Uzbek­istan

A THOU­SAND MILES OF TRI­ALS AND TREA­SURES

Wild Fibers - - NEWS - Story and Pho­tos by Torie Ol­son

In a jour­ney filled with bazaars, bribes, and brides, Torie Ol­son

trav­els into the deep cor­ners of Uzbek­istan, dis­cov­er­ing wardrobes sat­u­rated with color and mys­tery, plus an ir­ri­ta­ble

en­counter with the KGB.

At har­vest time, my friend Rosie and I take a thou­sand-mile road trip across Uzbek­istan, from the Black Desert into the Red Desert and up to the dis­ap­pear­ing Aral Sea.

Through re­mote mar­ket towns and fa­bled Silk Route cities, we ride in a lit­tle square car, Rus­sian made and un­equipped

with seat belts, in the com­pany of a charm­ing Ta­jik driver and a sweet, young body­guard rid­ing shot­gun. Be­hind us in the trunk are ten liters of boot­leg gas bought at back doors along the route.

Be­fore trav­el­ing by Yak (and not the kind you think) to Khiva where we be­gin our cross-coun­try tra­jec­tory, we take a side trip to the Ferghana Val­ley where, af­ter decades of Soviet sup­pres­sion, the tra­di­tional arts are hav­ing a re­vival. Here, Rus­si­fi­ca­tion has been re­placed with a new na­tion­al­ism and silk ikat is its flag.

The road from the cap­i­tal is shared with don­key carts, men on horse­back, and herds of sheep and goats. It fun­nels through tun­nels, dips in and out of Ta­jik­istan, and comes within spit­ting dis­tance of Kyr­gyzs­tan. When the Rus­sians re­for­mat­ted this ter­ri­tory, they mixed ev­ery­one up in hopes of pre­vent­ing an eth­nic strong­hold.

Heart­land of Uzbek­istan, the Ferghana Val­ley is largely given over to the state’s cot­ton com­merce which in ad­di­tion to feed­ing a world fab­ric in­dus­try also pro­vides wood to fire lo­cal bread ovens and oil (mixed with ren­dered sheep fat) for use in the re­gional cook­ing.

What has also grown in this fer­tile val­ley is Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism, which Uzbek­istan’s post-Soviet despot has done his best to quash with a se­cret po­lice force still re­ferred to as the KGB. The call to prayer has been banned, but bearded and skull­capped men still fill the prayer halls. I’m sur­prised by the num­ber of val­ley mosques un­til I re­al­ize that half of them are banks with minarets. Ap­par­ently, Money and God are us­ing the same lo­cal ar­chi­tect.

By the road­side are moun­tains of cot­ton await­ing ex­port, piles of Per­sian mel­ons over­seen by loung­ing pur­vey­ors, and road­side bread stalls where women in flowery ker­chiefs and floury aprons rush up to the car win­dows to tempt us with hot non.

At our first chaikhana or tea house, this bread is not cut, but torn into pieces by the man at the ta­ble who is An­var, our guide. Over the next few days, he will take us to mud brick vil­lages where ar­ti­sans work in the old ways.

At the thresh­old of each Ferghana work­shop, An­var sings his hel­los, stretch­ing Salaam Alaikum! into a melody with a dozen notes. “If the door is open, it means the hus­band is home – not a good sign for the boyfriend!” he says with a wink. I laugh at his joke, and also be­cause my best guide ever speaks English like Bo­rat.

We visit wood­carvers who cre­ate Ko­ran stands, or­nate col­umns, and tapchans or tea beds from lo­cal mul­berry and wal­nut; ce­ramists rein­vent­ing the col­ors of the desert sky with glazes made from min­er­als and moun­tain grasses; horn mak­ers weld­ing cer­e­mo­nial brass trum­pets that are two me­ters long; knife mak­ers craft­ing han­dles from the horns of moun­tain sheep, gazelle, and Bokhara deer; and skull­cap mak­ers who con­struct tetra­he­dral hats out of card­board and fab­ric. To each mas­ter we sing Chi roy li! This is the phrase An­var has taught us to show our ap­pre­ci­a­tion for fine work. I think of it as the Uzbek ver­sion of Oh, wow!

