tashkent since 9/11

Gulnara chatting with neighbor through courtyard wall

It was Friday night when I arrived, and the family was sitting down to dinner while minding a table of tourists across the courtyard. I joined them for melon and beer and we caught up on the last four years. Gulnara and Nasibulla are well, though tired. The tourist season is endless, mindless work. Gulnara often gets up at 2 a.m. to feed transiting tourists then Nasibulla drives them to the airport. Back to bed, then up again at 6 until bed at 12 or 1 a.m., and up again in the wee hours for the airport. After age 55 this must be extremely unpleasant. They appreciate their business and situation, because it’s wildly fortunate for Uzbekistan, but they seem heavy, cynical, and tired, and rightly so. Gulnara is fond of saying that she works like an American, incessantly and without pleasure. Their eldest son moved to the States with his family in 2001. Their daughter is in Tashkent raising her two boys on her own. And Rufshan, their youngest, graduated from University in Economics in May and can’t find a job. They don’t seem hopeful that he will, to put it mildly. The economy is bleak.

They’ve added on to the house. More rooms and many now have bathrooms, so no more schleps across the courtyard for a shower or toilet. It’s still Gulnara’s though, with the same Soviet-issue furniture, machine-made Bukharan rugs, and the wonderful courtyard with fig trees and traditional homtakhta, where we eat her homemade jam and fresh lepyoshka.

Gulnara supported Alisher’s idea of taking the night train to Bukhara instead of a car. It made sense, as I’d have all day Saturday to look around Tashkent instead of running immediately to the autostation for a taxi and eight hour ride through the heat to Bukhara, only to arrive at night and go to sleep.

On Saturday morning I visited with them some more, then took off for Chorsu Bazaar and the nearby metro station. Chorsu is where the suicide bombings occurred last March, steps away from Gulnara’s in the old town. It feels more or less the same, unlike the rest of Tashkent.

From Chorsu I took the metro to the train station, got my ticket without a hitch (about ten dollars for a coupe/sleeper) and made my way by metro to the city center.

tashkent trams 2000
tashkent trams 2000

By this point I was shocked by how much Tashkent has changed in four years. I thought perhaps that in 2000, I just didn’t notice how heavy it feels because I was so involved in my worries with the tourists and my own idiotic situation, but I wasn’t quite that self-absorbed. Tashkent is different. Heavier. There’s no one about. Buildings and streets look cleaner and fancier, but there is no one around using them, no one out in the street cafes, no one shopping. I asked why, and most gave me their honest opinion—it’s because no one wants to deal with the Militsia (police). And because no one has the money to go out. The situation is that much worse. In 2000, during the six months I was here I was never once asked for my passport while walking around. Today, my first, I was stopped in the metro. I admit that I kind of glared at the officer. It wasn’t intentional; it was a look that just sprang up because of the stories I hear. He stopped me and asked for my passport, and said “What? It’s not Uzbek? Where are you from?” He didn’t stop me as a foreigner but as a local. He took me into a small room and went through my bag, told me about his time working as a driver in L.A., made some more small talk and sent me off.

Tashkent feels like New York did just after 9/11. That’s really the only way to explain it, it’s that heavy. One day in Tashkent and I’m more than ready to shove off to Bukhara and see what’s happening there.

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