At nine o’clock at night we arrived in Tashkent. Zaza drove through the streets of low houses, crossed the railway bridge, circled around the airport and followed the electric tram tracks. Shops and markets stood open. He turned into a narrow alley and stopped in front of a solid blue iron door. Alhom got out of the car and opened it.
“A wonderful garden,” I said amazed, as we walked past the garage line.
On three elongated sides, the house surrounded a courtyard, and on the fourth side rose a wall that separated it from the neighboring house. Trellises of grapevines twisted above rows where mint, basil and marjoram grew. In the corners, heavy golden figs weighed down the branches of the trees and rose bushes climbed up the walls of the house.
Quince trees and apple trees interwove their branches and pepper plants shone green on the earth. Concrete paths surrounded the garden and crossed one another in its center. Two faucets dripped onto the edges of the path.
“I told you. Do you still want to go to a hotel?”
“No. I’ll sleep here.” I set my knapsack down on a large, high square wooden bed that stood under an apple tree.
“This is Lado’s room every time he comes here,” said Zaza. We took off our shoes and stepped onto the wooden floor in the entry, and went into
a room with a floor covered in rugs and a television in its center.
Rolled up mattresses and piles of sheets and blankets in the corners. A plane flew over the house, shaking the walls.
“You have to get used to the airplanes,” said Zaza as we left the room and put our shoes back on. Antonov had taken off from the Tashkent airport, the largest and busiest airport in central Asia, and made his way eastwards, above the house and the yard, gleaming in the
“Where’s the bathroom?”
“By the entry. Come, I’ll show you.” The bathroom was a large concrete room with a bathtub and a large oil stove that heated the water and the
room against the cold of the central Asian autumn night. Clotheslines stretched from side to side. A patchy mirror hung over the sink and a
washing machine stood in the space. The toilet was by the entry. A large room with a hole in the floor. A rush broom stood in the corner of the
room and strips of newspaper lay on a small shelf.
“Do you want to shower or to come with us for a spin around the market?”
The watermelon stands were dark, and jet planes whistled over the house. Cars drove along the broad streets. It’s a big city, Tashkent. “Go that
way.” Alhom directed Zaza along the electric tram tracks. Alhom rapped on watermelons. Listens. Zaza bought bread at a nearby stand. Alhom
gathered grapes and peaches into bags. Hard newsprint. A heavy Uzbek woman sold small white balls. “What’s this?” I spit out the salty, sour
“Ah,” laughed Zaza. “Cheese balls from mare’s milk. In Tashkent they like it a lot.”
The Lada continued its nocturnal trip, jolting with the potholes to the cigarette market next to which women sold dumplings filled with meat.
“Tashkent is a city you can’t stay hungry in at any time of day,” giggled Alhom, collecting some cakes from a different peddler. The
warmth of a big city, the broad streets, the traffic, the slow, crowded tram honking between the low houses.
“There is no downtown. The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. There were 16,000 dead. Twelve on the Richter Scale. Our house was
destroyed. It was downtown. After the earthquake they gave us this land on the way to the airport and that’s were they built the new city center.”
“The Communists caused the earthquake.”
“They sure did,” laughed Alhom. The fruit and the bread roll around on the ledge under the rear window when Zaza cut across the nose of a truck.
“Do you want to eat some dog meat?”
“I don’t know,”
“This is the North Koreans’ neighborhood. They got to Tashkent as prisoners of war. Their specialty is cooking dog meat. In its last week, all they give the dog is milk. They say it’s good as a medicine. Do you want to taste it? I don’t think so.”
“Some other time. Now I’m full.”
“Alhom asks if you want to visit a friend with us and smoke.”
“I don’t mind.”
“It’s the best hashish in Asia.”
“And then we’ll go to a wedding.”
“It’s not a wedding of a man and a woman. They also call a circumcision a wedding. In the evening they perform the circumcision and early the next morning they hold the wedding party. You should come.”
