Road to Samarkand
An extract about Tashkent
An old Uzbek in toppei braided cap, his Tamerlane horseman’s coat swirling to the tops of his riding boots, bent down and struck a tinder to an iron brazier that was stuffed with old steppe grasses yellow smoke billowed, out; the old man lifted his cured leather face and called out: “Cure, cure.”
He raised the brazier by its wire handle.
The passers-by broke back from the flame as the old Uzbek stamped his boot heel down into the brazier to squash the grass down and make it billow smoke. The crowd moved in again till people were standing with outstretched necks over the smoke and gulping down great lungfuls of it in gratitude.
“Rakhmat, rakhmat – thank you, thank you, rakhmat.”
Then they would proffer kopecks that the Uzbek pocketed into his capacious steppe coat.
The yellow smoke of burning steppe grasses and herbs is offered as a cure for the bouts of influenza that sweep in with the melting of the last snows of spring. Whether it works or not is not important. What is important is that it is believed to work.
The brazier was moved off into the crowds that made way to welcome it. I tried a few whiffs of it myself and passed on spluttering.
The crowd of Tashkent salaamed to each other and shook hands, making deals and bargains. Shouts of pleasure were heard, men happy to be seeing one another again. Some had come journeying down from distant mountains and farmsteads, bringing their produce to market. The crowds were so thick you had to go shouldering sideways to get through the throng.
There was an explosion of Uzbek talk, rough laughter rose like gunsmoke over the crowded heads. Entering the old Tashkent market gateway, you tread the path that traders and travellers coming all the way from Rome had trod for thousands of years. There, by the Moslem curving stone archway, his back against the wall, an old, old. man swaddled in his steppe coat called upon passers-by to give him alms in the name of Allah for the blessing of Allah. The old man had taken up the position by tradition at the gate to the Tashkent market, and be raised his right hand to the crowds coming in and out, hailing us all in the memory of God. “Insh Allah, salaam aleikhum. In the name of God...” he opened his other palm outwards to receive the proof that God is great and will provide. As I once heard a devout but practical Jew comment irritably: “I know God is good and He will provide, but I only wish. I would provide until he provides.”
Or as I heard a Russian say cryptically: “God him helps who himself helps so.”
The crowds hustled me with them. I glimpsed a sight of the old, old East, and then it was gone again like a long-fastened oaken door that had opened a crack then closed again. I remember now being with a Russian diplomat in Britain. He told me he wanted to go and see a British open air market: “In any new country I go to I always want to go and see the cemeteries and the markets.” “You mean because these are the basic places of people’s lives,” I said.
The Russian’s eyes shone. Someone who understood. He said: “Yes.”
And in the British market that we visited, he had himself been astonished to hear the thunder of fingers on skin drums and the clash of temple bells as he saw the market traders sitting crosslegged by their wares, the wafts of incense rising – Hari Krishna devotees, English men and women, of course, but with shaven heads and sandals on their feet, and clad in. the saffron robes of the Eastern mystic cult. They stood at the entrance of the little market square and. chanted Hari, Krishna, hari hari, also holding out their hands for alms.
I like markets too. Modern living, glass and concrete is stripped aside. Instead, in the open air, save for a sheltering awning perhaps, the fruits of the earth are displayed, and there is much greeting and holding of hands.
In Tashkent’s old market, horsebits and jingling harnesses were proffered for sale beside mountains of dried apricots, golden as sovereigns on the fruit-sellers’ stalls.’ Nameless dishes skewered over sputtering charcoal. The Uzbek and Afghan knives, as big as short swords, were on sale at fifteen roubles a piece. Black to the blade and the edge honed to silver, their handles were set with coloured stones. The morning rain had stopped; the wind had blown gaps in the clouds and the sun was coming through those gaps, burning you wherever it caught you. From the Tashkent marketplace, the great buzz of noise arose. How much human beings love to talk to one another. Men were standing in. their salah headdresses and steppe coats, their women muffled against the rough wind and sunshine, in shawls that were worked with silver and gold braid. They held out their hands to one another and slapped their palms in greeting.
At a bread stall, huge rolls of bread twisted into Italian-looking shapes and traditional designs were for sale. A woman behind, the counter seized a loaf and held it before her face to hide herself from my Leica camera.
Somewhere in the din and smoke a tabla running under the thumbs of its player was heard, the silver ring on the drummer’s finger making little rills of sound on the wooden edge of the shallow skin drum. And the two dozen miniature cymbals on the crown of the tabla sounded like a thousand horse hooves running on hard desert sand.
