Irish Times 5/1/10
Sitting down to read A Carpet Ride to Khiva over the festive season was like entering an oasis of peace and quiet.
Khiva is a small walled town in the Uzbek desert close to the Turkmenistan border. It lies on what was once the ancient Silk Road. Christopher Aslan Alexander spent seven years there, arriving as a 24-year-old post-university volunteer and being drawn into the great Uzbek tradition of carpet-making.
During that time, he taught himself the skills of knotting carpet threads, finding designs for looms, going far out into the desert to find the plants needed for the dyes, and having the carpets made. His final triumph during his stay in Khiva was enlisting workers to dye and handweave carpets using patterns copied from 15th-century miniatures illustrating the words of the Persian poet Nizami.
Uzbekistan is the homeland of Amir Timur, known in the West as Timur the Lame. Celebrated as a fearless hero on the battlefield, Timur also had an eye for beauty. He captured artists from the cities he conquered and force-marched them to Samarkand to decorate his great palace. I have to confess to a personal grudge against Timur, as he stole from Damascus – my favourite city in the Middle East – the greatest ceramicists of the day, leaving that city bereft.
But that was then and this is now, and if anyone makes Uzbekistan come to life it is Alexander.
During a drought, when there is no water for his cold shower – an activity which horrifies the Uzbeks – Alexander takes a plastic container to the town well, where he causes consternation among the local maidens: manly men don’t draw water.
At the men’s baths, he is again stared at: Uzbek men shave their pubic and armpit hair.
Like the carpet patterns so intricately interwoven and linked, Alexander’s account of his seven years in Khiva gives us a feel for daily life looped and crisscrossed with weddings, corrupt officials, journeys in rickety buses, gossip at the looms, domestic violence and village hospitality, and all of it centering on the carpet project.
Knowing that child labour exists in Khiva, Alexander makes a rule that no one under 17 can be employed by him. Next, he goes looking for people who would normally find it difficult to get work, drawing in people with disabilities, some of whom are women with no chance of marriage. Payment is realistic and, he discovers, more than a teacher would get. But he later learns that teachers top up their meagre salaries by an ingenious system whereby students pay cash up front for good results.
Alexander has a type of double vision which allows him to see not only the beauty of tiny desert plants in bloom, the sensuous movements of an overweight woman as she dances or the excitement when a treasured carpet is finally finished, but also the cruelty to women subjected to a forced marriage, the horror of male circumcision – he gives a firsthand description of such a ritual – and the appalling list of human-rights abuses.
Alexander finally ran foul of the system when he was refused a return visa to Uzbekistan. He suspects the hand of the local mayor, who expected but did not receive the gift of a carpet.
Trying everything to get back in to Uzbekistan to at least say farewell to his many friends in Khiva, he spends no less than seven days in the airport transit lounge before finally getting on a flight home.
Or is home the right word? For the past two years he has been living in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, working on a knitting project making sweaters from yak down. Seems there’s no stopping him.
Mary Russell is a writer with a special interest in travel
Sunday Telegraph 27/12/09
No stranger to adventure, Alexander was born in Turkey but grew up in Beirut and spent two years at sea before he moved to Khiva, a desert oasis in Uzbekistan. Fuelled by a childhood fascination with the Soviet Union, he spent time in Tashkent on a language course before moving to Khiva, where he immersed himself in the local culture by setting up workshops to produce kilims. Alexander is an excellent guide through the chaos of local life, and his writing is thick with his adventures in this walled city, drawing a vivid portrait of the domestic lives of his Uzbek hosts with great affection and humour, while also casting his eye over the history of trade on the Silk Road. Equally compelling is his portrayal of Uzbek women, with whom he worked closely when weaving, illustrating how they are learning to balance traditional life with the reality of their post-Perestroika present.
“A carpet-seller had given me a ginger kitten as a gift, which was now fully grown. He flopped dramatically anywhere shaded, rousing himself only at mealtimes to beg for food. The family taught me that cats in Khiva were fed on mouthfuls of masticated bread… What mine wanted was meat and I fed him surreptitiously with chunks of mutton brought by Koranberg’s mother who had come to live with us for the summer… When the cat wasn’t available, she did as all Khorezm grannies still do, and lifted the corner of a carpet to deposit the dregs of tea beneath it.”
