Beirut people watching.

Humanity is the best spectacle, in this city where gated communities rub shoulders with bombed-out, charred shells. Pneumatically-enhanced bimbos and babes driving Dodge Camaros on one end of the spectrum and ragged Syrian children tapping on their rolled-up windows for zakat on the other: in this city, there are so many nuances of humanity, sprinkled all around town with such liberality, that walking from neighbourhood to neighbourhood felt like crossing into a whole new country altogether.
We set off from Hamra, heading east. The neighbourhood had gone a long way since the days of the war and now had a distinct family feel. Men in goatees played with toddlers whilst women in headscarves smiled benignly on, all whilst swarms of mopeds whizzed everywhere, in or against the flow of traffic. Ice creams were eaten, water and tea and coffee drunk, even though it’s Ramadan and a good six hours to iftar.
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Where the neighbourhood ended – in a fluttering of Hezbollah flags and Syrian National Socialist Party banners – a no-man’s-land of motorway slip roads and barren brushes began, inhabited by scruffy street children, their infancy robbed by the sieges to Aleppo, Homs or Deir-ez-Zor.
We scuttled back to rue des Capucins, past squaddies on patrol and, finally, into a square that felt as if it belonged to another city than the one that hosted Hamra or Basta-al-Tahta. Place des Étoiles.
The square was quiet, a hexagon with leafy trees, a tower clock and the white stone building of Assicurazioni Generali, garnished with all the regimentals, Saint Mark lion included. The place seemed to come alive at night and now was empty but for a few middle-aged couples and men in suits – ministers, businessmen or those wheelers and dealers that are a dime a dozen in these places –hiding behind expensive sunglasses, attired smartly in well-cut suits, purring into a plethora of iPhones and Samsungs. Cops and soldiers hovered around, pulling security.
Hurriedly, we crossed into Martyrs’ square, past the statues, braving the Wacky Races marauding downhill on Damascus Street at the wheel of Denali and Escalade SUVs, to take refuge into Saifi Village: a reticule of roads that had been reshaped to resemble a Provençal village, only posher.
We sat at a restaurant with tables spilling into a cobbled square, conscious of being sweaty, underdressed and not fitting at all with the rest of the clientele who were, without fail, all impeccably appointed. Tables glittered with smart, hand-crafted jewellery in hammered gold and silver. Soft linen draped tanned shoulders: blues and creams were the colours of choice. No one, here, would fall for the brash ostentatiousness of London’s King’s Road. In other words, no red trousers or chevalières. Conversations whiffed in the warm air in studiously well-accented French and Arabic, with two of the players labouring their points by waving around Cohiba cigars. Fidél’s favourite.

We left the actors to their comedy and pressed on eastward. Traffic, the cancer of this city, was surprisingly bearable here, but it hadn’t gone away: simply, it was bumper-to-bumper on Gouraud street. This used to be the Armenian part of town, now inhabited by hipsters and fashionistas. Macbook Pros and Mercs, long beards and expensive dresses bought with old-school checks.
The sun set and we found ourselves on the Corniche. We strolled home as the sun dove behind the curvature of the earth, past the engineered perfection of the Yacht Club and on the seafront promenade. As we walked, I couldn’t shake a feeling of déjà-vu. I had seen these people before. It wasn’t the foreigners – Filipino maids, Ethiopian nannies running on the heels of riotous toddlers, Russian heavies in sandals, but the locals. I’d seen them somewhere before.
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They were all around us, jogging up and down the seafront, smoking narghilé, selling refreshments or just enjoying the day. They were often tall, tanned by the warm Mediterranean sun, the hair frizzy, with streaks of lighter colours in the mass of dark curls, beards flowing in almost geometrical perfection. Noses were strong, powerful, running at the same angle as the foreheads. Eyes were brown, with infrequent but notable hazel-greens that stopped us, speechless, in our tracks. I’ve seen them before.
We reached the corner where the light-house stood. As a solitary fisherman dipped his bait in the water and a group of seals dived into the shallows, it hit me. I’d seen them before, but not in the flesh.
In pictures, in fact, taken from museums all around the world and printed over my high-school history and art manuals. Empty hands holding sticks and implements long gone in the fog of history, walking somewhere impossible to reach. The photos showed small bronze and gold statuettes, scattered around the Med three millennia ago by an enterprising people of traders and explorers: the Phoenicians. They all looked the same, with strong nose, descending in a straight line from the forehead, like the men and women all around us: not caricature, not ideal types long disappeared from the genetic pool after centuries of invasions and völkerwanderungs,but real. Alive.
As we continued strolling towards our home for the night it occurred to me that this people, who 3,000 years ago sailed beyond Gibraltar and into the unknown that lied beyond it, would still be here in another 1,000 years, watching the sun going down from a Beirut waterfront that only God knows how it’ll be looking like.

 

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You Were Filthy But Fine.

“You were filthy but fine” sang James Murphy in that LCD Soundsystem jewel that is New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down and I, for once, think that it could very well fit to Beirut. Spotless, it certainly ain’t. Manicured, only in a handful of places. Organised, fuggedaboudit. Yet, she’s got something. One of these somethings, one layer of this sumptuous cake that makes the noise pollution traffic rubbish bearable, is street art. Middle-Eastern slapdash meets French nonchalant disregard for rules: hateful if you’re OCD, utterly enjoyable for everyone else. Perhaps it’s again the French influence tinging the whole thing political, but this isn’t your hipster guerrilla marketing designed to look independent. This is the real thing, political, and it smells so.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow. 
Sometimes, instead, there’s more refinement in the political message. It’s not by accident if this murale has been painted by the Corniche, within spitting distance from chrome-painted-Lambos and expensive condos. An ironic retake on the cedar flag that adorn the blast-walls eroded around all the palaces of power, with added side of burning tyres. Come think of it, it’s been only what – one year, or perhaps two? – since the You Stink! protests.
Beirut is a sophisticated city, making up in style what it lacks in order or organisation. Peppered here and there are reminders of how deeply true this is. A photography show of this country, so used to be on the edge that it felt almost a fashion statement; a seemingly permanent display of antiques – most of them raided from somebody grandpa’s garage – that no one seemed bothered to be selling; a dusty shopfront window, abandoned as both ends of the street it stands on have been closed to car traffic. A message scribbled on the bullet-proof concrete watch-post near the Grand Serail, saying God (or those speaking Arabic) only knows what. 
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Armenia Street, named so after a Caucasian community by now fully assimilated in the colourful ensemble of Beirut, is perhaps the hipster heart of the city. Beards might be the longest – not even the photos of Hassan Nasrallah and his cronies, garnished with Hezbollah flags, dared reaching such extremes of facial hair – MacBooks the newest and lattes the most ubiquitous. Flair, elegance and a certain dose of machismo are in the air; the walls, here are the most colourful, sometimes confusingly so.
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It’s perhaps easy to think that this is nothing but a Hackney with guaranteed sunshine and where Almaza beers have suddenly replace all pint cans of Red Stripe, but I guess that would be wrong. This is a place with deep troubles, used to them I guess, but nonetheless unafraid of asking why things keep on happening here.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow. 
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Remembrance for scatterbrains.

