The Uzbeks keep asking me, “It is normal?” Such as, do I think the temperature is okay in the hotel room: “The temperature, it is normal?” Or, we are driving and Rafiq (my savvy tour manager/fixer) puts on some Uzbeki dance music, “The radio, it is normal?” At bedtime, the last thing the guesthouse man Sadulo says to me: “Everything is normal?” My food: “Breakfast, it is normal?”
Sweet pastes in small bowls, a hard-boiled quail egg. Hunks of bread (“Samarkand – most famous in Central Asia for bread!”). A tureen of hard candy. No plate.
“Yes,” I reply, “It is normal.”
For a country ruled by an autocratic sadistic despot (I read that they literally boil political dissidents here) Uzbekistan is, on the surface, quite a free-seeming civil society. Just don’t criticize the government.
I took a walk in the park—everyone strolling in a free-looking lovey-dovey sort of way. Even by our liberal American standards, I would say that many of the women (especially in Tashkent) dress like sex workers. I don’t mean that in an insulting way. Maybe a better way of putting it is, if you saw a prostitute in a Hollywood movie, they would be dressed like the nice ladies walking in the park here. Which is surprising – I thought the country was going to have more of a conservative Muslim thing going on—hajiib, modesty, etc. Apparently not. Sorry, Sharia law—Russian capitalist influence and post-cold war Eurotrash fashion trends win the day!
Meanwhile, for the past months I’ve been cultivating an especially Mongolish beard in anticipation for my trip. A really nice beard I tell you. The hope being that maybe it’ll help me blend in with the locals. Not to look like the ethnic Uzbeks, but there are plenty of Russians/Armenian/Tajiks/Afghanis/miscellaneous dark hairy types and I’m thinking, maybe I can walk through the market without being total tourist bait. Jewlia, who was here eleven years ago, said that it would be a good idea, what with Central Asia trending Islamic in recent years.
The problem now is, if I shave, I’ll come off as a total sucka. Who’s the stupid American who grew a beard to fit-in in Uzbekistan? Dumbass. If I wanted to do that, I should of just worn a cheap sport coat and a Yankee’s hat. So, I’m just going with the beard and selling it. “This is my beard. Deal with it, Uzbekistan. People in America have totally awesome scraggly beards.” Arrrrrgh.
Driving from Tashkent to Samarkand – 300km past villages, cherry and apricot orchards, barren desert hills – we’re stopped three times by armed guards at check points. Each time Rafiq rolls down his window, greets the guard with a salaam a lekim, then opening up the glove compartment passing over a pile of documents covered in official looking Cyrillic stamps. He gets out of the car, chats with the guard, gets back in the car, and we’re off. It’s obvious they’re stopping him because there is a majorly sketchy looking dude in the car. Humph.
Rafiq makes a point of slowing down for any young woman who is by the road trying to hitch a ride. He passes by all the men. Eventually he picks up a nice girl who is going our way – a school teacher. They laugh and talk non-stop until, an hour later, he pulls off the road and she gets out. Everywhere there are lots of people waiting by the side of the road for rides. It is so safe here, a woman gives no pause about getting in a car with two men. There are upsides to post-Soviet authoritarian rule!
“Good morning Mr. Jason!
“Good morning Sadulo. How are you?”
“Feeling normal! Are you normal?”
And finally, after being here a few days, this exchange: