Category Archives: central asia

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.

kalyan minaret girls

Cranky and annoyed, I left the guesthouse after snapping at Ulugbek and went off to see my Kalyan girls for a last sunset shoot. When I stepped into the alley I realized I’m behaving exactly as poorly as I did last month when it grew time to leave Bukhara. I laughed, chagrined that grinning Ulug realized my trouble before I did.

I’ve yet to mention the Kalyan Girls because I want to introduce them properly. Three hours before I leave Bukhara for Tashkent is probably not the best time, but I want. They are ten or so girls who sell souvenirs on the street by the Kalyan Minaret, a structure so grand Ghengis Khan decided to spare it (though little if anything else in Central Asia). By talking to tourists they have learned to speak English remarkably well, as well as some French, German, Italian and Japanese. They speak with an ease that book-learners can’t manage and attack Australian tourists with, “Goood’ay Mate!” Americans with “What’s up?” and so on. Years back, we initally met common ground with our need for making fun of the tourists.

The photo of me on my info page from 2000 is with the baby cousin of one of the girls, with the Kalyan complex in the background.

My first night back in Bukhara, I planted myself on the curb near the minaret and tried to catch up on the past years. We settled in and they braided my hair and asked personal questions. I answered and asked some of them. This pastime of just sitting, relaxing and watching at their sidewalk shops in the shade of the madrassa, is one of my favorites in Bukhara. They fill me up and I feel connected.

My last night, I went to shoot some last photos, collect birthdays, and to buy something from everyone’s shop. Yes, shopping again. I loath it, but they helped. Of course, the original twelve kids became thirteen, then brothers with shops popped up, and mothers and fathers. I cut it off at sixteen, said goodbye and carried my loot (your souvenir presents) back to the hotel with me. I didn’t bring enough cash but they made me take and come back with the money in the morning. When I left to meet Maryam for dinner, tears welled up and I stared through them at beautiful, dusty old Bukhara at sunset. I’ve no idea what God is, but it is positively, definitely present to me in this city.

Their slideshow is better viewed after reading the bulk, I suppose. (Kalyan is transliterated a number of ways. I’ve used both Kalyan & Kalon to help searchers.)

the beach at issyk kul

I’ve an unexpected morning in Bishkek to type out my thoughts. It’s overwhelming. Where to start? Perhaps with a correction on the Bishparmak statement in the last post. Many Kazakhs do love their national dish, and were horrified to hear that anyone felt otherwise. Though it’s popular here in Kyrgyzstan as well, I’ve still yet to try it. My friend here, Jamilya, explained that perhaps I haven’t had it because it is only made for big celebrations and a horse or sheep must be slaughtered for the dish. Trying it in a restaurant (entirely possible) just isn’t the same.

I left Kazakhstan on the 14th for Kyrgyzstan, and spent a few days at Issyk-kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world (after Titicaca in Peru). The fresh air was quite a treat. I went from night bus (not my choice of travel, but I took it for Guka. A mistake that snapped our friendship, strained from communicating poorly and being together too much. A painful lesson learned, is being learned, here) to soviet four-person bunk room with Guka, Nadilya, and her two kids. Then I met up with Jamilya at a lovely guesthouse in the next town, unfortunately overrun by an obnoxiously loud family, replete with drunken, obstreperous, egotistical father and screaming, miserable child. They left the dining area and bathrooms an obscene mess. The family was so uncouth that I’d no idea they were of the new rich. Only when we walked back to the guesthouse and Jamilya pointed out the obnoxious father’s giant black Mitsubishi SUV did I realize that this unbearable family is of the new wealthy class—and also Kazakh. There seems to be some animosity from the Kyrgyz toward the wealthier Kazakhs. Jamilya said of the man and the new rich, “Yes, of course he is! They are all loud and intolerable and terribly full of themselves. It’s unbearable”

View from Aunt's Flat, Issyl Kul
View from Aunt’s Flat, Issyl Kul

It is understood in the ’Stans that if someone is wealthy, he is wildly unscrupulous. Especially if he joins the ranks of his impudent, SUV-driving comrades. Unfortunately, this is usually true. The resort town of Cholpon-Ata was overrun by such people and the vibe was unpleasant.