Metro Jan 2010 – Claire Allfree – 6th January, 2010
Russia’s former republics have a not entirely undeserved reputation for bonkers dictatorships, violent human rights abuses and endemic state corruption.
Brought up in war-torn Beirut, Christopher Aslan Alexander barely batted an eyelid as he set about establishing a traditional carpet-making workshop in the walled city of Khiva, Uzbekistan, and his lively account of seven unusual years gives full colour to the daily lives of the men – and especially the women – living in a country caught awkwardly between its Islamic roots, its Soviet past and its uncertain future.
Alexander is a personable companion as he brings to life the ancient craft of carpet making, blending the history of the Silk Road with characterful accounts of his team’s perfecting of traditional dye techniques (a search for madder root sent him over the border into post-invasion Afghanistan) and silk weaving (there’s an extraordinary description of silkworms devouring mulberry branches before spinning silk cocoons).
Sadly, Alexander was eventually stripped of his visa, but this super little book is testimony to the determined community he left behind.
The Independent – 22/1/10
Reviewed by Michael Church
The British author collected his middle name in Turkey where he was born, his fearlessness from a childhood spent in war-torn Beirut, and his idealism – one has to deduce this, because he’s personally reticent – from a can-do brand of Christianity. Volunteering to work in Central Asia for a Swedish NGO, he begins to compile a guide book to the medieval Uzbek oasis of Khiva. Meanwhile, he finds himself embarking on a much more quixotic project: to set up a carpet workshop, in which the ancient arts of Khivan dyeing and weaving will be brought back to life.
Hand-made carpets did not sit well with Soviet ideology, as the labour-intensive process was predicated on poor producers and rich buyers, so factory ones became the norm. Turning a derelict madrassah into his workshop, and enlisting some of the remaining traditional dyers, Alexander starts to put the clock back.
At which point his book changes character, its splashy prose suddenly acquiring such force and focus that one hangs on every word. He tells us everything he sees and thinks, he details every problem and its solution, and offers vignettes of every character in his newly-constituted kingdom. Because he’s clear-headed and single-minded, the picture which emerges hangs beautifully together, giving a pungent sense of what life is like for ordinary Uzbeks today.
If you’re poor, disabled, or merely a woman, it’s pretty terrible, as Alexander finds when recruiting apprentices from the most deprived corners of Khivan society. Soviet attitudes to disabled children still persist, with the state all too ready to bang them up in institutions: some Uzbek children grow up learning Braille when a pair of glasses could solve their problem overnight.
The Soviets may have done much to release Muslim women from feudal bondage, but things have now slipped back. When female weavers turn up at the workshop black with bruises, their colleagues don’t need to ask why: wife-beating is common and anything can trigger it, particularly in a place where unemployment is the norm, with men forced to migrate north to Russia for work. We all know about the dissident whom the Uzbek government boiled alive five years ago: Alexander shows how that was the tip of a more widespread evil, with the secret service penetrating every corner of civic life.
Financial corruption pervades his story like a poison. Alexander’s laudable fair-trade policy is constantly undercut because every civil transaction is oiled with bribes, on which teachers, doctors, police, and local politicians all depend for their livelihood. Alexander’s eventual reward for refusing to play this game, as his workshop becomes a celebrated success, is deportation from the country as undesirable alien.
But the fascination of his book lies in the flip-side to all this grimness, as Alexander falls deeply in love with his work-team, his adoptive Uzbek family, and with the ancient designs he rediscovers in miniatures and on ornate medieval doors. He notes the multifarious folk customs and superstitions which permeate daily life, and goes native in all the seasonal rituals.
His book also serves as a primer on the mysteries of sericulture, and on the endless ramifications of the natural-dyer’s craft. His pursuit of powdered madder root takes him deep into Afghanistan, whence he emerges after close shaves. This remarkable young man has now set up a yak-wool workshop in the Pamirs: his next book should be just as good.
by Rebeca Schiller
Settle down with a nice cup of green tea–or a bowl à la Uzbek fashion–and live vicariously through Christopher Aslan Alexander’s exhilarating and exasperating rug-weaving adventures in exotic Uzbekistan.
