.” Squinting into the orange late-afternoon light, Habib walked to the entrance of the university, spoke a few words to the security guard, then waded into the sea of waist-high flowers and began hacking away at the stems with a penknife. “I’m choosing you some really good flowers!” he called to me. “Don’t you worry—didn’t you know I’m the head gardener here? Who do you think planted these flowers? Who, if not me, has a right to pick them?” He wrapped the bouquet, thick as a human leg, in a discarded newspaper, and presented it to Adam. “I can’t give them to her, because I’m not her husband—you have to give her flowers,” he said to Adam, speaking slowly and loudly, as if to a deaf person.

“He says to give them to me,” I said.

“That’s right, my dear,” Adam said, handing me the leg-sized bouquet.

When we had parted from Habib, we crossed the street and walked down the leafy median to the Amir Timur monument. We were going to say “goodbye” to Muzaffar. By some strange economy, the Amir Timurs of Samarkand bore a remarkable likeness to Lenin: the bald dome, the narrowed eyes, the V-shaped eyebrows, mustache, and goatee. All these things are the signs of God’s conscious creation.

We had waited ten minutes when we heard the faint pounding of footsteps. A white blob glimmered in the distance—Muzaffar’s shirt, like the Cheshire cat’s grin, joined now by the rest of Muzaffar.

“I’m sorry I’m late—I couldn’t leave the house. My parents had a special dinner. It was a surprise. But I brought you a gift.” Muzaffar handed me a heavy box made of unfinished wooden slats, with a metal handle. Between the slats, you could see a plaster figurine of a kneeling, bearded mullah, a turban on his head and a book in his lap. The mullah wasn’t looking at the book—his eyes were fixed straight ahead with an expression of great anxiety.

“It’s an Uzbek whitebeard,” Muzaffar explained. “You can take it to America, to help you remember Muzaffar.” He asked when our plane left; our plane was leaving Tashkent in three days.

“I see,” Muzaffar said. “So you’ll miss my wedding.” I felt a strange jolt of surprise and sadness—the first thing that came to my mind was a line from Chekhov: “So you won’t be at my funeral?” “It happened very fast—my parents brought the girl to dinner tonight and it’s all arranged. The wedding will be very soon, in the fall. But you will already be gone. I’m sorry about this. We have very nice weddings here.”

As we congratulated Muzaffar and wished him every happiness, I tried to dispel the sadness I felt. Who had ever described grad school as the summit of human happiness? Wasn’t it presumptuous to think that all the smart young people in the world had to be at Stanford participating in Hegel seminars? On the other hand, wasn’t it hypocritical to pretend that I thought any smart young people should be perpetuating the family-centered culture of the East?

That evening I carefully placed the box with the worried whitebeard in my suitcase. It was only much later that I figured out the box actually opens if you move the handle—at the time, I thought Muzaffar’s parting gift was a worried whitebeard in a sealed wooden cage.

We drove to Tashkent early the next morning. I was interested in Tashkent because my best friend at Stanford, Luba, had lived there until she was 15. I tried to remember the childhood stories she had told me, so I could imagine them happening, but somehow all I could remember was that she could remember seeing Viktor Shklovsky on television—he died when we were 7—and thinking that someday she too would become a literary scholar.

Tashkent was like a Russian city. There was a metro, a circus, a puppet theater, paved sidewalks. In Samarkand the old men had beards and bright eyes and would often stare at you or try to educate you about something; in Tashkent the old men were fragile and ghostlike, wandering around carrying strange objects: a walking stick, a garbage bag, an accordion. One old man was selling a tray full of yogurt cups each containing a tiny cactus plant, as frail and delicate as himself.

In Tashkent I was seized by a mania to buy books—less in order to actually read them than to obtain tangible proof that they really existed. I looked everywhere for Past Days and The Language of Birds, but couldn’t find them. Finally I had the idea of visiting the Alisher Navoi museum, which had a bookstore—but all they sold were flimsy booklets of lyrics, held together with staples. When I asked about The Language of Birds, the clerk said it was “in the museum.” We bought tickets to the museum. There in a glass case, bolted down in the middle of an exhibit hall, were two volumes from the same 1970 ten-volume Russian translation that Dilorom had let me borrow, at the rate of one volume per night.

