Samarkand Summers

After flying around the world, learning exotic languages, and zipping under Timurid minarets and crumbling Tsarist architecture in gypsy cabs, finally, a spare moment presents itself in order to collect some of my thoughts. I write from Samarkand, the second-largest city in Uzbekistan, where, along with about fifteen other students (mostly from ASU, but with some from San Diego State University), I’m about a week into the study abroad stint of the Critical Languages Institute. As some of my previous posts discussed, I spent most of this summer in Tempe, Arizona, itself, spending about four hours a day together with three other students studying Intermediate Uzbek, the Turkic language spoken primarily in Uzbekistan but also in northern Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and very similar to the Uyghur language spoken in western China. After seven weeks of that regime, however, the fun was just beginning. CLI, which offers courses not just in Uzbek but several other Eurasian languages deemed ‘critical’ (BCS, Persian, Macedonian, Albanian, Russian, etc), offers students the opportunity to continue their language study in country after the program in the US. Thanks to some generous scholarship funding from Title VIII (a State Department-funded mandate), a day after my final exam in Tempe, I was on a series of flights with several other students of not just Uzbek, but also (and in fact primarily) Persian, to Uzbekistan.

After about two days of sleeping on airplanes, collapsing into Turkish and Uzbek hotel beds, and slipping out into the Beyoglu area of Istanbul for some menemen, we arrived. Samarkand remains as stunning and eclectic as it was when I was here almost a year ago. Stray not too far from the Timurid architecture, and the signs of a pre-packaged ‘Uzbekistan-land’ are all there for you: national dance, national dishes, national costume, and the sense that nothing ever happened in Central Asia before or after ‘the Silk Road’, although what the Silk Road consisted of, other than teenagers dancing in exotic fabric, remains nebulous. Look beyond the initial layer, however, and there’s an compelling texture of languages and civilizations to be found: in spite of a largely Uzbek layer (and almost-universal knowledge of Uzbek thanks to Uzbek-language schooling), many people speak Tajik at home and in the streets. A taxi ride sans seatbelt (and probably airbags) along the city streets shuttles one quickly before sad-looking Tsarist-era post offices, stables, and administrative buildings which have now been turned (in the best of cases) universities or (in the worst of cases) toy stores for babies, where the old brick moldings over the doors now have pirated LED Disney signs or posters of Simba, Mustafa, and Nala hanging over them. Zoning remains ambiguous, too: during an otherwise-pleasant dinner on a restaurant terrace outside, I felt ready to duck to avoid being beheaded by incoming shrapnel twice when speeding automobiles nearly twice during the course of our meal T-boned one another at 40 miles an hour. Add to it the 1970s-era administrative buildings that hover over parts of the middle of the city – as if a Soviet Darth Vader were designing a twenty-story hotel building – and it adds up to a delirious cityscape. During Ramadan, locals flood the walking streets at sundown to chit-chat, eat frozen yogurt dispensed from growling Chinese yogurt machines that struggle in the 120 degree heat, and play backgammon on the boulevards’ medians. Armed with swiftly improving Uzbek and Tajik, however, the city becomes friendly and welcoming rather than incomprehensible.

Indeed, occupying the bulk of our time here are the language courses themselves. Here I occupy a semi-privileged and weird position among some of the other students. As I wrote in one of my previous posts about CLI, I was placed into Intermediate rather than Elementary Uzbek based on some of my previous, if spastic, studies of Turkish, Persian, and Kyrgyz. I was nervous of getting smoked at first, but it turned out to be a good decision: the class and my classmates pushed me, and I learned a ton. This presented a small problem upon arrival in Samarkand, however: because several *other* putative students of Intermediate Uzbek had dropped out of the program right before the Arizona section started, this meant that I was the only intermediate-advanced Uzbek student in Samarkand. Well enough, but there also wasn’t enough money to go around to employ someone for four hours a day to do one-on-one work with me. Still, we settled on a decent enough solution: every day, I get an hour of one-on-one time with Shahzod, a wonderful Uzbek teacher, during which we’re primarily reading through an official history of Uzbekistan written by the historians of the Uzbek Ministry of the Interior; while during the rest of the day, I spend most of my class time with students of Intermediate Persian, and even often get an extra hour of one-on-one work with the Persian tutor, reading through more difficult texts on (for example) Amanullah Khan, the Pashtunistan Question, Reza Shah, and so on. It makes for rather packed days on occasion – up to five hours of class plus the time it takes for me to drag myself through relatively sophisticated Persian or Uzbek. But then again, that’s what I came here for. Add to that an in-built scene of super-friendly local students of English and other languages who are eager to chat with us, and one can easily spent most of their time here interacting in Uzbek and Persian … as opposed to writing blog posts in English. It’s intense, but all great fun, though. I sense myself making progress in both languages, and think that by the end of the program here (in another three weeks) I’ll be well on my way to being able to read texts and conduct interviews in both languages well enough that I’ll have the pump primed to implement more Persian and Uzbek material into the book manuscript, as well as to think more ecumenically about future subjects to write about.

I need some free time from the classes, though. This fall promises to be mad, as not long at all after getting back from Uzbekistan I’ll be settling into my new gig at the Harvard Academy, learning the lay of the land in Cambridge, figuring out the right balance of manuscript writing and language acquisition, and attending several conferences and trying to spin off some parts of the dissertation into them. For now, that means that I need to spend at least some of my (limited) free time honing three semi-related pieces: one on the history of the study of Pashtuns and Pashtunistan in the USSR, another revised version of the paper I presented at LSE in February on Soviet advising operations in southern Afghanistan, and a third piece on debates in the postwar Soviet Union on the most appropriate way to depict Central Asia in photographs for the international press. That means lots of (mostly rewarding and interesting) writing, but also lots of travel, this time to Blaubeuren (a small town and conference center in southern Germany) and Moscow. It all makes for an interesting journey – trying to balance time between the States, Germany, Russia, and Eurasia itself. For now, though, I’m happy to sit on the benches in front of the Registan, the Darth Vader tower, or Simba and Mustafa, sipping kök choy / chay-i sabzi and watching the world go by.

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