In his extraordinary memoir, A Carpet Ride to Khiva, Alexander kicks off his escapades in Uzbekistan by volunteering for Operation Mercy, a Swedish NGO, and working on a guidebook on Khiva. And like a travel book, or better yet, a sophisticated primer, Alexander provides readers with history and cultural lessons about the region. But it is his sharp eye for traditional handmade crafts, and his keen sense of entrepreneurship that he realizes he can actually do much more, and that’s when the heart and soul of the memoir starts: when Alexander takes on UNESCO’s proposal to become the project manager in setting up a natural dye and carpet weaving workshop in Khiva.
Alexander has natural talent for telling historical asides, and he shares the plight of carpet weaving during the Soviet era when it was nearly extinct due to ideology and factory mass-production. However, there was a bit of a revival thanks to the design improvisations of clever weavers who included woven homilies to Father Lenin. These tributes to Communism led to special commissions of large portraits of Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet leaders that kept the art temporarily alive. And it’s with this great story-telling skill for interspersing history with his own experiences that whets readers’ appetites and lures them deeper into his rug-weaving venture.
With dogged determination, and with the help of UNESCO, he finds a ramshackle madrassah and turns it into an operational workshop, recruits Khiva’s handful of experienced dyers and weavers, and finds a ragtag team of apprentices that come from the most unfortunate of circumstances. Like all employers, he must deal with employee issues, find the right tools and materials, in this case looms and copper pots, and deal with the rampant corruption that eventually will end his seven year stay in Khiva.
Yet readers who love process or just those who are curious about the minutiae of detail will rejoice when Alexander visits the homes of Uzbeks who raise silk worms. There, he closely studies the evolution of gluttonous caterpillars munch on their endless supply of mulberry leaves, to spinning their silken cocoons with the actual silk that will be used in weaving the carpets.
Experienced natural dyers will appreciate how far he will go in his quest to find powdered madder root to achieve the rich red dyes for his carpets. He travels to dangerous Afghanistan where he discovers at the bazaars an abundance of powdered natural dyes along with sacks of opium poppy heads. Once he acquires a king’s ransom of dyes, he must cross back to Uzbekistan and pray that a stray poppy head didn’t tumble into his sacs of powdered dyes, and face the scrutiny of drug sniffing dogs.
Carpet Ride is not all about the pursuit of reviving an ancient tradition. Like T.E. Lawrence, Alexander goes native and immerses himself in the cultural landscape of his new home. There’s a great deal of love and respect, and Alexander writes poignantly of his Uzbek family who accept him from the first moment he steps into their home.
He writes with amusement of the superstitions of avoiding the evil eye, to the gastronomic challenges of eating plov, the unappetizing national Uzbek greasy dish of rice, carrots and mutton. However, he never shies away from many of the horrific daily happenings including circumcision ritual ceremonies for young boys, forced marriages, misogynistic beatings, and the constant bribery among political and business leaders.
A Carpet Ride to Khiva is like flying on a magic carpet first class. Alexander’s words transport readers to a wondrous and unforgettable journey all in the comfort of their homes with bowls of green tea and a side dish of plov (vegetarians, you can pick out the mutton).
Today’s Zaman – Turkey
By Marion James
The very name Silk Road suggests a journey, a series of caravanserais linked by travel, and progress from one oasis to another.
You cannot stay too long in one place along the route, as more exotic and mystical places await you further on, as you explore eastwards to China or westwards to Iran and Turkey, along this ancient trade route.
But some, like Christopher Aslan Alexander, put down roots, and make one of the “stans” along the Silk Road home. A volunteer with a development agency, his original brief in Khiva, a small city in Uzbekistan, was to write an Internet guidebook to attract tourists to the city which was described by UNESCO as the best example of pure Muslim architecture in the world. Very quickly he became involved in the culture and in the lives of the people around him. When an opportunity came up to run a project reviving the old art of natural dyes and making carpets with a distinctive Khiva feel, he jumped at the chance.
“A Carpet Ride to Khiva” is the story of Chris’s seven years in a part of the world usually unseen by Western eyes. Khiva lies in a small corner of Uzbekistan to the southwest of the Amu Darya River, tucked in close to Turkmenistan. It is a remote desert oasis. Its old downtown — the Ichan Kala — is enclosed by magnificent walls and contains gems of architecture such as the Kunya Ark (an old fortress), Mohammed Amin Khan’s palace, the Pakhlavan Mahmud mausoleum, and the Islam Hoja madrasah.