Fi­nally, we meet the silk wiz­ards who pro­duce ikats for Uzbek and in­ter­na­tional clients in­clud­ing Os­car de la Renta. In the court­yards of the silk houses, men are wind­ing, ty­ing, and dry­ing warps. Women are reel­ing co­coons and peel­ing onions for a com­mu­nal meal. They will save the skins for the dye pot be­side the bas­kets they’ve al­ready filled with wal­nut hulls, grape and mul­berry leaves. In the dye works, men stir steam­ing vats of flow­ers, fruit skins, and in­sects har­vested from pis­ta­chio galls. And in a hall full of clack­ing, wooden looms, bril­liant-hued, blur­ryedged pat­terns are tak­ing shape. Un­like many tra­di­tional tex­tiles, ikats do not tell a story. Their de­signs are not fig­u­ra­tive, of­ten un­rec­og­niz­able, and some say mag­i­cal.

Sev­eral of the con­tem­po­rary crafts­men are wear­ing cha­pans, the daz­zling, quilted robes that are t-shaped and cut to move with your body. Dur­ing their hey­day in the 19th century, cha­pans were like gold, a form of cur­rency. To show­case their wealth, people dressed for suc­cess with cha­pan on top of cha­pan, lay­ers and lay­ers of them held to­gether with or­nate sil­ver belts. And some­times there was an­other rea­son to wear your whole closet....

There is a story of a woman on death row who was

saved by the forty robes pro­vided as bride price by her hus­band. She was wear­ing ev­ery one those padded gar­ments when she was flung off a minaret. Im­pressed by her bright idea and the cush­ion­ing power of cha­pans, the emir did not com­mand the ex­e­cu­tioner to try, try again.

In ad­di­tion to the forty-robe bride price, cha­pans have been treated as heir­looms, passed down through gen­er­a­tions, and bartered in times of need. They were used as bribes and as dec­o­ra­tions for vic­to­ri­ous ath­letes and war he­roes. In fact, there was a cha­pan called a “four head robe” and a finer one called a “forty head robe” that were pre­sented to soldiers af­ter they’d be­headed four or forty en­e­mies.

In the early 20th century, the Bol­she­viks con­fis­cated all of these robes as ev­i­dence of a bour­geois life­style. Dur­ing Soviet times, Uzbeks were forced to dress in the same drab work clothes and la­bor in fac­to­ries. In­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion was sac­ri­ficed at the al­tar of the masses, and craft pro­duc­tion was re­placed by mass pro­duc­tion.

The cen­turies-old guilds were out­lawed, but their artistry was not lost. Ex­ten­sive skill sets were passed in se­cret to the next gen­er­a­tions. To make one ikat, twelve masters were re­quired, in­clud­ing a de­signer, a warp bin­der, a Ta­jik dyer (to hot dye reds and yel­lows), a Jewish dyer (to cold dye with in­digo), and a weaver to bring the bril­liant silk ab­strac­tions to life. There was also a fin­isher who coated the ikat with egg white, pol­ished it with a thick hemi­sphere of glass, or cal­en­dared it with a wooden ham­mer to cre­ate a moiré ef­fect.

Af­ter each demon­stra­tion at to­day’s silk houses, we are in­vited to buy. An­var sees me anx­iously eye­ing robes I am sure I can­not af­ford. “Not to buy, just to try,” he says, sum­mon­ing a full length mir­ror. I shrug into a wealth of cloth. OMG! Chi roy li! I can­not help but whirl. The ikat blurs fur­ther and the sump­tu­ous silk catches the light, changes col­ors, rus­tles like au­tumn leaves, bird wings, the soft­est kisses. These de­signs are called cloud pat­terns, not be­cause they re­sem­ble clouds, but be­cause they, too, seem light as air and can change in a flash. I can­not walk away with­out one, and luck­ily, I don’t have to pay Os­car’s prices. But the pur­chase is still hard to ra­tio­nal­ize since this cha­pan will be my bathrobe, not my dowry.

