By Dora Ohrenstein
The road from Samarkand to Bukhara is lined continuously with thriving farmland where cotton, fruit, vegetables, and tobacco are grown. Cars share the highway with donkey carts, often driven by children and piled high with melons or other goods under blankets. Occasional villages border the road, but only the outer walls can be seen. Cows and donkeys roam though the planted fields, often lying in the shade of a tree, or munching at foliage. I see no herds of cows or sheep. The animals look a bit scrawny by American standards, but then again, our animals are overfed on stuff that isn’t grown in the ground.
On the road to Bukhara, we stopped at an outdoor cafe for lunch, then later at a famed pottery factory. We come to Bukhara in the late afternoon and check into the small Hotel Fatima, situated on the main square Lyubi Haus. The center of this square is a large pond, flanked by gigantic old trees and numerous cafes blasting cheery Russian music. Just next to the square is a fully functioning Internet cafe that Izzat and I both relish. Here I am in Bukhara reading ravelry!
Breakfast at Fatima is the usual spread of bread, yogurt, compote, eggs, butter and cheese. The dairy products are heavenly, far fresher than any I’ve ever had. There are tourists from Japan, Russia, and France, but no other Americans. I’m taken by my guide, M, a young man, to see the sites of Bukhara, which are impressive indeed. A stunning mosque with decorated wooden columns, the Ark, an enormous fortress inside of which are a few shops. In one I buy a lovely souzani for $40. As we walk to several other sites, M tells me he studied languages and works at the library, translating documents and dissertations. His favorite author is Sir Conan Doyle. His English is good, but hard to understand. We pass tea houses, spice shops, tin smiths. There are three major “doms”, domed, open air structures that date back to the Silk Road days — where artisans are clustered together with alluring displays of wares. One man is playing a stringed instrument very beautifully. We talk a bit and I explain that I sing, a remark overheard by a German tourist, who asks if I can sing in German. I sing a few lines of a German aria and am immediately surrounded by about forty people. Nothing to do but give a mini-concert! I sing 12 bars of another aria in Italian, and then ask the musician if he can lay down a beat on his drum, while I sing Hava Nagila. Huge success and applause, the German lady is hugging me delightedly.
The tour continues to an enormous mosque, capable of holding a thousand people in its courtyard. As it happens, prayer time is about to begin and a young man, the muezzin, begins chanting, projecting his voice into the domed space. Only a few come to pray in one corner of the mosque, and the vast courtyard remains empty except for a few tourists.
After the tour I sit with M in a cafe and give him an hour long lesson on English pronunciation. He proves very receptive and makes good progress. Back in my hotel, thinking I’ve seen Bukhara and have nothing more to do there, I become stupidly morose. Maybe it’s the heat – it’s damn hot, though thankfully my room has excellent a/c. After a while I decide to go out and roam, and after two minutes a young women sees me and exclaims “opera singer!” She works in a shop in the dom where I sang. In excellent English, Malika invites me to have ice cream with her family at the cafe. With her sister, mother and father, we sit for about an hour and she tells me about Bukharan life, how much more modern it is here than in Samarkand. The long dresses over slim slacks worn by all the women in Samarkand are replaced here by a wide array of styles, from conservative to modern garb. Unlike the rest of the region, women are not expected to move in with the husband’s family, and the first question they ask of a potential spouse is whether they will have their own apartment. She also tells me that her family are Bahai, who believe that the basis of spirituality is world peace. She’s very passionate about it and soon, between Malika’s inspirational words and the ice cream, I’m out of my funk and very happy to have another day in the ancient city of Bukhara.
Later that evening Izzat runs into a friend, a tour guide who’s in Bukhara with some Japanese tourists, and we three have a beer on the roof of a hotel, with breezes flowing, fine conversation, and a Yanni DVD playing that Izzat is wild about.
Next morning at 10 I go to Malika’s uncle’s shop as previously arranged, a large one with extensive souzani (embroidered wall hangings) in a great variety of styles, quilts, felt, ikat fabric, mens and ladies robes, and more. A woman enters and I hear her say something about collecting quilts in clear American. I tell Malika I must meet this woman and introduce myself. This is how I met Christine, a New Yorker, artist, and textile specialist who is looking for quality quilts for a museum in Nebraska. She invites me to have tea and we talk at length, discovering we have many common interests and acquaintances. Christine has been in Central Asia the year before, collecting felt in Kyrgyztan for the fantastic felt exhibit at Cooper Hewitt in 2009. I’m thrilled to find a knowledgeable person in Bukhara, where the shopping selection is overwhelming, of tremendous variety and quality. After our tea, I go back to Malika’s shop and at the dom meet a boy named Ibrahim who shows me a video on his phone of me singing the day before. He tells me his father is a musician and I ask if I can hear him play. Mostly the musicians here earn money by playing at weddings, but his father’s gig that night is in a town some distance away. He says he’ll try to arrange something for me in town for the following evening.
The next day Chris and I go to another large shop, where the proprietress immediately recognizes her from the year before. We spend a long time looking over beautiful textiles, then haggling and I end up with a gorgeous knitted shawl for $12, and Chris with a quilt for $40. I ask Chris if she’d like to join me for the wedding in the evening. We both scramble to make ourselves presentable, meet up with Ibrahim and Izzat, and drive to a large wedding facility, just like the kind we have in the States. Tables are set up for about 1000 guests!
We are seated at a table with a bunch of smiling women, one of whom is a girl of about 20 who speaks excellent English. She and Ibrahim help us feel at ease, as we are the objects of much staring and curiosity, though in a friendly spirit. The table is laden with food from appetizers to desserts, but all of it is cold and I’m afraid to eat it. Chris and I nibble on bread. It’s a Moslem wedding so there’s no alcohol. There is a beautiful bride dressed in white, glamorous dancing girls, and a band with good musicians who play along with electronics. The dancing girls give a fine display, with a few little girls dancing along, and they continue to dance all evening, while wedding guests hand them money. The music is a mix of Uzbek, Russian and Arab, and as the evening unfolds, more and more people are dancing, in the usual same sex groups. The young women dance quite provocatively, especially when the sinuous Arab music gets going. I’m asked to speak, then sing, then dance, all of which I do. Since the band didn’t know any American songs, I improvised a version of Summertime to the chords they were playing. Chris and I had a blast and were honored to be included in the festivities. We were the only people with cameras, other than one professional video fellow, and we clicked away all night.