...THE YEAR IS 1999...



Oct 11, 2010



Farewells.  I’ve always found it hard to say goodbye; actually I become quite emotional even when watching complete strangers take their leave.  Airports can do that to you. Take that classic goodbye scene on the airport tarmac in Casablanca between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman; the whole theatre was awash with tears and screwed up hankies.  No disposable tissues back then.

It happened to me once in Amman Airports departure lounge.  A huge Palestinian family had gathered to farewell a son and his wife returning to their new adopted homeland in Australia. This short visit home to Jordan had been a cure for his wife’s home sickness, but now the cure was taking its toll on the entire extended family, his mother and aunts in particular.

Arab women voice their emotion, they wail, they cry, they invoke the Gods; their misery is infectious.  It didn’t take long before I was caught up in the tears with them. 

Just how much of my grief was actually due to the Palestinian family’s leave taking was perhaps doubtful; I had fallen in love with Jordan and in that moment probably wished I could live there forever.  Well, at least until my next adventure beckoned.

Over the years I’ve said goodbye to a whole host of new friends, and I’ve shed enough private tears to fill the Aswan Dam, but on this one occasion my tears were spontaneous, heartfelt and on view to just a small audience of six.


The streets of Tashkent were dark and deserted, the short  taxi ride from hotel to airport took no time at all. At the airport the waiting room was locked and Cari went off to find the duty officer.  A number of Afghans were squatting on the pathway outside surrounded by mounds of luggage.  Cari re-appeared with a man in uniform who unlocked for door for us to enter.   The Afghans remained outside.

Inside was dark and cold, we sat huddled together on a bench in the corner.  Cari told me about his parents and sisters and a favourite uncle who looked after his property in India.  I wondered how Cari had learned to speak such fluent Russian and he explained a woman friend had taught him.

‘She was very patient; I could phone her at any time to check on a word or phrase.  In fact she is the lady who has been faxing to Moscow.’

Then an airport policeman knocked on the glass door for Cari to open up.  He had with him two young Indian students, one, a young girl was crying softly.  The policeman wanted Cari to interpret.  The pair had been waiting for a plane to Frunze when their belongings had been stolen. There wasn't much could be done, but Cari sorted it out and sent the young couple on their way.

I found this particular interlude interesting.  How had the airport policeman known there was a Russian speaking Indian in the overseas terminal?  After all the students would have been waiting in the Intourist terminal, a separate building to this one.  Was the airport grapevine so short of gossip everyone’s comings and goings became common knowledge, or was security so vigilant they knew exactly who was where and when? 

Or was Cari not the businessman he professed to be?  All very curious, I thought. Had for instance his presence on that first flight to Frunze been a coincidence or otherwise.

Cari then asked if I had my currency forms in order, I had put it roughly together back in the hotel. ‘You had better let me check,’ he said. ‘These customs cowboys can be very arrogant sometimes.’

He counted the money, checking the various denominations.  I still had roubles from my original and only $50 exchange and balanced this out against receipts.  Hotel payments had been made in American dollars.

‘Now, is that the total currency of any kind you have on you?’ he asked.

I looked him in the eye, obviously Cari had gotten to know me rather well.

‘There is the $300 I didn't declare when I arrived.’

His expression indicated how stupid I was.  ‘Do you realise the trouble that would cause?  I've seen these characters search people, you could lose all your cash as a result; or even worse.   He left that consequence to my imagination. ‘Where is this extra money?’

‘In my shoe.’  He took a deep breath and shook his head. I was of course suitably chastened.

‘Give it to me, and your receipts again, I'll see if I can work around it and adjust the balance.’

After a little while he gave it all back to me.  ‘Now when they ask is this all the money you have, you can answer truthfully.’

Despite his many flashes of humour Cari really was a most serious person.

Outside in the pitch black the Afghans still waited, their flight had been delayed.  Then the lights in an adjoining office came on and a man beckoned.