Like beach towns in the West, Soviet resort towns all have a similar feel. Open-air cafes line the streets, each crowded with plastic tables and chairs shaded by umbrellas emblazoned with cigarette ads. TVs for Karaoke blast head-splitting pop music. People stroll along in beachwear drinking beer, eating ice cream and relaxing. From Baltic and Black Sea beaches to the shores of Issyk-kul, on to the Pacific coasts of the Russian Far East, it is more or less the same scene. Generally people are quite easygoing, but here in Cholpon-Ata, everyone had something to prove, or show off.

Those with new money strut about in tight, gaudy bright-colored clothing (this isn’t fashionable Moscow) and sport a scowl that screams of their boredom and superiority. It seems a thin veneer over a wretched, lonely misery of never, ever enough. Of “Do they have more than me and if so can I hide it ’til I get it too? How do I get it too? Am I enough? What is wrong?” It won’t be long until Prozac arrives here, if it hasn’t already.

After a night at the guesthouse, Jamilya, her mother, sister, and I left for their aunt’s flat a few towns east. Quiet! No hot water, but clean and quiet, and a kitchen to cook in. Much better for the yoga retreat: morning and afternoon sessions on the beach. Tuesday, a giant rainbow passed over the lake as we practiced. Wednesday, I moved again for a photo project at elderly centers in Balykchi, and then onto Bishkek, where I stayed at Jamilya’s house with her father, who was alone for the week while the family vacationed at the lake.

While I hugely appreciate Guka and Jamilya’s hospitality, it overwhelms me. I was relieved to be on my own for a bit.

Uyghur circumcision

kazan of plov
kazan of plov

For over two weeks I’ve been back in Central Asia and still yet to eat p’lov, the national dish of the ‘Stans. Though the Kazakh national dish is bishparmak, which means ‘five fingers’ and is made usually of horse meat and noodles, no one seems to like it much, so they too celebrate p’lov. The Kazakhs I’ve met, anyway.

The complete set of pics are up on Flickr.

I’ve not had manti, samsa, or shashlik, either. I usually don’t order for myself, and everyone keeps feeding me chicken. Or lamb. Had lamb’s head yesterday, in fact, and they placed the head smack in front of me such that I kept glancing at the nose, which looked quite like it was still capable of smelling the feast. Yes, again veggie thoughts. And though the fat-streaked meat looked a gruesome color that suggested it hadn’t met with refrigeration, I admit it tasted quite good.

Today, at long last, I ate p’lov. Uyghur p’lov, at that. I went to the Sundet Toy of Gulnara’s friend’s son. It was just what I needed, as Kazakhs in Almaty aren’t traditional in the least, and I’ve been missing the cultural charm of Uzbekistan. Yeah, who’d guess? So, Gulnara, Nadilya and I took a taxi to Issyk, about an hour east of Almaty, to celebrate the circumcision of Rasul, the son of Gulistan, Guka’s Uyghur friend. Uyghurs are a Muslim, Turkic-language speaking Central Asian people from Xinjiang, now a province of western China. The Chinese government is not traditionally kind, and in the last hundred and some years about half a million Uyghurs have left their homes in Xinjiang for the ’Stans. Guka loves Uyghurs. She claims they are more open, happier, have better food, and are all-around more fun than the other Central Asians. Well, what better way to find out than a circumcision party?

Nadilya, the Kazakh Susan Sarandon, & Guka. The matching scarves are circumcision party gifts
Nadilya, the Kazakh Susan Sarandon, & Guka. The matching scarves are circumcision party gifts

We got a late start because Nadilya ran a snag behind. Nadilya has an organization called the Chi Center where I teach yoga. She looks like a Kazakh Susan Sarandon, and I spent the night we met trying to remember the name of the film, Thelma and Louise, which no one had seen anyway.

Nadilya, the Kazakh Susan Sarandon, & Guka. The matching scarves are circumcision party gifts

Once we made it to Issyk, the driver took us to the proper street and let us off. We couldn’t find the street number 119A (it was an urban planning disaster of the ‘street ends for a field and begins again on the other side’ ilk) and spent the next forty minutes searching it out. I was delighted to have my camera because between plucking apples, plums and nectarines off trees and sucking them down, and odd things that popped up on Sadovaya Street, it was a photogenic 40 minutes: view a slide show (click F11 if the verticals aren’t fully viewable). And because without it to entertain me, I would have been really annoyed.

