Friday, August 31, 2007

the Ferghana Valley - Metals are for Men

Mutalibjan is nervous about taking us out to lunch. Damira and I are wondering what is wrong. We have already stopped at two Chaihanas (teahouses) which Mutalibjan has insisted on checking out himself. Returning to the car, Mutalibjan says that they are too dirty for us, but we sense that there is another problem. We decide to get on the road to the next village and look for something on the way. In a green patch of trees, a Chaihana is spread out in the cool shade overlooking a canal, we pull over and get out. Finally! some kebabs and bread! We wash our hands, take off our sandals and sit down on the raised platforms arranged around the arch of the courtyard. Sitting down cross-legged, we notice that subtle bang of silence: our entrance has broken the conversations of neighboring tables and all eyes have turned to us - Mutalibjan and his two young women guests. We look around, shyly returning some of the stares – all the eight or so tables are filled with men, young and old, their eyes on us, inquisitive. We have broken onto the stage of a man’s world, punctured their peace. Mutalibjan instantly feels uncomfortable, and we are soon back on the search. I’m dying for a sip of tea. argh! Where shall we eat, when no women in these small villages eat outside of their homes? The public space is masculine, and Damira and I wear colorful skirts – long but clearly feminine.

On the road we pass fields of cotton and wheat, lodged in between the sprawling towns and villages. The valley seems to be forever reproducing, people and their progeny. The earth here is worked and mastered by man, its fringes densely populated – a far cry from the solitary expanse of Kyrgyzstan. We pass a closed-down cotton textile factory. None of the farmers sell the factory their cotton anymore. They get better prices on the international markets. Mutalibjan tells us that the local wheat is used to make alcohol, while more wheat, for flour and bread is imported from Kazakhstan.

Arriving in Shakhrihan, hunger emboldens us and we slip into the back of an almost empty Chaihana and finally bite into kebabs in the retreat of the garden tea-drinkers. We joke about our circuitous approach to lunch. After lunch, I smoke a cigarette, although I know women here don’t smoke. Mutalibjan laughs and joins me. After lunch we head to Echon Aka’s house in the center of Shakhrihan.

Father Echon
Rahmathudja Alihodjaev, known as Echon Aka is the kind of man that carries the world: he exudes life, laughter, discipline, honor, craft. He’s the best knife-maker that I will meet throughout Central Asia, a humble king of knives.

Echon Aka has a golden smile, filled with golden teeth as it is. He talks to us about generations and dynasties, about legacies passed from father to son, about movement and becoming part of a local landscape. His family – the Alihodjaevs have been part of the thick tapestry of the town for 200 years. The family story starts with a king, the Emir of Khokand, Omar Han and his decision to construct a canal from the Uzgen Reservoir (in today’s Kyrgyzstan) to Andigan and its suburbs. Where there is water, there is life. And when the waters arrived flowing through Shakhrihan (where the canal ended) the 2,000 year old city saw instant revival. Craftsmen flocked to the city, and in 1819 there were more than 30 craftsmen here.

Echon Aka says, “In our culture we have a saying that is like a law. If there are more than 30 craftsmen in one area, that place is considered a city.” So in 1819, Shakhrihan, which today is a dusty haphazard agglomeration of run-down houses, became a proud, growing city. And so it was that as the village was growing into a finer town, the first of Echon Aka’s ancestors came looking to make his fortune in the land. Born in 1730, Ismael Khoja who stemmed from Marghilan’s religious elite came to settle down and help in the renaissance of the town. He set up shop on the edge of the canal, and started shaping the knives and scissors that his fellow-citizens demanded. Ismael Khoja’s great-great-grandchildren would continue his blacksmith trade in the city, preserving his mark and signature engraved in iron.

“A boy becomes a man at 12,” says Echon Aka. This is when they can start working with knives. (I’m wondering about the varying ages of maturity. In today’s Iran, women are forced to veil as of the age of 9. Is that when we become women?) But here in Shakhrihan, boys are initiated to the trade at 12, after which it takes five years of apprenticeship to become a master.

The carrying of knives remains a tradition throughout the region. Every man has his knife. And so Echon Aka’s craft is feathered by strong local demand. His studio is very much alive and the ambers on the blacksmiths hearth still alight.

Echon Aka’s studio is within the courtyard of his home, but distant enough from the living quarters to give the women of his family the privacy they need. We do not see one woman that afternoon. The house is centered on a beautiful, dense and fragrant rose garden.