On a raised bit of stone wall, a jolly old Uzbek turned over on his side and, supporting his head in the palm of his hand, sunshine lighting his smile, chatted freely with the melee that passed around him: these people, like country people everywhere, they know how to live. They know how to enjoy themselves.
Squat Uzbeks with the strong bodies of wrestlers, quilted, padded and with the slit Chinese-looking eyes of the high Asia wind-filled steppe. They wear round skull-caps on the back of their head, their massive necks bare to the sun. Then there are the long Afghan faces with the finely modelled nose of the true Indo-Aryan stock, limpid eyes darkly lashed. There was a. great and noble civilization here, developing mathematics, astronomy, literature and music, when we in Britain were still burning coastal villages and carving notches on our shields.
The love for the Open Road, the Golden Road, is strong in them. Their welcoming of travellers springs from it. Questions and answers are based on. the concept of The Road. How goes The Road? Is The Road quiet? Is there good travelling on The Road? And their parting blessing is always: “Ok youl. May there be a road.”
I saw Uzbek girls dance. They dance to a heart-beat throbof skin drums, twinkling feet, their almost transparent whitish dresses swirling. The magic of sloe black eyes and glistening pink lips.
“Women don’t like to see Uzbek girls dancing,” said an Uzbek. “They dance,” the Uzbek’s knowing smile, “for men—”
With a proud gesture he said:
“Just last week we showed a British film here, very popular.”
“Oh, which one was that?”
“It was based on a book that was a thriller,” explained the Uzbek. “In England, very popular—”
“Who was the author of this thriller?”
“An aghast Christ.”
“An aghast...” But it was the clue I needed. “Do you mean Death On the Nile by Agatha Christie?”
“Yes!” the Uzbek nodded.
In the great mosque in the Old Quarter of Tashkent I met with the Mufti of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, a solid and heavymade man. The Mufti was sitting in his side office, hard by the main gate of his mosque.
“There are sixteen separate mosques in Tashkent,” he said. “In these the muezzins make the call to prayer five times a day.”
The Mufti’s full title was Dr. Shamsuddin Babakhanov. And, before him, his father was the Mufti.
From the windows of the mosque you could see the snow on the Chimghans. The trail that the camel caravans had followed ran past the mosque.
A plastic Vega radio was on the shelf. At his desk there was a model of a Viking ship that was filled with paperclips. The Mufti is a writing man.
“One of Lenin’s first decrees was the decree of the freedom of faith. It was signed by Lenin, and he said, ‘You, are free! “ The Mufti looked up. “In our country it is illegal to prevent people from believing in their gods. We have conferences about what we consider to be the just struggles of the Moslems in the Near East. As head of the Moslems here I attend many conferences on social questions. We are active in the struggle against the concept of more wars. We are against war – we are for friendship. We are always seeking means of improving peace and friendship.”
The Mufti was wearing a creamy white turban and a loose robe of some woven material. But at his throat he wore the very European-looking stiff collar and tie.
“It was in my father’s time when he was Mufti here that the American boxer Muhammad Ali came here.”
Under the great arched gateway that led into the mosque crowds had swarmed around as I came through, waiting to take the hand of their Mufti.
“He came here to see us, of course. He was supposed to fight against Joe Frazier to try to regain his world heavyweight boxing championship title. The thriller in Manila they called it, didn’t they?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“Well—” the Mufti drummed his fingers on the desk, “before he went Ali asked us if we would pray for his victory so that he would win back his world crown again.”
“We said we would.”
“And Ali left here weeping.”
I did not see it fit to ask if anyone had interceded with the Almighty on behalf of Mr. Frazier. He lost.
“We are in constant touch with people in other lands. I have just returned from Afghanistan myself. We’re particularly interested in helpful negotiations with Christian communities in other lands too. We are always seeking means of improving peace and friendship. For instance, there is Dr Aziz Pasha who is a leader of a religious community in Britain, We exchange letters and books. Will you please take my greetings and good wishes to Dr Aziz in Britain if you should ever meet him.”
The words slipped casually out of my mouth and with no thought of political implication at all. Was not the Mufti of Central Asia sometimes concerned that he would be dubbed as merely something like Dean Hewlett Johnson was dubbed – the Red Dean.
Instantly the Mufti, Dr. Shamsuddin Babakhanov was upon me, his intent and piercing gaze, be leaned forward, his eyes held mine.
“Are you not afraid that by coming here you will be dubbed the Red Writer?”
Well, no, not really, I responded, such a thought hardly bothers me.
“Well, then,” the Mufti of Central Asia relaxed backwards. “So let it be.”
Let it be.