‘They are ready for you,’ Cari said, gathering up my gear.
He stood by while two stern faced young men went through my currency form; they counted the dollars and then tossed them back at me in a scrambled untidy mess.  I almost said something in anger but felt Cari's hand tighten on my arm in warning.  Then they motioned for my bags, made a half hearted search and indicated I was to pass through into the next room.  I turned to Cari expecting him to follow and realised this was as far as he could come.

It was so sudden, the hours we had spent together I hadn't given a thought to saying goodbye, and now, under stark lights with two loutish young men looking on, this wasn't the right place.  I felt tears welling and tried to blink them away.

‘Cari, you've been so kind to me,’ I was searching desperately for the right words ‘...just saying goodbye isn't enough.’

He stood there, so tall, that devastating smile, and in his eyes the same anguish I was feeling.  I reached out for his hand and held it tightly, willing him to feel how I felt, to hear all the words we had left unsaid and now couldn't say at all.

Two others had entered the room, a man and a woman in uniform.  I was to go with them.  Cari remained in the doorway, we still clutched hands.

‘Thank you, so very much,’ I stepped away trying hard to hold back a flood of tears, Cari stood there in the open doorway.

I was halfway across the room and called out ‘Cari, goodbye, da svidanya,’ the Russian for goodbye a mournful bridge between us....’da svidanya.’

The Soviets let out a concerted sigh, they could relate to this one act melodrama.  I followed the woman into the next room and Cari was gone forever.

I stood sniffling under the harsh lights while the passport control police examined my visa and papers all the while watching me in the overhead mirrors.  I felt wretched and totally isolated in the long drab waiting hall...alone in a deathly silence.

The time was about 3am when another young woman motioned I was to proceed upstairs into another dimly lit waiting room where chairs were set out in rows.  A grandmother in a floral babushka scarf padded in on soft slippers wheeling a trolley load of bottled mineral water.  She left the trolley at the back of the chairs and softly padded out again.


I sat to the side of the arranged rows and wallowed in my misery.  Then in a strange silence, like spirits rising from the underworld, people began to drift up the stairs. 

They came in twos and threes, some alone; Indians in flowing saris under heavy winter coats, turbaned Sikhs, Russians in fur hats, young girls in miniskirts, hundreds of people in a hushed procession.  Two women even had spaniels on leads.

No one spoke, no one smiled, they just moved silently past, filling up the rows of chairs, a few taking bottles of mineral water as they passed the trolley.

Some lights came on at the end of the room revealing five young men with musical instruments.  They began to play, popular music similar to that at the hotel earlier in the night, they could even have been from the same band.
Two couples began to dance, no one else reacted to the music, everyone just sat listening in a bored silence.  It was like a surreal scene from a Fellini movie, and strangest of all, it fitted my mood exactly.

The entertainment continued for nearly an hour, then the band stopped and the people rose and just as quietly as they had entered, began to leave down the staircase they had first emerged from.

I waited and then joined in at the tail end, nobody directed me; I guessed this must be my flight.  The plane was parked close to the terminal and we walked the short distance to stairs leading into the lower section.  I could see my travel bag on a shelf with other luggage so I knew I was on the right aircraft.

A hostess approached and asked was I the Singapore?  I presented my ticket and stood there at the back of the plane while the crew scurried about trying to find me a seat.  There were numerous headcounts, every so often a crew member came up and apologized with a ‘very sorry, won't be long now.’

Maybe I would be taking breakfast with Cari after all.  The panic ensued for nearly half an hour when finally a hostess led me through the aircraft to a seat in the middle row beside a very cross lady whose spaniel now rested on the floor between us.

With that problem resolved the crew returned to their stations, the engines roared into life and the plane lifted into the night sky.  I was leaving Tashkent the way I had arrived, in the midst of an absurd dream.

And that effectively summed up my entire trip through the Central Asian Stan’s.  

