Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Iranian In Bukhara

I had always wanted to cross the Syr Darya river. Even as a kid gazing at the map it sounded neat. Then when I found out that it was the Oxus of ancient times and gateway to Transoxiana, both names that evoke dreams of exoticism, it only spurred my curiosity even further. It was a little disappointing, therefore, to be crossing it on a rickety railway bridge in a carriage with creaky wooden benches on a dreary, dust-strewn day with visibility down to only a few hundred metres. "No matter," I said to myself: "onwards to Bukhara!"

Bukhara was once one of the greatest cities of the Muslim world and a thriving centre of learning, boasting scores of madrassas and mosques, as well as being a major crossroads on the Silk Road. During the golden age of Islam Bukhara, and the region in general, was home to some of the greatest scientists, poets, mathematicians and astrologers of the world: Al Biruni, Avicenna, Al Bukhari, and Al Khwarizmi to name but a few. With the opening up of the sea routes to the East by the Europeans the Silk Road withered away and its great cities, like Bukhara and Samarkand, sank into obscurity, ruled by petty khans squabbling amongst themselves in internecine conflicts until one day, some 150 years ago, crept up behind them and swallowed them up as part of The Great Game. Although Russia (and then the Soviets) dragged Central Asia into the modern era, the spirit of those bygone days can still be found in the dusty back alleys of the old town where children play hide-and-seek, and the ghosts of venerable scholars hide in the nooks of madrassas in between souvenir stalls.
Local Tajik lady from Bukhara wearing traditional adras/atlas outfit. Gap stores haven't got a chance!

Bukhara, and Uzbekistan in general, is visibly better off than Turkmenistan, as can be testified by the greater quantity of gold teeth amongst the general population. To complement their dental decorations Bukharan women are among the most colourfully dressed I have ever seen anywhere in the world. The standard ensemble consists of silk calf-length trousers and loose knee-length blouse, all in the traditional adras (aka ikat) style and in primary yellows, blues, reds and greens. The city is (rightfully so) a major tourist destination and the centre is currently undergoing major renovation; something I'm viewing with ambivalence, as on the one hand it is an investment into improving the general infrastructure, which is positive, however on the other the picturesque lab-e hauz square was a building site and I'm sure there is serious corruption going on (I saw a road with perfectly good paving slabs being dug up and the slabs carted off, only for it to be paved the very next day with new ones). The back streets are a warren of khaki brick walls and puddles in the dust from the last rains three days ago, but every now and again you pass an open doorway and catch a glimpse of an old courtyard surrounded by coloured plaster and woodwork walls. Like in Iran the outside is deceptively dull and belies the intricate interior bling. However the overwhelming impression I had of Bukhara was of a man in a suit who had shrunk while his clothes remained the same. The smart, ostentatious public buildings - the madrassas , mosques and public pools - that form the suit have remained as grand and imposing as ever, whilst the city has atrophied around it. Just wandering amongst them makes you feel Lilliputian. The feeling is accentuated by the later Soviet additions of agoraphobia-inducingly wide boulevards that are totally out of place amongst the low, single and double storey buildings; but at least the myriad mulberry trees add some colour and help flesh things out.
The courtyard of the Kalon mosque with the giant Kalon (big) minaret, which is the undoubted symbol of Bukhara, reminding us of its halcyon days.

My greatest pleasure in Bukhara though has been the people. Despite being in Uzbekistan the city is overwhelmingly Tajik in character and it is the language of daily business. And whilst I barely understand a word of Uzbek, Tajik is similar enough to Farsi to be mutually intelligible (I understand about two thirds of what they are saying). Bukharis are more than accustomed to tourists wandering through their streets and routinely lob "hellos" their way. What they are not used to is foreigners answering back with a "salam" followed by a "nam-e shoma chi ast?" (what's your name?) It generally takes a while for them to realise that I'm talking to them in their own language and the visible double-take is priceless. The people are intensely curious and the opportunity to be able to speak in their own language to one of these strange tourists is a golden opportunity for them to try and comprehend what these people are doing here. I generally introduce myself as being Iranian and although the country is close, with a shared language and plenty of history and culture in common, very little is known about it except what is seen on satellite TV. In this case that means one thing: Andy, Iran's pop superstar ... from the 80's, who still thinks he's got it (and if the people of Bukhara are anything to go by then maybe he does). And even when there are words that do not exist directly in Farsi it is often possible to figure out their meaning e.g. sartaroshxona which translates literally as "head polishing house" i.e. hairdresser. Nevertheless my reception has been universally positive and the smiles genuinely warm (and not just because of the glare from the amassed gold on display). Today whilst at a local market I found it almost impossible to leave when I found myself in the middle of a mini-mob (although I did get a loaf of bread and a tomato out of it as gifts from friendly stall-holders).

Ladies selling local, round loaves of bread out of perambulators at the market.

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