This is a beautiful love story of one man and a place that takes over his heart. At first he is not too enamored of his new home.
“I had imagined arriving in Khiva after a long, arduous journey, to see its exotic skyline beckoning like a mirage across the desert. In reality, my first glimpses of the city, at three o’clock one blustery November night, were the few meters illuminated by headlights after an 18-hour drive. There was no sense of exuberance,”
he says. As he is accepted by the people, and one family open their home to him, this gradually changes into a deep relationship.
But like the best love stories, at least most of those in the Turkic world where viewers don’t always like everything to end “happily ever after,” there is a tragic ending. Refused a visa back into Uzbekistan after a trip abroad, Chris is forcibly separated from all that he loves. Separation created in him a crushing sense of loss, an agony that he could not get back, even just to say his goodbyes. This pain of love is the motivating power for a creative energy that spills out in words on the page.
Even when regaling us with hilarious stories — about how he was hailed as a prophet when he correctly predicted that Bobby Ewing would return from the dead in Dallas (after all, in Uzbekistan they were watching the series a few years after its original transmission in the US) — Alexander doesn’t fall into the “look how backwards these locals are” trap. Seven years of receiving dignified hospitality from a craftsman and his family, and of working alongside creative and resourceful individuals, enabled him to respect and love his Uzbek hosts.
Uzbekistan is often a reluctant member of the world community. At the recent landmark summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States held in İstanbul, Uzbekistan was absent. It has not been represented at the presidential level at any summit since 1998, and grudgingly did not even send low-level representation to join the other five nations as they discussed strategic issues that affected them all.
Chris is honest about the internal effects of the government’s policies. His love for the country and the people does not make him avoid the issues of corruption and human rights abuse; on the contrary, he speaks about them with a passion.
When UNESCO opens a school of natural dye-making and carpet-weaving in Khiva, in an old madrasah building dating from 1873, Chris realizes his challenge is to develop a workshop that runs on ethical principles, “not the greasing of palms.” To empower the community, he decides to employ widows and orphans and the disabled as his weavers and dyers, and very soon he starts production with four dyers, two weaving ustas (experts), 18 weavers and Madrim, the assistant director, who was to become his firmest friend.
Chris realized that the kilims of Khorezm and other places in the local area were far too busy for the international market, so he drew up simpler designs with fewer colors that would be more saleable. “Despite muttering at the ugliness of each design, Miriam soon had her looms in action,” and the result was a good sale.
Determined to find designs that his weavers and potential buyers would like, Chris pours his heart into reviving traditional patterns. His research carried out in dusty libraries in university cities in the UK reveal pictures of Timurid carpets in manuscripts “just ready and waiting to be woven into life once more.” These designs proved popular — the first carpet was sold while it was still on the loom, to an Australian oil worker in Kazakhstan. Traditional door carvings and tiles in the mosques and mausoleums of the town provided more inspiration for the Khiva carpet workshop. With success, production diversifies into embroidered cushions called suzanis.
Sourcing designs fixed, in order to source the natural materials Chris has adventures across Uzbekistan to learn about silk, and even into (and with more difficulty) out of Afghanistan to find elusive plant roots for the dyeing process. The result? Wonderful modern carpets, produced with traditional methods and traditional designs, which appeal to the tastes of international customers.
“Our third carpet, named Shirin, lay washed and gleaming in the sun. Shirin told many stories, not all of them revealed at a glance or even on close inspection. Admiring tourists could know little of Shirin’s journey: Its silk warp and weft produced by villagers paid a pittance for their labors under the oppressive state monopoly; the warm brown of its border created from walnut husks, collected by farm children. … The design gave no indication that it had lain dormant for half a millennium on a sheet of vellum, painstakingly painted in ground lapis … nor the changing hands that the book had passed through on its way from Herat to London. A simple glance revealed little of the efforts that Zamireh had made to transcribe the Timurid design onto graph paper, or her sense of outrage when she discovered it by Ulugbeg, our rival from the Bukharan workshop.”