In one of the side rooms around the courtyard, the studio is filled with the clamor of hammers on metal, the clinks of tools carving the final details and the angry gust of the fire torch melting the colored wax that will pigment the knives’ handles. Four students sit in a circle, working on their pieces. Echon Aka has trained 40 students in the knife trade, teaching only three at a time. Today too, his three sons work alongside their father. “Thanks be to God my three sons will follow my footsteps in this craft,” says Echon Aka. This is clearly a family business, and Echon Aka is keen on preserving the legacy of his forefathers. Around the studio, some of his 11 grandchildren are playing, watching, and occasionally mischievously getting in the way.

During the Soviet Union Echon Aka and his family became part of a knife-making organization, and made knives in their home studio exclusively through this organization. For their work they received a regular salary every month. Echon Aka notes that they also made knives and scissors and workmen’s tools, but were prohibited from making the large knives and weapons of the past. No swords were made, and knives larger than 20 cm or thicker than 2mm were illegal and considered weapons. He says these rules were harsh and contrary to local customs, and believes that the USSR discriminated against the region. To prove his point he notes that at the time in the Georgian Republic, knives could reach 70cm.

Today Echon Aka is once again making his own production. “I do knives, scissors and axes as well as other tools.” Tailors order their scissors from him, those who work will metal order saws, while people from all over Uzbekistan come to him for knives and small swords. He only sells his products from home: his fame allows him to focus on the making, the selling comes naturally. Echon Aka’s output its low, but the quality of his objects is extremely high. His knives are beautiful, his scissors stunning – comfortable, sharp, just the right weight. Stars and a crescent mark his work: the signature of a master. The designs and the shapes have not changed for decades. “I’m 55 years old, but I’m not as skillful as my father, that is the biggest difference between the generations.”

the Ferghana Valley - Clin d'Oeil d'Andijan

Andijan: at the center an association

Waiting at the Kyrgyz/Uzbek border at Osh, I write in my notebook: crossing into new worlds, leaps and jumps in one place – we are turning in circles. Repeating steps in madness trying to get some perspective on these - the dents and contours of the earth, the finer wrinkles of the world: appealing, sensual. Inscribed upon them, the symphony of human lives, the texture and geometry of histories. And here these gunmen standing in the middle of the plain demanding a halt. Crossing the border, I feel like a fugitive, walking in front of a firing squad. There is a tension here in the straight shot – a road punctuated by barbed wires – and one metal hut where all is determined: in or out. Passing into Uzbekistan is about negotiating with gangsters.

Uzbekistan feels like a land under cover, tightly sealed for better control. I’m not used to these military check-points, these guns held as if they carried the reason of the world. I’m uncomfortable with the endless waves of policemen that walk the streets. After a long, although harmless interrogation by a policeman at a road block, I learn to never catch a soldier’s eye.

And then, after the border checks, the road-blocks and the fear – you reach places like Mutalibjan’s office in the Andijan Hunarmand (hand-made) Association, and you pause for sugared tea and conversation. Here you can sink into the country – the hospitable gestures of its people.

Crafts, Markets and Warriors
Mutalibjan’s office is wall to wall color, draped in Suzanni – the traditional colorful embroidery of Uzbekistan, wood carvings, dolls, pottery. He points to all the over-load of creations scattered among the desk and the walls and says, “In the Ferghana Valley we have a multitude of craftsmen, but we have no tourists.” He means no market for the crafts. Here in Uzbekistan tourism has enabled a booming of traditional crafts, but that market is focused around the blue-tiled concentrate of Samarkand and Bukhara, and the Ferghana Valley remains in the shadow. Fear of political instability and the valley’s bad-rap (domestically and internationally) means that no tourist structures are being built up here – so that the shadow seems like it will darken its outline at least for the short-term.

But in shadow, warriors rise. Mutalibjan shares his office with Mansura Yusupova, a dynamic, boisterous fireball of a woman. She is the (natural) head of the Hunarmand Association. Full of life, but tough - Mansura is clearly in charge. She carries the flame and she is up for a challenge.

The Andijan Hunarmand Association was created in 1997, by the Uzbek president Islam Karimov himself. In a gesture of goodwill to the international community and supposedly on the advice of UNESCO’s then country director, in 1997 Karimov granted craftsmen in Uzbekistan a complete exemption from taxes. This was seen as a very strong gesture to encourage, promote and revive crafts in the country. Regional organizations were then created to handle the registration and administrative tasks the new law entailed. In Andijan alone 810 craftsmen registered with the Hunarmand Crafts Organization.

Crafts in Uzbekistan have gained recognition – from tourists and the government. Crafts once received much attention from international organizations – but the work of those organizations has been greatly hampered if not fully halted by the government’s clamp down on international NGOs and organization in retaliation for the wide international criticism Karimov received over the Andijan riots.

