Before I commence my review of “Taxi To Tashkent”, an account of two years’ spent in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley by American Peace Corps volunteer Tom Fleming, I’d like to pause and reflect on my recent travels.
It occurs to me that it has been 13 books and nearly 6 months since the last book authored by a writer native to the country in question (“The Oath”, by Chechnyan Khassan Baiev – who himself wrote the book in exile in the US). This is not through want of trying, on my part, to find a native authored book for each subsequent leg of my journey – they are simply not out there. Of course, this is no doubt partly down to the lack of English translations (a necessity due to my shameful monolinguistic status) but I feel there is something more. In each post-Soviet state I have encountered there is a sense of a nation re-merging from the cultural repression imposed upon it by the former USSR. Under Soviet rule individual national identity - be it religion, arts, literature or even language - were subjugated under the Russian autocracy: even states within Russia itself, which previously had their own cultural identity.
And it is the issue of language which is most pertinent here, and which perhaps explains the lack of native-authored literature for these places. Not only were the inhabitants of these countries stripped of their native languages in favour of the dominant Russian, but in the process they were stripped of their literary heritage – as only those works deemed in keeping with the Communist ethos were ever translated into Russian. The rest of many nation’s literature disappeared along with the native tongues… one can only hope that – along with these newly independent states’ religious and cultural freedoms of expression – a new indigenous literary culture will emerge for these areas.
In the meantime, I have been reliant upon largely Western perspectives for the huge Russian and former Soviet area (with the exception of Victor Pelevin’s brilliant “Sacred Book of the Werewolf” in Moscow back in November 2010). Of course, these perspectives should not be dismissed simply because they are written by ‘foreigners’, but inevitably such accounts will have they own limited focus – be it one of scientific research, travelogue, personal adventure or aid worker…
Which brings me neatly on to the next book on my journey: “Taxi to Tashkent” by 40-year-old American Peace Corps volunteer Tom Fleming. This is a diary format account of two years which he spent in Uzbekistan, teaching AIDS prevention and sex education in the conservative Fergana Valley region. One can hardly imagine a more illustrative example of East – West culture clashes than this, and this interesting book certainly bears this out.
I must admit it took me some time to warm to Fleming as a narrator here… from the outset he comes across as a brash – almost stereotypical – American. The fact that the first chapter is called “Shock and Awe” (referring to his initial disorientation in his new surroundings, but, rather oddly, using a term more commonly associated with overwhelming military force used by US campaigns in the Middle East), seemed to bear this out. Similarly, his early reaction to the unfamiliar locale and people of Uzbekistan appears to be bordering on paranoia:
“ “GOO MORNING!” Uzbek schoolboys shouted, staring with the intensity of vultures as we walked past them.”
To an outsider this seems a slightly churlish description of native children trying out a welcome phrase on a new intake of foreigners…
However, Fleming quickly establishes himself to be a perceptive and eloquent narrator – leading myself as a reader to question whether some of my initial reaction was in itself a stereotypical assumption of the US Peace Corps on my part.
Indeed, Fleming himself is no fan of the Peace Corps’ overly bureaucratic set-up, quickly identifying that administrative processes and internal politics seem to take precedence over actually making a difference to the people the organisation purports to be helping.
Initially, Fleming’s reaction is one of frustration, then rebellion (he and two other friends rent an apartment in Tashkent against Peace Corps rules – and under threat of expulsion – rather than stay in their billeted accommodation), and ultimately anger at the impotence of the mission to make an effective difference. Eventually Fleming strikes out on his own, making rogue presentations on AIDS awareness to communities where discussions of sexual relationships are largely taboo, although frustrations at the long-term effects of his – and his fellow volunteers’ – assignments remain throughout the book.
