Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Black Garden of Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War

The landlocked mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of an unresolved dispute between Azerbaijan, in which it lies, and its ethnic Armenian majority, backed by neighbouring Armenia.

In 1988, towards the end of Soviet rule, Azerbaijani troops and Armenian secessionists began a bloody war which left the de facto independent state in the hands of ethnic Armenians when a truce was signed in 1994. Negotiations have so far failed to produce a permanent peace agreement, and the dispute remains one of post-Soviet Europe's "frozen conflicts."

Having just left Azerbaijan, I found “Black Garden” by Thomas de Waal a fascinating account. In this book he chronicles – through research and personal observation - the build-up and the aftermath of the events that led to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of the early 1990s and which continue to resonate today. As such this forms a valuable work to update the previous account of Azerbaijan by Goltz, and form a bridge between the Azerbaijan perspective and the Armenian perspective which will follow later.

For a full review of this complex account of the conflict I shall defer to an analysis by Fariz Ismailzade, editor of "Azeri Voice" Online Journal:

Writing about such a complicated conflict as Nagorno-Karabakh is always hard. The history of the conflict and the attachment to the land by both Armenians and Azeris are so intertwined that it makes the identification and revelation of the truth nearly impossible. Thomas de Waal came the closest to this mission.

His "Black Garden" does an excellent job describing the sorrow and tragedy of both nations and keeping the neutral perspective to the roots, development and current status of one of the bloodiest conflicts in the post-Soviet space.

In an easy-to-read fashion, de Waal travels through the history of the region, revealing past atrocities and the times of happiness and friendship between the two nations. He does so in such a manner, that constantly keeps the reader motivated to move to the next chapter. De Waal smoothly switches back and forth between history and present, personal lives and national politics, human tragedy and political achievements and all of these make the reading absolutely fascinating.

De Waal also reveals one of the most important features of the Karabakh conflict and that is the spiral model of the conflict. He manages to show to the reader how the conflict, which could have been easily prevented, started at low levels and quickly transformed into one of the hotspots in the world. De Waal also manages to describe the inability of the Soviet regime and its leader Mikhail Gorbachev to cope with the growing instability in the region and to prevent bloodshed.

The book also refutes all rumours and assumptions that the roots of the conflict go back to ancient times. De Waal excellently shows that the hatred between the Azeris and Armenians really started in the 19th century.

De Waal tries to show both perspectives to the conflict: the attachment to the land by both warring nations, the importance of cultural centers, such as Shusha, Armenian tragedies in Sumgait and massacres of Azeris in Khojali, the suffering of refugees in Azerbaijan and Armenia, Armenian and Turkish visions of the so called "Genocide of 1915". This all deserves him much credit.

Even describing such a sensitive event as Sumgait pogroms of Armenians, de Waal does not forget to mention how ordinary Azeris were helping to save Armenian lives: "...'We lived in a fourteen-story building with lots of Armenians in it. There were Armenians on the fourteenth floor and we hid them, none of them spent the night at home. In the hospital, people formed vigilance groups, every patient was guarded', says Natevan Tagiyeva [the Azeri citizen of Sumgait]."

The book does, however, open eyes on some of the interesting moments, still unknown or unacceptable for the majority of Armenians and Azeris. The author writes:

"...Uliev [Azeri from Agdam] was the first victim of intercommunal violence in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.." (p.15).

"...Yerevan, the capital of a khanate, was basically a Muslim city that contained no large churches but had six mosques." (pp.74-75)

"..Yet by the 20th century the Azerbaijani people, who had lived in eastern Armenia for centuries, had become its silent guests, marginalized and discriminated against. The Armenians asserted their rights to their homeland at the expense of these people. In 1918-1920, tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis were expelled from Zangezur. In the 1940s, tens of thousands more were deported to Azerbaijan to make way for incoming Armenian immigrants from Diaspora. The last cleansing in 1988-1989, got rid of the rest..." (p.80)

Most of the Armenians will probably disagree with the above mentioned statements. Similarly, the Azeris will argue with the following:

"Most of the attackers [in Sumgait] were not well armed but relied on sheer force of numbers... Many of the rioters, however, were carrying improvised weapons-sharpened pieces of metal casing and pipes from the factories-which would have taken time to prepare. This is one of many details that suggest that the violence was planned in at least a rudimentary fashion..."