Landing takes place at night. We descend into the warm Mediterranean air, those of us sat on the left-hand side being treated to a royal view of the entire city of Beirut lying, invitingly, beneath us. Here is Ras Beirut, protruding into the sea; there is downtown – BCD for friends – a riot of colours as the city tucks into Iftar meals, or uses the occasion to throw yet another party (a quick orrraw poll held amongst our fellow travellers, who’d been guzzling whisky-and-ginger-ale from the get go, suggested that the latter option was more likely). And for miles around, between the sea and the hills, glitter the lights of countless suburbs. Are those the southern neighbourhoods, the refugee camps where Hezbollah runs patrols and Hamas is held in great regard? They could very well be, but from up here all they evoke are views of hummus and narghilé pipes, not of fiery clerics and dogma.
It’s a short taxi ride, at this time at night, into town. The dancefloor warriors are out in force, riding mopeds two apiece, or storming ahead in rumbling Harley-Davidsons. All have flowing hipster beards and all, as if by rule, ride without helmets, hair so neatly combed backwards that not even the wind dares ruffling them. Muscular playboys overtake us whilst chatting away on their iPhones, or texting, or lighting a cigar, all done at 100 an hour. One overpass plays host to a congregation of Harley centaurs, parked in a dark bend, whether by accident or design we would never know.

The following morning there’s only one place to go to: the Corniche. Echoes of Istanbul, Cape Town and Rio run riot as we descend towards the seaside promenade. The air smells the same as it does in Tel Aviv, even though it feels adventurous to just think it, but a quick glance at the burnt rubbish discarded on the sidewalks is enough to dispel that thought. This is the other side of the Middle East.
Empty plots, overgrown with invasive scrubs, offer a side view of the urban strata of Hamra. From the ground level up, the first to be seen are those buildings that are testimony of those old, gentler times before al hawadith, the events, of 1975-1990. Beautiful mansions, rarely venturing above four storeys, decorated with balconies, slender columns, pergolas and Moresque windows, often with bodegas on the ground floor, garnished with faded signs in French and Arabic. Inevitably, they are almost all abandoned, or soiled by the scars of war.
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Edging above them are those condominiums built in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the priority was to build housing that wasn’t turned into Swiss cheese, and that perhaps had plumbing and electricity. With this in mind, it seems reasonable if looks weren’t high on the list of priorities, even though – as time passed and money flowed back in the country – aesthetics started claiming their role, chiefly through the introduction of floor-to-ceiling windows that would’ve made a young Don Johnson proud.
Finally, standing head and shoulders above everything else, are the true skyscrapers. Towers of azure glass and shards of blue crystal dart towards the sky, in unusual yet harmonious shapes: the scalpel, the crystallised wave, the staggered bookshelf. I’m meant, like every other self-respecting organic coffee guzzler, to be pouring scorn over these monstrosities, denouncing them as tasteless replicas of Miami, Vancouver or Dubai Marina, but the fact is that I like them. This eruption of futuristic shapes sprouting out of the seafront is an uplifting scene, a testament to human tenacity and a great demonstration of our specie’s capability of turning things around. And of the benefit posed by lax, if not completely conniving, money-laundering law regimes, I’d hasten to add.
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Sandwiched between the granite-pink Phoenicia hotel and a cluster of condos that smelt of price-per-square-foot to rival those of Mayfair, a rather odd sight ogles the marina, where several millions’ worth of yachts bob under the warm sun. Its lines are remarkably straight and clean, a classic parallelepiped designed in rigorous international style, two long sides with windows running their whole length, and the two short ones covered in stone and concrete. Twenty-six storeys high, and pockmarked with wholes dug by anything from a simple assault rifle to field artillery, the Beirut Holiday Inn stands, gutted and fire-ravaged, amongst its glitzy neighbours like a poor uncle smiling shyly at his rich nephew’s birthday party. Suddenly, we realise we are the only ones to be looking at it.
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– § –
South of the waterfront, separated from the manicured perfection of the Yacht Club by a few klicks of heat, sweat and kamikaze moped drivers, stands a rather nondescript junction, marked by an odd swing to which hangs a wheelchair. Besides this unsettling rendition of a playground staple, it is an unremarkable junction indeed: clogged with traffic, crossed by pedestrians and populated only by traffic cops doing the bare minimum to regulate the flow, and by half a dozen beggars, including Syrian children forced by the war to ask for alms. Totally unremarkable, were it not for the Barakat Building standing on one side.
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In a city where the scars of the war have either been plastered over, or simply knocked down, the Barakat wore them with pride, reminding anyone who cared to look that this unremarkable junction had once lied along one of the deadliest borders in the whole Middle East. The demarcation line, or – as it became known – the Green Line.
When sectarian violence erupted, ripping society apart, the city broke up along religious lines, however blurred after centuries of intermingling. One of these fault lines ran north to south, separating the Muslim west from the Maronite east; along the Green line pitched battles were fought, snipers picking off their victims one by one, rockets by the handful, mortars by the dozen. The Barakat building, with its lovely balconies, elegant inner courtyard and the Mario Photo studio downstairs, found itself slap-bang in the middle of it all.
After the signing of the Taif Agreement, and the return to normality, the Barakat was preserved from the onslaught of demolitions that were happening throughout the city, with the idea of turning it into Beit Beirut, the house of this city’s memory. If only it worked.
Lebanon is the most diverse country in the Middle East – with Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Druzes and Alawites, plus refugees from Syria and Palestine – and multiculturalism here isn’t of the kind that makes Justin Trudeau beam with that heart-melting smile of his. It’s more akin to walking on a tightrope whilst holding a Ming vase, with crocodiles and hyenas and cobras lying in wait below. There are things that can be said, things that is better to tactfully ignore and things that God forbid are mentioned in public. Discussing the legacy of the war, the various factions’ roles and responsibilities, massacres such as Sabra and Chatila are examples of the latter. Unsurprisingly, the idea of a museum in Beit Beirut didn’t last long, and two out of its three floors lie empty, but for a moving tribute to Photo Mario, its ground floor occupant.
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Still, there is something deeply moving about this building, about these nude walls, that needn’t a museum to convey a message. I grasp it by looking down a stairwell, the stone steps blown into the bottom floor, crushed by the explosions. The walls peppered with impact craters, or punched through by rockets or artillery, holes so big to act like windows casting a light on the building whence the shells had been fired from. The message this stairwell teaches is that this was a war where neighbours used recoilless cannons, designed to penetrate the steel armour of tanks, at each other’s houses. And that it didn’t take long to get to that point from the day when it was all simple quarrels at the tenants’ meeting.
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What is the impact of this edifice, I wondered? What difference does the Barakat building make on the day-to-day lives of those who inhabit this city? For starters, we aren’t alone in here, but it’s undeniable it’s all tourists. How about those on the street level? Does anyone look up to the Barakat?
I stand above the intersection, looking down on the traffic. Two cops have pulled over a moped and are engaged in a serious arms-waving contest with its driver. A couple of attractive women walk past a man with feline grace, causing him to forget his phone conversation mid-sentence. The drivers keep on driving and honking their horns. No one seems to care about the Barakat.
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Perhaps it’s because the memory is still very much etched in their minds, and needs no visual reminder; perhaps it’s still too fresh to be talked about. Definitely, for the impoverished refugees asking for money on the central reservation, the Barakat doesn’t really serve a purpose when their own houses have been torn to shreds just a year ago. Whatever the reasons, no one looks up.
On our last day, we find ourselves on Martyrs’ Square. Dedicated to the memory of those killed by the Ottomans, it features a handsome trio of bronze statues looking out to the sea, standing on a plinth of white, calcareous rock. As we walk closer my original assumption – that they had been designed to be looking war-torn – fizzles away like dry ice. They had been shot to pieces. Arms missing, impact craters splattered on their torsos, bullet holes disfiguring their faces, entry-and-exit holes in the legs. I continue walking ahead, captivated. It is by far the most compelling and thought-provoking monument I’d seen. Yet, we are alone in the square, whilst throngs of people mill about in the nearby perfection of BCD or Saifi Village. As I think all this, walking as I do with my nose in the air, I hear a muffled splash. I look down and realise that my right Nike shoe is now sitting in the middle of a cake of discarded tomatoes, rotting apricots and unidentified vegetables, topped by the largest clot of chewing gum in the whole Mediterranean, by now firmly wedged under the sole.
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As I contemplate the mess it occurs to me that this incident is quite fitting, for it seemed that every reminder of this city’s close past is also shunned, forgotten or ignored, enjoying the same success of a remembrance function attended only by scatterbrains.