I left with memories of kind and thoughtful people, the multi racial men and women of these three countries, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,  Russians and indigenous both.  For years under the yolk of Soviet rule and now the possible return to the strict  laws of Islam. 

And I remembered the women I met, Mina and Mustoora, Lara and Miriam, their taste of independence and freedom now threatened by a return to the veil and chador.

But they are a sturdy race, these people of Central Asia;  I'm sure they will yet again endure and triumph, after all their countries have already survived the rough excesses of Alexander, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and Stalin,  and lived to tell the tale. 

And besides, what else can fate throw against them.


©Robyn Mortimer 2010



My journey through the Stans was coming to an end.  I said my goodbyes to Lara and the desk girls at the hotel in Samarkand. They assured me I had plenty of time to make the flight to Tashkent, and I had the correct time on the ticket.

Of course they had it wrong, again.  Instead of a short hour or so wait, I spent the next four hours waiting for a connecting flight.  That Moscow clock was wreaking its havoc yet again.

It was dark when my cab finally drew up to Tashkent's imposing Hotel Uzbekistan and I tumbled out with my solitary travel bag.  A man approached  asking if I was Mrs Robyn and why was I so late.

He didn’t even wait for a reply just herded me quickly to the desk where I was booked in, given room number and key and ushered up to the ninth floor.

A key woman took over assuring me she would be on duty all night should I need anything.   

Next morning I made a mild complaint about the noisy party in the next room to which she clucked her tongue and said ‘They are Egips and know no better.’

The foyer of the modern and impressive 14 story Uzbekistan Hotel was a hive of activity with guests mingling with locals in a constant surge of meet and greet. Money making entrepreneurs hovered about offering every scam known to man, including an artist in a corner complete with easel and sign advertising quick portraits for US$25 a pop.

A sign in the elevator even advertised Pizza flown in from Seattle at $US40. Though some one had scribbled "Who can afford" across it.

I approached the front desk and asked Intourist to confirm my Aeroflot flight to Singapore. She was on the phone for ages and then told me the flight didn’t leave until Saturday, two days away.

Impossible I replied, please check again.  She wasn’t pleased and for a few seconds we glared at each other before she picked up the phone again and began a shouting match with someone at the other end.

‘You must go yourself with this ticket to the airport.’  I was being given the flick.  ‘We cannot help you here.’

I figured I would need my passport and asked the receptionist.  She pointed to an office down a corridor.  Inside sat a man and again I asked for my passport.  He frowned, not understanding, and I repeated the question.

‘Speak Russian’ the request sounded like a command.


‘Is foolish come here and not speak Russian,’ he lectured.

‘Up to now it hasn't been a problem,’ I couldn't manage even a smile, ‘my passport please.’

I snatched it and slammed the door as I left.  In the frame of mind I was in now, pity help the airport people.  The taxi driver started to haggle and I curtly told him 25 roubles and cut the crap.  My anger cut through all language difficulties.  It was a fast silent drive.

At the Aeroflot office I soon discovered how fortunate I had been on  domestic flights around the country.  Now I was one person in a pathetic milling crowd, standing in long queues that never seemed to reach the windows.  I was the only westerner; the majority were young Africans, with a few Afghans and others who seemed to accept the intolerable wait as normal.

After what seemed like an age I finally reached the counter and a bored young woman glanced at my ticket and told me I was in the wrong queue.  Back to the tail end, and then after slow shuffling progress another woman looked at the ticket and said ‘You already have ticket, what you want here?’

Absolutely seething I went through the morning’s ritual and asked for confirmation of the flight.  She looked at the ticket again and said ‘You are booked on plane, okay.’

What time should I check in?


Why did I have the feeling she had pulled that time out of thin air?

It was getting close to the lunchtime rendezvous with Cari  set up back in Frunze when he kindly offered to look after those bulky art books.  I bargained another taxi ride back to the hotel, watching the streets of Tashkent flash by, an entire morning wasted at the airport.
Cari with the art books
Cari was waiting just inside the vestibule, how lovely to see a friendly familiar face. His eyes lit up as he saw me, ‘You are here; I was worried.’