Karabakh conflict is truly a sorrow and sadness of the Caucasus, but more so, it is a tragedy of two nations, who have been friends for the most of the time. De Waal passes the words of Azeri guy Zaur, who says: "During the war I was always afraid that I would suddenly see Vazgen or Sunik [his Armenian friends in Shusha] through the sights of my gun... I had nightmares about that..."

De Waal concludes with a phrase that must be the guiding principle for the solution of the conflict, which is often ignored by the warring sides: "Any just solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute will entail painful compromises on both sides, and it will have to balance radically opposing principles..."

I shall visit the other protagonist in this complex dispute, Armenia, soon. In the meantime I travel next to Georgia – another former Soviet state with its own complex disputes…

In doing so I effectively retrace the steps taken in my convoluted journey from Azerbaijan to Nagorno-Karabakh. I take a ‘marshrutka’ taxi from Stepanakert back to Yerevan in Armenia, via the ‘Lachin corridor’ that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

Still retracing my steps, I take a flight from Yerevan to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Again, I fly with Armavia Airlines for the 45-minute flight that leaves Yerevan Zvartnots airport at 17.35 and touches down (allowing for the time difference) at Tbilisi Novo Alexeyevka airport at 17.20: for £76.30 one-way.

Tbilisi, courtesy of “Stories I Stole” - an account by former Time journalist Wendell Steavenson of her stay there at the end of the twentieth century - will be my home during my stopover in Georgia…

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic

Since the last years of the Soviet Union, the region around the Caucasus mountains has become an area of violent ethnic conflicts. The Armenian-Azerbaijan War for Nagorno-Karabakh, the hostilities in Georgia (South-Ossetia, Abkhazia), the clashes between Ossetians and Ingush within the Russian Federation, and last but not least the two large-scale Russian-Chechen Wars have drawn the attention of the international public to this up to then unknown region at the edge of Europe. But it was precisely this dangerous atmosphere that attracted journalists from all over the world to report directly from this new hot spot.

Thomas Goltz, an American journalist who worked in Turkey during the 1980s, was one of these journalists. In 1991, he was actually on his way to Tashkent, Soviet Uzbekistan, where he was to take up a position as an adjunct professor of history for the next two years, when he made a detour and landed in Baku, capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Personal contacts gave Goltz a unique inside view into Azerbaijani society in the last months of Soviet rule. He was so fascinated by the atmosphere that he decided to stay for sometime before leaving for Tashkent. After the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991 he returned from a sleepy Tashkent to a boiling Baku to cover the developments in the Caucasus for the next two and a half years.

Based on his experience, Goltz wrote a draft manuscript that was published in Istanbul in 1994 with the title “Requiem for a Would-be Republic” and covers the period from the Azerbaijani declaration of independence in 1991 to the Azerbaijani decision to join the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1993. In addition to the slightly revised text of Requiem, the present book, “Azerbaijan Diary”, includes an epilogue about the time from 1994 to November 1997, which he wrote after a short visit to Baku in the autumn of 1997.

Reading the book it becomes obvious that Goltz saw and experienced quite a lot during his stay in the Caucasus. The reader is overwhelmed by "new facts", unique first-hand observations, portraits of individuals from all spheres of Azerbaijani society, travel accounts, reports from the battlefront in Nagorno-Karabakh (e.g. the Xodjali catastrophe of February 26-27, 1992) and the negotiating table. Goltz also reproduces several interviews, for example with Abulfez Elchibey, the first democratically elected president of Azerbaijan, and Heydar Aliyev, the "Grand Old Man" of Azerbaijani politics, who returned to power in Baku in 1992-93 and rules as Azerbaijani president since that time.

The density and richness of his impressions are both an advantage and disadvantage for the book; sometimes the gripping story outweighs analytical clarity and structure. Goltz's aim is not to prove a thesis or a certain argument, but to disseminate as much information as possible about Azerbaijan and thereby to correct misperceptions and misinformation in the Western press. He states: "I have the arrogance to suggest to the reporters, editorial writers, and, ultimately, scholars of the period and place that they take the time to wade through this opus before furthering the promotion of "facts' based on repetitive errors". Thus, the book with its twenty-five chapters, a prologue and an epilogue is a "quarry" for all who are interested in the recent history of Azerbaijan.

Three maps of the Caucasus and the Azerbaijan Republic and several photographs help the reader to keep track with the fast-paced account and its changing personal and locations. Some (scholarly) readers will not like the first-person style of writing which reminds us of the annotated diary that was the source for the book, but other readers will enjoy "accompanying" Goltz through his fictitious-like "adventures in an oil-rich, war-torn, post-Soviet republic". Personally, I found this account insightful, fascinating and heart-breaking in equal measures.