The streets of Andijan…..craftsmen in the bazaar. committee of 10 people who decide which craftsmen to promote. (who falls between) there are craftsmen still making the tools used by people – and next to the craftsmen association is a row jam-packed with metal workers, making doors, blacksmiths and wooden furniture makers.

Bridging Markets
Mansura has been the head of the Andijan Hunarmand Organization since 2000. Her work with Mutalibjan focuses on promoting local artisans to those cities beyond the valley. They are busy training and advising local craftsmen on the particular demands of tourists who travel to Samarkand and Bukhara. They are go-betweens, mediators between the makers and their distant market. Mansura has revived crafts for which she senses a market – like Nuriddin Khotamov’s traditional leather and embroidered silk shoes. She has also started a papier-mâché doll business of her own. Both businesses are working, and I will see the same shoes and dolls sold throughout the country. Nuriddin’s shoes have won a Seal of Excellence award from UNESCO.

Mansura graduated from university where she studied to be an art critic. From 1987 to 2000 she worked in the Literary and Art Museum of Andijan. Today she’s just come back from an exhibition in France organized by the Uzbek embassy in Paris. She’s excited to use her few words of French, and calls me mademoiselle. She is clearly a full-blown business woman, and talks in numbers and orders: 200 Suzannis for a businessman she met in France, 20 small and 20 large dolls for an upcoming exhibition in Samarkand. She talks about crafts frankly, she’s straight to the point: “Business is the driver behind the survival of traditional crafts,” she says. “If craftsmen can only sell two or three pieces of their work, then interest is lost and the craft disappears.”

She sees her work as creating markets – and she’s got personal interest vested in the success of her endeavors. She not only makes dolls, but also creates Suzannis, bags, pillows, and clothes. She employs almost 100 women to hand-make her creations, which she then sells to markets in Samarkand, Bukhara and if she can, abroad. She says that many women come to her looking for jobs. “Their husbands don’t let them work all day,” she says, “but the work they do helps their families financially.” Mansura says that she’s an artist. She’s an artist with an intuitive MBA.

Mutalibjan stands in retreat, he is shy, but his face is open and he is soft spoken. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union he taught automobile repair in a technical college. But he comes from a family of professional weavers: silk and cotton weavers. The Soviets had prohibited home-made weaving, but his family continued secretly and he learned the trade concealed behind the door of his family home. He tells me that there were serious reprimands for those caught continuing this kind of home production – which directly competed against the local factories. Some weavers he knew were imprisoned for their boldness. Although he is nostalgic about the Soviet Union and regrets its collapse, he says that there was a clear repression of the valley’s traditional ways of life. “If the Soviet Union had lasted twenty more years, the knowledge of crafts would have disappeared altogether.” He says that the Soviets gave craftsmen a brutal, almost fatal blow. The market and social structures of the USSR did not support the traditional locally-based craft economies.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the technical school at which Mutalibjan worked stopped distributing salaries. It was equivalent to unemployment. Faced with a blisteringly depressed job-market, Mutalibjan went back to the skills he knew: weaving. “We weren’t happy to start this traditional work again, but we had no choice.” It was slow languorous work and local people refused to buy the hand-made cloth, whose price was unable to compete with the cheaper China-made alternatives. “People don’t buy traditional, they want modern,” Mutalibjan says. After attending an NGO-sponsored seminar on how to write grant proposals, Mutalibjan and his family won a support grant from the Soros Foundation in 2003 – just before the organization was ejected from Uzbekistan, like so many others. The grant helped to support the family’s traditional weaving for a while, but unable to compete with Marghilan’s weaving and with no real desire to continue, the family has stopped weaving altogether.

There is a fierceness, a boldness required to succeed in the crafts market here. It is not enough to make high-quality pieces; the craftsmen need a marketer’s ruthlessness and business creativity.

But Mutalibjan has a grace, a shy beautiful smile, and an easy connection with people – one that I will see in action over the next few days spent with him, as he introduces me to artisans in and around Andijan. He and Mansura are opposites that match – and the craftsmen of Andijan are lucky for their effective teamwork.

the Ferghana Valley - Osh and her lady

A short word about Saltanat and her Osh
Osh, sprawled around the Suleyman’s Throne mountain: reaching out, ragged, chaotic. Here, we are far from the capital’s control and there seems to be a freedom and chaos unfelt in the north. The streets are a rush, and the bazaar has shed its soviet rigidity to revive its oriental clamor and scents. There is an effervescence of selling and buying, a center of exchange. Chaihana’s, laid-back terrace eateries and tea houses provide easy escape from the bazaar activity and the rush of streets. Here women and men sip their endless pots of tea, chewing on samsa (the Central-Asian lamb-filled samosas, which are found from Xinjiang to the Caspian – perhaps beyond?) and kebabs. We are in proximity to Uzbekistan and the streets here are shared by Uzbeks and Kyrgyz – a proximity that is readily exploited by politicians to cause social unrest and tense days of riots and fighting – as in June 1990. But intermarriage here is not taboo, and many people speak both languages. 400,000 Uzbeks live in the city.