 

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Approaching Beirut.

Beirut, Paris of the East.

Beirut, mother of laws.
Beirut, the city that can be Rio, Miami and 1943 Stalingrad all within the same block.

Beirut, the filthy.

Beirut, the ironic (another French legacy I suspect).

Beirut, you’ve got the worst traffic I’ve ever seen, but also some of the best sunsets.

Beirut, I can’t say I’ve understood you, I can’t even deny that I sometimes wished I was somewhere else, and I’m so damn glad I’m not hearing your car horns anymore, but I’m also grateful for having seen you.
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Songs for the Road 7 – Now with even less sense!

The hot season is definitely upon us (at least, as much as it can be for London) and the poor algorithm that chooses the Your Mix selection on Youtube must be excused to be thinking that the heat has made me lose the plot. Because, these days, the music I’m listening to doesn’t seem to be following an order not even if you tried. Here’s some of it.

A song I’ve made a mental note to add to my ever-looping-mixtape in the event I become a cabbie in the Middle East, Yali Yali is a song by Neşe Karaböcek, a Turkish singer, revisited by a Norwegian DJ, Todd Terje. I don’t think we hear enough Turkish songs, which is a shame for that language seems to be designed for singing. All I need now is an old Mercedes saloon, fitted with carpets on the dashboard, a steering wheel cover with pompoms and the pennant of Al Ahly football club hanging from the rear-view mirror, like my neighbour in Italy used to.

There’s this guy, called El Búho, who does incredibly elegant melodies. Think of him as Bonobo relocated in Colombia, or perhaps perched atop Huayna Picchu with turntables and whatever these guys make music with. If you scroll down his videos it’s just a sequence of ecstatic comments in Spanish, from me incanta to the outright offers for wedding, one-night-stands or anything inbetween. You can imagine my surprise when I found out that this guy, whom to me is the personification of new Latin music, a mixture of Lulacruza, Bomba éstereo and the best cumbia artists is actually called Robin Perkins and hails from Northern England. Music transcends borders and all that, for real.

Angry people with nothing better to do but to scream nonsense on Twatter (pun very much intended) would call it cultural appropriation and would call for an immediate boycott. Plus, it ain’t Arab at all! Scandal! Yet, the good fellas at Acid Arab didn’t worry about the potential backlash, partnered from Cem Yıldız, folk singer from Erzincan, deep into Turkey’s altiplano, and came up with Stil. It’d be again on my cabbie mixtape, but deserves a lot more than that.

Earworms can be really irritating, especially when you can’t quite remember the name of the song. I was on the company shuttle bus on my way to work, with Take Five’s alto sax solo looping constantly in my head. I tried furiously to remember who wrote it, who did it. Thelonius Monk? Nah. Coltrane? Nah, again. Perhaps it was Herbie Hancock? They used to use both that song and Cantaloupe Island on a RAI Radio jingle from one of those old-fashioned shows my mum used to listen to when we were on holiday and thunderstorms blocked the telly signal. So I went on to listen to that record, but what was to be Take Five wasn’t there. Slowly, the earworm dissolved. Then, one day, I chanced over Dave Brubeck’s Essential. And the first song was… voilà, the earworm.

There used to be a time, many moons ago, when pretty much all I used to listen to was this sort of music. I was 17, 18, doing a sort of pilgrimage every year to Ibiza. Then the rave circuit in Turin. Most probably we were the only ones on a dancefloor at 3AM not high on drugs (in fact, come think of it, I’ve never done MDMA, ecstasy or that sort of stuff. We used to do practical chemistry at school and we knew some of the industrial uses for the substances that, we heard, were also used to manufacture the pills. Nah, not my thing). Anyhow, I was doing some mundane chores, Youtube shuffling in the background. A guy’s mix, Boris Brejcha @ Art of Minimal Techno Tripping, comes up. It’s well done, a great mixing, and what makes it remarkably odd is the fact that the music is paired to some old school cartoons. Mickey and Pluto. Woody the Woodpecker. A monkey that goes hunting. Sometimes around the 8th minute mark, this one comes up, and it’s a smash.