 ‘Yesterday I phoned the hotel in Samarkand and they said they had never heard of you.’

I shrugged, shaking my head, so much for being one of the girls back in Samarkand...

Cari’s apartment wasn’t far from the hotel and he lunched there every day so the waiter knew him well and quickly settled us both at a table.  I told him of my encounter at the airport.

‘And you have confirmation,’‘ he asked.

‘Verbally’ I nodded, ‘there’s nothing in writing’.

‘My company has the same problem every time we send a man back to India.  It is always a big gamble.’

‘What should I do?’ I asked him between the cabbage with meatball soup, and lamb ragout.

‘You will do nothing, I will take your ticket to the airport and see some people I know while you go and see what you can of Tashkent’.


Tashkent was destroyed in an earthquake in 1966 and even though one of the former Unions oldest cities, originally founded over 2000 years before, the buildings I now passed in the central city were all contemporary or chocolate box classical.  Russian influence and money could be seen in every detail.  It had been the same with Frunze’s architecture.  
I followed the crowd down steps to one of the underground stations near the hotel.  A narrow pedestrian tunnel led into an elaborate marble cavern with giant size statues and murals of Soviet hero’s decorating the walls.
Railway station more suited to a museum

In the underground thoroughfare, linking the road above to the station below, young men sat at clumsy stalls selling music tapes and mildly pornographic magazines.  Later, in the park bordered by Leningrad Avenue, I saw a couple selling sex manuals and health diet books while across from them on a grass verge a young woman was unpacking a carton of shampoo.

On the corner of Leningrad and Proletarskaja I found the only private art and curio shop of my travels through Central Asia.  Every inch of wall space was covered with oil and water paintings, carpets, pottery and ceramics...a lovely shop to browse through.  While I was there a woman came off the street and took three old glass vases from a shopping bag, the owner appraised them and money changed hands.

In the same rambling building, it actually opened onto the park, I happened across two rooms where videos were being shown of incredibly old black and white American cartoons, Mickey Mouse before he became the cutesy hero of Walt Disney.  Three young men were handling ticket sales, their customers seated about 20 to a room on odd kitchen and dining chairs.
The atmosphere was pathetic; the viewers were in a 12 to 18 age bracket, dressed in clumsy ill matched clothing, hair closely shaved.  No one appeared to be enjoying the cartoons; they just sat glum and serious.  If I hadn't known better I would have guessed they were drugged patients in an outdated psychiatric ward.


I was due to meet Cari back at the hotel at 6 o'clock.  He was there on the dot with my daughters heavy and bulky art books bought in Frunze, under his arm.

‘I've spoken to a friend at the airport and she has faxed Moscow to confirm you are on the flight list.’

I started to thank him and he interrupted...’That doesn't mean a thing, she will send another fax to Moscow when your flight takes off.’

‘But why?’  I was puzzled, just how many confirmations did I need?

‘You have seen how corrupt life is here?’

I nodded, and he continued ‘Flights leaving Moscow are always full, people queue for days to get tickets.  Your flight will leave for Tashkent with one seat empty.  What Aeroflot employee will care that Robyn from Australia misses out on a seat when someone else will give him many roubles or even dollars as a bribe?’

Not for the first time I realised how naive I must seem.

‘For now we will enjoy the evening, nothing more can be done until your aircraft leaves Moscow.’

Cari had booked a table and ensured we would not share it with others.  He had also brought with him a bottle of Cognac and a liqueur to have with our coffee.

The waiter suggested we start with caviar, only pink was available, but an extremely generous serve.  There were various salads and cold meats on the table and the main course was beef stroganoff.  Cari suggested I try a lime tea and the waiter who knew this was a special occasion presented the piece de resistance...four cubes of sugar, the first I had seen since leaving Singapore.

