...THE YEAR IS 1999...



Oct 10, 2010


In the once grand gardens of the harem


The flight west to Bukhara was over increasingly arid country.  

Mile after mile of dry sandy plain with only occasional dams and narrow waterways.  The plane landed on dusk and I stepped from the tarmac into a rose scented garden of tangled vines and fairy lights.  This airport terminal was smaller and more informal than those at either Tashkent or Frunze.  Waiting friends and relations had the friendly manner of country people; everyone down to the smallest child was greeted with warmth and handshakes.

The Intourist office had closed. I searched through the small building for someone who perhaps spoke English, no one did.  A young man took my bag and found a ‘tax-ee’ to take me to an ‘o-tel’. The cab was really a private car, but the young man stressed the driver was alright with the universal thumbs up sign and then counted to twenty five roubles, the fare I should pay.  He refused a tip and I gave him a kangaroo pin instead.

Bukhara on the banks of the Zeravshan River was deep in desert country, the Kyzyl Kum or Red Sands Desert and the Russian ‘dobraye utra’ would now become the Moslem salutation ‘Salaam Aleikum.’
We drove through empty streets into a huge open square and pulled up in a side street by the modern multi storey Intourist Bukhoro Hotel. I guessed that because his wasn't an official taxi he couldn't drive up to the front door, so I dragged my belongings up twenty steps to the swinging door of the entrance and asked reception for a room.

For a moment you could have heard a pin drop.  Had I been a Martian from outer space I doubt my arrival could have caused such suspicion. Where had I come from...did I have a voucher...where was my visa?

The receptionist called a superior who promptly got on the phone to someone else.  A lot of Russian was flying back and forth.  A woman looked through my visa and told me I had no permission to even be in Bukhara.

I was no expert in the Russian alphabet but I could recognize the letters that stood for Bukhara amidst all the other towns Mitzi back in Singapore had randomly included in my application and humbly pointed them out to her.  Now wasn't the time to be stroppy.

I could see the hotel reception was thronged with tourists. 

Maybe they didn't have room for me.  The inquisition was running out of steam, the lady in charge asked what I was doing in Bukhara, was I a journalist?  I assured her I was just traveling through, a housewife if she needed an official designation.
The lady in charge identified herself as Mustoora and said they would give me a room but I would have to pay in hard currency, US$ dollars.   She quoted seventy five dollars and I presumed this covered the same meals as Frunze.  She asked if I had eaten and then took me across to the dining room.

‘The head waiter will find you a table,’ she said, ‘it is best you reward him now before you eat.  He has, what you say...absolute power about what food you get.’

I couldn't believe what she was saying and thought she must be pulling my leg. But no, Mustoora was very serious though I did sense a touch of sarcasm, obviously there was no love lost between the two hotel employees.  I wondered if it was simply that the head waiter was Russian and she was Uzbek.  In any case I thanked her for taking the trouble to warn me.

It was a very large dining room with a stage at one end and to the side, through sliding glass doors, a long ornamental pool. The waiters were dressed in black trousers and white shirts and wore the black and white skullcap of the Uzbeks. The head waiter sat at a table just inside the door.

I pondered how much I should slip him and in which currency.  Not roubles, I decided.  They really weren't worth very much, yet to give him five or ten dollars as I might in Australia was really out of all proportion to the cost of the meal. I was thinking fast, remembering clumsy past failures at bribery,  oh well I decided...as I was going to be in Bukhara for a while  I may as well gain the reputation of a big spender.  I discreetly palmed him a US$10 note, or if you looked at it another way, a month’s wages.
The maitre'd bowed slightly, showed me to a table and food was brought.  The dining room was a hub of activity. At this late hour there were no tourist groups eating but every table was taken by locals.  A band played western music and couples danced. I could see the head waiters desk, and not only did he have power over the food he also decided who got a table and who didn't.  He spent the entire evening pocketing bribes and tips.  I found mine well spent if only for the way dining staff sprang to attention when next I entered.

