- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Uzbekistan
One of the mysteries of living as an outsider in Tashkent , Uzbekistan , involves the attempt to correctly identify social and cultural differences. Volunteers here cannot get by merely by labeling everything as "other." We are daily witnesses to Uzbek, Russian, Tajik, Korean, and sundry other influences on a fluid landscape that has only in modern times been defined by borders. Even isolating all things strictly Uzbek is difficult: The culture has been changed historically by Greeks, Mongols, Turks, Persians, Arabs. Elements of Zoroastrianism survive. The Soviets have gone, and the numbers of Russians are diminishing, but the impact is still visible. Islam is quietly practiced. It would take many more than two years to decipher precisely what is what. Reminds me of how I feel when asked, "Tell me about America …."
This morning, I witnessed a peculiar event. Turning the key to enter my classroom at the philology faculty at the university, I heard what could only be the rustling of wings. The green light of the windows that open onto fresh tree growth showed a dove sitting on a desk, walking confusedly back and forth across the grafittied surface. Jittery, it had messed all over the desk and floor. And several other desks. And the bookcase. I eyed the slightly open window and headed toward the tan bird, intending to shoo it from the room and into the bright morning air. Instead, the thing began to flutter around the room in a loosely triangular pattern, freaking yet another bird into frightened, frenzied flight. So there were two.
With some students, I was able to usher the visitors out-of-doors, though not before several scolding coos from the affronted pair. We then began to wipe the desks and floor with wet rags, our only cleaning options in this run-down facility. One student, grinning, said, "They just wanted to learn English." Another student, with a knowing wink, referred to the doves as "guests." Students laughed.
Mehmonlar, or guests, in Uzbekistan are the focus of cultural hospitality. Perhaps the pinnacle of Uzbek social upbringing is the proper treatment of guests—and the elaborate etiquette of guest behavior. While the doves had certainly not been very thoughtful, they were, nonetheless, guests.
Those who heard the story throughout the day said, "You will be very lucky" or "very rich" or "happy." It seems that the random defecations of birds herald good luck. There was some argument as to whether the droppings had to land precisely on the recipient for him or her to qualify for such blessings, but the general drift seemed to bode well for me, whose class the guests had chosen to visit for the weekend. There are, after all, many rooms at the faculty, all of them with windows, many of which are often left open.
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Later today, I received an object of singular beauty. Fragile, ephemeral, small, the egg was given to me by a Russian student. Yesterday was Orthodox Easter. The egg was an incredible shade of brown. The texture held the color as rice holds butter, seeming to become skin. Dark, like Ethiopian skin, or the skin around mournful eyes that always seems a shade darker than the cheek. And soft.
There, on one curving side, was the light shadow of tiny cilantro leaves. As if you could paint cream onto the surface of coffee. Unimposing and timid—the heartbeat of a chick.
A little much, you might say, if you did not see just how unbelievably aesthetically pleasing this little egg exactly is. And won't be. Because the egg is boiled. I must eat it, or it will begin to rot. I cannot save this egg, and a photograph would never convey it well in years hence. I must enjoy it now. Like spring. Like this place. Like this life.
The student said that Russians take small plants and stick them to the sides of eggs, dropping the eggs into stockings and pulling the material taut around the greenery. This is tied off and dropped into thick, brown dye. A simple procedure that produces a design so enthralling that I have taken it out and stared at it all day.
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Pictures can't catch some of the most quintessential manifestations, in this world, of existence in the very act of existing. Gestures, expressions, movements, sounds elude even the finer technologies. This egg will pass into waste, and from there it will disappear from memory, unless I mark it down, etching the image in words, so that the words will mark the sensation of the instant when, smiling, she reached into her bag and produced her uncomplicated Easter gift. The doves, like the waste they left behind, were swept off and returned to birdness, where I will hardly distinguish them from the sundry other chirping and cooing inhabitants of the large shade trees outside the faculty. "Little noted nor long remembered," one might say. Yet there are these definitive moments, these charmed mornings of our lives, when the magic and elusive algorithm of being is revealed to us. Language and cognition often fail to express what we perceive, what we sense, in those moments. Another student said that Muslims here say "Happy Easter" to Orthodox Russians to be polite on their holiday. She said that she didn't know what to say in return, except "thank you." It seemed rude to say "same to you" or "and to you, as well," though these are the traditional responses to well-wishing in both Russian and Uzbek culture. I didn't ask if she knew which Uzbeks were devout and which were philosophically disinclined to practice religion after communism.
Together, some agnostics, some adherents of Russian Orthodoxy, a few Muslims, a couple of atheists, Koreans, Uzbeks, Russians, Georgians, and Greeks, ate Easter bread with a guy from that other amorphous anomaly, America. They discussed how quickly the newly arrived spring season would pass through our grasp. I looked around, contented. Today, we are generous disciples of pure joy. There will be no lines this morning delineating who will and who will not partake in the effervescent group atmosphere of buzzing, whirring, chattering, green-growing living.
Even the doves are invited.