After a lengthy stay courtesy of a lengthy book, it is time to take my leave of Azerbaijan. Well, sort of. Actually my next destination, Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent but unrecognised state populated mainly by ethnic Armenians. However, the region’s international status remains so far unsettled, although many international organisations, governments and NGOs tend to recognise it as officially part of Azerbaijan, which has had no actual control over the region since 1991.

The next book “Black Garden” by Thomas de Waal, chronicles – through research and personal observation - the build-up and the aftermath of the events that led to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of the early 1990s and which continue to resonate today. As such this forms a valuable work to update the previous account by Goltz, and form a bridge between the Azerbaijan perspective and the Armenian perspective which will follow later.

In plotting out my round the world trip I probably made life difficult for myself here in terms of travel. Despite being ‘officially’ part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is only officially reached via Armenia – which comes later in my travels. Current US government advice states:

It is not possible to enter the self-proclaimed “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh,” which is not recognized by the United States, from Azerbaijan. Travelers are cautioned to avoid travel to Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied areas.

Therefore I travel to Armenia via Georgia in order to arrange a visa for Nagorno-Karabakh at their embassy in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan – the only place one can obtain a visa for this area.

Throwing caution to the wind (and with one eye on my bank balance) I take a cheaper Azerbaijan Airlines flight from Baku to Tbilisi Airport in Georgia. This leaves at 23.30 and arrives at 23.50 for £129 (the flight is actually 1 hour 20 min – the hour is gained by time difference). I then lose my gained hour on a flight from Tbilisi to Yerevan in Armenia via Armavia Airlines. This leaves Tbilisi at 7.00 and arrives at 8.45 after a 45 minute flight for £66.

Upon arriving at the Nagorno Karabagh embassy in Yerevan, the visa procedures are pretty smooth: fill in the application form, bring a couple of pictures, pay the corresponding fee, and you can get the visa stamped on your passport the very same day. Everything’s perfectly normal, except for one thing: once stamped on your passport, Azerbaijan becomes forever off-limits (it is possible to get the visa put on a separate piece of paper if you ask)!!

Public taxis (‘marshrutka’) bound for Stepanakert, NK´s capital city, run daily from Yerevan´s Kilikia Central Bus Station. Once the Yerevan´s tufa-pink outskirts have faded out, the highway then runs southeast parallel to the Arax river towards semi-arid central Armenia. Across the other side of the Arax valley, Turkish territory, the twin peaks of a snowy Mount Ararat reach for the sky. The view of Ararat dissapears once the road reaches the Zangezur region, a longish corridor flanked on both sides by Azeri territory; the Nakhichevan exclave to our right and Azeri mainland on our left side. Iranian petrol tankers aplenty cross this road southwards on their way home. Their moustached drivers sound the horns of their rusty trucks, at the request of the kids who gather alongside the road without much else to do.

The marshrutka makes a necessary logistic stop atop the southern village of Goris before heading for the Lachin corridor. This “umbilical cord” connects Armenia´s mainland with the enclave proper and is, by far, the best road in the whole Caucasus. Unsurprisingly, it has been funded by the Hayastan Fund, the Armenia Diaspora spread all over the world.

A billboard welcomes us to “Free Artsakh”, which is the name Armenians give the enclave. A little further, an immigration officer makes sure documents and passports are in order at the Berdzor checkpoint.

The descent into Stepanakert is an easy run down through stunning scenery. The marshrutka lurches into the bus station where a handful of taxi drivers look in anticipation at the new arrivals. But the Karabakh capital is a small city, a place for walking, so there´s no need to pay any overpriced ride in a Lada.

Non-Armenians are required to register upon arrival at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they are warned against visiting villages in the front line such as Aghdam. Thus I finally find myself in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic – a place which does not officially exist…

Unknown Sands in an Unknown Land: Journeys Around the World’s Most Isolated Country

Turkmenistan was once the world's most feared territory. Since the time of the Mongols, the nomadic tribes of its vast desert wastes were deemed ungovernable. Russians and Persians were captured as slaves and carried off by the fierce Turkmen.