Meanwhile the band had started playing and the huge dining room swung into party mood.  A table next to ours was celebrating a birthday and sent over glasses of vodka which of course custom dictated we down in one gulp.  I was swept onto the dance floor for some spirited dancing and was glad to return to Cari when the music stopped, my Russian partner suffered from an excess of body odour and a lack of deodorant.

A bunch of red roses and a bottle of champagne appeared, a gift from another table on hearing I was returning home that night. The music alternated between modern upbeat tunes like ‘Woman in Red’, to the soulful twang of the balalaika and the music of Russia.

 Upstairs in my room I still had some Australian souvenirs, kangaroo stick pins, a tiny furry koala and some key rings and this was the perfect time to give them away.


Meanwhile Cari had slipped out to telephone his airport contact who by now would have faxed Moscow to check that the plane had left with my name still on the passenger list.  It had.

I thanked Cari for all he had done, it was now approaching midnight; from here I would be able to manage alone.

‘But I'm coming with you to the airport,’ he said.

‘Cari,’ I protested, ‘the plane doesn't leave until 4 o'clock in the morning.’

‘And the next few hours are the most crucial,’ he told me. ‘There is absolutely no guarantee you'll actually board that plane.  In fact there's a good chance you'll be back here for breakfast.’

I couldn't believe what Cari what taking such pains to tell me.  Perhaps it would have been easier to just fly into and out of Moscow in the first place.  So we spent the next hour down in the foreign currency bar sipping coffee and cognac and getting on famously like the old friends we had become.

The time passed quickly, we talked about his family in Bangalow and his friends in Tashkent.  To his parents dismay he hadn’t yet married, but ‘there is a lady here that I am interested in.  Perhaps...’ he raised his shoulders and I gathered he was in no hurry to settle down.

Then it was time to leave for the airport, Cari had called for a taxi and we made the short trip to the airport through darkened streets.

 I was surprised to see the fare was only four roubles.  No wonder my various taxi drivers had been so solicitous, I had been lashing out with a small fortune.

I felt sad, the marvelous adventure was coming to an end...  or was it?


©Robyn Mortimer 2010




By now I was hungry for more information on Tamerlane, I really needed historical background, but bookshops had nothing in English, and Intourist had no brochures.

 I asked the girls on the counter, where was he born, what happened to Tamerlane: What of his grandson Uluq Beq, the renowned astronomer mathematician who once governed Samarkand.

Timur was born in Shakhrisabz, they told me, 160 km away on the old Silk Road,  a few hours by car.  I couldn't hire a car by myself, they said, I would have to take a driver as well.  To get the car and the driver I would have to take an English speaking guide.  In a moment of weakness, I agreed.

The car was a small but comfortable Opel, the driver a thirtyish Uzbek in a loose fitting grey suit and brown suede shoes, and my guide was the icy, blue eyed  blonde Lara.

Lara was suffering from a cold and it was obvious she thought the trip to Shakhrisabz a bore.  We were barely into the traffic on Registanskaya, than she started a monotonous spiel....’the city of Samarkand and its' suburb’s has been inhabited since prehistoric times...’

Her nasally voice droned on, reminding me why I usually avoid organised tours, somehow I would have to break into her inner core and tap whatever made her tick;  otherwise I would be in for a rugged few hours. I let her waffle on for a few more miles, then her voice became quite husky and I suggested she sit back and relax.  I would ask her when I needed information.

We passed through dry grazing land and started to climb gentle hills that changed into steep inclines with tiny villages perched on rocky outcrops.  Small children watched over black faced sheep.  Lara suddenly came to life and said she nearly had to spend two years of her life in one of these rough little hamlets. This wasn't part of her script and I waited to hear more.

‘I trained to be a teacher, when the authorities decided all student teachers must spend two years working in a country village.  We had to go where they sent us, there was no choice.’

From the tone of her voice I could tell this was a fate worse even than guiding me to Shakhrisabz.