Borders are junctions, meeting grounds. Osh feels like the US/Mexican border town in Orson Wells’ “Touch of Evil”: black and white, mysterious, a little dangerous. In the early evening, we hurry home.

3,000 year old Osh has at its center both spirituality and history. A climb up to Suleyman’s Throne, will throw you into Kyrgyz Islam, infused with ancient superstitions – walking through a cave, sliding a hand over a stone for fertility, circling a tree praying for inner peace. The Prophet Mohammed is said to have once prayed here, and today informal pilgrims walk on the hill’s steep paths. Readers of the Koran wait for a donation, while young people come to catch the cool wind above the city.

Aridity – (or lack of time)
Among this rush and activity, crafts in Osh know little effervescence today. There is no center giving energy to the whole – and so crafts here are still a personal, bazaar-based production. It would be more interesting to go out to see the villages around the city – Gulcho, Karulja, Eski-Nookat, and further south to Batken province (places where I unfortunately didn’t have the time to go – I’m sure the story would change with insight into these regions). But Osh, which stands as the center of those other towns and villages, has not united their craftsmen, or infused the region with an economic outlet or sales platform for the region’s crafts. The town is still missing an organization, a personality to breathe that creative wind. The Golden Valley Crafts Organization, which once aspired to such a role, is now a sad workshop for second-rate ceramics, and has turned towards modern fashion design as a source of income. I meet some felt-makers who make modern Shyrdak for exhibitions as an extra source of family income – but there is none of the passion and inspiration seen in Bishkek or Issyk-Kul. Damira, my translator and I are shocked by one of the craftsman’s poverty – a completely empty house echoing with children’s crying. The family’s four sons are working in Russia, while their wives and children await them here in the two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the city. We are looking for some color to take refuge in.

Sultanat brings color to the landscape
Sultanat’s got style. Antique silver rings on her fingers, she’s got a seductive stare, almost nonchalant, but resolute. Feminine, alive. Like many of the women in Kyrgyzstan’s craft industry, she has connections with Aid to Artisans, who first came to the region in the late 90’s to talk about crafts business with local artists and craftsmen. Sultanat worked with the NGO as well as with CACSA, and has attended exhibits throughout the region. She has had her own crafts store for the past 15 years.

Sultanat is trying to support craftsmen in southern Kyrgyzstan, and her small colorful store sells some of their products. Up until now however she only works with craftsmen in the close vicinity of Osh, but recognizes the need for her store to branch out to more villages and towns in the south. She has researched the artisans there, and is aware of their production and knowledge. She would like to expand her business, but says that it will be hard to finance the growth. Already with her present store, Sultanat and her husband lived three years without profit, and mostly live from their paintings. “Financing growth right now will be a risk.” she says, “The political situation is still volatile and that it directly impacts tourism,” – the couple’s greatest source of clients. But Sultanat remains optimistic and is applying for grants from US government organizations to start a five-year project creating an Osh-based crafts center.

Sultanat says that they have now learned how to foster strong partnerships between their store and craftsmen. They know what can be sold, what locals and foreigners demand, and what the adequate price for each object is. She notes that the local government is also getting involved in supporting crafts. On May 28th, a global handicrafts market was held in Osh, hosted by the regional (oblast) government.

Sultanat notes that there is still a clear dichotomy between the cities and villages: crafts production in southern Kyrgyzstan is still centered in the villages while the selling and business of crafts is centered in the cities. Stronger bridges need to be created between both, even if she notes that this may impact the esthetics of the local production. Sultanat believes that it is inevitable that crafts will change. “We are in contact with other countries, other artists, the global world. Kyrgyz crafts will change and no longer be the art of nomads, but of pseudo-nomads. This is inevitable with our lifestyle changes: the functional is becoming merely decorative.” However, Sultanat believes that it is possible and primordial to preserve very traditional crafts. “It is like our language, part of ourselves,” she says. She believes that stores like hers can help to preserve the crafts – enabling local craftsmen to live from their generational skills. She notes that southern Kyrgyzstan needs to start actively supporting the crafts in the Osh and Batken regions.