Unfortunately, we arrived after the mullah gave the blessing. The men were sitting outside at a table in the courtyard somberly awaiting dinner, and the women sat at a table inside. Apparently Uyghur women and men sit separately at such events. Gulistan kissed and hugged me hello (we’d never met), and took us in to meet her newly circumcised son. ‘Last night, it happened last night,’ she explained.

The first question I asked Guka when she invited me to the event was how old is the boy? I’ve been to a briss or two, and it’s quite low key as the baby is so new. But I had a Muslim boyfriend from Malaysia who was circumcised at 13 and, well, it seemed a traumatic endeavor for him. Was Rasul 13? Would I be feeling his pain?

Rasul is seven
Rasul is seven

He was lying in bed playing a video game with a bunch of other Uyghur boys who sat on the floor. A bag full of money was next to him on the bed. Each of us put about 200 tenge (about USD $1.50) in it. Gulistan introduced us, and then raised her eyebrows and asked if I’d like to see. “Does it interest you?” she asked.

“Well, yes, it does,” I answered, always interested in a new cultural experience. With that, Gulistan removed the white sheet and a scarf that covered her son and pointed to his bloody, bandaged member.

“Oh good god that’s, that’s not just the tip,” I thought. The blood was thick and scabbing about mid-penis and a not-very-modern bandage of sorts was wrapped just below that, allowing his nipped head to peek out from the bottom.


No one else seemed to be concerned about infection, and Gulistan explained that the doctor was the best (‘it’s always nice to have the mullah do it, but weren’t sure of his expertise, so went for the doctor’), so I let my worries subside. We Westerners are much too bacteria-phobic anyway.

I refrained from snapping pictures, though his cousin was next to the wall videotaping the Amerikanka gawking at her cousin’s genitals. That’ll be some nice footage.

Days later, when Kuki’s (Guka’s brother) fiancé told me that at their wedding, tradition mandates that everyone will pay her to lift her veil so they may view her face, I wondered if that bag of tenge I dropped a bill in before seeing Rasul was not simply a gift but the fee to view his circumcision. I asked Guka for clarification and indeed, the 200 tenge was a viewer’s fee. At long last, I’ve found some tradition in Kazakhstan.

We went to the Topchan (a bench-table, like an Uzbek homtakhta) in the next room for dinner, starting with flat, Uyghur lepyoshka and tasty soup.

I asked Guka why we weren’t sitting with the rest of the women and she explained that we asked to sit separately.

“Oh. Why did we ask to do that?” I wondered.

“Because they are old. All babushki,” she explained.

This meant because we’d have to behave, which meant something different to the babushki than to the otherwise overly well-behaved Almaty girls.

Gulistan and her sisters ran around preparing and serving the food all day. One sister, Gulmira, stood washing dishes and laughing the entire four hours we were there.

Each sister individually pulled me aside and told me that she was interested in the moment after the cleric and peripheral guests left when they would set out more desserts, tea and bread, and finally…she flicked her neck twice with her thumb and forefinger. In the land of the once-Soviet Union, this means to get drunk. It seemed that Guka was right. These Uyghurs are a joyous bunch. They gave the impression that they were up to something, and I liked it.

After the soup I was directed into the room with the babushki to take photos of the recording of gifts. In the custom of the Sundet Toy, there are gifts of two sorts; gifts for Gulistan and Rasul (mother and son), which are recorded and paid back, and gifts to Gulistan’s mother, the hostess, which are not paid back.

Most of the gifts to the mother and son are sweets which are divvied up, packaged in plastic bags and sent home with the guests, though there are also gifts of clothes and money, which are also recorded. Most of the gifts to the grandmother are cash.

Someone plopped a hundred dollar bill down on the grandmother’s lap, which is quite a sum in these parts. The average salary is Issyk is about nine hundred and sixty USD per year (source: Guka).

Back to the topchan, where Gulistan served us chicken, cold cuts and salads. She asked us if we wanted to drink. Guka and Nadilka said ‘no no no.’ Soon after, Gulistan’s sister, Makhrinur, came by and asked us if we wanted to drink. Again, a resolute no.

Back into the room of babushki: P’lov had been served.

When I came back to the topchan, Makinur had brought out a bottle of cognac after our p’lov and was pouring heartily, to the chagrin of Guka and Nadilya. She’d caught a gleam in my eye on her last offer and brought the bottle despite the resistance. Gulistan grabbed me and took me outside to introduce me about and photograph the p’lov festivities. First we walked down the street,

p’lov in hand.

and delivered some to her neighbor (another tradition).