The Bukhoro Hotel had a hard currency bar in the basement for foreign guests.  One drawback in being female and traveling alone is that in most places you're restricted to staying indoors after dark.  Bukhara would probably have been safe enough, though Cari's warning in Frunze still rang in my ears.

Playing it safe, I wandered down the spiral stairway to the tiny bar, a long narrow room with a strobe light for atmosphere and shelves against a mirrored wall well stocked with foreign spirits and wines.  There was an espresso machine that I never saw used, and high up on the end wall, a colour television showing a news bulletin from Moscow.

American tourists were grouped at tables.  I bought a coffee, instant from a jar, and angled my seat at the bar towards the television.  A tall man in a blue cotton sweat suit invited me to join his table, he spoke in a Texan drawl and his name was Jerry.
We exchanged introductions; Jerry was part of a tour, the highly organised ‘People to People’ caravan comprising specialists from such diverse fields as medicine, farming and industry.  At first they thought I was part of their hundred strong tour group and achieved minor notoriety when they learned I was alone.

Jerry, who appeared to be the shaker and mover of the tour, had discovered some black market Bukhara rugs for sale in a nearby home.  Together with Dawn, who described herself as the groups official trouble shooter, and two others, we slipped away to find the house where Sasha lived.

With Dawn the trouble shooter - later in Samarkhand
 Finding our way along the unlit streets armed with a solitary torch, or as Jerry called it, a flashlight, we located Sasha’s apartment on the ground floor of a double story block within walking distance of the hotel.  

We slipped our shoes off at the door and were shown into a lounge room lined with books in many languages.  Sasha’s wife and daughter made no appearance though a little later his six year old son was introduced.  The carpets were displayed on the floor.

They were beautiful and very reasonable but I left the bargaining to the Americans.  Unlike the others I had to carry my own baggage and instead I bought a colourful embroidered ‘Suzanna’...a large cotton throw over, once a part of every young Uzbek girl’s trousseau.

 Sasha slipped out of the room, and returned with a tray of refreshments.   I thought it odd that his wife had made no appearance, particularly after he mentioned she was from Germany.  

Next morning I asked Mustoora for a map in English so I could find my way around the town.  There was nothing in print, she explained, and all the English speaking guides were with the four huge air conditioned ‘Sputnik’ buses from Moscow carrying the ‘People to People’ caravan.  At that moment Sasha walked up to the counter and recognized me from the night before. 

Mustoora explained my problem and Sasha said there was plenty of room on his bus, why not simply join the group for the days touring. I didn't think it would be that easy and suggested to Sasha that surely those in charge would object.

‘Come,’ he took my arm, ‘we will ask Lena from Moscow, she is in charge of everything.’

Lena from Moscow, a thin waif-like girl in her early twenties, looked me over and nodded and I boarded the bus to find I was sitting behind Dawn the trouble shooter who was surprised the Russians had allowed me to tag along, but nevertheless was pleased to see me.

With the suave Sasha as our English speaking guide we set off for the Emirs Palace, a series of single story wooden buildings with blue paint work weathered by countless dust storms and the passage of centuries.
Inside was a treasure trove of ancient ceramics and paintings but I preferred to wander outside in the gardens of the harem and imagine the women who had lived there in the past.  

Very little of the garden had changed, perhaps the landscaping would have been more formal back then, and of course people like me would never have been allowed inside. It took little imagination to hear tinkling music and the chatter of women against softly trickling water. Sitting under shady vines within those same walls, I wondered how the women of the Emirs harem had felt,  privileged or  prisoners held against their will.
Lagging behind on our way back to the bus, I turned a corner and came upon a group of Turkmen from Turkmenistan, bearded old men with long brown duster coats edged with colourful braid over western style suits. 

What made me excited though were the brown, lamb’s wool headgear they wore.  Probably made from the karakul sheep the hats were like an immense shaggy version of the bearskins worn by the Guard at Buckingham Palace. 

