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Scenic images from the field


John Smart

Uzbekistan is one of those “stan” countries, a part of the former Soviet Union, a predominantly Muslim country with legendary cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, but it had been practically unvisited by tourists for over a hundred years. I had no idea what to expect there as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and nobody could tell me much either.

At age 56, I had traveled the globe extensively on business and pleasure, and I felt up to anything. Besides, as it turned out, there really was no way that anything or anyone could have prepared me for Uzbekistan.

The suffix “stan,” incidentally, is Arabic for “the land of. . . .” Thus, Uzbekistan is “the land of the Uzbeks,” and Afghanistan is “the land of the Afghans,” and so forth. I had always wondered about that.

The countries of the former Soviet Union share a unique history and a peculiar uniformity of style. Except for some variations in language and food, casual observers wouldn’t know if they were in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Vilnius, Lithuania, or Vladivostok, in far eastern Russia. In fact, I met a young English woman while I was there who was studying Soviet architecture. She told me that she could look at an apartment block and tell in which year it was built, whether it was in Murmansk or Almaty or Baku, because that was the design that had come out of the Moscow architecture office that year.

A strange specialty, I thought.

But, beneath the surface, if you looked past the Soviet overlay, Uzbekistan was the most truly foreign place that I have ever been in my life. Once you got past the ugly, quasi-modern cities, and out into the old population centers and the villages, a wonderful view of an ancient culture came into focus.

The Uzbek people are primarily descended from the nomadic tribes that originated in the region called the Altai, in the mountains north of Mongolia, although they have been influenced by an incredible array of visitors over many centuries.

Samarkand and Bukhara were at about the halfway point of the ancient Silk Road, the trade route that Marco Polo traveled on his way to see the great Kublai Khan. And many others have been here as well: the Persians of ancient history, the Greeks with the young Alexander, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Tatars, Syrian traders, Turkish armies, Europeans, Chinese, and finally the Russians.

I was fortunate to be sent to lovely old Bukhara to spend my term of service. Bukhara and Samarkand officially celebrated their 2,500th birthdays while I was there, although all agreed that some organization or bureaucrat had rather arbitrarily settled on that particular age. They’re likely a lot older. On my first day in Bukhara, I was shown the very spot in the ancient citadel, “The Ark,” where Alexander had wrestled a lion in 327 B.C.! I was overwhelmed by the history surrounding me, and remained so for the duration of my stay.

My duties as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bukhara were twofold: I served as an advisor to the crafts community of the region, specifically in the marketing of their products to foreign buyers and tourists, and I taught economics in a high school, in English, to students for whom English was their third, fourth, or even fifth language.

Both of these tasks were challenging and highly rewarding. I had experience in marketing handcrafted merchandise, but I had never taught school before. I discovered that I loved teaching, and it has really had a major effect on my life. When I returned from the Peace Corps, I got involved as a tutor and substitute teacher in my hometown, where I spread the Peace Corps message every day.

The transition from life in the United States to that in a country like Uzbekistan, or, indeed, in most of the countries of the world where Peace Corps Volunteers serve, was certain to be somewhat unsettling. Learning to live within a Muslim society, indeed with a Muslim family where no one spoke English, was memorable, to say the least. I learned the Uzbek language, and came to know quite a lot about Islam from asking questions and from discreetly observing. During my stay, my Uzbek friends included me in their religious observances. I often attended the mosque with them for regular prayers, and I was invited to important events like weddings, circumcisions, and funerals. I was always made welcome, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn far more than I taught.

I had an extraordinary opportunity to get to know the mufti of the Bukhara region. The mufti is the chief cleric in an area, as might be compared to a bishop in a Christian church. This man’s name is Gauferjon, and I tutored his daughter in English. I spent many evenings in their home, eating delicious food, and having long conversations with the mufti. This was possible thanks to his daughter’s excellent English translating skills.

Gauferjon was very well informed about how Islam is perceived in the West, and he was saddened that Westerners had gotten the impression from the news media that all Muslims threw rocks or bombs and caused civil disturbances. He likened it to a “what if” situation where his only knowledge of Christianity might be the news he received from Northern Ireland.

He also was a student of Islamic history, and told me about the Moorish period in Spain and the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and how these enlightened Muslims allowed all religions to flourish under their benevolent rule. He also felt that Islam had fallen behind the rest of the world in some ways, and longed for it to return to its real roots in the words of the Prophet, not influenced by the fanaticism that has unfortunately fueled its current reputation.

When I left Bukhara, Gauferjon gave me a doppa, the skullcap that is worn by all Muslim men. This particular doppa is white, with delicate white embroidery, and had been brought back from Mecca, when Gauferjon had made a hajj, or pilgrimage, to that holy city. It was a special gift for him to give me, and one that I will always treasure.

In fact, I will treasure all of my doppas. I have a lot of them, and there is a story behind each. I was given a traditional black and white Uzbek skullcap as a gift early in my stay, and, one very hot desert day, I put it on to walk into the old city of Bukhara. I didn’t want to burn the top of my head again (the hair up there doesn’t cover like it used to). I was, as I said, in my fifties, with gray hair and a gray beard, and, when I wore my doppa, people told me that I looked like a mullah or a wise elder.

I discovered that I enjoyed that image, so I wore a doppa every day for the rest of my stay in the country. My Uzbek friends, noticing this, started to give them to me, all sorts of doppas, embroidered silk doppas, hand-worked felt doppas, crocheted doppas, plain cotton “working man’s” doppas, and all in a rainbow of colors. I ended up bringing home a nice collection.

There was a distinct advantage to being older in the culture of Central Asia. To these people, age and wisdom are assumed to be linked, and I was treated with respect and a certain deference, which I, of course, came to appreciate.

I tried to wear my doppas once in a while after I returned to the United States, but nobody at home told me that I looked like a wise elder. I miss that, a lot.

John Smart (Uzbekistan)

John was a small-business development Volunteer in Uzbekistan. After his Peae Corps service was completed, he returned to his hometown of Park Falls, Wisconsin, to concentrate on volunteer work and being a substitute teacher.

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