But perhaps the true result of all of Chris’s hard work was not the weaving together of threads into carpet, but the weaving together of individuals into life-changing and empowering relationships. Disabled young men could hold their heads up high as they brought a wage to their family for the first time, and widows had a respectable way of putting bread on the table.
For Chris, the closest relationship was with his assistant Madrim. Explaining why the project means so much to him, this former unemployed man declared:
“Then the workshop started and now I have a job and I am learning the skills of my forefathers that we have forgotten. Now I can lift up my head again. I will always work as hard as I can for you and our workshop.”
It is hard to hold back the tears when reading how Chris managed to meet up with Madrim again in Afghanistan, to say farewell.
“I wanted to say something positive, about my hopes that we would meet again and that we would keep in touch, but we just embraced without words, only tears… I thought about the interweaving of my life with all the people I had never been allowed to say goodbye to. … This tapestry was far more meaningful to me than our most extravagant carpet or ambitious suzani. Somehow Madrim … embodied all this, and I realized that I wasn’t just saying goodbye to a close friend, but also to Khiva and a whole chapter in my life.”
Lonely Planet Online
Reviewed by Steve Waters
Steve Waters once crossed the Torugart Pass in Kyrgyzstan twice in one day having been refused entry by sandshoe-wearing Chinese border guards.
One hundred and twenty-two years after British soldier and adventurer Frederick Burnaby’s epic Ride to Khiva, NGO volunteer Alexander lobs into Uzbekistan by a somewhat saner route. Posted to Khiva, Alexander (“Aslan” to the locals) first toils on an internet guidebook (poor bugger!) before hatching the idea of establishing a sustainable carpet workshop. With the aid of UNESCO and newfound Uzbek friends, “Aslan” forms a crew of local disadvantaged women and unemployed youths, and embarks on a journey to create carpets using forgotten traditional patterns and natural dyes.
Though subtitled “Seven Years on the Silk Road”, with the odd exception (like crossing into Afghanistan looking for madder root) this isn’t a road trip – “I didn’t want to travel to Khiva, but to live there”. Instead, A Carpet Ride to Khiva provides a fascinating look at post-Soviet life in one of Central Asia’s more secretive ‘stans, and it’s not always pretty. Islam and Russian culture clash head-on (who else would serve vodka at a mosque opening?) while the authoritarian government rules with an iron fist. Corruption penetrates every level of daily life, women are second-class citizens, and the donkeys are scared.
While Alexander diligently details every aspect of carpet making, it’s his ability to weave together threads of history, social commentary and everyday customs that make this memoir entertaining. “I remembered the golden rule not to flick but to wring the water off my hands, as each drop flicked would become a jinn”. The author’s humanity and decency shine from every page. We follow the outcast weavers and dyers – poor, disabled, written-off – as they become empowered through the simple act of co-operative, self-sustainable employment. Illustrations, maps, glossary and index complete an engaging book, though leave the prologue to last if you dislike spoilers.
It was a joy being transported back to Central Asia, with its dust and decay and rounds of flat bread, its corrupt officials and wonderful hospitality, the piles of plov and greasy lamb mantis, its pomegranates and paranoid border crossings all washed down with gallons of tea and lashings of vodka. However, for me, the single most powerful évocateur of the Silk Road will always be the carpet.
Independent – Paperbacks
by David Evans
The British author Christopher Alexander travelled to Khiva, an ancient Silk Road outpost in northwest Uzbekistan, to work for a Swedish NGO, and ended up making the place his home. Immersing himself in the country’s language and culture, he became fascinated by kilims (hand-woven rugs) and established a workshop in a disused madrassah (school) to help revive age-old weaving techniques cast aside during the Soviet era. He soon found himself exporting his rugs around the world and tangling with corrupt officials greedy for bribes.
Alexander’s account of his seven years in Uzbekistan is less a travelogue than it is an object lesson in staying put. Aside from sorties to Tashkent, and the odd hair-raising trip into neighbouring Afghanistan in search of carpet dyes, the book is set almost entirely in Khiva’s desert oasis, lending it a richness rare in travel writing. By turns funny and moving, this excellent memoir evokes the joys and frustrations of life in a country “marooned somewhere between Mohammad and Marx”.
