Sunday 19 September 2021

30 years of independent Uzbekistan: The need to protect the magic

(This article, written originally in English, was first translated and published in in Uzbek language on 17th September 2001. Click here to see the Uzbek version)

I lost count of how many times people asked me the question: "Why do you like Uzbekistan so much?".

Indeed, difficult to explain. As a Brazilian, it seems I was never supposed to be attracted to a land so far away, locked between deserts and rivers that few in my region of the world, sadly, will ever get to know. The key moment for me was in 1996; by chance (I liked the cover and that is why I bought it) I read Imperium (1993), a book by the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinky, in which he describes his visit to the country in 1967, when it was still part of the USSR.

The colour of Bukhara is brown, the colour of burned mud on the sun. The colour of Samarkand is an intense blue, the colour of sky and water.

The descriptions of the jewels of the Silk Road stayed in my heart. What a magical universe! So far away of my native Sao Paulo, where the colour was one, frankly, only grey, in different sad hues. I wanted to see these amazing colours. And started to see them right away in my dreams.

In 1999, I joined the BBC. Two years later, undoubtedly inebriated by these imaginary colours, I suggested to my boss at the time to report on the changes in the former USSR on the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Empire. The series I wanted to do, of course, included a trip to former USSR and, to provide the perfect picture, I suggested a visit to the mysterious former Soviet Central Asia. Agreed, the boss said. Tashkent only.

Soon I arrived there for my first visit. It was September 10th, 2001.

One of the most surreal moments of my life was having dinner, black tea, non and shorpo, watching on TV the Twin Towers being hit by the airplanes. I was staying in the house of my translator, a nice man, very patient with that clueless foreigner who didn't know much about his country. We were watching the developments unfold on satellite Russian TV; I asked to see the news of the attack on the main Uzbek channel. He said yes. On the evening news programme, there was no mention, not a single word, of the catastrophe afoot. Rather, there was a 10-minute summary of a speech made by president Islam Karimov about, if I am not mistaken, the development of agriculture in the Samarkand region. We went back to the Russian channel - the images were those of the CNN, being dubbed in Russian in Moscow and then sent to Transoxiana. I felt so, so isolated from the rest of world.

The next day, the national channel newscast had Karimov again. It was his speech about the attacks in the US. He was saying that he warned the world that this could happen, but the world did not listen.

30 years on after the fall of the USSR and the independence of Uzbekistan, 20 years after my first visit. What changed? A lot. But impossible not to start with the first president of Uzbekistan. His death in 2016 hit me like a bomb, as I am sure it hit all my friends in the country and its countrymen abroad. For me, Karimov (and Tamerlane, perhaps his alter ego, commemorated in statues which replaced those of Lenin everywhere) was the face and the voice of Uzbekistan after independence. It is undeniable that all the first leaders in former Soviet Central Asia created the independent countries based on very personal ideas of how they should be. The agency of the men at the top was evident. It needn't be the way it was, it was their ideas, with the support of the elite which survived the Soviet transition, that invented the new countries. It was like this in Turkmenistan, with the crazy personality cult of the Turkmenbashi; also in Kyrgyzstan, where Askar Akayev held a more progressive view that would be celebrated in the West (and eventually lead to three revolutions). In Uzbekistan, Karimov celebrated Tamerlane and there was no democracy or political freedom. Especially after the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan attacks in Tashkent in 1999. And more so, strongly, after Andijon massacre, in 2005. Karimov saw enemies everywhere, torture reports galore came about. He played with the interests of Moscow and Washington, which found him to be an erratic leader not shy to isolate the country if need. And there was isolation.

Not for tourists, though. After my 2001 trip, I went back to the country in 2003, then in 2012 and finally 2018, but in all these visits, unlike the first, I was just a tourist. In 2003, my first experience showed me how easy was to travel there independently. Yes, a visa was needed and there was the bureaucracy of registration in hotels, but these did not bother me at all. I was greeted by my translator again, who took me for a nice lunch on the Broadway in Tashkent. I remember vividly; tall, leafy trees protecting us from the hot sun, a crowd selling things, shouts, music, children, so much life, not a tourist around. I went to the old town and became lost on the maze of streets, looking for the mysterious madrasa that housed the Uthman Koran. Then, in Samarkand: the amazing movement of people on the bazaar next to the Bibi Khanoum mosque, a throng of people selling all sorts of objects everywhere and huge pans of plov being prepared on the pavement. The smell of cotton oil from the cooking. People with turbans chatting inside the bazaar. It was hard for a tourist, not much information, few could speak English. I found my way to the Ulugh Bek observatory on my own, asking people around in my poor Russian, and felt so proud. Then Bukhara; spending a lazy afternoon by the Labi-Hauz pool on a tapchan drinking tea and watching the boys diving from the top of the trees on the water. And then, finally, Khiva, where in one afternoon next to Ichon Qala I could not find a single soul that could speak even Russian to ask my way around.