The Lada entered the narrow streets and stopped in front of one of the iron gates. On foot, we wound our way along an alley and another dark alley and went through an iron door.
“Qirat.” Alhom made the introductions. “Qirat means warrior in Uzbek.”
“Tsur,” laughed Qirat.
“He’s laughing because Tsur means insolent in Uzbek. He asks what you do.”
“Traveling the Silk Road.”
“Ah.” Qirat laughed a heavy man’s laugh. His eyes were red and from a fresh pile he sorted cannabis flowers and seeds into a Russki paper.
“There are three passages from Uzbekistan to China, and in one of them, in the Choust Valley, there are huge amounts of opium and cannabis, from years of caravans that traveled through the valley, smoked, and dropped the seeds on the ground. Please.” He lit the cigarette and passed it around. The smoke smote the throat. Central Asian hashish. Lightheadedness and floating. “How is it?” smiled Qirat.
The cigarette went around again, long and stuffed with first quality fresh seeds and flowers. The latest crop.
“He says that anyone who doesn’t take it from the end is a sucker,” saidZaza when I refused the cigarette, feeling the sweet smoke reach the saturation point.
“Take, take,” Qirat held out the cigarette.
My head dropped all at once. “I have to sit lower down,” I said to Zaza. I cross through the dark to a low armchair and sprawl in it, closing my eyes. Lights danced in front of my lashes. My limbs turned to water.
“Everything’s all right. You have nothing to worry about.” Zaza leaned over me. “What’s up, Sam Samalot ?” roared Qirat from his place by the table. “Bring him some water,” he ordered his wife. “What’s it like to be an airplane pilot?”
I drank some water pathetically. “Take it, eat something.” Alhom offered me a piece of watermelon.
“You’ll be all right,” said Zaza. I nodded weakly and tried to smile. A miserable smile. The money belt lay heavy on my stomach. “Can you walk?”
I sipped some more water and stood up. Shakily walking, leaning on the walls of the dark alley. Zaza drove the Lada and supported me to the
room of Alhom’s house.
“Lie down here, you’ll be fine. I’ll take Lado to Qirat and we’ll come back later.” I lay down on the mattress, pulled off my shoes and listened to the planes roaring over the house. I was hot. I sweated out the dust of the road and the hashish and the thirst. Mosquitoes buzzed in the dark room.
“We’re going to the wedding. Do you want to come?” Zaza leaned over me.
“No. I think I’ll go to sleep.”
“Could I take a shirt, maybe? I didn’t bring enough shirts.”
“Sure. Take the brown shirt from the large knapsack.”
“Great. I’ll wash it and give it back in a few days. You really should come. When did you ever go to an Uzbek wedding?”
“Some other day,” I said. I got up from the mattress, taking with me the sleeping bag and the thin pallet and spread them on the high, square platform bed under the fig tree, covered myself with a sheet, gazed up at the stars and full moon that rose above the horizon, sweating the hashish out of my body into the cool of the night with the roar of the passing planes on their way to the republics and distant Cathay.
A warm and pleasant sun shone through the branches of the fig tree and filtered through leaves and tendrils of the grapevine trellis. I washed
the dust of the road and the night sweat away in the shower and came out into the cement area. Alhom’s grandmothers had washed the cement paving blocks, beating the dust with water. From Turkey in the east to the Uighur oases of the Takalamakan, the dust is beaten with Turkish
water. Lado was still sleeping. Alhom was washing his face, creased with exhaustion, and Zaza sat down by the table in the sun. One of the older woman limped to the table from the kitchen on the other side of the courtyard, bearing a Chainik and cups, bread, butter and sour yoghurt. I brought the watermelon and cut the quarters into chunks.
“On the weekend, we’ll go to the Fergana Valley. Alhom has to visit some friends there.”
“Tashkent is just a city,” said Zaza, “even though it’s nice to rest at Alhom’s house, to go have a smoke and drink and go to Uzbek weddings, but I know you, you don’t want to rest. What do you want to do until the weekend?”