Indeed, one gets a sense that the real achievements made in Fleming’s assignment are painted in much smaller – though no less impactful – brush strokes. The real story here is not one of US volunteers making a difference on a developing Central Asian nation – rather it is the difference that Uzbekistan and its inhabitants made upon this particular American volunteer. From his initial feeling of paranoia Fleming appears to make some genuine friends during his time in the country. Murat is one individual who springs to mind – a gold-toothed individual who delights in lewd comments (mainly involving his ‘big whale’ and local waitresses), except when piously observing Ramadam; also Timur the Pink Floyd loving barber; and Gulnora - a young student whom Fleming initially takes under his wing to teach English, but whom ultimately he engages in a non-sexual (yet still taboo-breaking, in Uzbek culture) relationship and who dreams of breaking beyond the traditional confines of subservient matrimony. I must admit that this latter relationship left me feeling slightly uncomfortable – there is never a chance of Fleming and Gulnora forming a full relationship in this context, and Fleming’s leaving of Uzbekistan – counterpointed by a tearful phone conversation from Gulnora – seems almost callous and rather egocentric:
“I must go now, Gulnora. Please remember that you helped me out so much.. Promise me that you’ll always remember that.”
Her voice was empty. “I promise, Tom.”
I hung up the phone... a thought came to me that if I were writing a book about all this, my character would say, It was then that I realised that I was ready to leave this country. And that’s exactly how I felt.”
So much for Gulnora. One is tempted to read some sort of colonialist subtext into this exchange but perhaps we are back to my own stereotypes here.
It occurs to me that I have overlooked some of the key descriptions of Uzbekistan in this book, which Fleming provides, and as I say, he is an eloquent and engaging narrator. Certain scenes that linger are his description of his initial billet, which he quickly escapes:
“Across the courtyard the mother picked pebbles from the rice she had spread across a tabletop. She watched nonchalantly as the boy yanked down his shorts and squatted, dropping a little brown turd onto the concrete porch. The boy looked at me with a proud smile…I sat on the sagging bed staring at four dingy walls, my baggage resting by the door. This was my new home in the city of Quva. I would be living here for two years.”
This is a description that makes one wince, and many of the other descriptions in this book make one wince also – generally because of the painful culture clash between well-meaning West and uncomprehending East (most notably the ill-fated staging by one of Fleming’s feminist compatriots of “The Vagina Monologues” in an ultra-conservative district) – but also in recognition of the awful legacy left upon this, and neighbouring nations, by the former Soviet state.
There is a particularly poignant description by Fleming of a trip to the Uzbek coast of the Aral Sea. This is the Sea that Christopher Robins describes in the previous book on Kazakhstan as being decimated by a disastrous Soviet-imposed cotton-growing scheme which involved diverting the Aral’s two main tributaries. As a result, from 1960 to 1998, the sea's surface area shrank by approximately 60%, and its volume by 80%. The region's once prosperous fishing industry has been essentially destroyed, bringing unemployment and economic hardship. The Aral Sea region is also heavily polluted. Whilst there is now an ongoing effort in Kazakhstan to save and replenish the North Aral Sea, Fleming’s description of the ongoing cotton production in the southern Uzbek region – further adding to this ecological disaster zone - is heartbreaking…
To summarise then, this is a book that is largely about Tom Fleming’s personal development through the 2 years he spent in Uzbekistan, yet thanks to Fleming’s engaging writing style, we are able to gain insights into the wider nation and also into the realities and – in many instances – disappointments of Western intervention, no matter how well-meaning, in developing countries. Indeed, a month after Fleming left Uzbekistan, the Peace Corps withdrew from the entire country.
From one Central Asian country that is still reeling from the after-effects of independence from the USSR, I travel to a neighbouring country undergoing similar growing pains: Kyrgyzstan. For this leg of my journey I am reading “Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan”, an account by British writer Saffia Farr of her time spent there as the ex-pat wife of a water-engineer husband working on an aid project to bring safe drinking water to the countries outlying regions. As with the previous book, this is a uniquely personal account by a non-native: yet one which is both insightful and engaging, and which explores the process of a Western outsider coming to terms with what is initially an alien environment.
I decide to take the quick and reasonably priced option (€145 one-way) of flying to my next destination, and so I make a trip to Tashkent International Airport, seven miles from the city centre, on Friday. I arrive by midday as I am told passengers need to arrive 3 hours before departure (the flight leaves at 16:35). The airport has all the amenities one would hope for in any airport, and the modestly sized AR8 airplane takes off - and lands – on time. So I arrive after a journey time of 1 hour 20 minutes – in Kyrgyzstan’s decidedly Soviet-looking Manas International Airport at 18:55 (allowing for the hour’s time difference) just north of the capital city of Bishkek, which will be my home for this leg of my trip.