Sunday, 7 October 2012

A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Christopher Aslan Alexander (Uzebekistan)

This is a unique, beautiful and moving account of seven years living in the remote Uzbek desert. "The Silk Road" conjures images of the exotic and the unknown. Most travellers simply pass along it. Brit Chris Alexander chose to live there. Ostensibly writing a guidebook, Alexander found life at the heart of the glittering madrassahs, mosques and minarets of the walled city of Khiva - a remote desert oasis in Uzbekistan - immensely alluring, and stayed. Immersing himself in the language and rich cultural traditions Alexander discovers a world torn between Marx and Mohammed - a place where veils and vodka, pork and polygamy freely mingle - against a backdrop of forgotten carpet designs, crumbling but magnificent Islamic architecture and scenes drawn straight from "The Arabian Nights". Accompanied by a large green parrot, a ginger cat and his adoptive Uzbek family, Alexander recounts his efforts to rediscover the lost art of traditional weaving and dyeing, and the process establishing a self-sufficient carpet workshop, employing local women and disabled people to train as apprentices. "A Carpet Ride to Khiva" sees Alexander being stripped naked at a former Soviet youth camp, crawling through silkworm droppings in an attempt to record their life-cycle, holed up in the British Museum discovering carpet designs dormant for half a millennia, tackling a carpet-thieving mayor, distinguishing natural dyes from sacks of opium in Northern Afghanistan, bluffing his way through an impromptu version of "My Heart Will Go On" for national Uzbek TV and seeking sanctuary as an anti-Western riot consumed the Kabul carpet bazaar. It is an unforgettable true travel story of a journey to the heart of the unknown and the unexpected friendship one man found there.
Author Christopher Aslan Alexander has, as the blurb says, led a somewhat unusual life. Born in Turkey but brought up in Beirut he went to work (and of course live) in Uzbekistan after university, initially to help write guide books, but ended up staying for seven years and starting a school for carpet weaving.
Part travelogue, part biography this is a fascinating tale of what life is like in this part of the world, where Soviet politics and principals meet in sharp contrast with the Central Asian and Muslim lifestyle with all of its ancient traditions, but somehow seems to gel. The way that Alexander writes (and he did write this himself) really brings the characters and this unique way of life to life, to the extent that you feel as if they are right there in your own living room with you.  
It is not of course all light, as there is also a darker side to this part of the world, which Alexander does not shy away from - the corruption and bribery, which is rife in this part of the world, and which eventually leads to his expulsion, the way that young brides and societies misfits (the vulnerable and disabled) are often treated, organ trafficking, and the sexual mores of young men, who short of female partners turn their attention to their donkeys instead. Reading this book then taught me a lot about all of these issues and has no doubt opened the eyes of many who like me, tend to think of the former Soviet states as white Russian when they are clearly most of them not, for the Soviet Union spanned for miles from the Baltic states in the west to Siberia in the east, with much in between. The book also of course provides insights into carpet weaving and its history, but for me it is the stories of Alexander himself and his fellow Uzbeks that really bring the tale to life.

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