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A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road Hardcover – 24 Dec 2009
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The British author collected his middle name in Turkey where he was born, his fearlessness from a childhood spent in war-torn Beirut, and his idealism - one has to deduce this, because he's personally reticent - from a can-do brand of Christianity. Volunteering to work in Central Asia for a Swedish NGO, he begins to compile a guide book to the medieval Uzbek oasis of Khiva. Meanwhile, he finds himself embarking on a much more quixotic project: to set up a carpet workshop, in which the ancient arts of Khivan dyeing and weaving will be brought back to life.
Hand-made carpets did not sit well with Soviet ideology, as the labour-intensive process was predicated on poor producers and rich buyers, so factory ones became the norm. Turning a derelict madrassah into his workshop, and enlisting some of the remaining traditional dyers, Alexander starts to put the clock back.
At which point his book changes character, its splashy prose suddenly acquiring such force and focus that one hangs on every word. He tells us everything he sees and thinks, he details every problem and its solution, and offers vignettes of every character in his newly-constituted kingdom. Because he's clear-headed and single-minded, the picture which emerges hangs beautifully together, giving a pungent sense of what life is like for ordinary Uzbeks today.
If you're poor, disabled, or merely a woman, it's pretty terrible, as Alexander finds when recruiting apprentices from the most deprived corners of Khivan society. Soviet attitudes to disabled children still persist, with the state all too ready to bang them up in institutions: some Uzbek children grow up learning Braille when a pair of glasses could solve their problem overnight.
The Soviets may have done much to release Muslim women from feudal bondage, but things have now slipped back. When female weavers turn up at the workshop black with bruises, their colleagues don't need to ask why: wife-beating is common and anything can trigger it, particularly in a place where unemployment is the norm, with men forced to migrate north to Russia for work. We all know about the dissident whom the Uzbek government boiled alive five years ago: Alexander shows how that was the tip of a more widespread evil, with the secret service penetrating every corner of civic life.
Financial corruption pervades his story like a poison. Alexander's laudable fair-trade policy is constantly undercut because every civil transaction is oiled with bribes, on which teachers, doctors, police, and local politicians all depend for their livelihood. Alexander's eventual reward for refusing to play this game, as his workshop becomes a celebrated success, is deportation from the country as undesirable alien.
But the fascination of his book lies in the flip-side to all this grimness, as Alexander falls deeply in love with his work-team, his adoptive Uzbek family, and with the ancient designs he rediscovers in miniatures and on ornate medieval doors. He notes the multifarious folk customs and superstitions which permeate daily life, and goes native in all the seasonal rituals.
His book also serves as a primer on the mysteries of sericulture, and on the endless ramifications of the natural-dyer's craft. His pursuit of powdered madder root takes him deep into Afghanistan, whence he emerges after close shaves. This remarkable young man has now set up a yak-wool workshop in the Pamirs: his next book should be just as good. --The Independent, January 22nd, 2010
Sitting down to read A Carpet Ride to Khiva over the festive season was like entering an oasis of peace and quiet.
Khiva is a small walled town in the Uzbek desert close to the Turkmenistan border. It lies on what was once the ancient Silk Road. Christopher Aslan Alexander spent seven years there, arriving as a 24-year-old post-university volunteer and being drawn into the great Uzbek tradition of carpet-making.
During that time, he taught himself the skills of knotting carpet threads, finding designs for looms, going far out into the desert to find the plants needed for the dyes, and having the carpets made. His final triumph during his stay in Khiva was enlisting workers to dye and handweave carpets using patterns copied from 15th-century miniatures illustrating the words of the Persian poet Nizami.
Uzbekistan is the homeland of Amir Timur, known in the West as Timur the Lame. Celebrated as a fearless hero on the battlefield, Timur also had an eye for beauty. He captured artists from the cities he conquered and force-marched them to Samarkand to decorate his great palace. I have to confess to a personal grudge against Timur, as he stole from Damascus - my favourite city in the Middle East - the greatest ceramicists of the day, leaving that city bereft.
But that was then and this is now, and if anyone makes Uzbekistan come to life it is Alexander.
During a drought, when there is no water for his cold shower - an activity which horrifies the Uzbeks - Alexander takes a plastic container to the town well, where he causes consternation among the local maidens: manly men don't draw water.
At the men's baths, he is again stared at: Uzbek men shave their pubic and armpit hair.
Like the carpet patterns so intricately interwoven and linked, Alexander's account of his seven years in Khiva gives us a feel for daily life looped and crisscrossed with weddings, corrupt officials, journeys in rickety buses, gossip at the looms, domestic violence and village hospitality, and all of it centering on the carpet project.