Hear­ing of my in­ter­est in mar­riage rites, one ar­ti­san es­corts us down an al­ley to a home where two daugh­ters are re­ceiv­ing. As brides-to-be, their faces are draped in white peek-a-boo veils “em­broi­dered” with gold plas­tic and drip­ping with se­quins. They lead us to a gaudily-cur­tained stage where they have been ac­cept­ing gifts all day and bow­ing their thanks. On dis­play are a re­frig­er­a­tor, a sewing ma­chine, a bat­terie de cui­sine, and a sky-high pile of ikat cush­ions. We present our gifts and they bow the pre­scribed three times and then bow many times more; ap­par­ently, it is fur­ther hum­bling to have for­eign vis­i­tors in your home. It is a good thing they are still so lim­ber and so young. While by law an Uzbek bride must be nine­teen, these two do not look the least bit le­gal.

Other val­ley girls pose for us in parand­jas. Also bridal clothes, these silk outer robes are wo­ven in fine stripes or

solids, their edges trimmed with em­broi­dered pea­cocks and gates of par­adise. With im­pos­si­bly nar­row sleeves for dec­o­ra­tive pur­poses only, parand­jas are worn over the head like cloaks with a black length of horse­hair to veil the face. An­var sees my look of dis­may at the horse­hair, and all he can of­fer is, “It makes a good sun screen.” A tra­di­tional bride will wear a parandja for the first weeks of mar­riage then stow it away in her dowry trunk. It will not be seen again un­til it cov­ers her bier. Af­ter her burial, the parandja will be rit­u­ally pu­ri­fied and passed on to a daugh­ter.

Uzbek hos­pi­tal­ity be­ing leg­endary, we are in­vited into many gar­dens, each of which con­tains the three fruits of par­adise: per­sim­mon, pome­gran­ate and grapes. We re­cline un­der mul­berry trees on ikat-cush­ioned tapchans, drink­ing tea out of small blue and white cups pat­terned with ikat or cot­ton bolls. In Uzbek­istan, tea mak­ing is marked by a trans­for­ma­tive cer­e­mony that takes it from mud (loy) to tea ( choy) to wine ( moy). The tea is poured first to warm the cup. It is re­turned to the pot and once the leaves have “opened,” it is poured out again. It is re­turned again to the pot and de­canted a third time. This cup is tasted by the pourer who must test the wa­ters be­fore his guests are served.

The tea of choice is green, an an­ti­dote to the high-choles­terol repast that gen­er­ally fol­lows: shash­liks or ke­babs al­ter­nat­ing chunks of mut­ton with chunks of mut­ton fat; sam­sas or pastry pock­ets filled with chopped meat and onions; or plov, the na­tional rice, car­rot, and lamb dish. But even here in the most tra­di­tional cor­ner of Uzbek­istan, there are restaurants ad­ver­tis­ing “Chizburg­ers! Chizburg­ers! Chizburg­ers!”

Early in the morn­ing, we walk down Ferghana’s bread al­ley where young men ply­ing bel­lows scare up huge fires un­der gi­ant bee­hive ovens. Oth­ers roll out rounds of dough and stamp them with a che­kich, a wood-han­dled collection of nails that cre­ates dot­ted pat­terns and keeps the flat­bread flat. Glazed with egg wash and sprin­kled with nigella seeds, the dough is now placed face down on clay domes and slapped up against the oven walls. In a few min­utes, a non is cooked and cooled enough for us to tear and taste.