Even now, as an independent country located between the hot spots of Afghanistan and Iran, with one of the planet's largest natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan remains virtually unknown to the outside world. The memoir "Unknown Sands" penetrates this remote and harsh land. This is a personal story that blends two years of adventure with Turkmenistan’s tumultuous history to present an intriguing profile of the country and its people. This former Soviet territory offers a target-rich environment for the unusual including a surreal cult of Presidential personality, ancient ruins of the Silk Road, and a unique, mystical brand of Islam.

Firmly entrenched in the Washington bureaucracy, lawyer Kropf had probably lifted a glass to a few foreign dignitaries in his lifetime, but he'd never pictured himself in the middle of Turkmenistan drinking a vodka toast to Benazir Bhutto out of a large platinum bowl at a family dinner. When Kropf's wife accepted a post as political and economic officer for the American Embassy in Turkmenistan, his Bhutto-toasting fate was sealed.

A lawyer with the U.S. State Department, Kropf, his wife and their two-year-old daughter headed to the black hole of Central Asia (featuring the kind of terrain "medieval Europeans had in mind when they filled in the unknown areas of their maps with dragons"), which borders Afghanistan and Iran and has a long history of being a forbidden land of warriors, conquerors, spies and secrets. Kropf travels to the far corners of a country dismissed as uninhabitable by explorers and still governed by an oppressive regime, revealing through his efficient prose intriguing residents still reeling from Soviet occupation and tip-toeing into the 21st century.

Kropf stays in Turkmenistan after his wife and daughter return to the states in the wake of 9/11, serving humanitarian missions while neighbouring Afghanistan is gripped by chaos. Between the drama are tales of visiting the bazaar, Kropf's comical attempts at haggling (for carpets and traditional Turkmen headwear, among other items) and his discovery of the most delicious melon in the world.

"An unprejudiced look at central Asian culture through the eyes of a curious traveler," is probably the best way in which to describe “Unknown Sands”.

This book provides the only real view of a world that even in the 21st century hides behind an iron curtain. John brings to life real and tangible descriptions of a world really only known to most Westerners through hearsay and as a side note to the War on Terror.

John takes you with him on his journeys by foot, bus, airplane, and, usually, four-wheel vehicle throughout the country. The full colour panoply of sights, sounds, and, unhappily for John, smells translate literally to the reader enveloping you into the world surround him at the time, from the woman jabbing his ankles with a luggage cart in the Frankfurt airport on his trip out to the pride of his driver in learning to pronounce the name of their American vehicle.

The country John transports you to has the intensity of its underlying cultures that have existed from well before the time of Ghengis Khan with a strong overtone of Soviet political power, which has influenced the last 70 some years. Soviet era cement block apartment buildings share the same atmosphere as centuries old mosques that themselves share the place with new monuments to the country's leader with this last to an almost comical degree.

Also, although John's mission while in Turkmenistan was to supervise USAID programs, his journeys cannot be said to be mere reports. You get the picture that much of what Westerners must do is not only provide the money and the know-how, but reawaken the prior pride in the country's history through a respectful curiosity. We should not treat any country's past as something quaint from a history book, but rather a vibrant component to understand who these people truly are.

In this respect John opens our eyes to a strange, but admirable country that lies on the edge of our imagination. (Thanks to K. Mortensen)

Again, mindful of warning about local airlines I opt to leave Turkmenistan via an expensive German Lufthansa flight to neighbouring Azerbaijan (my next destination) – vowing to take a cheaper bus or train on the next leg to save money!!

The flight itself is pleasant enough and much quicker than the 19+ hours quoted to travel by bus. I leave Ashgabat at the ungodly hour of 2.15 in the morning and am touching down at Heydar Aliyev International in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, by 3.50. The only downside is the cost - £515 for a 1 hour 35 minute flight…

Still, I arrive in one piece (if a little groggy) to Azerbaijan – an oil-rich land which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 amid political turmoil and internal strife (as well as a war with neighbouring Armenia fought in the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh).

My stay here is courtesy of “Azerbaijan Diary” by Western correspondent Thomas Goltz of which more soon.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Wars of Terror: Afghanistan Across the Decades with ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns”

My next destination is, inevitably, much better known than Tajikistan - I am travelling to Afghanistan, courtesy of the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khalad Hosseini.

Anyone whose heart strings were pulled by Khaled Hosseini's first, hugely successful novel, “The Kite Runner”, should be more than satisfied with this follow-up. Hosseini is skilled at telling a certain kind of story, in which events that may seem unbearable - violence, misery and abuse - are made readable. He doesn't gloss over the horrors his characters live through, but something about his direct, explanatory style and the sense that you are moving towards a redemptive ending makes the whole narrative, for all its tragedies, slip down rather easily.