‘Life is terrible in these villages...and women are worthless,’ she sniffed, I dug out a box of tissues. ‘My father was very worried for my safety, what you call it...my welfare... so he went to a friend in the party and this friend said, why not get your daughter into language school?’

Of course the party referred to was the then all powerful, all dominating Communist party.

She returned the tissues and I waved them back to her.

‘So instead of becoming a teacher I learned English, and now I work for Intourist.’

This road we were on was part of the Great Silk Road, the ancient trade route that crossed China and India and linked the East with Europe.  Alexander of Macedonia had travelled this way in the 4th century BC, Marco Polo in the 13th century, Omar Khayyam, Genghis Khan, so many had passed into history on this same road....and ahead was the town of Shakhrisabz, the birthplace of the local boy who had made his name by being particularly evil...Tamerlane.
The Silk Road from Samarkand to Shakhrisabz

 The driver pulled over at the top of the pass to allow me to take photographs and give him a chance to puff on a cigarette.  The road down twisted and turned through giant rounded boulders, stretching like a long white ribbon into the distance.  There were no other vehicles in sight, ours was the only car, and yet in ancient times this road would have been thronged by merchants, caravans of swaying camels, travelers from every part of the old world.

‘Have you traveled out of the country?’ I asked Lara as we resumed our journey.

‘Yes, to India, many times.’

I asked what nationality she was...Russian mother, Uzbek father, she replied.  Naturally I asked what was, by now, the million dollar question...was she single?

‘I am engaged to be married,’ she said in a flat, cheerless tone that promised another ‘tragedy of the heart’ story... and I wasn't disappointed.

 In the course of her many business trips to India, Lara had fallen in love with an Indian, a member she said, of the extended Gandhi family.  In a novel twist, his parents had objected to the match and forbidden him to see her again.  Now at age 27, Lara's father had arranged her marriage to a Tajik engineer.  She doesn't particularly like him, but was going ahead with the wedding to escape from her parent’s control.

‘But surely that is just escaping one prison for another?’

‘Perhaps,’ she shrugged, ‘but at my age I have still to ask my father’s permission to leave the house at night.  It is very difficult.’

‘What makes you think your husband will be different?’

‘I know he will not be, already he says I must give up my work.’

‘Then why get married at all?’  The girl must be crazy.

‘For me, is a very simple choice, stay at home and obey my father, or marry and set up my own home.’

We drove into Shakhrisabz, a small, dusty disappointment, and Lara slipped back to her spiel. 

We are now in Tajikistan, she tells me; many Tajiks believe Samarkand belongs to them.  In the past this area has been invaded by three great warriors...Alexander, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.  Of the three, she says Alexander was the most brutal.  When he conquered a city, he left behind some of his men to ensure control, but to make sure they remained  he cut off a leg or an arm.

We passed a funeral party of men outside a house, Lara pointed to a Mullah wearing a blue turban to indicate he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.  I asked if she thought the Moslem religion would again become dominant.

‘Of course, it is only a matter of time now.’

‘Would that mean women would have to wear the veil?’

She nodded.  I asked would her husband want her to wear the veil.

She nodded again.   I could only imagine what that would mean to a woman like Lara; only part Uzbek, highly educated, with attitudes to life more in keeping with the west.

Tamerlane’s birthplace was in ruins, only outer walls and portal supports still stood. I was surprised it had been allowed to sink into such decay.

Lara - the ruins of Tamerlane's birth place
‘The party has decreed that before reconstruction can take place, historic buildings must have at least 20 percent of the original in place.’ We were standing beneath the towering ruins, on my part blithely ignorant this was a major earthquake region.  ‘We know from history that this part of the palace was three storys high, and on the top floor was a swimming pool for the harem.’

Lara asked if I was hungry because, she said, the hotel food in Shakhrisabz was not good.  Could I wait a few hours until we got back to Samarkand? I could and produced packets of Smarties for each of us.  She and the driver took them eagerly and had an animated discussion about their colour and content.