In Uzbek­istan, there are breads made to last one day, one week, and one year. The bread with the great­est longevity is made for the son who goes off to war. Be­fore he be­gins his com­pul­sory year­long mil­i­tary ser­vice, he takes one bite of his mother’s non. The rest of the round is hung on the wall. If he doesn’t make it back, the bread stays on the wall in re­mem­brance. But if the war doesn’t kill him, year-old bread won’t ei­ther, and he proves his prow­ess by fin­ish­ing it off.

At Ferghana’s Sun­day bazaar, women wheel their fresh-esh-baked

breads in prams, brides try on gold-se­quined skull­caps and lit­tle boys model cir­cum­ci­sion suits with no idea of what’s in store. The mar­keters and mer­chants are in cha­pans com­bin­ing tra­di­tional Uzbek style with the Soviet aes­thetic. They are the same t-shaped robes, but made from cheap dark cor­duroys, padded with cot­ton, and lined with faded Rus­sian chintz. Un­der­neath, the men wear baggy old western suits. The women’s suits are ikat knee-length dresses with match­ing pan­taloons, but the ma­te­rial is syn­thetic and the col­ors look like they’ve been elec­tro­cuted. An­var likes these fac­tory goods about as much as I do and gives us one last di­rec­tive: “If you want to go straight to par­adise, do not take your skills with you. Be­fore you die, you must find pupils and teach them.”

Our trans­port to Khiva is by Yak-40, a three-en­gine Rus­sian jet. We were sup­posed to go on from there to Turk­menistan (an­other forty miles), but with­out ex­pla­na­tion, the Turk­men bor­der had been closed to all for­eign­ers. No mat­ter. Their red rugs and huge hats are here in Khiva.

A Turk­men hat or telpek is crafted from karakul kid and worn in win­ter and sum­mer to in­su­late against cold and heat. Re­ally, it is more hairdo than hat – an Afro wig for a khan. I take one look at this su­per­sized ac­ces­sory and won­der if the size of a Turk­man’s hat cor­re­lates with the size of his... wealth. I want one in the worst way (a hat) but I failed to bring my steamer trunk or my porter.

Khiva is a stun­ning town. Over the cen­turies, it has been home to 96 mosques, 68 madras­sahs (re­li­gious schools for boys), twelve minarets, and about five miles of crenel­lated walls, some dat­ing to the fifth century, most added in the sev­en­teenth century, and all re­stored by the Sovi­ets in the twen­ti­eth century. These days, Khiva is more of a mu­seum than a liv­ing city. Like Stur­bridge Vil­lage, there are cos­tumed crafters around ev­ery cor­ner. Next to the milliners are mer­chants sell­ing Turk­menistan’s Tekke car­pets (mis­tak­enly called Bokhara rugs), al­ways red and pat­terned with the hoof prints of their leg­endary Ahal-Tekke horses. There are girls knit­ting slip­per socks and em­broi­der­ing suza­nis, the flo­ral silk or cot­ton spreads that dec­o­rate ta­bles, beds, and walls, and are an in­te­gral part of an Uzbek girl’s dowry. Chi roy li! we call out as we pass.

We walk the ram­parts and visit the Fri­day mosque held up by a for­est of pil­lars, the old­est dat­ing back a thou­sand years. We learn that a cush­ion of sheep’s wool was placed at the base of each col­umn to keep in­sects from de­stroy­ing the or­nately-carved wood. So far so good.

In the court­yards of an­cient madras­sahs, we see minia­ture painters copy­ing four­teenth-century master­pieces, and rope walk­ers dancing three high on wires stretched be­tween azure tiled walls. We stand with rapt chil­dren watch­ing an open air pup­pet show, but I am less in­ter­ested in the story than in the cos­tumes. The pup­peteers are dressed in Khivan-style cha­pans which are cloud pat­terned, quilted, three quar­ter sleeved, and stiff as card­board. A pink and pur­ple ikat has caught my eye. Rosie sees my cove­tous look and says, “Of­fer her a hun­dred dol­lars,” and soon I am wear­ing a new coat.

