Branching in Fiction

November 30, 2016

alabaster-cover-artThis month my debut novel comes out: Alabaster. Although it’s not set in Khiva, I’ve drawn on my experiences of living there and elsewhere in Central Asia. I’d love to know what you make of it.


I’ve recently returned to live in the UK, although I couldn’t leave Central Asia behind entirely. So, I’m now signed up as a guest lecturer leading tour groups around Uzbekistan with The Traveller. It seems almost too good to be true; I get to return to Khiva and my other favourite parts of Uzbekistan, and get paid for it!

If you’re interested in joining me on a tour, here’s the link:

Back to Khiva

November 25, 2012

April 1st 2012
My stomach roils as if filled with eels. I’m in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on the border with Uzbekistan. Seven years after I left, I now have a new Uzbek tourist visa in my passport. The last time I had a valid visa for Uzbekistan, I spent a week in the transit lounge, so I’m not sure what to expect and I’ve already arranged to meet up with friends in Osh if I’m turned back. With me is Andreas, a world-class German violin-maker turned team-mate. We’re setting up a school for wood-carving in Arslanbob, a mountainous Uzbek village in Kyrgyzstan. I want him to learn more about wood-carving and Central Asian naqsh and this is also a good opportunity for me to see if I can actually return to Khiva.

We pass through the Kyrgyzstan border control and walk across no-man’s land to the Uzbek side. Sixty or seventy Uzbek women wait patiently in line but once the foreigners are spotted, we are ushered – protesting – to the head of the queue by a policeman. I decide to speak in Uzbek and not pretend I can’t (as I know some foreigners have). This earns me a winning smile from the passport official and a long interview with the secret police, who want to know where I learnt Uzbek, how long I lived in Khiva for, what I did there, etc etc.

I manage a rare display of diplomacy and answer politely, eventually leaving with a stamped passport and wished a ‘white road’. I walk out, into Uzbekistan, dazed and still a little disbelieving, wondering if this is an April Fool’s joke. I haven’t even planned more than a vague itinerary and have come woefully unprepared as far as gifts are concerned, because I didn’t actually believe I’d make it this far. I look at Andreas and grin, incredulously. “I’m back! We actually made it. I can’t believe it!”

We find a taxi, which takes us to the Andijan bazaar where we change money on the black market. Unbelievably, the largest note denomination remains unchanged, despite being worth very around 40 cents, so we insist on blocks of 1000 som notes, which quickly fill entire bags. Andijan is unrecognisable. The mature trees that lined Soviet and pre-Soviet buildings are all gone, replaced with uniform buildings painted in mustard and ochre. The effect is generically Mediterranean, and this colour scheme is now autocratically imposed on all buildings we pass as we drive to Tashkent.

Tashkent itself looks amazing. The streets are clean, well lit and spotless, and new facades have sprung up over old buildings. We find a cheap hotel, but even this has a fancy new facade. Only on entering and seeing the pleasingly familiar, dilapidated Soviet interior and discovering that there is no electricity, do I feel a sense of nostalgic homecoming.

A day later and we’re on the train to Urgench. Having failed to buy a ticket at the counter and resigned to a very long bus journey, a man I purchased a painting from who comes from Khorezm, likes me and knows someone at the ticket office and makes a call and now, here we are. We’re sharing a cabin with two middle-aged men from Urgench and I enjoy Khorezm dialect again; forgotten words resurface and undoing the ‘high Uzbek’ accent I’ve been cultivating in Kyrgyzstan, is like replacing office shoes with a favourite pair of slippers.

The next morning the train leaves the desert and we pass through the Khorezm oasis. It’s been a long winter and slow spring, so there blossom’s out but still no leaves, despite the heat. The train arrives and soon we’re in a shared taxi to Khiva. My heart soars as the minarets and crenellations of the bulging Ichan Kala walls come into view. Passing through the North Gate we’re soon outside my old house and then there’s Zulhamar, stouter than before but still Zulhamar beaming gold teeth and telling me how beautifully fat I’ve become.

It’s only once I’m inside that I discover that Koranbeg was in a near-fatal car accident a few months before, leaving him with a shattered leg. He’s still bed-ridden but about to start a daily hobble around the house with a walking stick. They didn’t tell me in case I would worry. Koranbeg is entertained by Malika’s daughter, who is on loan to keep him company. Malika hasn’t changed but I don’t recognise Zealaddin who is now a lanky young man.