It was a fast, silent trip back with Lara munching sweeties and replying only when I had a query.

Back in Samarkand I invited Lara to join me at lunch; I thought this would be a good opportunity to investigate the menu.  No such luck, only chicken stew was available and it didn't look too appetising.  Lara shrugged at the mess on the plate, but there was nothing we could do but eat it.


Just as we finished the meal a beautiful, vibrant woman swept up to our table and began speaking in rapid fire Uzbek or maybe it was Russian.  She was obviously Uzbek with black sparkling eyes; dark hair cut in a fashionable bob and dressed in a shell pink linen suit that must have cost a mint.  With eyes flashing and hands moving expressively, she was including me in the conversation.

Lara broke in when the woman took a breather and quickly interpreted what had been said up to that point.  Our companion turned to me in astonishment and in English asked was I not one of them?

‘Please forgive me,’ the woman extended a well manicured hand, ‘I saw you and Lara chatting away like old friends and thought you must be a new interpreter on the staff.’

During all this the head waiter had conferred and departed to the kitchen.  He returned with a plate, placing it in front of the woman with a deference reserved for royalty. Lara and I looked down at the gourmet meal in astonishment, exchanged glances and burst out laughing.  It put our messy stew to shame.

Miriam, that isn't her real name, held a high position in the Uzbek Government and, because of her affiliation to the former Communist Party, was walking a political tightrope. She was a charming diplomat and spoke hopefully about her country’s future. 

We discussed fashion, the suit she was wearing was run up by a local dressmaker, but the material had been purchased on an overseas trip.  From fashion the topic led to Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa.  Surprisingly, both women were derisive, with Lara describing her as a cold snake.

‘You know,’ Miriam changed the subject, ‘my favourite author is a countrywoman of yours'....her book ‘The Thorn Birds’ was brilliant.  You know her, perhaps?’

I explained I didn't know the lady though I had once met her, but she seemed very jolly.

‘I have seen ‘Thorn Birds’ on television, it was very good, very sad, but I did not think he was right for the part, the man who played Meggie’s husband.’

‘You didn't?’ I was surprised. ‘The actress who played Meggie liked him so much she married him.’

Miriam raised her eyebrows, then leaned across the table, her mood suddenly sombre.

‘If only I had read this book when I was younger,’ she hinted, ‘my life would have been changed forever.’

However much I flash forwarded the book in my mind, I couldn't imagine which part would so affect a woman in Uzbekistan. ‘You know what I mean,’ Miriam said to Lara who nodded in return.

‘Oh well,’ she sighed, ‘obviously it was not meant to be.’  Miriam shook herself out of her apathy, looked at her watch, exclaimed she had to go, and with waves and smiles to me and Lara and the hovering waiters she left.  Everyone’s eyes followed her; she had that kind of effect.

‘Dear Miriam,’ sniffed Lara ‘for her too, life has not been easy.  She lives at home still with her parents.’

Her cold was no better and I hoped she wouldn't pass it on to me.  I dug into my bag for another mini packet of tissues, I had plenty.

‘Would you believe Miriam is 50 years old and still a virgin?’

Frankly, nothing in this country surprised me anymore.  But these women certainly must have indulged in deep heart to hearts.

‘But what was the significance of the ‘The Thorn Birds’....surely she didn't have an affair with a priest?’

Lara nodded. ‘It happened a long time ago, her parents wanted her to marry someone else but she vowed never to marry.’

‘Couldn't she, or for that matter couldn't you convince ...' Lara stopped me in mid sentence.

‘Defy my parents?’ she looked astonished, ‘No...never.’

Mina, Mustoora, Lara and now Miriam; all intelligent, highly educated women, all torn between the influence of the Communist Party, freedom of a European lifestyle and the persuasive pull of strong ethnic backgrounds.


©Robyn Mortimer 2010