Progressively, this universe was being erased, being replaced by a new, "modern" Uzbekistan. It was, it is, the Uzbekistan thought for the tourist who really has a lot of money, many of whom really don't care about Uzbekistan, don't want to understand the history, culture or even the local cuisine. Some visit just to tell others they have been to "forbidden Turkestan", perhaps echoing some long-forgotten book they read in their youth. Some visit because they are bored and want something different. And then, alas! Find a place that it being rebuilt to be exactly the same they are used to. What an irony.

In Samarkand, I was gutted to see all the buzz around the bazaar gone in my visits in 2012 and 2018. it was quiet, clean. Boring. In 2018, I realised that the traditional neighbourhood was isolated behind a wall from the street between the Registan ensemble and Bibi Khanoum. Crossing the gate to visit the wonderfully messy neighbourhood felt like visiting a ghetto. It was shameful; The touristic area was separated from the alive, real district surrounding it. I thought of the millions of people visiting that never get to know the real Samarkand, apart from the heavily rebuilt architectonic treasures. In Tashkent, it was similar: the new Kast Imon complex came about, destroying most of the old town and creating a nice environment for people to come, see the Uthman Koran, and leave. Felt extremely artificial to visit the beautiful, shining ensemble. In Bukhara, my heart was crushed when I saw that much of the labyrinthine area between the Ark fortress and the Labi-Hauz was demolished when I last visited in 2018. I suppose it will become, or has already become, a large shopping area selling mini-Kalom Minarets made in China. Traditional buildings I had seen in 2003 are all gone. Only live in my memory.

There are the huge changes brought by Karimov's successor, Shavkat Mirzyoyev. In my last visit, I asked people everywhere what they made of the new president. In Nurata, in Samarkand, in Termez, in Margilan, in Karakalpakstan. The answer was always the same: "He is taking us out of isolation, this is good!". The smiles were particularly beautiful on the Penjikent-Samarkand border crossing. It was closed for years due to the fracas between Karimov and the Tajik leader Emomali Rakhmon. I arrived from Samarkand to the crossing. First thing I saw was a large photo of Mirzyoyev and Rakhmon smiling, shaking hands. Then at the queue for passport control, people looked like they could not believe what they were about to do. I told one of them casually - so good to be able to cross now, right? The man almost hug me. I made the same comment to the border guard checking my passport. A large, beautiful smile was the answer. On the other side of the border, near Penjikent, the owner of a bed and breakfast said that that was the best news in decades. "We now can visit family members we had not seen in so many years. If we need to go shopping for something we can't find in Penjikent, we don't need to travel all the way to distant Dushanbe, we can go to Samarkand. The tourist are coming again". His life had changed completely, for the better.

And then, there is the other side of Mirzyoyev. Despite improvements in human rights, the efforts to eliminate the Karimov isolation, the improvement of relationships with neighbours, the better conditions for journalists, there is no political opening. The opposition continues to be as distant as ever of being able to take part in free and fair elections. Of course everybody knows who will be elected president again in October, and most probably until he believes it is time to go (or dies). Why this? Fear of instability? The idea that the Uzbek people is not prepared to deal with political pluralism? Some say that at least there is not as much repression as it used to be under Karimov. That Mirzyoyev is at least willing to accept opposition. These optimists say it is a matter of time, that eventually political freedom will come to the land between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Let's see. I would not hold my breath though.

Not sure if Uzbekistan is better following 30 years of independence. I did not have the opportunity of seeing the country during the Communism. Clearly, the Russian chauvinism is gone, as well as the monolithic ideology. But the old rule was replaced by one of nationalism, ethnic dominance of the Uzbeks and materialism, the worst side of capitalism. That was so under Karimov and continues under Mirzyoyev. There is still a lot of poverty, while some people are richer and richer. It troubles me that, still today, it is so difficult in Uzbekistan to talk about rights for ethnic minorities in the country, particularly Tajiks, who continue, in most cases, to hide their own identity in a society dominated by ethnic Uzbeks, pretty much as it was during the USSR. Likewise, I see reluctance to talk about the rights of the few Russians who decided to remain and who are as Uzbeks as others, despite, in many cases, not being able to speak Uzbek properly. Religion continues to be a bone of contention, with the eternal fear that extremism is brewing somewhere in the Fergana Valley, in the East of the country.

So, in a sense, much continues to be the same, despite the change of presidents, even despite the fall of Communism.

But certainly the Uzbeks have evolved a lot in the development of its own identity and can now be prouder than even of their country, a beautiful one, with an amazing cultural heritage and nature which needs to be recovered and preserved. For the next 30 years, I wish that Uzbekistan embraces the concept of a civic, multiethnic society, finds a way to develop political pluralism and its economy without destroying its environment and turning its wonderful urban cultural heritage into some sort of Disneyland to get the easy money of rich tourists.

Above all, Uzbeks need to be aware of their responsibility of protecting the treasures they hold in their territory, the colours that continue being a source of dreams for me and so many people in the world. They need to protect the source of magic, as put so elegantly by the Uzbek poet Mirtemir Tursunov (1910-1978):

Thy land holds the key to treasures of riches,
In thy garden and desert a happy year's song,
Left and right, thy gold and thy silk;
How many the people enrapt in thy path,
Thou art fruit and wine and water and cake,
Thou are twin rivers of love,
Thou, Uzbekistan.