Knowing that child labour exists in Khiva, Alexander makes a rule that no one under 17 can be employed by him. Next, he goes looking for people who would normally find it difficult to get work, drawing in people with disabilities, some of whom are women with no chance of marriage. Payment is realistic and, he discovers, more than a teacher would get. But he later learns that teachers top up their meagre salaries by an ingenious system whereby students pay cash up front for good results.
Alexander has a type of double vision which allows him to see not only the beauty of tiny desert plants in bloom, the sensuous movements of an overweight woman as she dances or the excitement when a treasured carpet is finally finished, but also the cruelty to women subjected to a forced marriage, the horror of male circumcision - he gives a firsthand description of such a ritual - and the appalling list of human-rights abuses.
Alexander finally ran foul of the system when he was refused a return visa to Uzbekistan. He suspects the hand of the local mayor, who expected but did not receive the gift of a carpet.
Trying everything to get back in to Uzbekistan to at least say farewell to his many friends in Khiva, he spends no less than seven days in the airport transit lounge before finally getting on a flight home.
Or is home the right word? For the past two years he has been living in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, working on a knitting project making sweaters from yak down. Seems there's no stopping him.
Mary Russell is a writer with a special interest in travel --The Irish Times, January 2nd, 2010
Having spent time in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, learning the language, Alexander made his way to Khiva, a walled city on the Silk Road. His aim was to write a guidebook.
In Tashkent, still recovering from Soviet rule, he had found a "society looking for identity, marooned somewhere between Mohammed and Marx". But in Khiva, a Unesco World Heritage site with beautiful Islamic architecture and a rich culture, he found a home - and stayed seven years instead of the intended two.
Alexander was drawn to the ancient craft of carpet-making, and learned traditional weaving and dying techniques. The fact the author lived and worked among Khiva's inhabitants for so long distinguishes A Carpet Ride to Khiva from many travel books, as we glimpse life in a Central Asian "desert oasis" of silk, carpets, and extraordinarily colourful natural dyes. --Financial Times, January 26th, 2010
No stranger to adventure, Alexander was born in Turkey but grew up in Beirut and spent two years at sea before he moved to Khiva, a desert oasis in Uzbekistan. Fuelled by a childhood fascination with the Soviet Union, he spent time in Tashkent on a language course before moving to Khiva, where he immersed himself in the local culture by setting up workshops to produce kilims. Alexander is an excellent guide through the chaos of local life, and his writing is thick with his adventures in this walled city, drawing a vivid portrait of the domestic lives of his Uzbek hosts with great affection and humour, while also casting his eye over the history of trade on the Silk Road. Equally compelling is his portrayal of Uzbek women, with whom he worked closely when weaving, illustrating how they are learning to balance traditional life with the reality of their post-Perestroika present.
"A carpet-seller had given me a ginger kitten as a gift, which was now fully grown. He flopped dramatically anywhere shaded, rousing himself only at mealtimes to beg for food. The family taught me that cats in Khiva were fed on mouthfuls of masticated bread... What mine wanted was meat and I fed him surreptitiously with chunks of mutton brought by Koranberg's mother who had come to live with us for the summer... When the cat wasn't available, she did as all Khorezm grannies still do, and lifted the corner of a carpet to deposit the dregs of tea beneath it." --The Sunday Telegraph, December 30th, 2009
About the Author
Christopher Aslan Alexander was born in Turkey and grew up in war-torn Beirut. After university he moved to Central Asia. While writing a guidebook about Khiva, he fell in love with this desert oasis boasting the most homogenous example of Islamic architecture in the world, and stayed.
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Woven into the narrative are enlightening accounts such as how the locals rear silkworms, how to obtain silk dyes from natural sources, how to engage locals in the success of the project, how felt is made along with other eye-opening information. Since the ingredients needed to make natural dyes are best sourced from Afghanistan, the author reveals a glimpse of life in Afghanistan and the challenges of getting sacks of mysterious powder across the border back into Uzbekistan without resorting to bribery.
Each chapter has at least one, and often several, fascinating digressions into Uzbek life: how married women are treated by their families; customs surrounding the circumcision of baby boys; how Uzbeks (from school kids to surgeons) are forced to spend two months picking cotton each year; why Uzbek women loves Mexican soap operas; how blind and deaf children are educated; what goes on in bath houses; how to cook a cauldron-full of sumalek for a New Year feast; coping with endemic corruption; the role of German Mennonites and Nestorian monks in the history of Uzbekistan; how the Soviet-inspired health system "cures" patients who need glasses.
The book is not a what-to-visit guidebook to Uzbekistan but would make great background reading for anyone planning a visit to the country.
The amount of time I put into reading this book was insignificant compared to the interest, entertainment and learning I got out of it.
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 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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