It gave the men a wonderfully fierce appearance and I desperately wanted their photograph but I hesitated to just barge up and start clicking.   Turkmen are orthodox Sunni Muslims who still regard their women as second class.  I approached a Russian man with them and held up my camera. I needn't have worried; the old men posed self consciously but wouldn't let me go until I had captured each one of them on film.  One of the many times I regretted not having a Polaroid camera.
The bus stopped next at the infamous 6th century Ark Citadel or fort where the British explorers Connolly and Stoddart were brutally executed in 1842 after a lengthy imprisonment in a snake pit. Watching Sasha entertain the tour group with dark stories of Bukhara’s history it was hard to realise only 150 years separated this charming and articulate man from his torturous and bloodthirsty forebears.

Across from the Ark Fort, we walked through the beautiful Balo-hauz Mosque, an exceptional 18th century example of Islamic architecture.  It's most breathtaking features were the twenty elegant carved wood columns fronting the marble and mosaic facade.  

The columns soared almost 80 feet high and reflected in the waters of a large round pond gave the mosque its other name - The Forty Columns. A teapot and cup by the side of the murky green waters, said to be health giving, indicated people still drank from the stagnant pool. I tried not to think about it.

On the bus I met an Australian with the program, Dr. Katie from Canberra who said she found the American support team amazing with interpreters, trouble-shooters even an entire medical support team able to cope with any emergency.  Organisers had thought of everything, she said, right down to the slightest detail like supplying twine, sticky tape and carry bags for souvenirs that wouldn't squash into suitcases.  She told me the 13 day tour had cost around US$5,000 per person.

Dawn later told me the medical team comprised doctors and nurses with supplies of oxygen, plasma, and western equipment.  If necessary the doctors with the group were even equipped to perform surgery. I gathered local hospitals were best avoided. Later in Samarkand, an elderly woman became ill with a heart complaint and was flown out to Moscow and then on to an American base hospital in Germany. 

The People to People tour, Dawn explained, was part of the Citizen Ambassador Program, a private non-profit non-political organisation head-quartered in Kansas City, Missouri, which encouraged communication among the peoples of the world.  It had been founded by President Eisenhower in 1956.

That night I joined a small party in the basement bar.  Sasha was telling the story of a young Jewish girl from the Ukraine fleeing the Germans during world war two and meeting a young Moslem man in Bukhara...his mother and father.

You see,’ he extended his hands,’ I am very fortunate, through my mother...in the Synagogue, I am a Jew....and through my father...in the Mosque, I am a Moslem...I have access to both worlds.’

Sasha hinted at the underlying ethnic problems facing Uzbekistan and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.  He said there were no true Uzbeks in Bukhara.  Mostly, the people here originated from Kazakhstan or Turkmenia, Iran, Afghanistan, Arabia ...even from Turkey.  But when the Russians realigned boundaries they said only Uzbeks could live in that particular region to be known thereafter as Uzbekistan.  

People could no longer call themselves Turks or Iranians...if they insisted then they must return to those countries.  So families that had lived centuries in Bukhara remained and fell under the general mantle of Uzbeks.  The majority spoke Farsi, the language of Iran and similar to that of Turkey. He suggested that should Uzbekistan be invaded in the future, the threat would come from those two countries. 
We quizzed him on conditions since perestroika and he shrugged, ‘We have suffered in the past, fools have run the country and food has been scarce.  But now we keep for ourselves the food we grow. We have greater worries though... little countries with large bombs.’
Not so very long before Sasha wouldn’t have dared venture his opinions in public; especially with foreigners.  He went on to say it was the old people who found it hard to accept that the world had changed and Russia was no longer their master.  As an example he told us about his mother.

‘She is getting on now, I try to see her each day or at least speak on the telephone to her. To amuse, I tell little jokes about my work and perhaps the joke might be about the Kremlin or the K.G.B.’ ‘You must remember,’ he went on’ my mother lived through terrible times...first the Nazis and then the purges of Stalin.  Old people are still very frightened; they don't believe their status has changed. 

My mother says to me ‘...Sasha, Sasha...be careful what you are saying...walls have ears.  They hear everything.  You must leave the house quickly, now, go to friends...don't stay the night.’

‘My son,’ Sasha added ‘may Allah be praised, will never experience such terror.’

Episode 8   Deja Vu in Bukhara

©Robyn Mortimer 2010

No comments: