What did I learn: UZBEKISTAN

A Tashkent subway station – Source

Another month is coming to a close! So, what have I learned about Uzbekistan?

Uzbekistan, and the five “Stan” countries as a whole, were a big blank spot in my mental map when I started this month. I knew a little bit about the Silk Road, the breakup of the USSR, and the loss of the Aral Sea, but not much more.

I found this month geopolitics were a big focus – Uzbekistan’s modern position is a tricky balancing act, situated between Russian, Chinese, and American interests. Notable is the change Uzbekistan is going through since the 2016 death of President Islam Karimov (and the high drama surrounding his daughter Gulnara Karimova). The new government under Mirziyoyev has made some crucial reforms like ending forced labour, letting foreign media in, and allowing religion back into everyday life.

It will be interesting to see if the trajectory of reforms continue, or if pandemic and power structures pull things back. Dissident authors like Hamid Ismailov are still banned from the country, and it isn’t clear yet if encouraging government-overseen moderate religion will stem issues of radicalization, especially with a land border with Afghanistan. There also seems to be a big rural/urban divide, with wealth from exports of cotton, gold, and natural gas concentrated in the cities. Attempts are being made to address the environmental catastrophe of the Aral Sea.

Uzbekistan’s larger history almost has too much to dig into – the history of the Silk Road and the many influences in the region over the decades, Prokudin-Gorsky’s colour photographs from 1911, the ever-changing Uzbek writing system, and stunning places like Registan Square only touch the surface. Adeeb Khalid’s Central Asia proved to be indispensable for getting a sense of the last few centuries and how they created the Uzbekistan of today.

I think I answered my question from the start of the month – why does Uzbekistan have such a huge population compared to its neighbours? There doesn’t seem to be a big trick to it – when the modern borders were drawn inside the USSR, major cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent, as well as the densely-farmed Fergana Valley ended up in Uzbekistan. These places have been major settlements for centuries and the heart of empires – in contrast the more nomadic histories of places like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

I felt like there’s an interesting parallel between the migrations of Koryo Saram and Bukharan Jews. The Koryo Saram, Koreans forcibly resettled into Soviet Central Asia, have largely integrated into Uzbekistan, but some seek (or struggle with) a return to Korea under South Korea’s right of return laws. The Bukharan Jewish community had been in Uzbekistan for centuries, but due to the forced assimilation and prejudice of the Soviet era, almost the entire population has left for Israel, the US, and Canada – where they have rebuilt their communities and kept much of their identity.

I wanted to fight a bit against the easy narratives of “exotic and mythical Samarkand” or “grey Soviet misery” that I kept on coming across this month. There’s much more nuance from the voices of Uzbeks themselves. I got a taste of Uzbek literature and short stories, movies (both action and comedy), and popular music, including modern pop and dance, Soviet disco, classical music, interesting radio stations, and the most successful meme to come out of the country recently.

As for the food, this month I had my biggest culinary victory with Locally Foreign – baking non from scratch. My first successful handmade bread! I also had the biggest culinary fail – navat that just would not crystallize. I loved how the plov turned out, and the moshxo’rda and Korean carrot salad were tasty experiences. I also tried qurt and survived eating shur-donak! I’d also recommend the Uzbek restaurant I went to in Toronto – great manti!

There’s still a lot about Uzbekistan I’m sorry I didn’t get into – I still want to learn more about older history of the region, especially Timur the Great, or Persian connections (al-Khwarizmi was born in what is now Uzbekistan) and deep Sufi cultural and religious influences. I also would like to learn more about Karakalpakstan beyond just the Aral Sea disaster – the distinctive autonomous region covered in the far west of the country. There’s also modern geopolitics I’d like to have dug into more – Uzbekistan as a crucial hub for China’s Belt and Road initiative, or their tense relations with Tajikistan and the now (allegedly) removed minefields along the border.

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