A bus still identified as belonging to Intourist, the official tour agency of the former USSR, took eight of us—all American scholars—from Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, to Samarkand on a Saturday morning. When we arrived at our hotel (a former Communist Party guest house which, having been “privatized,” was being run by the former communists), we were greeted and welcomed effusively by an official of the Samarkand government. He described the program which had been arranged for our two-day visit to his city: lots of sightseeing and meetings with various officials.
“But of course,” he added with a cheerful smile, “if there is anything else that you want to do, just let us know and we’ll be glad to arrange it.”
As a matter of fact, one of our number happened to have a couple of contacts in Samarkand whom we wanted to see. One was the head of the local chapter of Birlik, an opposition group that the Uzbek government allowed to register as a society but not as a political party. The other was the head of the local Tajik community association, which the authorities had not yet allowed to register in any form (the Tajiks are a minority in Uzbekistan but there are large numbers of them in places such as Samarkand).
Our host became considerably less hospitable once we mentioned our desire to meet with these two individuals. “The schedule is already too full,” he informed us.
We’d be happy to drop some of the meetings that he had arranged, we told him.
“Impossible!” he stated, smiling broadly. “The people here are looking so forward to seeing you. You wouldn’t want to disappoint them now, would you?”
When it became evident that we would, he changed his line. “All right, give me their names and telephone numbers. I’ll call them up to see if they can fit into your schedule.”
We thought that if our guide made the phone calls, he would undoubtedly discover that these people were somehow unavailable. So the professor who had the two phone numbers said he didn’t want to put our guide to any trouble; he would make the phone calls himself.
Our guide’s smile disappeared. The professor went up to his room to make the phone calls. When he got there, he discovered that his phone, for some reason or other, was not working. He quickly went to someone else’s room where the phone was working and made the calls. He was able to inform our guide that both gentlemen would be delighted to meet with us.
We spent the rest of the day seeing the sights of Samarkand (overwhelming!) and meeting various officially sanctioned individuals (underwhelming), including one of the official imams appointed during communist times. He spent over an hour in verbosely avoiding all of our questions about the status of Islam and reports about increasing Islamic fundamentalism in Uzbekistan.
We returned to our hotel for dinner. We had invited the Birlik representative to join us. Our guide insisted that the Birlik man could not come into the restaurant for dinner with us, but we brought him in anyway. The guide then insisted on sitting at the same table with the Birlik man.
Our guest talked to us about several subjects: tension between the Uzbek majority and the Tajik minority, the absence of a free press, Birlik’s relations with the other main opposition group (Erkh), and the general repressiveness of the regime.
Our guide was becoming extremely upset about the discussion and wanted to ring it to a halt. He did not, however, want to appear to be suppressing freedom of speech. So he hit upon the expedient of standing up to make long, loud toasts to Uzbek-American friendship as a way of halting the conversation. The first toast we listened to, but when he tried to make others we just told him to shut up. But he still kept trying.
Continuing the conversation, though, became impossible when the evening’s floor show began. Like many hotel restaurants in the former USSR, this one attempted to entertain its patrons with a program featuring young women dancing to the beat of extremely loud music while wearing few clothes and a lot of make-up (they would have looked much better wearing the reverse).
At a dinner in Tashkent a few nights before, one of our group had offered twenty American dollars to the restaurant band to cease playing its ear-shattering music while we were there. Much to the chagrin of the restaurant’s other patrons, the band accepted. Unfortunately, this offer did not work for us in Samarkand. So we decided to quit the restaurant and go up to one of our rooms in order to resume our conversation.
When our guide realized what we were doing, he got up and actually tried to push us back into our seats. When this failed, he insisted on coming with us, uninvited, to the room.
Once there, we tried to pin down the Birlik man on how his party’s policies differed from those of the government. He indicated that Birlik would pursue many of the same policies.
Our guide then broke into the conversation, “But if your policies are similar to the government’s, then why do you have to have a separate party?”
We responded that it made a difference whether a government decided on its policies democratically or dictatorially.
“Oh,” said our guide.
Although the guide was ostentatiously taking notes, the conversation proceeded freely. The Birlik representative made a point of emphasizing the extraordinary boorishness of Samarkand officialdom.
The next day, our group was looking forward to meeting the Tajik gentlemen, since he had invited all of us to attend the second day of a wedding in his neighborhood. Our guide, however, showed up at our hotel with eight of his assistants and immediately launched into a statement about how we could not possibly attend the wedding since our schedule was already so full.
The first item on his agenda was a visit to another official imam at a mosque outside of town. This one managed to say even less than the previous one, in about the same period of time. Afterward we told our guide (by now dubbed “Sleaze Ball”) that we did not intend wasting time with boring officials. It was now late morning and we decided to proceed directly to the wedding.
Our guide smiled serenely and said, “Okay.” We soon learned why. As our bus proceeded back to Samarkand, we were stopped by a police car. An official came onto our bus and announced that the hakim (governor) of the province had agreed to meet with us and that we must proceed to his office immediately.
We then had it out with our guide. We told him to either take us to the Tajik wedding now on the bus or we would get there on our own and ring the matter up later with his superiors in Tashkent.
He decided to take us to the wedding. But when we got there, he and his eight assistants insisted on coming in with us although they had not been invited. Some of them sat down at the table reserved for us, displacing several Americans.
The wedding celebration was taking place in an open air courtyard. Men and women were separated by a barrier, although we occasionally saw some of the Tajik women as they delivered food or communicated with the Tajik men. A seemingly never-ending stream of delicious food was delivered to the hundred or so men in the courtyard.
After about an hour, our Tajik host and the American professor who had telephoned him went off to have a private talk. Sleaze Ball followed them into our Tajik host’s home, insisted that the doors to the room where they were talking e closed (the host did not comply), and without asking permission made use of the telephone to report to his superiors where he was and who was involved in the discussion.
The guide’s behavior, however, did not deter our Tajik host from handing over to the American professor some papers and other documents concerning the Tajik community’s treatment by the Uzbek government. The professor did not ever let these papers out of his grasp for the remainder of our visit to the former USSR.
After we left the wedding, our guide insisted that we attend one last meeting with a group of local officials and professors who were waiting for us, for some reason, at the town museum. We agreed to go, but without telling our guide we invited our Tajik host to come along with us.
By the time we arrived at the museum, our guide realized what we had done. He told us then that our Tajik friend could not come into the meeting with us, “because he was not invited.”
We pointed out that since he, the guide, had come to the wedding uninvited, we did not see why our Tajik friend could not come to this meeting uninvited too. We also stated that if the Tajik was not allowed to participate in the meeting, we would not attend either. Sleaze Ball relented.
After listening to several unenlightening speeches from the officials and professors at the museum, we asked whether there was any tension between the Uzbek and Tajik communities in Samarkand. Our officially sanctioned interlocutors claimed that there were no serious problems. Our Tajik friend, however, spoke up to say that the local authorities had refused to allow the community association he headed to register. The officials responded indignantly that another Tajik community association had already registered which he was free to join. Our friend responded that that association was dominated by former communists.
Soon thereafter, our guide insisted that the meeting had to come to an end since we had to take the bus back to Tashkent. After we got back on the bus, the guide came on board briefly to say good-bye. He said he was sorry that there had been differences of opinion between him and us about our program in Samarkand. “But what I was trying to do,” he explained, “was to protect you from meeting the kind of people in Samarkand and Uzbekistan who would give you a negative impression.”
Originally published as “On the Silk Road,” The National Interest, no. 30, Winter 1992/93.