Three weeks later: some reflections.

As I worked on the blog you are currently reading, I found inspiration in the music of Shostakovich. I know Shostakovich was a Russian and not an Uzbek and that he probably never visited Uzbekistan when it was part of the Soviet Union, but, because Uzbekistan has preserved some aspects of the Soviet Union more convincingly than other parts of the one-time communist empire, engaging with his music did not seem ridiculous. I got to grips with the Fifth Symphony (1937), the Piano Trio in E Minor (1944) and the Third String Quartet in F Major (1946). I was very impressed.

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Domestic terminal, Tashkent Airport

Hello, Sohan. We are back and I am working my way through many emails, etc.

Sikhs still use Uzbekistan Airways to get to Amritsar or Delhi, although the airline will not win awards for its in-flight food for some years to come! 

At the remarkable Naqshbandi shrine a few kms from Bukhara, information about the Sufi order was available only at extortionate expense in shops (signs for visitors to study were limited to the naming of structures around the complex), but we gleaned enough to know that ordinary/lay members of the order (especially the very forthcoming women) are, as a general rule, sound and quite liberal in outlook, but anyone with authority (men, inevitably) want to align the order firmly with mainstream, orthodox Sunni Islam with all this implies in terms of sharia and doing only that which is allowed/identified in the Qur’an and the Hadith. One aspect of what is often called “folk” religion that the stern men of law and order want to suppress (because there is no reference to the practice in the Qur’an or the Hadith) is a tradition at the shrine associated with a large fallen tree beside an artificial water tank which women must navigate around and/or under without any part of their body touching the water (women who navigate around and/or under the tree without getting wet will, according to some Naqshbandis, enhance their chances of producing children). 

“Folk” religion empowers, and meets the emotional needs of, the people denied substantive influence in religious groups dominated by hierarchies (such hierarchies are invariably male, of course). As a general rule, the hierarchies try to eradicate “folk” religion, thereby “purifying” the faith and enhancing their authority at one and the same time. Aspects of “folk” religion are often the manifestations of faith shared with people who belong to other expressions of religion, so in this respect “folk” religion provides people in different faiths with something they have in common – yet people with religious authority often wish to suppress such expressions of faith, thereby removing things that unite rather than divide people. Sad, but we encounter such abuse of power across the world where religious identity is taken seriously/too seriously, and/or where authority within the faith resides with the few rather than the many.

I came away with the impression that almost everything that links the Naqshbandis with benign Sufi groups will soon be nothing but history; here is a Sufi order determined to confirm that its commitment to Sunni orthodoxy is beyond question. The route taken by the Naqshbandis can in some ways be likened to the path taken by the Hassidic Jews, who moved from a position of radical mystical innovation (early 18th century) to one today almost indistinguishable from that of the deeply conservative Haredi Jews, who in days past were the Hassidic Jews’ most vocal enemies.

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Shrine of Bahaudin Naqshband
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Shrine of Bahaudin Naqshband

Mainstream Sunni Islam is currently under quite strict control/surveillance in Uzbekistan by an oppressively authoritarian regime manifesting many characteristics of the USSR, but, since the country shares a border with Afghanistan, terrorist acts are not unknown (although most terrorist acts seem to be perpetrated by home-grown extremists). Jewish communities have in the past been targeted (Uzbekistan’s Jewish communities are now so small that they will probably disappear within one or two generations), and, for obvious reasons, I connected with the Jewish communities in Bukhara and Samarkand (the one in Bukhara, with only two active synagogues, is the more famous). If Shia and non-Naqshbandi Sufis exist, they keep a low profile. Twice we encountered beautiful Zoroastrian temples (one is barely recognisable due to its conversion to a mosque), but Zoroastrians no longer exist in the country. Evidence for the region’s Hindu, Buddhist and earliest Christian communities exist only in museums – but, as you would expect, Orthodox Christianity is quite important because of the presence of Russians (the Russian presence is most apparent in Tashkent, the capital). Russians have lived in Uzbekistan since the tsarist era, but their number increased significantly during the Soviet era.

It was a remarkable trip, but not one for vegetarians or vegans, unless they can subsist on a diet of bread, salad and fruit! Highlights? Khiva, some of the Muslim monuments from the relatively distant past, the markets in Tashkent and Bukhara, a drive through green mountains, cemeteries both Jewish and Muslim, and the astounding friendliness of the women. Not being able to take photos on the Tashkent metro was a downside: how silly. The hotels were very good (the Korean-owned one in Tashkent was excellent) and we had two very good journeys in trains, one being high-speed (the high-speed train was Spanish-built). 

I would consider going again, to visit the depleted Aral Sea, the Fergana Valley and Termiz close to the Afghan border, but, with so many other interesting destinations to consider, probably lack the time to do so.

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First synagogue, Bukhara

Morning, Sohan. People from Israel do occasionally turn up in remote spots such as Bukhara and Samarkand (also in far less remote Tunisia and Morocco) to offer some practical and financial support to shrinking/embattled Jewish communities (I found out about some such support via “Al Jazeera” just the other day), but nowadays such support is often to confirm that religious practices within the communities are undertaken with due regard for what the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel would regard as acceptable/correct. Yes, endangered Jewish communities (those in Ethiopia and Yemen, perhaps most famously) have been airlifted to safety (but not necessarily to prosperity) in Israel in the past, but there is a limit to how many people a nation state such as Israel can absorb (within its present borders, that is). It might be argued that the illegal construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territory is one (very inflammatory) way of coping with such population growth – but such expansion is primarily fuelled by insanely Orthodox Jewish groups with very alarming views about their non-Jewish neighbours.

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Jewish cemetery, Samarkand

This said, Israel is unique in offering a safe haven to any person who can prove they are Jewish, should that person be suffering persecution or risk losing their life in the nation state in which they live. Put another way, any Jewish person living anywhere around the globe has the right to sanctuary in Israel. This right is, of course, a direct result of the attempted extermination of all the Jewish people in world war two. 

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