Denying it would be pointless, and I won’t: I am an unabashed Morricone fan and – the two go hand in hand, really – an Alessandroni devotee. Whilst I appreciate that Morricone’s fame is somehow a given, I’m aware that the latter mightn’t enjoy the same level of awareness amongst the public. In fact, who the hell is Alessandroni, I hear you say?
Well, Alessandroni is none other than the Whistle. Remember the theme of For a Fistful of Dollars? Or the one of For a Few Dollars More? Well, he’s the one who did them. He also whistled in every other song that the Maestro penned for Sergio Leone, to be used in those films that Morricone loathes being called ‘spaghetti western’ and so I shan’t. Alessandroni was the proud owner of that crystalline whistle. Not for nothing did Fellini nickname him Fischio, Italian for whistle.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really thinking about Alessandroni, that Sunday in Samarkand. I wasn’t, for otherwise I’d be thinking about the westerns, or the fact that he’d retired to Namibia, where he died last year, but it all changed when we got on the viewing balcony that stretches before the mighty Registan.
But let’s start from the beginning.
Registan, or Registon as is written all across Samarkand – itself better known to its inhabitants as Samarqand, I hasten to add – is the pulsating heart of this city straddling the rich flatland watered by the Zerafshan river. Meaning “sandy place” in Farsi, it can only be compared to Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan square; a magnet, an irresistible bit of sticky paper upon which us flies cannot resist landing.
We walked to Registan through the dusty roads leading to the pedestrianised heaven of the erstwhile Toshkent road, now renamed – together with another good chunk of the city’s infrastructure – after the recently deceased father of the nation, Islam Karimov. The air was saturated by a cocktail of leaking methane, dust and unburnt petrol. Men squatted in the shadows, saluting our passing with polite calls of “As-salaam alaikum” to which we responded in kind, right hand touching the heart. In the sky, preying on the flying insects, were dozens of chirpy swallows. The blue dome of Bibi Khanum mosque loomed high above us.
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Karimov Ko’chasi was a playground. Throngs of people paced it up and down or cruised on the shuttling electric buses, which they boarded in a tempest of shouts and gold-toothed grins. We were the only Westerners not moving in the close cohorts of the guided bus tours and, as such, we were ripe for selfies. Covering 400 meters meant posing for at least thirty pictures with men, women, teenagers and toddlers. Glad of our newfound celebrity we happily obliged to each and every one of them, for everyone seemed genuinely giddy with the excitement at the prospective of posing with those exotic Italians. Go figure.
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The Registan is one of those places that, annoyingly, magazines define a “must see”. Despite that, it was indeed so. A large square, closed on one side by a gently descending staircase and, on the other three, by some of the finest specimen of Islamic architecture ever to be designed by the followers of the Prophet. Three madrassahs, all similar yet different; Ulug Beg’s own; Shir Dor, the lion-bearing, covered in animal mosaics despite the requirement to portray only abstract art, and Tilya-Kori, the gilded. Seventy years of State atheism had turned them in shops for touristy tack, but their beauty remained undeniable.
A viewing galleria, or a balcony if you will, had been built for the advantage of those like us who wanted to gaze, mouth open wide, at this marvel to their hearts’ content. And there, you see, is where the memory of Alessandro ‘Fischio’ Alessandroni returned with a vengeance.
Entrance to Registan, you see, is not free. A rather forgettable $2 is levied on the tourist – possibly less for locals. As it allowed access to some veritable marvels and, we suspected, guaranteed their upkeep, we and the overwhelming majority of visitors were quite happy to pay the due. But some evidently weren’t and, out of protest or stinginess, decided to bum their way into the hallowed grounds of the square. On that Sunday when we posed for more photos than we could humanly count, a few tried to sneak their way in. But none succeeded, for Fischio’s true scion would not let them.
Cops, in Uzbekistan, come in two guises. There are those in green, with a slightly amusing képi on their heads, are the most common ones. Often rotund, seldom jovial, equipped with a small handgun hanging from their side as an afterthought, they don’t seem to inspire too much fear. The rather more truculent Milliy Gvardiya, instead, are designed – with their black, utilitarian fatigues, lean bodies and stern looks – to instil a healthy respect for the authority. Our Fischio was a member of the former, but his granitic resolve would’ve earned him the black uniform of the latter.
Armed only with a metal whistle, his stern looks and a penchant for Power Rangers-style moves, he alone patrolled the south side of Registan. Just a twine, strewn a mere 30 cm from the ground, marked the border. An open invite for freeloaders, but Fischio had other ideas.
He hid in plain sight. Melting away amongst the throngs of happy campers posing for photos, he patrolled in search for trespassers and, as soon as he saw one, a whistle, as unforgiving as Clint Eastwood’s gun, would pierce through the air. He would then materialise there, waving back the audacious trespassers.
More and more attempted; sometimes, one or two would have a go at it in one corner, whilst others, profiting from his distraction, would leg it from the opposite side. Yet it was all in vain. Again, the whistle would rise, for Fischio saw all and had mercy for none.
One youth did what we were waiting for and, having been found, approached our hero with the consummated savoir faire of the man who knew what opened doors at these latitudes. Golden handshakes. Brown envelopes. Baksheesh. Standing on the balcony, alert as meerkats, we unequivocally saw the glimmer, awkwardly masqueraded in a bear hug, of a few 5,000 sum banknotes. Baksheesh indeed. Would Fischio fall for it?
We shouldn’t have worried. A family of daytrippers blocked our view but, as soon as they moved, we saw Fischio doing his best Pierluigi Collina personification as he invited the smooth operator, now covered in shame, to the cashier.
Us, and the madrassahs, exhaled a collective sigh of relief.