Talking about the Region
“We are small isolated countries,” Sultanat says, “and we have each developed in isolation.” She says that there is not much interaction in the region beyond what CACSA enables – a handful of craftsmen that attend regional exhibitions. Considering the opportunities, she says, the exchange is minimal. Andijan is one hour away, Marghilan and Ferghana only two hours away, but she doesn’t know the craftsmen there. Despite this lack of exchange, for the first time in Kyrgyzstan, I see some crafts from other countries in her store - Uzbek silk and Tajik hand-embroidered hats. She has made some Tajik and Uzbek partners through CACSA – and so there is some border crossing, but the reality of exchange looks grim.

the Ferghana valley – a short intro

Valley: n. a fold in the world. a womb, fertile. a place where life begins, where cities are built. the Great Rift Valley, the Valley of Kings, the Ferghana Valley. a safe place, where conquerors come to rest protected by surrounding mountains, irrigated by waters, scented by springs. Valley.

There are many ways to approach the Ferghana Valley. From the North-East, you could follow the Kara Balta gorge out of Bishkek’s own Chui Valley, following the newly cemented road (started by the Turks, finished by the Chinese) through the devastating height of mountains, past rock and a petrified ocean of soft green dunes, to then descend – like the waters – into the patchwork of tamed agricultural land that starts beyond Jalalabad. If however, you are tempted by a southern route from Dushanbe, you will have to weather more stunning and funambulist heights – the vertical Pamir highway to Osh, or the only slightly tamer road through the roaring knife-carved millennium canyons of the Fann Mountains, up and through the hair-pin twists and turns of the Anzob and Ayni Passes, snowed in from October to May. From those wild lonely heights, you start your northerly descent into the madness and beauty of human civilization and Khujand - the 2500 year-old city at the helm, guarding the southern gates of the Ferghana Valley and the wide blue river bed of the Syr-Darya – the valley’s thirst-quencher. Taxer and Commander at the gates, Khujand stands proud, though lately a little broken, a little disconnected by new boundaries and tightened visa-regimes. (There is a sense here that we have splintered our world with nations, fragmented the great plains and their mountains). A more lackluster Westerly approach to the valley will take you from the Tashkent metropole past a slew of police posts and passport checks through the relatively low (2,267m) Kamchik Pass, known to be hermetically sealed to isolate the valley in times of strife (as most recently in 2005 following the Andijan riots when the road was closed for several weeks – the government feared the unrest would pour into Tashkent). This is the fastest route – and despite the police, it is the only one without a border crossing.

These stunning roads carved through height and mountain, lead to the flat fertile elongated bowl of the Ferghana Valley. Here, the earth is rich, dark, damp, the population dense. History abounds as does color, with mostly greens (the cotton only blooms and is harvested in early fall.) The Valley’s land and its fruits are fed by a web of canals – carved out in the 1939 with the muscle and sweat of communist fervor: The Great Ferghana Canal and its tributaries (built in 6 months with the labor of 160,000 collective farm workers). The industrious soviet planners eager to create bumper cotton harvests brought controlled water to the valley. Bringing modern irrigation, they also attracted an ever growing slew of people, ready and willing to work the land. Today, the population density is so great that water again has become gold – a scarce resource that is used and recycled, treasured and fought for. In Rishtan the family I live in walks for about 1 km to get drinkable water for the day. In Miramin’s family home in Istarafshan, drinkable water flows for about 20 minutes each day – enough time to fill up a handful of plastic cisterns. In the summer heat, boys swim naked in the freshness of the canals. Girls, no matter what age are not allowed this cool release. (I’m dying for a swim, but I’ll have to wait for Tashkent’s looser rules to slip into a makeshift bikini.) Entering the Ferghana is also to enter sedentary agricultural and urban centers and their more canonical religions and century-old customs, built and cemented by time.

Legend and Legacy
The valley is a land marked by towns, ambition and tradition. It is dense, alive, pulsing with human stories. It is also a landscape painted with ethnic myths: the residue of historical might and the passage of conquerors. It is a melting pot of cultures, languages and peoples – both complex and beautiful. In his book “Black Sea: the Birthplace of Civilization and Barbarism” Neal Ascherson writes about the rich often explosive mix of cultures that have molded the land around the Black Sea. It is a beautiful description well-suited to the Ferghana Valley:

“Human settlement around the Black Sea has a delicate, complex geology accumulated over three thousand years. But a geologist would not call this process simple sedimentation, as if each new influx of settlers neatly overlaid the previous culture. Instead, the heat of history has melted and folded peoples into one another’s crevices, in unpredictable outcrops and striations. Every town and village is seamed with fault-lines. Every district displays a different veining of [ethnicities and people].”

It is this same feeling that one gets in the Ferghana Valley. A delicate, fragile and beautiful melting pot.

Cities of legend, founded by kings, rulers of silk and sands, older than Rome, this is one of those pieces of earth at the heart of human history. Osh, Andijan, Jalalabad, Khujand, Khokand, Marghilan, Namangan– the names slip off the tongue in a lullaby of legend. King Solomon, Alexander the Great, Amir Timur, Genghis Khan, Stalin – this is a place where men have left their footprints. But recently these legends and the tracing out of nation states after the fall of the USSR, has left a delicate legacy – a patchwork of ethnicities, the creation of “us, we” and the “others”.

Today Ferghana is a body divided, suspended between three capitals: Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), and Tashkent (the Uzbek bully). If the maps of the region are hard to read, this is no surprise, it is an awkward puzzle of borders and delimitations. It is a body marked by the hassle, stress, prohibitions, fears, taxes and logistics of border crossings. It is a land where sisters, brothers, and parents live across borders, where families are torn by passports and administration. But mostly, it is a place where languages and ethnicity do not neatly fit into the demarcations of borders.

In Kyrgyzstan, of 5 million nationals there are 679,000 Uzbeks (almost 14% of the population), in Uzbekistan officially there are two million official Tajiks, but the actual number is said to be as high as seven million (many ethnic Tajiks are believed to have registered as Uzbeks to avoid harassment), in western Tajikistan there are also large communities of ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.

Again, reading Neal Ascherson on the Black Sea, you can get a sense of the tension and danger that seems to lie in the ethnic configuration of the Valley (long quote, but Mr. Ascherson writes so well). The quote also hones in on the potential for violence left by the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union:

“An ancient, ‘multi-ethnic’ community is a rich culture to grow up in. Bosnia was once like that. So was Odessa before the Bolshevik Revolution, or Vilnius, in Lithuania, before the Second World War. (…) But nostalgia makes bad history. The symbiosis has often been more apparent than real.

Living together does not mean growing together. Different ethnic groups may co-exist for centuries, practicing the borrowing and visiting of good neighbors, sitting on the same school bench and serving in the same imperial regiments, without losing their underlying mutual distrust. But what held such societies together was not so much consent as necessity – the fear of external force. For one group to assail or attempt to suppress another was to invite a catastrophic intervention from above – the dispatch of Turkish soldiers or Cossacks – which would pitch the whole community into disaster.

It follows that when that fear is removed, through the collapse of empires or tyrannies, the constraint is removed too. Power struggles in distant places, to which one group or another feels an allegiance, reach the village street. Democratic politics, summoning unsophisticated people to pick up sides and to think in terms of adversarial competition, smite such communities along their concealed splitting-plane: their ethnic divisions. And often, reluctantly at first, they divide. The familiar neighbors, with their odd-smelling food and the strange language they speak at home become part of an alien and hostile ‘them’. Antique suspicions, once confined to folk-songs and the kitchen tales of grandmothers, are synthesized into the politics of paranoia.

All multi-ethnic landscapes, in other words, are fragile. Any serious tremor may disrupt them, setting of landslips, earthquakes and eruptions of blood. The peoples themselves know this, and fear it.”

Nick Megaron, a professor at Cambridge University (quoted on Eurasianet) echoes that fear, saying: “The Ferghana Valley borderlands were once a dynamic and intricate mosaic of ethnic groups, kinship networks, land-use patterns and economic activity. Recent border policies of Ferghana Valley states have shattered that mosaic.”

Governments come to pieces over the land. The valley’s roads, rail, energy and water grids, most designed before borders were drawn and nations built in 1991, nonchalantly criss-cross countries almost indifferent to the political battles they cause today. This land was once the integrated outskirts of the Soviet Empire, unified by ideology and language. Today it is a cut-out, pantomime land, locked in a tug of war. International agencies worry greatly about potential conflict – and recently there have been some. These fears have kept tourists out of the valley, but despite the occasional mumble about unemployment and the surreptitious watering of fields under the cover of dark, traveling there - the valley seems calm.