Our plane left Tashkent at four in the morning. We were somber, tense, excited. Adam was practicing something he called his “Damn- you breakdance.” In the airport we marveled at the illuminated fire exit signs, which showed a white stick figure fleeing for safety. Good luck to you once you escape the burning airport, little man.

As the plane lifted off, the sky was just beginning to turn from black to a deep blue. Below us, a few car headlights inched along deserted roads, grew smaller, dimmed, and disappeared. Six hours later we descended through high leaden clouds. A panorama of square green fields unrolled beneath the windows, like a huge chessboard, punctuated here and there by tiny square farmhouses; we skimmed lower and lower to the ground and almost grazed over Frankfurt itself, the birthplace of critical theory and interdisciplinary materialism, passing the silvery river, the old churches, the black glassy obelisk where they hold the Book Fair.

Thinking, many years later, about Onegin’s journey, I began to see why it had been so difficult to write about Samarkand: an excursion which had been surrounded by all the appurtenances of a new beginning or exotic adventure, but which in fact had been a repetition, and the end of something. It was the kind of strange appendix that doesn’t make sense until later, out of order—as the surviving fragments of the “Journey” appear in Eugene Onegin only as a footnote following
the final chapter.

When I came back from Samarkand, I almost entirely lost the ability to read poetry. It was like a language I didn’t speak anymore. In fact, what I used to enjoy in poetry was precisely the feeling of only half-understanding—a feeling that was intensified, as Tolstoy once observed, when the poetry really was written in foreign language:

Without entering into the meaning of each phrase you continue to read and, from the few words that are comprehensible to you, a completely different meaning arises in your mind—unclear, cloudy, and not in accord with the original phrasing, but all the more beautiful and poetic. For a long time, the Caucasus was for me this poem in a foreign language; once I deciphered its true meaning, there were many cases in which I missed the poem I had invented, and many cases in which I believed the real poem was better than the imaginary one.

The beauty of cloudy, poetical meanings that weren’t actually written on the page but were conjured out of the associations and half-grasped words lost its charm for me altogether. What really interested me from that point on were huge novels. I started researching a dissertation on the hugeness of novels, the way they devour time and material.

I suppose it’s just coincidence that Tolstoy compared the subjective charms of half-understood poetry with, in particular, the Caucasus—but I was finished with poetry and the Caucasus both. I was finished with all of Russia’s Turkic South, with the literature “of the periphery.” I had been to college during the last glory days of Chomskyan linguistics, when language was declared to be a biological faculty, and therefore all human languages were equally interesting—and, implicitly, so were all literatures: didn’t the very existence of Uzbek novels guarantee their inherent interestingness, like an ontological proof of God? Maybe they did—I didn’t care.

School started again, and the endless cycle of seminars and coffee, coffee and seminars. Luba had spent the summer researching the Princess Dashkova in St. Petersburg; Jakov had been in Berlin doing some kind of topographical study of Walter Benjamin. Those were cities with archives, university presses, libraries—cities where students went to learn from books, not from “life.” Well, they were right—life was overrated. For a while it was a departmental joke that I had spent two months in Samarkand, intensely studying Timurid love poetry, but soon everyone forgot about it, including me—I was busy teaching first-year Russian and reading Balzac. I spent all my time on campus, and only went back home—to the Mountain View apartment, across from the Safeway—in order to sleep. In the winter, shortly after New Year’s, I moved out. Samarkand was the last trip that Adam and I took together.

Muzaffar and I still email each other sometimes. He and his wife moved out of his parents’ house last year, which was a big controversy. He works as the manager of an office and they have two children: a son, Komron, and a daughter, Komila. Sometimes he does English translation work for some American doctors who run a village clinic in Kazakhstan, near the Uzbek border.