From Uzbek­istan’s most western city, we take to the

Ferghana Val­ley girls pose in

parand­jas, cloaks worn with a horse­hair veil by brides.

road. Our tall Ta­jik driver pret­zels him­self be­hind the wheel and drives at a gal­lop. With no English, San­jar looks over his shoul­der to speak to us with movie star winks and great dev­il­ish grins. We are told that Javlon (who is Karakalpak) speaks our lan­guage well, but he doesn’t speak much of it to us. There is no ge­o­graphic, his­toric, po­lit­i­cal, or so­cial com­men­tary on of­fer. He is uber po­lite, thought­ful and kind, but his main pre­oc­cu­pa­tions are find­ing a bride and the next black mar­ket... and keep­ing us out of trou­ble. Turns out he is our mus­cle, not our guide.

We head into the Red Desert where the sand is pink and blow­ing like crazy. At Ayazkala, there is a yurt camp where we will spend the night. I have heard that this area was Ama­zon coun­try. Our host­ess, Rano, is cer­tainly spir­ited enough to be de­scended from war­rior women.

We have the pick of twelve yurts since it is late in the sea­son and too cold for tourists. It is hard to choose as each one I check out comes with an overwhelming stench of dirty sheep and a dirty dog across its thresh­old. An­other party does ar­rive, but they are Uzbek: three KGB men ac­com­pa­nied by women who are too wild to be wives. We walk up the hill to a crum­bling fortress built by some khan or other. Javlon does not fill in the blanks, but that is not his job. By the time we re­turn to camp, the KGB have had their mati­nee and gone.

With ex­u­ber­ance and panache, Rano serves us sup­per in the red rugged, din­ing yurt. Over a lovely spread that in­cludes a plat­ter of coo roo (chicken) bones in the most de­li­cious sauce, she at­tempts to tell us her story in bro­ken English, Rus­sian, French and Ger­man. We adore her in­stantly. She en­cour­ages us to buy vodka which is the only way to stop car­ing about the lack of ac­tual coo roo. (Did she feed that to to the dogs and leave us the scraps?!) It also warms me to just above the freez­ing point and gets me up and wig­gling when the Gypsy band ar­rives.

There is a rabab with strings made from fish skin, and a large tam­bourine made of bull skin. The third man wears a Turk­men hat and plays the ac­cor­dion. There is also a dancer dressed in a mass of marigold chif­fon. She is quite plump and quite old, but boy, can she spin!

I have a whole yurt to my­self. There are four sleep­ing cush­ions in a row, each cov­ered by a cot­ton com­forter. I try to sleep un­der all four com­forters. I wear my two cha­pans and wish I’d bought that big, nappy hat. Even in Princess in the Pea mode, there is the pos­si­bil­ity of turn­ing to ice.

At 2:00 A.M., I am forced to come out from un­der my moun­tain of cot­ton. En plein air, I pee as fast as I can, but get frozen in place by the breath­tak­ing tem­per­a­ture and a most spec­tac­u­lar span­gle of stars. Pants down and

open-mouthed, I gawk as one me­teor af­ter an­other arcs across the heav­enly dome. Never have I seen such splen­dor in the skies.

Al­ways on the look­out for my late hus­band, I imag­ine the star show is his do­ing. I dream on in a delir­ium that could be at­trib­uted to hy­pother­mia or love. I wave wildly. But on the verge of los­ing my back end to frost­bite, I am forced to zip my pants and re­turn to the tent where I’m al­most des­per­ate enough to in­vite one of those mangy mutts un­der the cov­ers with me.

In the morn­ing, I de­frost and we move on to Nukus, cap­i­tal of Karakalpak­stan, an au­ton­o­mous repub­lic in the mid­dle of nowhere with its own tra­di­tion of yurt dwelling and wife steal­ing. This is Javlon’s home­land, but he is not here to kid­nap a bride. His mother, a revered school teacher, will ne­go­ti­ate for one. In Uzbek­istan, your mother is your Match.com.