There have been shifts in power since I was here last. Jalaladdin, the downtrodden eldest son now runs Meros Bed and Breakfast and speaks excellent English, no thanks to me. He’s developed a quiet confidence, is married with an unexpectedly ginger off-spring. Koranbeg now defers to his son and I watch Jaloladdin interact professionally with some departing tourists and feel a swell of brotherly pride. Madrim arrives and we hug, eyes shining. There’s a second or two of appraising each other’s ageing and a brief, awkward silence. Then we start to catch up and the years fall away. I stay in my old room which is feels unfamiliar with the absence of my stuff and an en-suite bathroom installed where my bed used to be.

The next morning, coming down the stairs, I know instinctively when to duck the overhead beam, and feel as though the past seven years never happened. I breakfast with the family and then head to the carpet workshop with Andreas. On the way, several familiar faces stare past me and then register who I am, so it takes us a while to get to the workshop as people comment on how fat I’ve become (it really isn’t true!) and commiserate on my lack of a wife still.

Passing through the carved wooden doors to the carpet workshop feels very special, and weavers spill out from different cells to greet me and ask after my family and all my relatives. Some of them are familiar but most new, and I feel ashamed at how few names I can remember. Madrim is there and gives me a tour whilst I explain more about the weaving and dyeing process to Andreas. The dyers have moved out and work at our old office, which now belongs to the workshop and has a sewage system for disposing of waste dyes. Some token coloured skeins of silk still hang on a drying rack to show the tourists. Where the dyer’s worked there’s now an extra room with looms. The enormous loom from the corner cell has been moved to the suzani workshop and in the suzani workshop they no longer weave cotton material but have bought thin, unsatisfactory cotton from the bazaar. As Madrim shows me around, I’m careful not to comment or criticise, although I note how Madrim’s sister and wife and now the main ustas and that this has turned into a family business; something I was always keen to avoid.

After more nodding, smiling and tongue-biting Madrim looks at me, a little hurt, and asks, “Why aren’t you telling me what to do? How should we be improving? What things am I doing wrong? Arslan, I need you to tell me.”
I explain that these aren’t my workshops anymore, they’re his and that it’s up to him how to run things and that I didn’t come to check up on him or to interfere. “But I’m asking you; I’m inviting you to help Aslan!” he replies.

So, for the next few days I enjoy a taste of my former life. We wander around the Ichan Kala scavenging for further patterns and designs, spending a lot of time in the Friday Mosque where the carved bands along the wooden pillars provide some excellent designs for cushion covers. We meet up with Farkhad who is now a history teacher at the Khiva blind school – a job which suits him well. We discuss whether he could come back to the workshop in the summer holidays and train up one of the dyers to restart weaving cotton.

Zulhamar invited me to their tashkil savings party, which is still going, and I joke about not getting paid from last time, as I never got to host before leaving the country. They no longer meet in each other’s houses but in a fancy new fish restaurant that has sprung up. The puppet master is there, and so Umid, who still has a stall next to Zulhamar and the antique seller. Zafar’s Mum comes as she has run his stall he moved to Ukraine with his family. One of the hat sellers died recently and his lithe, sporty nephew has bloated into a puffy, corpulent version of his former self. There are plenty of toasts, most of them centred around my need for a wife.

I’ve set Andreas up in Erkin’s workshop. Erkin is still the same but his workshop has shrunk to a few boys who hammer out hastily-assembled Koran-stands that aren’t a patch on the ones Erkin used to produce. He has no wood or money to buy new wood, so his apprentices must buy small blocks from the successful workshops, and then sell back the finished Koran stands for a meagre profit. Erkin is joining the masses heading to Russia for casual work this summer, in order to make ends meet. I think we both sense that, had he had a business partner with business accumen, he could have been prosperous and successful by now.

I visit Madrim’s house for the evening and he confides that his daughter –eighteen and just married – is expecting twins. He also tells me how lonely he finds leading the two workshops alone and not having anyone to really talk to about work. I tell him I miss him too. We reminisce about the old days and he mentions his plan to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the carpet workshop next year. I stop and do some mental calculations and we realise that actually the ten year anniversary is now, this month exactly. It’s too late for me to be involved in any official celebrations, but gives my visit an extra poignancy.

