The Cotton Trenches of Uzbekistan
On the fifth day of "barf" (Tadjik for snow) in November 1993, the troops surrendered. The war, a.k.a. the cotton harvest, lasted eight weeks this year and yielded (only) 87% returns.
I had watched my students pile into a twenty-five-vehicle motorcade and wind around the mile-long university boulevard amidst handkerchief waving and cheers from teachers and other onlookers. Two days later, much to the horror and surprise of my women colleagues at Samarkand State University, I joined the students' work camp.
On October 5, I arrived at the collective farm called Guzelkent, about forty kilometers outside the city limits. The place was a collection of brown-streaked whitewashed houses made of mud brick, rising like Oz out of acre upon acre of cotton fields. It was a scene framed by purple mountain peaks and a flawless blue sky. The first day, I walked with a fellow demlow (Uzbek for teacher) through the cotton fields, trying to pick out my own students from brightly colored hunched-over backs.
My colleague's well-trained eye spotted them. "There they are," she said, "just like the enemy hiding." And there sat three Uzbek girls, their white kerchiefs bobbing at boll-level with the cotton stalks. The women looked like mummies as they picked the cotton, their mouths and noses wrapped with gauze. The men's faces were unprotected. Crop dusters disgorged defoliants which shrivelled the greenery and exposed the cotton for clean picking. A yellow residue remained on the cotton. Hearing the advancing buzz of the plane, I ran and hit the deck, covering my head. Everyone laughed and the domla reassured me that it was "only salt."
At lunch time the brigade assembled on the sidelines, huddling around a wood-burning samovar. One student was the designated "cooker" for the group, and spent the whole morning fetching water from the community well, gathering food, and mixing up a pot of potato or macaroni soup. Before eating, students weighed in their cotton, hooking their bulging aprons onto a wooden tripod with a sliding-rule scale. Each sack contained up to twenty kilos. (Students strove to meet a 100-kilo quota per day.) After the tally, the cotton was tossed onto a rising mountain and then picked up by a flat-backed truck and carted away. The domlas and collective farmers dined atop the cotton; the students sat on the ground sharing one bowl of soup among six and passing around a cup of tea.
I expected the students to grumble about the conditions, as I knew American students would. But instead of rebellion there was an overwhelming sense of resignation at the camp: the cotton was here to be picked, and we were there to pick it. University studies span five years instead of four, so the students can spend a full year picking cotton during their tenure. The government orchestrates the effort, and every night President Karimov appears on national television to read each region's returns like a roll call of war dead.
Students are quick to defend their Republic, saying that Okotin (white gold, as cotton is known) is the only currency that Uzbekistan has right now. They pick for future generations. Picking is a rite of passage: their parents and grandparents picked, and so will they. For the collective farmers, I was the first American that they had ever seen, much less the only American to participate in this government agriculture campaign. Villagers peered at me, grade schoolers touched me to make sure I was real. One group of tenth-form students shyly approached me to give me a handful of walnuts and a piece of bread. Mekmonlar (guests) are treated with the utmost care and respect in Central Asia. My own students displayed their hospitality by giving me the thickest slabs of kielbasa and bread, though they had next to nothing to eat themselves.
I slept with nine of my fourth-year Uzbek girls in one room. At the end of the day, we dined on the bedroom floor. And after dinner, vanity ruled. Preening in hand-held mirrors, some girls rolled their bangs in curlers, others bridged their brows together with black paint. Some girls read, others knitted, and a few boogied to a boom box in the corner. I felt as if I had parachuted into a "Grease" slumber party, Uzbek-style. Boys were on everyone's minds. All of my students were to marry the following spring, though none knew their future mates.
Communal living was intense. My back ached, my skin burned. The squatton was located in a sheep stable out back. No baths, no gas, no beds. The students slept on collapsible cots, the same contraption that I mistook for a lawn chair in GUM, the department store in Samarkand.
Uzbekistan no longer belongs to Russia. My friend Ulugbek told me, "Our Republic is just a baby, and we must teach it to grow up." But cotton monoculture is firmly entrenched. Irrigation networks drain the feeder rivers to the Aral Sea, and cotton flourishes in a desert. University students pick it. I teach English. And so life goes on.
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