Dilorom and I continued to exchange letters and gifts for three or four years. “Respected Elif qizim! I was not at all surprised to receive your letter—because I was expecting it,” Dilorom wrote in a card, enclosed with a hardcover 1992 edition of Past Days, the novel I had vainly looked for all over Tashkent. I think Dilorom hoped I would translate it into English, but I never made it past page two. The phrase “past days,” stamped in white on the black cloth cover, amid
red wallpaper-like arabesques—representing, I guess, the bourgeois character of historical realism—became a kind of performative, causing the days to be past. I dreamed about that book. In my dreams, “performative” blurbs appeared on the cover, ascribed to various Anglo-American literary critics:

Kicking this book will cause pages nineteen and twenty to stick together.
(In the paperback edition, the stuck pages will be fourteen and fifteen.)
—F. R. Leavis

Northrop Frye has stated that, when addressed in the form of a proper Arab
gentleman, the book will clap itself over the nose of the reader’s worst enemy
and remain there until the enemy has touched something which once touched
a camel.

I would wake up filled with amazement and relief, understanding that I didn’t actually have to read the book: it didn’t work that way (by being read), but rather by being kicked, or addressed in the form of a proper Arab gentleman, either of which was much less time-consuming than poring through the densely typed pages, looking up every other word in the dictionary. And although I am reluctant to say that what ended in Samarkand was my youth, nonetheless this copy of Past Days brought home to me, with a kind of material immediateness, the truth of human mortality . . .

In samarkand that summer, Dilorom had taught me about Alisher Navoi’s third and most famous narrative poem, Layli and Majnun (1484). According to Dilorom, it was intended to explore the theme of why intellectuals are unhappy. The hero is a young boy called Majnun, except his name isn’t actually Majnun, but Qays, and he is in love with his schoolmate Layli, who belongs to a rival clan. Because he knows that he and Layli can never be together, Qays goes crazy and becomes Majnun, which means Madman. His heart falls to pieces like a pomegranate. Wandering around the streets and bazaars, he recites poetry about the terrible affliction that has doomed him to a life of misery. His father is finally convinced to ask Layli’s father to let the young people get married, but Layli’s father doesn’t want his daughter to marry a crazy person. He tells Majnun’s father to take Majnun to the Black Stone of Kaaba, to remove the love from his heart. Instead Majnun goes to Layli’s tent and beats himself with stones. Majnun’s father takes him to Kaaba, but Majnun is unable to pray for the love to be removed from his heart. “You torment me with this love, but I don’t say, ‘Liberate me from it and make me like other people.’ Instead I ask for more. Whatever color you made Love to be, I want to be that color too,” he tells God. He recites a poem about the characters in Layli’s name. One letter has dots over it, representing nails driven into his body; a C-shaped letter hangs around his neck; a third letter, shaped like a mountain range, represents the mountains that are sitting on him. Majnun lurks outside Layli’s tent, writing her long letters. “Take the muscles out of my body and make a leash for your little dog!” Layli is given away in marriage to a rich clansman, who takes her far away. She holds a knife in her hand to kill herself with if he tries to touch her. Majnun goes into the desert, forgets human language, and acquires the language of gazelles. The gazelles are beautiful, with big sad eyes just like Layli’s.

In the desert, Majnun befriends not just gazelles, but also lions, monkeys, deer, snakes, foxes, and some kind of bird that sometimes carries letters for him. Meanwhile Majnun paces like a drunken lion, recites ghazals, wastes away. Years pass, and Layli’s husband dies of a heart attack. She calls Majnun to her, but someone tells her Majnun is sick—by the time he gets there, she has died of grief. He sees her body laid out for the funeral and lies next to her and dies.

My favorite thing in Layli and Majnun was the language of gazelles: a figure for poetic language, the language of ghazals. This equivalence works both on the level of the plot, in which Majnun becomes a poet at the same time that he becomes friends with the gazelles, and also on the level of orthography, because in Arabic, which omits vowels, “gazelle” and “ghazal” were written the same way. Dilorom said that another homonym for gazelle and ghazal was a word meaning “eyelid”; hence a famous line from one of Navoi’s ghazals: “I sweep the floor at your feet with my eyelashes.”

Eastern scholarship believes a Latin translation of Layli and Majnun to be a source for Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare scholarship, however, disagrees.

  1. Vowel harmony is a phonological rule in most Turkic languages, also in Hungarian and Finnish, according to which every word contains either “back vowels” (in Turkish, a, o, u, ı) or “front vowels” (e, ö, ü)—not both—meaning there are multiple forms of every declension and verb tense to match the different kinds of vowels. 

The first installment of Summer in Samarkand appeared in Issue 7.

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