Still, ethnic strife has exploded in the recent past. Violent ethnic clashes broke out in June 1990 over land distribution in the small, mountain village of Uzgen, in the Kyrgyz part of the Valley and spread to Osh only 55 km away. (This violence is said to have been fostered and fanned by the local political parties, vying for more power). On January 3, 2003 there were riots at the Kyrgyz/Tajik border in the region of Isfara, seemingly over water issues. While staying in Rishtan, in the Uzbek part of the Valley, a fight between two adolescents flamed fears of ethnic conflict in the neighboring city of Khokand – one of the boys had been Uzbek, the other Tajik. The Uzbek boy died – and Khokand was worried about retaliation. Rishtan locals told me that it was just young boys fighting over some mishap in the bazaar, but Khokand citizens, about 40km away were worried enough to believe that such an unlucky skirmish could evolve into something bigger. Indeed, it seems that if some political group has an agenda to promote – these skirmishes could be manipulated and masterminded into violence.

Some of the ethnic violence is also fanned at the highest level. Uzbekistan which provides electricity and gas for Tajikistan’s part of the valley regularly cuts off the supply in the below freezing winter weather – political pressures thus easily exerted. The metal workers of Istaravshan, in the Tajik Ferghana rapidly adapted to this institutionalized harassment and its ensuing daily power shortages, and have reinstalled the traditional hand-powered flame-blowers of their fathers. Better to have low output than no output at all.

In the Valley too, there are some rumbles of religion.

Fundamentalist Islam is said by many to be stirring in the Valley, and this fear (so greatly enhanced in our global sensitivities since Sept. 11) has been used by the Ferghana Valley governments, especially Uzbekistan to clamp down on many forms of religious schools, gatherings and groups – strikes that often crush pluralistic, non-fundamentalist efforts in its wake. But even USA and Europe-based think tanks take the threat very seriously. The Valley is thought, most notably, to be a breeding ground of support for movements such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (though it is not clear if the group still exists after the death of its leaders and many members in Afghanistan) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is thought to be popular among ethnic Uzbeks throughout the region. I meet no one in the Valley that openly tells me of their adherence to these groups – but I imagine that it is a dangerous avowal to make.

On quick passage through the valley, it seems the Islamic revival is in renewing spirituality – a people reawaking to the practice of Islam after years of Soviet slumber and religious repression. There are few if any chadors, and calls to prayer are noticeably absent in the Uzbek part of the valley. Faith seems to be translated by gestures and open, honest, proud belief. The breaking of bread and the attending of Friday prayers.

There are some pockets however – like Marghilan, the capital of hand-woven silk – where renewed Islam has reawakened traditionalist thinking and some of the harsher pre-Soviet traditions that formerly held the region. In all the neighboring towns, I am told – almost in a whispered warning - that Marghilan is very conservative. Later, walking unveiled in Marghilan’s streets, I feel an outsider, stared at, noticed. Here Islamic modesty is imposed by the town’s conservative outlook, and people’s glances. It is the first place in the region where the veil is worn formally and with clear religious – rather than cultural – meaning/style. It is also the only place in the valley where my hosts take me to visit mosques and other religious shrines. Many of the boys in the silk factories I visit also take pauses in their work to read Namaz five times a day.

In these pockets, women bear the grunt of traditionalism – I want to say archaic, hard traditions. In Marghilan, the girls get married young: 15 and 16 year old brides are not surprising. Asking a group of girls whether they could finish school and go to university after getting married, one laughs, and says that now her husband’s family compound is her home, her geography. When talking about his son’s upcoming wedding, Fazlidin Aka, one of the silk tycoons in town, tells me that he has found a perfect wife for his son: she is 16 he says, reads Namaz and wears the Hijab.

The late master of silk velvet weaving, Turgonboy Mirzaakhmedov’s daughter Kamberoy, also in Marghilan, was not allowed to continue her university education, despite passing the difficult entry exams and demonstrating her ability and desire to study English. The expense would simply not be given to a girl, and Ferghana University, only one hour away, was considered too far and inappropriate for Kamberoy. Staying at her family’s home for three days, I come to know her and respect her worn beauty, slim and vertical with eyes carved out by lack of sleep. She tells me that she does not want to get married, but that her mom will find her a husband and she will marry this year at 21 – a year later than expected because they could not have a wedding feast for at least one year after the death of her father. In the morning at 4h30, I hear her waking and starting to clean the courtyard. I ask Kamberoy if she wants to come with me to the next towns I will visit, to escape if just for a while. She wants to come, but is not allowed. (It is now her mom who is perpetuating the pressure and restrictions once imposed by her father.)

Beyond some of the harder stories – those stories of women who are not given the space to dream, there is a cool, gargling calm to life in the Valley. Waking to work before the heat, the day starts early. Naps are taken in the afternoon from noon to three, and then tea is sipped in the cool night winds under grape vines. Nights are peppered with dance and song. In Rishtan I drink warm vodka and go to sleep easy. In Marghilan I secretly smoke a cigarette behind a tree. In Istaravshan I sleep with the women and the children of Miramin’s family and am lulled to sleep by the television. In Andijan, I buy strawberries in a night market.

