Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lust and Gluttony in Exalted Spaces


Gastronomic detour: I've tried not to let this blog slip into a food extravaganza, but I can't resist this one posting about melons, which are everywhere here, and come in several varieties unavailable in the West. Hami, China is famous for its melons, but they exist in stellar form all along the Silk Road. There's a kind of albino cantaloupe that is impossibly sweet and lush, made all the moreso by the inhospitable desert. Today I stumbled on to a melon contest, where local farmers elbowed each other out of the way to be photographed with their prize fruits. The watermelons are actually smaller, more spherical here, but the "sweet melons" (everything other than watermelon is lumped together, even though at least four varieties exist, from green to orange), distend into enormous footballs.

Back to the main story: Capitalism has not been kind to Bukhara: old madrassas, mosques, and all other monuments are stuffed to the gills with souvenir shops. That's the bad news. The good: it's still enchanting--in fact, most of the souvenir shops themselves are pretty enchanting. More good: unlike Samarkand, where the dazzling Registan sits marooned in a sea of modern urbanity, the old town of Bukhara is preserved almost wholesale. It's a good place to wander, even in the oppressive heat.

Tonight we had dinner (including beer) in an old madrassa watching leggy Russian models give a fashion show. Taliban, eat your hearts out: here they understand the idea of Islam in moderation. Statue of Mulla Nasrudin in central park and ancient poetry manuscripts in museum also remind you that there's another side to Muslim culture, too often subverted or forgotten.

You could be forgiven for mistaking Bukhara for Granada or Codoba, say. Uzbekistan in general is much more "civilized" than the other 'stans--paved roads, A/C, English spoken, expenses higher (despite a chronic cash shortage, and the biggest note being about $0.60, so that every purchase resembles a drug trade). Things are much more "settled" than in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; the Russians have almost all left, and things have reverted to a version of the centuries-old farming and cottage industry culture, unlike the nomadism of the other countries (where the Soviet influence was in some ways quite welcome as a means of gaining infrastructure and expertise).


  1. In the old U.S.S.R., did Islam fare any better or worse than Christianity or Judaism in a state that was officially atheistic?

  2. Good question. Prob. easier to pick on the Jews, since there were fewer of them, and impossible to squash Christianity entirely, since it's so embedded in Russian culture, so my guess is Islam fell somewhere in between.