Times Literary Supplement – April 2010
Best to be Beardless by Daniel Metcalfe
Uzbekistan, with its crumbling mosques and swooning minarets, is in many ways a travel-writer’s dream, and has long provided grist for adventurers and visitors to the “Stans”. The country today, a geopolitical lynchpin of the five soviet republics of Central Asia, is in marked decline. Having lost its old trading significance and its informal role as Moscow’s regional watchdog, resource-rich Uzbekistan now faces serious environmental challenges, extreme poverty, and a deeply authoritarian government.
Undeterred, Christopher Aslan Alexander, an Englishman born in Turkey, heads to the exquisitely preserved city of Khiva, turned by the Soviets turned into a (somewhat sanitised) fantasy of battlements, dungeons and harems.
Arriving with boundless enthusiasm and a green parrot, Alexander is initially disappointed by shabby, post-Soviet Uzbekistan, so distant from the storybooks. Nevertheless, he’s excited enough by Islamic art and design to found a carpet workshop, hoping to improve on the shiny factory-made produce that most Uzbeks now opt for. He welds looms out of scrap metal, procures copper dyeing pots in the bazaar, and heads to Mazar-i Sharif in search of madder root and oak gall – two of the key dye-making ingredients. He employs a local workforce, and is careful to call it a ‘carpet school’ to avoid the attentions of local officials. Alexander confronts his many obstacles – political in-fighting, endemic corruption, and a state that has no appetite for private enterprise – with brio and good humour. Even local tourist guides are a risk, angling for a cut of each sale and dangerous when refused.
Alexander is at his best describing the everyday oddities of life in Uzbekistan, and helping the reader understand how it got that way. The country took its greatest knock in modern times with the formation of the Soviet Union. The old Bukharan Emirate, corrupt and feudal, had languished under the laissez-faire rule of the tsarists since the 1860s, only to be shocked into Bolshevik discipline following the Russian Revolution. Thereafter, commissars would turn Uzbekistan on its head, bringing (among other things) female empowerment, atheism, and alcohol. The result would be an acute identity problem, that Alexander delights in showing us: religious feasts clinking with vodka bottles; prudish segregation of the sexes followed by the husbands’ rampant whoring; meals of pork that end with the amin, a Muslim ritual prayer; fully-clothed female staff working in nude all-male homoms, or bath-houses.
The author skilfully draws the nation’s complex and ambivalent view of Islam, and the state’s Big Brother-ish attempts to control it. Despite its tolerance in a mild, nationalist-based form, the government is so jealous of its own power that the merest signs of opposition (religious or not) are summarily dealt with. Youths take care not to grow beards lest they be lumped in with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or Hezb-ut Tahrir – Islamist movements seeking to do away with the presidency in favour of an Islamic caliphate.
Until 2005, the Uzbek regime’s inhumane treatment of its opponents – systematic torture, kidnapping and even death by boiling – was largely overlooked by the West, anxious not to lose an ally on the War on Terror (the Karshi airbase is only a stone’s throw from Afghanistan). But support would finally turn when President Islom Karimov’s men massacred up to 700 unarmed civilians in Andijan during an anti-government protest. Unrepentant, Karimov struck back at foreign workers, denying them visas, and retreating further into semi-feudalism and pariah status. It would change the status of the workshop from foreign curiosity to foreign nuisance, and eventually to the author’s own forced exit.
A tall, blond, vegetarian, near-teetotal Christian, Alexander cuts an unusual figure in gritty Uzbekistan. And he’s gutsy too: his honesty frequently pits him against unscrupulous colleagues and rapacious policeman. But his incorruptibility is ultimately his undoing. Alexander fails to show due deference to the Mayor of Khiva, who swings by the workshop one evening in pursuit of a gift for the President’s daughter. The author’s visa is not only withdrawn, but he is blacklisted, and everything he has worked for over seven years is lost.
Too many travel writers visit Central Asia in a hurry, bulking out their own misadventures with slices of the region’s colourful history. But the strength of this eminently readable book derives from the author’s patience: after seven years in Uzbekistan Alexander has provided a frank and penetrating portrayal of the country, with all its contradictions and absurdities. He writes with clear-eyed observation and courage, never failing to emphasise the engrained hospitality and random acts of kindness that remind us that in spite of everything, Central Asia is still an exceptionally alluring place.