This is the only song that survived an iOS update that hadn’t been properly regression tested by some find mind over in Cupertino. In other words, it was the only song I had during a six-hour layover in Shanghai, where I found myself walking like Vinz in Chanteloup-les-Vignes. It felt rather absurd, and it certainly was, but as I heard the song over and over, struggling to understand the convoluted verlan slang that made the flics become keuf, I couldn’t help but feel captivated by the lyrics. La loi de la jungle tue, si tu es pas roi tu es perdu. 
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To the last city.

No, that’s a misnomer. Tashkent was, if anything, Uzbekistan’s first city, at least in the modern sense of the term. First one to be occupied by the Russians, first one to be reached by a railroad, first to host all those innumerable buildings and institutions – universities, hospitals, sports arenas, you get the idea – that are the mainstay of a modern civitas. But since it was the last stop in my tour of the country, and the chance of quoting a Colin Thubron novel too good to pass on, Tashkent shall remain – for me at least – The last city.
Tashkent shares a great deal of past with the other peripheral outposts of the old Soviet empire that I’ve visited before, at least in terms of architecture. A cataclysmic event – war, or in this case, earthquake – makes tabula rasa of whatever existed before. An enlightened, inspired architect with a vision is called in; the kind of guy who’s got a hammer & sickle in his pupils, much like Scrooge McDuck has the $ sign. Insert enormous boulevards with double lines of poplars on each side – wide enough for the inevitable May Victory parade – douse everything with a sprinkle of monuments to the Glorious Dead in granite and bronze, dig through a metro system jealously guarded by the dourest matrons you can find and bien, mesdames et messieurs, voilà une autre ville sovietique. 
Not so quickly.
Tashkent has a few quirks, a few adaptations on the former-Soviet-now-free-market-major-city model. Let’s start, for instance, with Western decadence. Unlike other places – think at the motorcades of black Mercedes G55 AMGs that roam the streets of Moscow, the plethora of fast food joints of Kiev, or the hordes of new Land Cruises that parade through Almaty – all there is to show for the new consumerism are a few Mercs and Beemers, plus the heroic cyclist who, dressed in Lycra, has the guts to brave the city’s streets, daring to go where no cyclist has ever been before.

Then there are the Koreans. The neighbourhood where we’re staying in lies huddled around Mirobod Bazaar as if for need of extra warmth at night, and – through shops, restaurants and populace, if not for the omnipresent Chevrolets and Hyundais – has a decidedly Asian feel. Again, not quite your Soviet city.

The cultural rebranding of the Soviet heritage is as in full swing as it is elsewhere in Central Asia, but with markedly better results than in neighbouring countries. A central square, where once a giant head of Marx eyed everyone with much malignity (perhaps accusing each and every passer-by of having nicked the rest of his body) had gone, replaced with a rather more impressive statue of Amir Timur, Tamerlane for friends, on horseback. His right hand was raised in what I’m sure was meant to be an exhortation, but that to me looked remarkably  similar to a Nazi salute, especially if seen from the side. Still, the locals didn’t seem to mind and helped themselves to the wreath of flowers laid at his feet. Today, a girl called Umida took pride in informing us, was the big man’s birthday. We scurried away before I could confess that the idea of giving flowers to the warlord who flattened Baghdad as a past time seemed almost insulting to me.
Even Lenin had gone, his coat and waving arm replaced for a rather bling globe with an oversized Uzbekistan superimposed over it. Still, those yearning for those simpler times when ideologies still mattered only need to pay a visit to Hotel Uzbekistan, where service is as bad today as it was in the good old days of the Union.
Normally, cities like this would penetrate under my skin with considerable ease. I loved Yerevan, found deep satisfaction with Almaty and even Dushanbe, despite all its quirks, had on grown on me by the time I had to leave. Yet, nothing of this kind seemed to be happening with Tashkent. I sincerely wanted to grow fond of this city, of its metro smelling of damp, of its Smurfs-blue Orthodox cathedral, of its scenes of street life and of its frankly refreshing lack of big, corporate chains of clothing and food, but I felt constantly rebuffed. People looked at us as weirdos if we’d only ever attempted to greet them with a salaam alaykum on the street, as it was the norm in Samarkand and Bukhara; no one seemed to have time to stop and chat, but they somehow seemed to find a slot to to try and con us with scams that were almost heartwarming in their simplicity.
Cops patrolled ever street, every station and also appeared out of nowhere in city parks, ready to bar us from walking down a path that might’ve led to an old Soviet building, now hosting some unknown ministry and sporting some utterly unsightly decoration, symbol of the new regime. Tashkent, I reflected in our stuffy hotel whilst Russian guests argued over the Wi-Fi, was the epicentre of Uzbekistan’s big city attitude, the place where all the go-getters, all the wheelers and dealers of the nation congregated. And that, I guess, was what I didn’t like about it.

 

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Looking up in Uzbekistan.

Remember shoegazing, that 1980s genre? Well, had any of those musicians been in Ulug Beg Madrasa, in Samarkand, they’d have missed this.

Sometimes it’s useful to be walking with one eye to the heavens and one to the floor. Especially in places such as Bibi Khanum mosque, where toddlers chase each other at ground level and masonry has a habit to fall from above. Tamerlane wanted it great and done quickly: he might’ve been the destroyer of Delhi and Baghdad, but even him ended up ripped off by the contractors.

Move over to the opposite side of town. A leafy boulevard, with not much but for a decent restaurant and a club pumping hardbass music behind blackened-out windows at 2PM. Enter the Orthodox church on the corner, stand in front of the altar and look up. You can almost hear the valzer. Da-da-da-da-daaa-daa…

Not far from there – it’s just a couple of wide alleys, odd statues and suicidal pedestrian crossings – it’s another place of worship, at least judging by the elderly ladies praying. But this is no church or mosque. It’s Tamerlane’s mausoleum. The tomb of the destroyer of so many Muslim cities is now a place of pilgrimage by devout Muslims. Sod orthodoxy. 

Again, outskirts. Bukhara, this time. Centuries before Islam, the prophet Job happened to pass by and found Bukhara in the midst of a terrible drought. He saw the suffering and decided to do something about it. He struck his walking stick in the ground and – right there! – a sweet water spring appeared, as if by magic. Today the spring – Chasma Ayub – is still there.
The Ark, despite its architectonic quirks, gave me a distinct impression of oppression, stale air, meaningless gestures, threat. Still, looking up at the ceiling of its in-built mosque one wouldn’t feel anything but this.