Tra­di­tion­ally, a groom’s mother be­gins the match­mak­ing process by ex­am­in­ing a girl’s dowry, es­pe­cially her em­broi­dered suza­nis. If the can­di­date’s needle­work is out­stand­ing, the groom’s mother will re­quest an “open face cer­e­mony” and the horse­hair veil will be lifted. If the girl’s looks pass muster, the groom’s fam­ily will pay the bride price. I also learned that Karakalpak brides once mar­ried in dresses weigh­ing twenty-five pounds, per­haps an­other way to sur­vive a minaret dive.

To­day Karakalpak­stan is home to Karakalpak tribal people and the de­scen­dants of Rus­sian in­tel­lec­tu­als ex­iled here af­ter the Bol­she­vik Revo­lu­tion. As a re­sult of seventy-five years of Soviet ruina­tion, it has be­come a land of aban­doned fac­to­ries, empty apart­ment blocks, bar­ren land, col­lapsed fish­eries, and a dis­ap­pear­ing sea.

The rea­son we are here is one amaz­ing mu­seum. We have come to see So­cial Re­al­ist art col­lected by a man named Sav­it­sky and cre­ated by the Rus­sian ex­iles and their Uzbek col­leagues. These stun­ning works are the painted and sculpted ver­sions of the pho­to­graphs we’ve been tak­ing. In Fau­vist pal­ette are cot­ton pick­ers, tea drinkers, bread bak­ers, ikat mak­ers, car­pet sell­ers, bow­ing brides...

We are hours away, but as close as we will ever get, so we ask San­jar and Javlon to take us to what’s left of the Aral Sea. Over the last sixty years, it has shrunk by sixty per­cent, and ev­ery day, it is los­ing more ground. The river that fed it was hi­jacked by the Sovi­ets for ir­ri­ga­tion and bled dry. This sea has been sac­ri­ficed for cot­ton.

We travel though re­mote ar­eas where tourists are not wel­come. In one town, there is a large crowd watch­ing a troupe of rope walk­ers. We stop to pho­to­graph but a KGB agent in­sists on a huge bribe. Javlon will have none of

We have the pick of twelve yurts since it is late i n the sea­son

and too cold for tourists. It is hard to choose as each one I check out comes with an overwhelming stench of dirty sheep

and a dirty dog across its thresh­old.

that. There is yelling from both sides and a shov­ing match. Things seem like they are about to go bad. But Javlon has a VIP up his sleeve and, thank God, his cell phone works in the out­back. The KGB backs down but the at­mos­phere is sour, so we move on to­ward the end of the world.

The land­scape does not change from one mile to the next. Its Soviet-style uni­for­mity is un­nerv­ing. Noth­ing here is still alive and that makes me feel like an apoca­lypse sur­vivor.

San­jar stops just short of what used to be a har­bor. Beached in the new desert is a line of trawlers that have de­te­ri­o­rated into rusty, skele­tal hulls with graf­fiti from stem to stern. This is a shock­ing, eerie scene: the very vis­i­ble sea change that was caused by an un­bounded cot­ton hunger.

We visit the four­teenth-century tomb of Baha-ud-Din, a silk tex­tile maker turned dervish. He was the founder of the se­cre­tive Naqsh­bandi Sufi sect and de­viser of eleven rules by which to live: Hands to work; heart to God... (I’m down with that.) Be merry ev­ery minute... (That, too.) The door to heaven is at the feet of your mother... This last one, put less po­et­i­cally, is an edict to travel only in your own coun­try. Baha is not my guy.

I wan­der off to the wish­ing tree, an enor­mous, con­torted mul­berry that was once the saint’s cane, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal be­lief. Present day Su­fis are dig­ging away at it with their nails, trust­ing that one chip of this sa­cred wood will keep them from all harm.

Bokhara is an­other city of ar­chi­tec­tural won­ders. There are three mud-brick trad­ing domes chock­ablock full of

Uzbek­istan’s fab­u­lous dec­o­ra­tive arts at fab­u­lous prices. The cha­pans I bought whole­sale in the Ferghana Val­ley and off the pup­peteer’s back were a steal. Here, I buy enough ikat scarves to trail be­hind me all the way home.

