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.