There’s yet another mosque next to the Ark, past the rather stinky (I guess that makes it authentic) Bolo reservoir, or hauz. Bolo Hauz mosque. Warm tones on the outside – wood, ochre, orange, red velvets – and on the inside… this. Picture me surprised, but in a nice way.

There’s a road, in Naples, called strada dell’anticaglia. It could be translated as “road of old tat” and its name is due to the amount of Roman architecture that sprouts out of everywhere in that street, evidently in the way of the exasperated locals who just wanted to build their homes without digging up yet another amphora. If these ceilings have given you the same feeling – old cupolas, old domes, Tamerlane, old old old – then I’ve got a partying gift. Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent. Say hello to God knows how many meters of tangible Socialism.

Until next time… ta-dah.

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Buxoro PFC home: an excursion into Uzbekistan’s Premier League.

It is normally the case, at least for me, to be stumbling upon great finds almost entirely by chance, and today was exactly one such case. We were sitting on a topchan at the hotel, yet again cheered by endless supplies of tea and sweets, whilst I used Google maps to supplement my hand-drawn map’s deficiencies. Zooming back to include most of Bukhara in the picture, I noticed a new development, evidently included by some Mountain View coder exactly for eventualities such as these: a notification of specific events happening where I was looking. That day, a polite notice in red, hovering above the city’s stadium, said “Buxoro PFC – Pakhtakor 18.00”. We discussed it for a whole minute and then it was settled: we were going to sample Uzbekistan’s top football division.

The hubbub of excitement outside Bukhara’s football stadium, home of the city’s darlings, the Buxoro Professional Football Club, was palpable. The city’s finest were out in force, both the rather plump and jovial boys in green uniform and the lean, muscular and rather more serious members of the Milliy Gvardiya, the black-clad military cops. We were quickly discovering that stadiums in Uzbekistan are much more civilised than they are over in Italy.
Having gotten our two tickets, for a grand total of £1.20, we then approached the turnstiles. Clutching our stubs, we gingerly approached the phalanx of officers standing under menacing notices prohibiting access to people carrying bags, cameras, sticks, bottles and other indecipherable objects. We had one backpack, two cameras, one of which big enough to be used as a small telescope and inconspicuous like a member of the Harlem Globetrotters posing in a photo with a group of chin-strap penguins. Still, we need not have worried, because as soon as the notion of us being tourists spread amongst the guardians of the order, we were waved through amongst excited cheers of “Italia! Toto Cotugno!”. With the least thorough check seen in any major stadium in the world, we were in.
The ring of space between the outer fence and the concrete buttresses of the stadium reminded me of my hometown’s arena where I practiced track & field. Well-kept flowerbeds ran for the entire length of the stadium, completed with small cypresses and other trees. It was a rather gentle surrounding and a far cry from the holding pens and barbed-wire walkways I was more accustomed to see in the medieval fortresses that passed for football arenas over in the Bel Paese.
A photographer in hi-vis was snapping pictures of four lads in blue tracksuits, photo badges hanging from their necks, holding Buxoro scarves between their stretched hands. They must have been the local ultras. We watched them, and they watched us; but, unlike in Italy, where we would most probably be advised to sod off, or be rewarded for our impudence with a Glaswegian kiss, we found ourselves invited to join them in the part of the stands that had been claimed as their own domain. Again, unlike Italy, it was not one of the popular terraces furthest away from the pitch, but it was almost smack-bang on the centreline. These guys had it good.
To say that the arrival of two Italian visitors did not generate a bit of a stir would be a lie. In fact, the magnitude of the surprise we caused could be described by imagining that the Pope and Paul Weller appeared, alone and unannounced, to the North Stand at Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play on a rainy Wednesday evening. Never before I had been asked to pose for so many selfies, shake so many hands or to explain why Torino FC is better than Juventus (it really is, believe me).
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Whilst we went through the usual pleasantries that precede the beginning of a match – the ultras re-arranging their wares, players and referees pottering about on the pitch, pretty much everyone smoking like chimneys – I could not help but feel a bit nervous about the game. Allow me to explain.
You see, Buxoro PFC is what Italian commentators of the beautiful game liked to define a workmen’s team, a blue-collar group with big hearts and little fear, but also very shortly in supply of good feet. Its natural position, the food chain of the Uzbekistan Super League, was roughly halfway up the table, with far more frequent slips in the bottom than forays in the top half. Pakhtakor, on the other hand, might have meant cotton pickers, but it was clear that a lot of Amu Darya water had flown under the bridges since it was nothing more than an after-work distraction for kolkhoz labourers. Pakhtakor had a shiny new Adidas kit, had won the national title nine times since 2001, played home games in a stadium within spitting distance from the nation’s Senate and could boast, within the first squad, one Portuguese, one Brazilian, one Serbian and an Australian. By the looks of it, the most international experience that Buxoro had to offer was a previous career in purse-snatching across Europe’s train stations for the guy with jersey no. 8, but I could not be sure of that.
Predictably, as the game commenced, it was a tale of two teams: one sandwiched into its own half, and the other descending along the flanks like marauding Huns, throwing balls into the opponent’s penalty box as if they were raining. Only the sacrifice of Buxoro defenders, who used every bodily part allowed by the rules to stop the shots, and Tashkent’s utter incompetence were to thank for the result remaining on a goalless draw.
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Buxoro’s responses were valiant, but their modus operandi – which the same Italian commentators quoted earlier would have defined Viva il Parroco or “long live the reverend” for its slapdashness – was utterly hopeless. As the minutes rolled by, it dawned on me that both team were made of players with clothes irons in lieu of feet. Still, to the valiant supporters of Buxoro it did not seem to matter much: the sun set, some floodlights were turned on and the cheering remained as frenzied as it was at the beginning. Drums kept on pounding a syncopated rhythm we could dance to, choirs we could only begin to understand ran from side to side and our flags fluttered in the evening breeze. The claque was led by a valorous band of brothers, amongst whom “Apocalypto”, thus nicknamed for his rather Mesoamerican features, stood head and shoulders above everyone else. We clapped, danced and had an almighty jolly good time, all whilst the ball bounced from head to head, and ankles were tackled with the same gay abandon as the leather sphere.
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In the meantime, I had started to get acquainted with my seatmate, a bear of a man who I took to call Muscles. Muscles chewed shovelfuls of snuff tobacco, pirouetted a large drum stick as if it was his own prehistoric club, smelt just ripe and swore so much that the other ultras had to repetitiously ask him to moderate his tone. He was a great company and we were having the best time. But that was when disaster struck.
Corner from the left for Pakhtakor. As the ball arched in toward the box our goalie, Amanov, abandoned his position to pick up some invisible daisies, or to do something which, from our point of view, was pretty unclear. Whatever the intentions, he succeeded in being beaten by Griffiths, the Aussie, whose wide forehead pistoned the ball towards the unguarded net. The goal had all but been assigned, were it not for the providential intervention of a Buxoro defender’s face, against which the ball slammed, undoubtedly causing life-changing injuries but saving the goal, which – at the end of the day – was all that mattered. The ball bounced back into the penalty box; Amanov tried to recover some dignity by slapping it away, failed, gave up and returned back; in the meantime, Goncalves, Tashkent’s Portuguese attacker, tossed the ball towards a squad mate. One of the Buxoro guys saw the ball cruising towards him; he remembered Ronaldinho’s Crazy Scorpion kick from FIFA Street Football and decided to give it a go. Needless to say, it ended in disaster: the ball bounced a few feet away from Goncalves, who threw himself in pursuit; Buxoro’s number 10, Salomov, threw a kick like a horse, aiming to launch the sphere into near-orbit. He obviously missed, delivering a kung-fu kick to Goncalves, who rightly fell to the ground in a series of spasms that were almost believable. Penalty.