The real Bokhara rugs are quite dif­fer­ent from the Turk­men’s Tekke rugs. In for­mer madras­sahs, we see young women sit­ting on the floor to work with colored silk at frame looms. Be­tween their crazy pat­terned out­fits and the com­pli­cated pat­terns on the warp, it is dif­fi­cult to tell where girl leaves off and rug be­gins.

In Bokhara, Gyp­sies trans­port the trash in great ho­ley bags perched hap­haz­ardly on don­key carts; with their dark eyes and shy smiles, they trans­port me, too. We also find the Zelony Bazaar, my fa­vorite green mar­ket of the trip. Here, fruit sell­ers sit on the ground pol­ish­ing their pyra­mids of pep­pers and toma­toes. Chi roy li! I com­pli­ment their pro­duce. They of­fer me ap­ples, grapes, and pomegranates. I can’t refuse but with my hands full of gifts, I can’t take pho­to­graphs. Per­haps that was their in­ten­tion. I duck around the cor­ner and pay the fruit for­ward to an old woman down on her luck. She presses her hand to heart in the tra­di­tional ges­ture of grat­i­tude and I re­turn to take more pho­to­graphs and re­ceive more gifts.

We have dragged Javlon to many food mar­kets as these mer­chants are some of our most en­gag­ing sub­jects. But he hates hang­ing around with the veg­eta­bles and fruitiers. The chubby ma­trons and old men would bore any twenty-some­thing wannabe Californian. While Javlon seems to dis­ap­pear into thin air at these places, there is noth­ing se­cret about the se­cret po­lice.

The KGB are all in black in a sea of women dressed in flowery bathrobes, flowery aprons, flowery ker­chiefs, and flowery socks. They don’t like me here any more than Javlon does, and they try to shoo me away. But I am in­vin­ci­ble, hav­ing been

I am blocked on all sides by walls of silk and em­broi­dery. As the ven­dors rush at me, I walk back­wards to try and fit them into my viewfinder,

but I rarely win at this game.

smoked by a Gypsy with a tin can full of burn­ing herbs that can keep the evil eye at bay. When I ig­nore the men in black, they shout at me. When I still ig­nore them, they push me, but be­fore I am toast, Javlon al­ways reap­pears to ex­tract me.

In some lit­tle vil­lage be­tween Bokhara and Sa­markand, Rosie makes a for­mal por­trait of our shy body­guard. She’s made him look like Valentino and he is very pleased. Surely the head shot will fa­cil­i­tate his mother’s head­hunt, and Javlon’s chances for a pretty bride will in­crease.

Sa­markand is a mind-blow­ing, mo­saicked town, its mud-baked mon­u­ments glazed in heav­enly blues. In the tenth century, Timur launched a build­ing cam­paign like no other, res­ur­rect­ing a city that Genghis Khan had razed. The Regis­tan has to be the most beau­ti­ful town square in the world. No longer car­a­vansary and bazaar, it is now a tourist trea­sury of an­cient ar­chi­tec­ture.

But for me, Sa­markand is all about a liv­ing art – the suzani, a word mean­ing nee­dle in Per­sian. I stay on Suzani Street where nee­dles were once man­u­fac­tured and go on a spree in a suzani bazaar.

A girl works her first nee­dle at seven, learn­ing the chain and couch stitches that will dec­o­rate fields of silk or cot­ton to fill her dowry chest and mark other rites of pas­sage. Much of this em­broi­dery fea­tures flow­ers, fruits, stems, and leaves. Also pop­u­lar are the sun and moon sym­bols from Zoroas­tri­an­ism, which pre­ceded Is­lam in this part of the world. Many suza­nis fea­ture eight cir­cles, one em­broi­dered each month of a woman’s preg­nancy. There is no ninth, be­cause by that time she can no longer see over her mid­sec­tion to work the nee­dle. Like heir­loom cha­pans, heir­loom suza­nis are as­sets sold only in times of need.