Time rushes by and I’m glad I have fixed return train tickets otherwise I’m not sure how I’d be allowed to leave again. I go for a last walk around the Ichan Kala by myself, to take an inventory of my beautiful old home and of how I’m doing. I walk past another young woman in a knee-length skirt; dress that would have created outcry in my time in Khiva. It’s another reminder my how life has moved on and this is no longer my time. I think about the warm affection I’d experienced from the weavers at the workshop but how, other than pleasantries and well-wishes, we really didn’t have much to talk about or much in common anymore.

Again, hugging my host family and Madrim goodbye, I’m ready for tears or grief, but am surprised by something else; a sense of peace, of closure, of gratitude that the door is still kept open ajar, and future visits are possible. A piece of my heart will always remain in Khiva, but as for the rest of me; I’m filled with an unexpected excitement for the future, for the next chapter and for the new things to come.

I’m really not a very good blogger. Note to self: Must try harder!
I realise that lots has happened in my life since I wrote the epilogue for ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva’. Maybe I should fill in some of the gaps.

I continued work with Yak Yak in the Pamirs until April 2010. At that point, I was up in the High Pamirs, distributing yak-combs to Kyrgyz yak-herders in preparation for the yak-down harvest (which occurs as yaks fatten up on new grass and begin to moult). This would be the year that we hoped to get herders harvesting yak down themselves, giving us a viable volume of yak-down to process and laying the foundations of a new workshop.

My old boss in Khiva, Andrea, had been promoted to country director for our NGO in Tajikistan and called in tears to let me know that the KGB (they have a new name but locals still use their old name as they still do the same old job) had paid a visit to her office with various allegations against me, including that I was a spy for Switzerland. She had 30 days to ensure my departure or our NGO would be taken to court by the KGB. When this happens, the KGB always win.

We tried to figure out some kind of logic behind the accusations, not least; why would I be spying for Switzerland and what was worth spying on in the Pamirs? The only explanation we could come up with was that our NGO was Swedish and the KGB had mixed up Sweden and Switzerland, which sound similar in Russian.

Our yak-trip was cut short and I returned to Khorog and collected character references from the community in an attempt to prove that I really wasn’t involved in espionage. Andrea received a sympathetic hearing when handing in these documents, but the answer was still clear; I had to leave.

At first, I struggled with bitterness. I had left little behind in terms of a legacy and I had few happy memories to take with me. However, I didn’t have much time to wallow in self-pity back in England, as events taking place back in Central Asia were to change my life-direction yet again.

In June 2010 a vicious pogrom broke out in South Kyrgyzstan against the wealthier minority Uzbeks there. Over 400 people were killed, 2000 homes burnt down and thousands of Uzbeks fled across the Uzbek border seeking refuge. When you seek refuge in a country with a human-rights record like Uzbekistan’s, you know you’re in a tough spot.

I was asked to lead a rapid-response, rag-tag team of Uzbek-speaking volunteers to offer trauma-counselling to people who had lost homes or loved ones in the violence. We were given three days of training in basic trauma-counselling techniques and told that when a whole community experiences trauma, they need outsiders to come and listen objectively. Having seen the devastation – whole neighbourhoods that looked like war-time Warsaw – I was a little sceptical that turning up with a packet of tissues and a messiah complex was really going to be much help. This view was challenged when I stopped a group of middle-aged Uzbek men squatting outside their homes, to ask for directions.
“My son, my son, come and sit with us!” wept one man as he heard a foreigner speak to him in his own language. “We have been forgotten. The Kyrgyz want to wipe us out, and Uzbekistan doesn’t care about us, Russia isn’t bothered and the rest of the world don’t even know we exist! Even God has forgotten us!”

I sat with them and listened, which is really all most people wanted; to be heard and to have a voice and to feel human again. Soon we were visiting tents within the burnt shells of once-prosperous courtyards, filled with scorched vines, and rubble. I heard horrors which I won’t repeat and felt an immense sense of privilege to be there at that time and able to leach a little of the pain and terror that people still felt. I was amazed at how forgiving most Uzbeks were, (“You know, these things happen,” I’d hear an old woman say matter-of-factly as she gave me a tour of what once was, picking her way through the rubble of her life). The hardest thing for most was the feeling of being stripped of their human rights as kidnappings, extortion, theft and flagrant and systematic ethnic discrimination against them became the norm.