So far, the supporters had been well behaved, undoubtedly because of the very large – and not at all friendly – police presence. Now, however, not even the threat of a stadium ban inflicted by the local branch of the KGB could held the Buxoro boys back. The whole stadium booed the decision and suggested, we were to learn, that the referee indulged in practices forbidden by most of the world’s religions and a good number of national law codes. Still, it was all for nothing. Goncalves arrived in position, whilst Amanov tried to distract him by flapping his arms as if he was a seagull. The referee whistled. Goncalves ran in for the kill and then hammered in a kick that would have stunned a mule. Amanov threw himself on the wrong side of the goal. The ball zoomed, rocketed towards the goal and… missed. Goncalves’ kick overshot the woodwork by a good meter, describing a perfect ballistic arc before landing on the athletics track. Buxoro was still in the game and, on the stands, we celebrated as if we had just scored.
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At that point, the tide began turning. The failed penalty had blown the wind out of Pakhtakor’s sails, whilst it roared into Buxoro’s. The boys in green began crossing into the other half, making more and more attempts to score; were it not for their apparent incapacity to run with a ball, it is safe to say that at least one would have engaged Tashkent’s goalie. Then, around the 43rd minute, Omonov, a feline-looking midfielder, darted towards the endline as if possessed by a demon. Throwing caution – and schemes, if ever they had them – to the wind, three Tashkent defenders lunged head over feet in hot pursuit, leaving wide tracts of their penalty box unguarded. A lupine Quittboev edged closer to the goal, all alone.
Omanov sprinted, sprinted and then sprinted some more. When it seemed boxed in and incapable of going one step further – the endline before him, three defenders all around his back – he pirouetted and, in the only display of finesse I was to witness in the whole game, dished out a low pass back to Quttiboev who, admirably, calculated the rebound, aimed and let go a veritable cruise missile, just a palm from the grass, straight into the net. Goal.
I had seen Italy beat France in the mayhem of my hometown’s main square, where a good thousand people were boxed in. Yet the scenes of that night in July 2006 paled in comparison with what happened on the stands after Quttiboev had bagged it. Muscles bear-hugged me with such strength that I would have sworn that he was trying to collapse at least one of my lungs. From above it rained people. Apocalypto saw it all and leaped up to strangle us in an embrace, despite being three rows down and holding a drum. Everyone screamed and shouted things we could not understand, but we nonetheless piled in and yelled at the top of our lungs.
Halftime came soon after and, interval over, it was clear that one of the two teams had remained with their minds in the dressing room, if not straight into the bus and over to the hotel. That team was Pakhtakor Tashkent. Buxoro, instead, ran as if they had a new lease of life in their muscles. They failed time and again to score again, but it did not seem to be mattering too much for the boys on the stands, where the atmosphere was joyous. More and more supporters were having half of their faces painted blue à la William Wallace with felt tip pens; when the drums reached a feverish rhythm worthy of Heart of Darkness, which was pretty often, more and more launched into dervish dances. Some might say that I joined in on the fun, but in the absence of conclusive video proof we shall never know. We even got a couple of Mexican waves to do a round of the whole stadium.
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Time passed quickly, punctuated by cramps and yellow cards issued like confetti by the referee. Yet there still was time for one last hurrah. Tashkent was on the offensive, trying to find a way to equalise; Buxoro, though, had all but parked the bus in front of the goal and offered no clear avenues. Round and round did the ball go, shuffled between players in a tiki-taka that had neither the skill nor the inspiration of Barcelona’s. Lobanov, Tashkent’s goalie, had advanced to support the operations, loitering around the ¾ line. He received a rather half-baked back pass, which he had to stop. As he looked up to see who should he lob the hot potato to, he received the rather unwelcome news that one Buxoro attacker had appeared out of nowehere and was heading, in a whirlwind of arms and legs, towards him.
What followed reminded me of Del Piero’s second goal against Germany in the 2006 semis. Lobanov tries desperately to rid himself of the ball in a move awkward even by David Seaman standards; the ball obviously gets intercepted. The Buxoro forward dribbles the hapless Lobanov, then opens to a colleague who, at the head of a small army of pursuing Tashkent players, is running for dear life towards the goal. The man – in the confusion I could not read his number – then discharged a Hellfire missile which, with surgical precision, slammed precisely into the plums of the only Pakhtakor defender who had managed to return in time to protect the net. As the hero wriggled on the pitch in the grip of an indescribable pain, we discussed what tools were going to be employed to beat Lobanov once back in the hotel: wet towels or the rather harsher soap bars plonked into socks?
The end came soon thereafter. We indulged in some well-deserved celebrations, with an Uzbek rendition of the Viking Thunder Clap of Icelandic fame, and then it was time to go. We hugged, shook hands and smiled with our new friends, whom we never would have met had it not been for football. I waved one last time at Muscles, who replied by brandishing his club high above his head, and then it was really time to defile out, walking north into the night, towards the hotel. Tomorrow night we would leave Bukhara, this city of great history and proud heritage, but first and foremost of great, great people.
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As we left the arena we could still hear one choir rising from the parking lot, where a fleet of minibuses and marshrutkas waited to bring the fans home. Bo-kha-ra. Bo-kha-ra. Bo-kha-ra. It felt, and I sure as hell wanted it, as if it was never going to end.
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A sunset over Po-i-Kalyon

Showcasing Bukhara must be the easiest job ever, or so I thought with the clarity that suddenly comes when you’re into your third pint-sized bottle of Portland beer (the fact that an Uzbek brew had the picture of a clipper boat and a light house not becoming any less amusing as the days went by). But back to the view.
It was our last evening in Bukhara and, whilst originally I felt ambivalent about staying there for so long – Khiva, Kokand, Termez were all tantalisingly close – I now regretted leaving at all. We had a shaky beginning, Bukhara and I (trading insults with a cabbie outside the mausoleum of a Sufi holy man isn’t exactly an auspicious way to get things off), but by that evening she – because it’s a lady, you see – had crept under my skin and had lodged itself firmly into my heart. To know why, you just need to read on; unless you’re one of those fellows who’d rather go to Nashville* “because it’s safer”, despite it having a murder rate almost three times higher than Uzbekistan’s, I think you’ll agree with me.
Tell me, for instance, how not to stroll around Po-i-Kalyon, or by the walls of the Ark, at sunset and not to agree with an awesomely-named fellow called Fitzroy Maclean, who in 1939 confessed that “I could have spent months in Bukhara, seeking out fresh memories of the prodigious past, mingling with the bright crowds in the bazaar, or simply idling away my time under the apricot trees in the clear warm sunlight of Central Asia”.
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Bukhara steals breaths by the bucketful with its party pieces, its memories of the golden age of Abdullah Khan, its architectural marvels inspired by Persia by way of Herat, Afghanistan. A sequence of dazzling madrassas and gorgeous mosques whose names -Siddikyon, Mir-i-Arab, Nadir Divan-Beg – roll on Bukharans’ tongues like aged cognac.
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But it’s also a place of unexpected quirks. An eight-hundred-year old minaret, decorated with Zoroastrian motifs, that can claim to have caused none other than Genghis Khan to drop his hat. Or the mausoleum of a man, dead for more than 1,000 years, who had become the founding father of neighbouring Tajikistan even without having been born, or having spent any significant amount of time, there. (Just don’t go telling it around in Dushanbe). Or perhaps the gate house of a madrasa, built around the time when Europe started wearing starched collars and talk about electromagnetism. Some would call Chor minor old-fashioned. To me, it’s classy.
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But the thing that, in the end, will really get you, that will haul you onboard like the harpoon of those long-line fishermen over on Discovery Channel, will be the unexpected surprises that Bukhara will randomly dip out of her pocket and toss on the ground, like breadcrumbs for you to follow to her trap. It’ll be a Jewish community who lived in a particular side of downtown for more than 2,000 years before relocating, pretty much en masse, to Queens; it’ll be a small photography museum, whence you’ll depart with more postcards than you’ve ever bought in a decade. It’ll be hand-written Korans, hidden passageways, delicate domes, shops sprouting in the least expected places. Glimpses of treasures that will make you suddenly realise – probably as you down the third beer on your last evening – that you might as well be spending a year here, but it won’t ever be enough.
And this is before we even got to talk about the people.
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*Nothing personal with Nashville; it could’ve been Chicago, Vegas or LA and the numbers would’ve been even more compelling. It’s just that Nashville is the latest addition to London’s as far as non-stop flights go, and it has sent my English friends and colleagues in a state of, well, pryapistic excitement.

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And then I was invited to tea.