“To get to know Tashkent, to talk to people from the university, the institutes and the museums and maybe fly to Dushanbe for a few days.”
“Dushanbe is very nice,” said Lado, lighting a cigarette and pouring himself some tea into a cup, breaking of a piece of the round bread loaf, buttering it and slicing some hard white cheese. The sun warmed the green garden. I picked some mint leaves and submerged them in the tea.
“What do you want to do?” asked Zaza as Alhom flung open the iron doors leading into the alley.
“I want to travel, and I want women, and I want to smoke and I want to drink and I want to smell the clear smell of the garden in the morning.”
Lado gave a slow wave of his hand, sitting in the hot sun under the roars of the airplanes taking off from the airport.
The wide streets of Tashkent, the heavy traffic, the low buildings that do not create a diffenet landscape and make it hard to know where exactly you are. “The Red Square of Tashkent,” jeered Alhom when I told him that I was going to the Historical Institute at Lenin Square. The huge square spread before me. Like the Red Square in Moscow, like the Tienanmen Square in Beijing. A huge, exposed space where tanks, buses, masses and space ships can move around comfortably. Lenin stood with his back to the inhuman square and waved his hand above the fountain. People were getting their picture taken with the gray statue of Lenin. Big Brother.
“Everywhere there is a statue of Lenin and a Lenin Museum and in every museum there is the same thing, a replica of his shirt with the bullet holes from the assassination attempt,” said Zaza disparagingly. “Replicas of his clothes and his pisspots. Here and in every Soviet city.” Leninism is not dead in central Asia. The strongman that came from the north, like the forces that came from the east, the south and the west, is a permanent presence in Central Asia. The further things got from the centers of Russian, Georgian and Estonian ferment, the stronger the hold of the central government looked, and the mechanisms work efficiently. From here, democracy looked like a whim. Like Europe is a whim of Asia, which has never succeeded in really touching it. I crossed to the underground. The metal wings of the apparatus designed to allow or prevent the entry of passengers leapt with deadly force at my pelvis, and I stopped short in alarm. I took care to set down the three five kopeck coins. The wings spread open with a mechanical thud. Wings intended for malevolence. The machine is God. Marble covered the floor of the underground. I got out at Charsu, the old city of Tashkent. A gray quarter that climbed up a hill between the madrasas – Muslim religious seminaries — of Kukaldash and Barak Khan. Artisan woodworkers bent and painted thin planks of poplar to make boxes and colorful cradles. Women stood with goods in their hands to sell, like in the Jum’a bazaar in Urgut, women sat on the tiles and embroidered hats, restaurants sold smoky kebab. “Marazhania,” I requested of the ice cream peddler. The sun emerged from the gray of the city. Huge markets for vegetables, fruit and clothing. Horses’ guts, ground meat, lumps of meat, chickens awaiting their fate and above them the mosque. “When was the mosque built?” I asked the Muslim sitting in the entryway. “Seventh century,” he said. In the seventh century, Islam had not yet reached Tashkent. It arrived here only in the eighth century. “Fourteenth century, according to your calculations,” said the Muslim, working out the year of the construction of the mosque from the date Muhammad set out from Mecca to Medina, for the Hijra, the immigration. A knife-seller displayed for me his central Asian knives with a crescent and stars on their blades. Sharp. At the end of December, 1917, the Muslims revolted against the Bolsheviks. Feelings ran high among 15 million Muslims against one and a half million Russians. The riots went on for two days, the 200,000 Muslims of Tashkent reinforced by 60,000 Kirghiz horsemen from the mountains. But the Bolsheviks, better organized and better armed, were able to control the revolt and cruelly executed anyone whom they thought had taken part. In Kokand, were the Islamic riots were reignited, the Muslims declared an autonomous province with a local parliament in January, 1918. The Bolsheviks of Tashkent, still in a state of shock from the Muslim revolt in the city, hastily put together an army made up mostly of German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war captured on the Russian front and sent to prison camps in Central Asia and launched an attack on the ancient city 160 kilometers southeast of Tashkent. The ancient city wall was breached, and soldiers of Austro-Hungarian Empire cut through the straggling people’s militia, plundering, looting, raping and murdering. In the massacre by the prisoners of war who had become Bolshevik soldiers, between 5,000 and 15,000 of the citizens of the ancient market town were killed. The Danish consul at Tashkent at the time wrote in a dispatch that looting to the tune of 20,000 rubles per capita was not unusual. Some of the mercenaries returned to Tashkent with 200,000 rubles in their pockets. I put the knife into my knapsack and said goodbye to the man who sold it to me. “Only for Muslims,” said the Tadjiks at the entrance to the Kukaldash madrasa. I smiled at them and hailed a cab on the relevant side of the road. I got down at the square where the big hotels are. “Is it possible to phone Tel Aviv?”