She then took me back into the courtyard to the vat (properly called a kazan) where the p’lov is cooked (see first pic of post) and on to the giant samovar, which keeps tea eveready

By the time the watermelon had come out

the older guys had loosened up and wanted to be photographed.

Back inside on the topchan, the Almaty girls were finally relaxing into the festivities.
on the topchan, left to right: Uzbyetchka, Nadilka, Me, Guka, Gulistan

Finally the sisters’ moment came. Makinur (the sister who introduced the cognac) insisted it was time to dance.

Everyone agreed

Almost everyone.

After dancing (slide show: hit F11 if verticles not fully visable) we sat a bit for with the family, ate more sweets and refused more alcohol, then readied to leave. We said our goodbyes to Rasul. It was obviously a sensitive subject but because he was already on his cousin’s film, for the sake of documentation I made myself ask Gulistan if I could photograph Rasul. Specifically, Rasul’s sundet toy. ‘Of course, why not?’ she said, but Rasul wasn’t into it.

No way: Rasul and his money bag.

Slightly relieved, I quickly interjected that it wasn’t necessary. Gulistan kept on.

“If she gives you money will you let her?” she pried on, Uygur tradition in mind.

He looked horrified, and I insisted I didn’t want to bother him. I couldn’t help but recall a bit I’d read in a guidebook about how one shouldn’t pay people to take their photo. How would this situation fly? It’s tradition! Oy.

We finished our goodbyes and Gulistan took us to the Issyk bus station.

Gulistan said she’ll be distraught without us

Guka assured, “no, no, we’ll go dancing next week in Almaty.”

And we do.


I’m still sitting at Guka’s trying to catch up to date with the writing. Thank heavens things have slowed down so that I can scratch down my thoughts, though Guka is quite tired of Bukhara. When will you get to Almaty? When will your spirit catch up to your body? is what she means. I’m trying, Guka. I am.

Guka in her remodeled Soviet flat, Almaty

I backdate as I post, so that everything will in chronological order. Peek at the July-dated blogs to see if they are new to you as I added a bunch.

I sit and write at the other side of the table. This was taken with my point & shoot, rather than the fantastic SLR. This blog format doesn’t allow me to dictate resolution or size (hence the huge photo of the feet below), so the fabulous image quality isn’t coming across on the web. I can’t post these to my site instead of a blog, as I will get lost in the fun of it and get nothing done.

afterthought:  Guka’s Columbia t-shirt wasn’t a gift from me. I know her from NYC. She got her masters at Columbia on a Soros fellowship. We studied together at Butler Library. A lot.

VERY tasty almaty

I left Tashkent the day before the bombings and was teaching yoga last night in Almaty when they occurred. What can I say? The Uzbek government is nasty, nasty and you too might blow yourself up if you lived under it. No, I do not condone the events but I certainly fathom them.

almaty kitchenI’m sitting at Guka’s in her remodeled Soviet flat. A boy is walking around outside yelling into a megaphone: “Apples, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, VERY tasty!” Guka is off with her brother to introduce him to his fiancé’s family. Her high-pressure day affords me some time to finally sit and write and maybe edit the Bukhara photos. Yes, again Bukhara. I cannot understand, much less explain, how I love this city.

An aside: I like to tell New Yorkers about the Bukharan Barber Shop phenomenon (offhand, I recall one in the 50th St. 1,9 station, one in the Columbus Circle station, and another on 18th St. just off Union Square West), which was even more prevalent in Manhattan in the 60s. I came across a recent article about it in the Washington Post while researching the embassy bombings. A Jewish Bukharan shoemaker fixed my camera bag on Thursday and handed me a copy of Time Out Tashkent to read as I waited (I used to work for Time Out). I couldn’t believe it! Too funny. I hadn’t seen it before and Ulugbek had never heard of it. It’s a rip off, of course, and the copy is horrible, but I was entertained and the shoemaker was happy to impress. He didn’t know where to get one, as it was a gift. Like everyone else in Bukhara, he wouldn’t let me pay him for his work, but asked that I come back to visit when I’m back in town. I will, with pleasure. What began with horror when my new (& I trusted Domke®) camera bag crashed to the ground after the strap loop unglued (it was glued?) in the heat somehow became yet another lovely Bukhara moment.

Such gushing kindness does not greet me everywhere. I want more.