Bukhara the holy, Bukhara the saint, Bukhara the erudite, Bukhara the city where light floods from the ground up and not from the heavens down. Or perhaps the Bukhara, in the words of traveller and linguist Ármin Vámbéry, ”whose whole society was crippled by boundless hypocrisy, crass ignorance, drunk in the swamp of immorality”?
Which one was true? The city that boasted 150 madrassahs at Abdullah Khan’s time, or the decadent shadow of that self, described by the Great Game players, where people were slowly poisoned by the filthy water they drank and abandoned themselves to “all the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah”, in the words of a German-Russian doctor called Eversmann that managed to wriggle his way in?
It’s probably both, for it’s not that hard to change and evolve – or regress, depending on one’s opinions – when you’ve been around so long to have been already a few centuries old when Alexander the Great rode into town on horseback. Bukhara has been erudite, saintly, lurid, decadent and positively promiscuous, all before some 1970s rockstar carved a career out of having been the one to explore all that.
Today, perhaps, it’s Bukhara the peaceful. Crocodiles of bus tourists are shepherded around the handful of pedestrianised, restored roads linking all the major sights. Despite all my idiosyncrasies about going where other camera-toting people go, especially when in mobs, we joined in. Yet, after having sampled these sights to our heart’s content – Labi Hauz, Po-i-Kalyon, the Ark, Chor Minor – it was hard not to yearn for more, not to swim into that sea of tightly knitted roofs that stretch from landmark to landmark, within the boundaries once described by destroyed city walls. So, one day in our permanence I set off, a glass bottle of Borjomi bouncing about in my backpack.
I began easily enough, choosing a side road leading south from Sarrafon bazaar. It led past a small square where schoolchildren played at the end of a day’s lessons: boys set up an impromptu football match – their backpacks acting as goalposts, whilst girls settled for some sort of dodgeball. We were doing the same when I was their age, I thought with a smile.
A labyrinth of alleys unravelled from there. I had a hand-drawn map in my notebook, but it was by now useless, so I navigated using whatever landmark I could find or, more simply, rambled at random. A dusty corner store, complete with sun-bleached advert for RC Cola. A sighting of Kalyon Minaret, glowing in the blue cloudless sky. The dome of a nearby mosque, casting a shadow so neat to look almost unreal. It felt as if I’d walked into a Sicilian village on a sleepy summer afternoon: nothing moved, nothing stirred in the heat; no cars honked, no engine whirred and the only vehicles I saw were parked, looking abandoned, covered in dust.
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As I ventured deeper in the streets, building started changing. Baked bricks slowly gave way to the millennial tradition of mud walls, held together by a framework of wood. Thick planks, meticulously planed, ran parallel to the ground, above the stone foundations: I’d been told it was a trick to collect all the moisture and humidity from the above structure. Homes were in various statuses of upkeep: some shone, thanks to majolica-tiled driveways, metal gates enthusiastically sprayed with glitter and new windows still decorated with the adverts of the companies that’d made them. Some were a little worse for wear: old, wooden windows painted blue, clear runoff signs where rainwater had ruined the mud, thus needing a new coating (much like the Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük, older than Jericho, were our ancestors lived 9,000 years ago). And in some other cases, decay had firmly taken hold.
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A mosque was as clear an example of this latter stage than any other place. The dome sagged under the weight of many winters without repair, surmounted – like all the other abandoned places I’d so far seen – by a massive, and empty, stork nest. Inside, a chair lied next to the cenotaph of an unnamed holy man, in the shadow of a tree. A door closed the access to the mosque, but spying through a crack I caught glimpses of nude walls, rubble and detritus where prayers once were proffered. Dust particles danced in silent Brownian motion in the beams of light flooding in from the windows. The only thing that wasn’t sagging, cracking or askew was the carved pole, terminating with an outstretched metal hand. The horsehair banner dangled in the faint breeze.
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Bukhara’s backroads were quiet but not deserted. Men and women sat on tiny stools outside their gates, lifting hands to their hearts and wishing me “As salaam alaikum” as I passed. A woman, wrapped in a kaleidoscope of colours fashioned into a dress, flashed a smile as she taught a toddler to walk. Two children were definitely more adventurous, chirping “Hello” to this goofy foreigner only to then hide behind their giggling mother. An impromptu game of peek-a-boo then started as we walked down the same road, ending only when we arrived at their home. I continued on, their laughs echoing from behind the gate, in a courtyard I could only guess was there. In that moment, it struck me how different this all was from London, where one needed permission from the other parents to film his own child at his sports’ day.
Every now and then I’d chance upon some place I knew, for I’d written a note about it in my book. Khoresm ko’chasi was one such place, even though I somehow failed to find what made it noteworthy. Yet, it was only 20 meters long. Thinking that, perhaps, the road sneaked around I took one corner, then another. Then, to my surprise, the road sort of… ended.
I stood on the edge of a man-made cliff. To my right the path continued, losing itself in a stream of goat trails leading to somebody’s houses; far ahead in the distance I could distinguish the renovated beauty of Zargon bazaar, with visitors buzzing in and out like bees, and the café of the German lady, Gertrude or some other oldfashioned name. But the behemoth to my right was rather more eye-catching, and what had happened to it even more so.
Somebody had amputated Abdul Aziz Madrassah’s east wing. A road, descending deep into a trench, had cut through the madrassah’s flank and in the nearby buildings, much like a loggers’ trail would do to a tropical rainforest. A venerably old truck dived into it, belching exhaust smoke and dust. I followed it after a while, sinking deeper and deeper into Bukhara’s strata of history.
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The road had been driven through the students’ cells, opening them to the outside world. Frescoed walls eyed me accusingly, the small niches the used to hold books – so similar to the ones we saw in Jewish houses now turned into hotels – now lying empty but for dust or the occasional stray brick. Why had the road been opened? I didn’t know, and had no one to ask. I emerged on the other side amidst stacks of bricks, evidently salvaged from the madrassah. I picked one up, flat and thick, sensing the centuries of history it contained, a time-capsule from the past, moulded and baked by somebody since long turned into dust. I weighted it up in my hand, and then returned it to its place.
A little later I stumbled into something unexpected: a freshly paved road, large enough for two cars to drive abreast. Samarkand ko’chasi. On the corner, a guzar, or neighbourhood mosque, glistened in its post-refurbishment splendour. I entered the courtyard, surprised to see that it hadn’t been turned into a shop, or museum on carpet-weaving, but had remained a place of worship. Two men sat under the portico, whilst another two – at least judging by the fake-leather loafers left on the shoe-rack by the entrance – prayed inside. The guys chilling out smiled and saluted. One of them introduced himself as Michael, and showed me around. When I mentioned how surprising it was to see one mosque still doing its original function, he smiled and commented “This masjid always was a masjid. Even in Soviet times. People came in at night”.
I returned to the street after having shaken hands with Michael, thinking about the Islamic renaissance that was going on here. Many, especially in the media, felt threatened about it, but I didn’t feel that way. In fact, come think of it, I was surprised to find myself more troubled by the fact of seeing so many mosques turned into shops peddling tat.
Samarkand ko’chasi continued on as I ruminated about it. Corner stores dotted the right-hand side, each complete with the sun-baked carcass of an old soft drink vending machine that still had a slot for coins. Metal money had been an early victim of the hyper-inflation that led, and kept on leading, people to go shopping with plastic bags filled with cash. I stopped again soon after, distracted by the relic of a madrassah that was quietly crumbling away on the other side of the road.
It had to be quite a thing in its prime, whenever that had been. Perhaps not as grand as Mir-i-Arab, but definitely a worthy adversary of the one built by Ulug Beg, or of the ones in Labi Hauz, I thought at first sight. Was there a sort of a race to get the best students, back in XV century Bukhara, much like there is today in the Anglo-Saxon world? Still, whatever the truth, its prime had come and gone a long time ago. The front gate opened on a parvis of rubble and dust; the wooden portals had been lifted a long time ago, pitifully replaced by two large sheets of rusting metal, left slightly ajar. No sign was hung on the walls, prohibiting access, and there was no one around to tell me off. Moving in what I thought was a silent and sly way, but knowing that I looked absurd, I slipped in.
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The first mental image I had of the courtyard was of old, B&W photos of Stalingrad. Or Dresden. Or Berlin after the Red Army’s lead diet. The courtyard stood filled with rubble and rubbish – bricks, metal pipes, rusting sheets of iron, two tyres, old shoes, discarded implements. All around eyed the old cells of the students, now a masterclass of decay and abandonment. Staircases ran upstairs, tilted at an angle of 20 degrees, whilst the upper floors had been reduced only to the arches of the door frames, the rest having been pillaged or spirited away. A modest attempt at reconstruction had started, with new industrial bricks being erected on one of the wings, before even that had been abandoned. The madrassah, I reflected, was a worthy metaphor of Bukhara’s history. An origin of study, enlightenment, culture, then a long period of decline as the student ranks dwindled, ideas dried up and innovators fled, chased away by a wind of parochialism, xenophobia and obscurantism. Then neglect and decay.
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I walked back to Samarkand ko’chasi, wondering, after all this, what defined Bukhara today. The enlightenment was the past, and so was the decay and the oblivion. What was Bukhara now, and what was going to define it tomorrow? What sort of adjective would travel writers and journos use, much in the same way that Fergana valley is “fertile” and 1960s London “swinging”? I had originally settled for “peaceful”, but it didn’t taste satisfying.
Suddenly a cry distracted me from my label-making thoughts. “Mister, mister”. I looked around, then realised that the call came from high up. Above me a balcony opened: a mosque, its portico blackened by time. Framed between the ceiling and the parapet were two heads, one with a skullcap and the other without, both beaming with smiles so golden to be the envy of a pirate. “Chai, mister, chai!” they said, waving me in.
I smiled and accepted the invite to tea. As I was climbing the stairs to the portico where, sitting on a topchan, I’d be drinking tea, chatting and watching this group of mates play backgammon for a few hours, it occurred to me. After Bukhara the learned, Bukhara the saintly, Bukhara the corrupted came Bukhara the friendly.

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