Monthly Archives: September 2004

why he won’t marry her

It is hard to let go of judgment—I can rarely, barely do it, and only in bits and pieces. Americans judge a woman by her marital status too, never mind that single women are happier and healthier than their married sisters. It’s otherwise for men. Odd, as we’re meant to believe it’s the about face.

A magazine cover in a subway kiosk caught my eye today. It slammed: “Why he won’t marry her” over the foreheads of two happy people I recognized only as famous types—glossy, pearly, faintly wax. Well of course she wants to marry the chap and of course he won’t marry her because she isn’t 100% virginal or motherly, not perfectly poured into one of the two molds acceptable for women in 2004, though she’s tried her damnedest. She slipped up somewhere and is not woman enough for him to quit screwing about and settle down. We will read about her imperfections and her punishment: HE WON’T MARRY HER. Such a shame.

It’s just conjecture. I didn’t read the article. I’m just pointing out that we aren’t so much farther along, as some of you thoughtfully suggested.

Yesterday someone I’d just met commented (consoled?) that it’s good I’m single now and can explore myself, because I won’t always have that space, won’t always be single. Can you imagine the reaction if I said to someone, “It’s good you are married now and can explore intimacy, because you won’t always have that.” Good word, it does sound like something I might say. Gracious. Anyway, you get my point, I hope.

Yet Central Asian women need men in a way Americans do not. They need men for status, a poignant status required for survival. An unprotected woman is prey of sorts. An American woman’s status is raised by marriage, but it’s a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses status, something we can intelligently recognize as inauthentic and disposable, and in doing so, marry out of love, respect and friendship instead of insecurity and fear.

step out of its grasp -or- uzbeks are not islamic radicals

My last bit inspired lots of feedback and I realize that my message was not clear. My point, which I have only just begun to touch upon, is that we humans do a truly poor job of considering another person’s, or culture’s, lot. Only when we can let go of our own opinions for a moment and sink into another’s way of life can we begin to understand something actively and wholly, rather than just theoretically. We are so accustomed to our own biases and striving toward the way we want things that we don’t even consider that things might not exist as we assume they do.

Certainly, I haven’t gotten that far in my story, but some of the responses have been so contrary to my point that I want to clear a few things up first.

Spouses and children can be amazing delights and by my observation certainly the greatest teachers available. Because I am still learning more basic lessons, I’ve yet to enroll, but I certainly don’t begrudge anyone their choice to do so. In explaining my single & free framework of the last message, I wanted to convey that on previous trips abroad, I didn’t realize that almost no one understood my reasons for being single and childless no matter how passionately I explained. Nor did I realize just how squarely I was judged for it. I didn’t understand this for the very reason I was not understood—because I didn’t truly understand their culture. I understood theoretically, but not fundamentally, not in full blood. Their judgments of me were no more in error than my expectation that they comprehend my situation. The fabric of our cultures are just too different. We did have one common ground that fed our judgments: That our way was better. So much better, in fact, that we need not step out of its grasp long enough to consider openly the basis for other ways.

The Uzbeks are not Islamic radicals, at least not 98% of them, and certainly not the people I wrote about. They are Muslim like most of us are religious—they celebrate holidays. The response that Americans are fighting to keep our freedom because of views like those of the Kazakhs and Uzbeks is absurd. The war on Iraq is making Americans and the world less safe and making Uzbek radicals out of young men and women who previously never even went to mosque. How?

The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, runs a repressive, abusive and corrupt government. He has persecuted and tortured Uzbeks for practicing Islam. Most everyone is tired of his rule, tired of the poverty and the repression that has gotten palpably worse since American’s so-called war on terror began. Of course, the Bush administration overlooks Karimov’s disgusting human rights violations because we have a base in his country, conveniently located on the northern border of Afghanistan. This doesn’t impress the Uzbek people and out of desperation, some have begun to take up arms with the IMU. Hence, America is creating Islamic radicals rather than stamping them out. To read more about this, check out EurasiaNet.

Frankly speaking, Americans’ freedoms are in more endangered by Christian fundamentalists than Muslim. If Bush and his party are honestly concerned about women’s (and human) rights, they would begin by passing pro-women (pro-people) legislation here, rather than incurring billions in debt by mucking about abroad.

But I digress.

because you don’t have kids

One night Ulugbek asked me how many people I’d slept with. I laughed at him and replied, “I’m not telling you that. You’d judge me.”

“I wouldn’t judge you for that. I judge you because you don’t have kids, but not for that.” he informed.

“You what?” I laughed, “What?”