This valley has many lives, always redefined, a collage of mirrors – seeming to reflect what you are ready to see.

Valley: n. centerpiece, critical. a broken puzzle. pockets of countries strewn throughout the land: Sokh, Shakhimardan. (pockets of Uzbekistan scattered in Kyrgyzstan). Warukh, Western Qalacha (Tajik enclaves within Kyrgyzstan), pieces. border crossings. 22,000 flat sq km – a distance from which you forget the mountains. City centers, Ferghana city, Khokand infusing the districts with urban mores. longer veils in Marghilan. Poverty, unemployment, and the daily routine. Women restricted to family compounds, not walking out alone. Craftsmen hard at work, forced to find markets in the tourist towns on the other side of the country.


The articles that follow are part of the dance I was privileged to have in the valley, a broken, non-expert, but heartfelt outlook on the valley: a collage of stories.

I did not spend many days in the valley. 3 days in the Kyrgyz slice of it racing between Jalalabad and Osh, 2 weeks on the Uzbek side, and one week on the Tajik heights – but it is a place that marks, that sings. Some parts I entered were alive, glowing, real, others slow, depressed, and almost rancorous. Its crafts are dense beauty, a quilt of colors and harder realities. It is the heartland of traditions reborn, some successfully, others struggling, others dying slowly. Marghilan silk, Shahrihan cutlery, Andijan jewels, mi Rishtan Boys, Isfaran ceramics, Istaravshan calico prints, Khujand embroidery. There are stories to be told here.

Many thanks to the directory “Craftsmen of the Ferghana Valley” given to me by CACSA (Central Asian Crafts Support Association) with which I worked for 3 (discontinuous) weeks in the Valley. The directory, published in 2005 was the work of three crafts associations – CACSA (in Kyrgyzstan), Hamsa (in Uzbekistan) and Fatkh (in Tajikistan) and sponsored by USAID and the Eurasia Foundation. It is an inventory of craftsmen working in the craft centers of the Osh, Jalalabad and Batken oblasts of Kyrgyzstan, the Sogd oblast in Tajikistan and in the Andijan, Ferghana and Namangan oblasts of Uzbekistan. Many of the contributing writers, including Natalia Mussina in Uzbekistan, Svetlana Balalaeva in Kyrgyzstan, and Osmanjon Khomidov in Tajikistan were of great help. merci. merci. Also thanks to Damira Umetbaeva assistant professor at the American University Central Asia in Bishkek for help translating Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Russian.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fergana Valley - excluded from symbols

Reaching Southern Kyrgyzstan and its expansive flat and fertile agricultural land, one begins to wonder if the Tunduk – the yurt center – is a symbol wide enough to include these agricultural towns and urban centers – these places of passage, once protected by city walls. The Tunduk suddenly feels like a narrow definition for the nation. Not all here were once nomads. So boldly painted on the flag, I wonder if the numerous Uzbek population of Kyrgyzstan’s south resents this symbol that so blatantly excludes them.

a first thought on entering the Fergana Valley.

some color still

if there is shadow, there must be color still.

(a preview of the Qashga'i nomads... some soul, before i return to the chronological order of things)

out of time, out of mind

sometimes you have got to break chronologies to find again those orders, those frameworks that make things work. breaking mechanics to oil that rusting machinery of our routines.

so here, out of order (because I have yet to write about time spent in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), some shadows of three blistering cloudy weeks in a sophisticated land where I have walked mostly heartbroken and splintered, searching for some traction to these bustling, densely populated schizophrenic cities and their people. walking part whole, part covered, badly dodging the slippery greedy hands of marauding perverts (young and open-faced fellows), surprised that I have not yet learned to sense the approach of their unwelcomed pinches and strokes. (Wishing too that I had learned wushu. ba bam!)

Outside, a parade in shades of black: femininity over-baking under the sun. Having to zoom into visible details – a nose, a painted piercing eye, a delicate hand – to find the soul of the world - that beauty that lets us live.

Three weeks digesting the first culture shock for me on this journey: soul-shaking, a rocky bumpy ride – which ended only recently in a flight from the beautiful and disturbing urban centers to find refuge in the Zargos mountains among the color and femininity of the Qashga’i nomads. a breath of dance.

finally finding some footing here in Iran – this subtle, brutal, multi-ethnic, poetic place at the heart of the world and history.