During this time, our little team felt in need of a break and we made a weekend trip to the mountain village of Arslanbob, entirely Uzbek, backed by 4500m mountain peaks and surrounded by the oldest and largest natural walnut forest in the world. Perhaps it was in part because Arslanbob wasn’t full of burnt-out shells of buildings, or people terrified about their future. Perhaps it was simply because Arslanbob is such a beautiful place, or maybe because of the warm Uzbek hospitality we received. Whatever it was, I soon found myself feeling that same sense of pride I’d felt about Khiva, and imagining what it would be like to be part of this community; to live in a village that even had my name on it.

I found out that a new moratorium on felling trees had been enforced in order to preserve the wild walnut wood. This was commendable, but had put out of business the furniture makes who had traditionally worked with walnut. However, each year large lateral tree branches fell in the heavy winter snow and these were collected. For what? I asked, and was shown stacks of firewood. Rooting through these stacks I’d pick up logs of dried, hard walnut wood, perfect for carving, imagining how many cutting boards, Koran-stands or picture frames could be made and what my wood-carving friends in Khiva, like Erkin and Zafar, would make of this incredible resource going up in smoke.

Fast-forward a year, and I’ve managed to recruit a world-class violin-maker from Germany to join me in starting a school for wood-carving in Arslanbob. After further talks with key community stake holders in Arslanbob, I’ve also recruited a cheese-making couple from Oxford, and they’re all currently in full-time language learning preparing to move to Arslanbob in Spring 2012. We hope to partner closely with the Community Based Tourism Association in Arslanbob and help them improve tourism opportunities as well as setting up income-generation projects, and there are more volunteers preparing to come.

I’m excited about the future and have come to appreciate many good things about both Uzbek and Kyrgyz culture, living here in Kyrgyzstan. One day I hope to write a book about this next chapter in my third Central Asian country. In the meantime, I will try to be a more faithful blogger….


February 21, 2011

On the first day I assembled our first batch of apprenticed weavers and dyers in the courtyard of our Madrassah workshop, I told them that I would not be around for ever and that my aim was for our workshop to be sustainable. In recent times I began to wonder whether this was really possible. Although the carpet and suzani workshops continue five years after I was kicked out, their supplies of dyes previously purchased from Afghanistan were dwindling. I’d discussed the issue with Madrim each time I phoned him; the Uzbek government wouldn’t grant him an exit visa to go to Afghanistan, and we’d been unable to find an Afghan trader to bring dyes to Uzbekistan. Madrim was wondering about Iran and buying madder root, indigo, zok and oak gall from there, however, he doesn’t speak Tajik or Farsi and getting the dyes across the Turkmenistan border seemed impossible. I tried to imagine our silk carpets reduced to a spectrum of white, brown and yellow, and my heart sank.

The good news is that Madrim has finally managed to find an Afghan trader who has supplied the workshop with the dyes they need to produce blues, reds and black. The workshop is back in business and I’m cautiously confident that it has what it needs to be sustainable for a while longer yet.

America your time has come

October 4, 2010

For those of you Yanks who baulked at having to fork out postage to get your copy from the UK, fear not: A Carpet Ride to Khiva is published this October in the States. You can buy it from all good bookshops, or if you’d still like to pay postage, you can always order it on Amazon. If you enjoyed the book (or hated it for that matter) do leave comments on the Amazon website.

Paperback on its way

March 26, 2010

I’m pleased to announce that a paperback version of the book is coming out in July 2010. The cover is quite different and I’m delighted that Peter Hopkirk, my favourite writer on all things Central Asian, has written a really nice endorsement.

Beyond the Carpet Ride

December 14, 2009

Welcome to the website. it’s still a work in progress, and will hopefully get updated soon. This is where you can find out more about the book and also about how the workshops I set up are faring.
One of my hopes is that people who’ve read the book will consider visiting Khiva themselves, seeing the carpet and suzani workshops firsthand, and maybe making a purchase. To find out more, have a look at the ‘your carpet ride’ section.