“Yes, I think that you are selfish with your freedom and travels and that you are really just afraid that you can’t afford to pay someone to take care of your kids.”

I am long used to the ubiquitous questions “Are you married? Do you have children?” In Central Asia, women are wives and mothers. Even if they work outside the home, motherhood is how they achieve status and respect. This marriage question is no different from our ubiquitous: “And tell us what you do.” We hear the occupation, and we label accordingly.

Yet we understand the marriage question because this is the case in most of the world. It wasn’t so long ago that our world was like this. Our own parents and grandparents probably still harbor this sentiment in some form or another.

Yet we urbanites tend to look down on this. Some think it’s selfish to have children, generally when we judge the parents as unfit or unready. Like everyone else, we assume our way is better and assume that at the very least we will be understood when we properly explain. I always explained to the shopkeeper, the taxi driver, the housemother, the rug seller, that I wasn’t married, I was too young, and I wanted my freedom. I saw that some women understood, and understood deeply. What I didn’t thoroughly understand was that other women, and most of the men, judged me harshly and most likely labeled me as the wanton hussy they’d seen so frequently and unabashedly in American films and TV. The equivalent in their culture is a prostitute.

Too young? I was a decade past nubile in their eyes. Freedom? My call for freedom isn’t something Central Asians have a working grasp of, especially not the women. Tradition is almost the only thing they have that provides a sense of order in their lives, and that tradition is all about family. My American-bred need for independence is still contradictory to the human instinct for survival in this part of the world and I would slowly begin to understand that, and Ulug’s judgment of me, this trip around.

“Ah, okay, Ulug.” I answered, his youth the only thing keeping me from offense.

more to come.

no way to make a living

“Do you know what intelligence is? It is the capacity, surely, to think freely, without fear, without a formula, so that you begin to discover for yourself what is real, what is true; but if you are frightened, you will never be intelligent.” – Krishnamurti

I’m settling back into New York and not sure what to make of myself. A good trip does that, I suppose. I’m not sure what to make of the images and thoughts from the trip, either. Anything? I’ve a strong desire to let it all go. What do I do this for?

Something else pushes me toward working with the Kalon girls material. I’ve been drawn toward them since July. I’m not inspired to write out, day by day, the highlights and events of the trip as I’d attempted and intended to along the way. In some ways, the trip can be boiled down to three points. The first: I no longer want to be a full-time photographer. I knew this. Now I know better. Now I know and I don’t mind, don’t think I’m giving up something I shouldn’t.

I set up shoots with NGOs because I wanted a connection and purpose in Central Asia, especially in Almaty, because I intended to scout it out as a place to live. I wanted to insure that I’d do something other than visit Guka and depend on her for the connection. Well, that took an interesting turn when I learned that Guka, who works for an NGO, knew someone at every organization I’d planned to work with. What happened with Guka in Almaty was, if not complicated, than too long a story and unrelated to my point (I don’t want to be a photographer) to go into here.

There were a few places I ended up working with in Kazakhstan, and the work is decent but not brilliant. I realized that if I don’t really get to know a subject and click, I’m not really interested and can’t be bothered to carry the lenses, the flashes, the heavy stuff. My external flash broke anyway, which meant a lot of slow sync indoors (the intentionally blurry indoor photos you’ve seen. The alternative, basic full on flash, is just miserable). Oddly enough, I didn’t much care. I was emotionally invested with a project in Bukhara and wanted to work on it, but couldn’t cancel the rest of the trip and go back. What if something wonderful and new awaited? What kind of traveler would call off the places she hadn’t been for a place she had, many times? So, I walked through the rest of my planned itinerary, making the shoots that came through (many didn’t, thanks to the scratchy NGO world and their August vacations). In the end, I did leave Almaty a bit early to go back to Bukhara.

If I am not emotionally invested in a project, I don’t want to shoot it.

This is no way to make a living. Not in photography anyway, as I am not emotionally invested in auto adverts or underfed girls with fake boobs.

The second: I’ve a new understanding of human connection and can now feel cultural difference, rather than simply understand the theoretical concept of it. This was quite a revelation, which made me happy I didn’t pursue anthropology. Culture, on some level, must be FELT (the big signifiers of culture—language, foods, many customs, etc.—are, after all, usually the responsibility of the women to pass down. Forgive, please, my suggestion that women feel more than men) and this doesn’t translate well, if at all, to academics. However much I enjoy theories, I now don’t believe culture can honestly or accurately be jammed into them. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be, it’s just not for me.

This clicked for me in the mountains outside Almaty, after I’d been a few weeks staying with three, very different, Central Asian families. This I will write about.