“If you order the call three days in advance. You might try at the post office.”
Tashkent. The capital of central Asia. From here, the gospel of the revolution went forth to the workers of Asia. The largest airport in central Asia. Dozens of take-offs and landings every day. “It’s impossible to get a line,” said the operator. “Try again tomorrow. But I doubt that you’ll have any success tomorrow either. From here, the lines go through Moscow, and you have to reserve a time for your call. To you want to make a reservation for three days from now?”
Zaza was late, as usual. “The car – Ah! Let’s try to get you tickets to Dushanbe.” I went into a hotel.
“Are you paying in dollars?’
“No. I’m a guest of the Academy.”
“Then only at the airport.”
“I have tickets that I bought with rubles at Intourist hotels.”
“I don’t know what went on there. Here – no.”
“Let’s go to the airport.” We rolled through the broad streets to the airport. “Give me your passport,” said Zaza, pushing his way through the crowd to the ticket office, waving the passport with conviction. The crowd parted. “He is a guest of the Academy of Sciences and he has a congress tomorrow in Dushanbe.”
“Only with dollars.”
“And with whom can I speak, Ninutchka?”
“With Natasha. She’s the boss.”
“There isn’t anything I can do, I need an authorization from the central office in town.”
“He’s a guest of the Academy, Natashinka, and here are the receipts, he pays everywhere in rubles.”
“Not here. Talk to the director in chief.”
“Write down the address for me,” said Zaza, gathering up the receipts and the passport, signaling to taxi drivers to slow down, open their
windows and show him the way as he sticks to their tails.
“Not here,” said the local manager in the Aeroflot building. “You have to talk to Ninutchka at the airport.”
“Whew,” said Lado. “Let’s get out of here. I have a lady friend at one of the hotels who will be able to help.”
“I’m sorry,” said the lady friend. “It has to be through Intourist or Aeroflot. It’s because there’s a foreign passport.”
“Let’s try Intourist at the airport.
“We can’t,” said the Intourist clerk. “Have you spoken to the manager at Aeroflot at the airport?”
“Why can’t you?”
“We only deal with tickets for today, and these are tickets for tomorrow,” she said.
“Let’s go back to the main office.” Zaza mopped his brow with a filthy handkerchief.
“If you bring me an authorization from the director in chief, I’ll have a look at it,” said Dimitri from Reservations.
“Hello,” knocked Zaza on the door. “We have here a guest of the Academy of Sciences who is traveling on the Silk Road, tomorrow he has a congress in Dushanbe, and here as you can see, he pays in rubles everywhere. We don’t have any dollars, and it’s all paid for by the Georgian Academy of Sciences, and we would be most grateful it you would be able to authorize tickets for him to Dushanbe in rubles. Return.”
“He pays in rubles everywhere.” Zaza spread out the used tickets from Bukhara to Khiva and Samarkand. “At Intourist hotels and in Aeroflot
“And why didn’t he purchase a ticket through Intourist?”
“Intourist said that they only sell tickets for today. Here’s his invitation.” Zaza smoothed out the telex.
The director put on his glasses and examined the tickets, the receipts and the telex. He smiled. “Go down to Dmitri and tell him it’s all right.”
“Could you write that down?”
“Let him call me.”
Dmitri shrugged his shoulders. “It’s really not at all customary to sell tickets in rubles and not in dollars.” He picked up the telephone receiver and spoke to the director. “All right, give me your previous tickets and the invitation, and I’ll photocopy them and check what happened at Bukhara and Urgench.” He made photocopies and wrote a letter authorizing a one-time purchase in rubles. “With this letter, you go back to the airport,” said Dmitri. “You have extraordinary good luck, I don’t know who you are, but you should know that we have never had anything like this.”
“Ha, ha!” laughed Zaza as we slid swiftly down the stairs from the fifth floor to the loyally waiting Lada and charged off to the airport. “For a moment there, I wasn’t sure. That Dmitri is a tough nut.”
“Great job,” I said. Gurdieff, who was born in Alexandropol not far from Kars, was a Georgian. His search for the source of ideas did not prevent him from being a human being. Trading, stealing, defrauding, gaining economic advantage from anything that could advance his ideas. An Asian method. Luck helps those who help luck. The boss at the airport looked at the letter, and she propelled us to the head of the crowding line. I stuck the blue tickets into the depths of the money belt.
“Are you sure you want to fly tomorrow? There’s a wedding in the evening.”
“Take me to an Uzbek wedding when I get back.”
“Whatever you say.
“Zaza turned the steering wheel, driving back to Alhom’s house in Akdarinskaya Street.
“This is my brother-in-law,” said Alhom. “He’s a dentist.”
“Nusrat,” the Uzbek introduced himself. “I’m looking for connections in Israel. Maybe you know some people who would want to build a hotel in Tashkent? I can buy the land. A good hotel. We need a good hotel in Tashkent.”
“Maybe I can look into it when I get back. It’s not really my field.”
“Some of my friends have told me that I look Jewish. That’s because Jews and Arabs lived together. Do you want me to make you some gold crowns?” said Nusrat, smiling with a golden mouth.
I phoned Vika. “Vika is Mark’s secretary in Tashkent,” the office workerat the Jewish Agency in Tibilisi had told me. A young voice answered me in good Hebrew. “Mark is going back to Israel. He’s already in Moscow. What are you doing today? Would you like to meet?”
“I’m flying to Dushanbe tomorrow.”
“Great. Can I send something with you for the head of the Jewish community there?”
We arranged to meet by the watermelon market. Zaza drove me there. “How will you recognize her?”
“She said she was a good-looking young girl.”
Vika was an 18-year-old girl. Black hair flowed to her shoulders and her eyes were dark. Her body was slim and her lips smiled when we stopped the Lada. Zaza drove a kilometer down the road and stopped. He waited in the car. Vika took me to a square apartment block in a housing project. We went up some stairs and she opened the door. She was not a Bukharan Jew. She was from the influx of Russian Jews who had come to Tashkent during and after the war. Her room was like the room of any girl her age in a big city anywhere in the world. “Have you seen Tashkent already?”
“A little. The city looks doesn’t look all that interesting.”
“What are you talking about, it’s a terribly interesting city, it’s a big city. Would you like to come to the Succoth party we are having on Thursday?”
“I’m in Dushanbe.”
“What a shame. I would gladly have shown you around the city.’ She gave me the head of the Dushanbe Jewish community’s phylacteries and prayer shawl. “Do you want to call Mark in Moscow, or would you like me to tell him something? He should be calling me today.”
“Ask him to give my family in Israel my telephone number in Tashkent and have them call me on Friday evening.” It is impossible to make outgoing calls. Incoming calls can be dialed easily. Direct dialing. The wonders of the system.
“Have a good flight,” smiled Vika. “Dushanbe is a beautiful city,” she said in a soft Russian accent. “Mark took me there.”