Sa­markand is San­jar’s town and he knows it in­side and out. He takes us to a Sun­day mar­ket on its out­skirts where we are be­sieged. Cloth mer­chants race over to us, push­ing, one in front of the other, to dis­play their vin­tage dowry hang­ings. Chi roy li! I am blocked on all sides by walls of silk and em­broi­dery. As the ven­dors rush at me, I walk back­wards to try and fit them into my viewfinder, but I rarely win at this game. They play it ev­ery Sun­day, al­though to­day they are more ag­gres­sive be­cause we will be the last to buy un­til the wild tulips cover the hill­sides in spring. In the end, I put away my cam­era and take out my money. At this late date, they ask so lit­tle for their silk gar­dens. They are al­most gifts. With hand over heart, I buy from ev­ery­one.

Know­ing of my in­ter­est in Gyp­sies, San­jar makes my trip by tak­ing us to an “In­dia” vil­lage. They have be­come seden­tary like the rest of the no­madic peo­ples in Uzbek­istan and live in tum­ble­down Gypsy ghet­tos on the cir­cum­fer­ences of cities. There is no silk here.

At sight of us, Roma women flash their eyes and duck be­hind doors. The men look men­ac­ing, peep­ing out from be­hind fake lace and en­trances painted with crosses. We are left in the streets with the chil­dren – a cou­ple of rag­tag, pos­tur­ing boys and a pack of lit­tle girls hold­ing hands and fall­ing over each other like pup­pies. I love these lit­tle girls. They look like they are play­ing dress up, swim­ming in flow­ered dresses that will fit them for life. They must be eight or nine or ten, but there is some­thing in their dra­matic de­meanor that tells me they have al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced all there is of life. I imag­ine poverty, abuse, marginal­iza­tion, but all I see in the face of that dark­ness is fierce joy. Their eyes are deep and bright, their laugh­ter is rau­cous, and their hair is wild and long, with the ex­cep­tion of one whose head has been shorn

(to rid her of lice, I sus­pect). The most an­i­mated of them all, she wears a sweater that says “Limited Girl ” and that just rocks my heart.

San­jar drives us over the moun­tains to Shahris­abz, home­town of Timur. We have a guide for the mon­u­ments there. She is a beauty and a mod­ern girl, but has, no doubt, stitched a suzani or two by which a groom’s mother can as­cer­tain her worth. Javlon sticks close to us. Sub­tle is an over­state­ment in de­scrib­ing their flir­ta­tion, but a few pe­riph­eral glances is all it will take to set Javlon’s mother in mo­tion. But even he is con­fused. “Do you think she might like me?” he asks once we are back in the car.

There are more suzani sell­ers here, but my suit­case is full to burst­ing, so we sit on ikat cush­ions un­der mul­berry trees and buy tea in­stead. Rosie pours the first cup, then pours it back. The cup is warm. She pours the sec­ond cup, then pours it back. The leaves are open. She pours a third cup and tests the wa­ters. Loy moy choy. And then it’s my turn to taste the wine of Uzbek­istan. Wf

A man en­joy­ing his af­ter­noon tea while mounds of fresh dough are placed in­side an oven.

Nearly lost in a ca­coph­ony of color, a weaver is guided by a color-coded chart on graph paper.

Rows of bridal skull­caps for sale at Sun­day Bazaar, Ferghana.

San­dals on. San­dals off. It’s a mat­ter of pref­er­ence.

Silk ikat robe or cha­pan.

Top: A man wear­ing a tel­pak, a Turk­man hat made from the hide of a long-haired karakul sheep. Mid­dle: A gypsy dancer. Bot­tom: A woman and her goats at the Sun­day live­stock mar­ket.

Women at the Suzani Mar­ket, anx­ious to make a sale as the tourist sea­son draws to an end.

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