“The Kite Runner” was the tale of two Afghan boys struggling to live decent lives amid the warfare and ethnic rivalries of contemporary Afghanistan, and this is the female counterpart. It is both the tale of two women, and a tale of two cities - Herat and Kabul. At the beginning, we are dropped into the world of Mariam, a young girl living alone with her unmarried mother on the outskirts of Herat. And what a sad world it is. Poor Mariam is bullied by her epileptic mother, and she lives for her weekly visits from her insincere, charming father who runs Herat's cinema, and whose real family she longs to join.

We don't stagnate with Mariam in Herat, however - Hosseini likes to move his narratives along - and before many pages have been turned Mariam's mother has died, and her unfeeling father has married her off to an acquaintance from Kabul. Despite the trauma of going to live with a complete stranger who insists that she must wear the burka and hide upstairs when visitors arrive, a tentative hopefulness begins to grow in Mariam that she may be able to win some affection from her husband, especially when she becomes pregnant.

But Hosseini vividly brings home what life is like for women in a society in which they are valued only for reproduction. Once she has suffered a series of miscarriages, Mariam's marriage becomes a prison: "Mariam was afraid. She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies and sometimes not."

Just as the impatient reader might start to wonder what Hosseini is going to do next with his narrative energy, we switch from Mariam's life to that of a neighbour, the young Laila, who is growing up in a liberal family with a father who believes in her education. This means that we suddenly see Mariam from the outside: Laila never speaks to her, but one day she "passed Rasheed, the shoemaker, with his burka-clad wife, Mariam, in tow". In a flash we see, as Hosseini clearly intends us to, how behind every silent burka in Afghanistan is an individual with a hidden history.

As well as an education, ambitions and opinions, Laila even has a respectful and intelligent boyfriend, who goes with her to the cinema and on a trip to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan. By putting Mariam and Laila in contrast like this, Hosseini is, you feel, not just trying to burrow into individual lives, but also trying to explain the complexities of Afghan society to the reader.

That sense that you are listening to a history lesson as much as experiencing a fiction becomes stronger as the narrative moves on. Hosseini is almost too careful to describe for ignorant westerners the political background to these women's lives, from the Soviet occupation that ruled Laila's childhood to the growing strength of the mujahideen that her brothers join, amid "rising rumours that, after eight years of fighting, the Soviets were losing this war". Once the Soviets are ousted, he takes an even more didactic turn, spelling out how the mujahideen turned from idealised freedom fighters to oppressors. "It was dizzying how quickly everything unravelled. The leadership council was formed prematurely. It elected Rabbani president. The other factions cried nepotism ... Hekmatyar, who had been excluded, was incensed ... The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other."

But Hosseini doesn't get bogged down in the ins and outs of Afghan politics. His energetic narrative speeds on through the political and domestic worlds, as we move through the tragedies that fall on Laila's family. Eventually we see her, orphaned and alone, allowing herself to become Rasheed's second wife. You might think this novel is becoming too melodramatic, as one horror succeeds another, with rockets blowing families apart and attempted escapes and even murder, alongside the beatings and whippings and threats that make up the women's daily experiences. But when I started to think this I remembered women I met in Kabul, and how many of them had stories to tell almost as melodramatic as this.

Where Hosseini's novel begins to sing is in depicting the slowly growing friendship of the two wives in the face of the horrific abuse from their shared husband. Laila looks at Mariam, and "For the first time, it was not an adversary's face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured. If she stayed, would this be her own face, Laila wondered?" The women's only hope of affection or solidarity is with one another, and they survive not just physically but also emotionally by putting their faith in each other and in their love for Laila's children.

Hosseini does not challenge the usual western view of Afghanistan, but he does enrich it - he adds greater knowledge and understanding to it, and makes the Afghans come alive as loving, feeling individuals. There is something marvellously hopeful in this process, and if there is a problem with the novel, it is not with the plot or the intentions behind it, but with the neatness of its narrative style. Hosseini's prose is stolidly direct, and he tends to explain away not only the political but also the personal, presenting each experience in a wrapper on which the emotion is carefully labelled. Whether it is love - "She had fallen for Tariq. Hopelessly and desperately" - or hate - "What harmful thing had she wilfully done to this man to warrant his malice?" - each distinct emotion is spelled out a touch too clearly.

His desire to believe in the eventual redemption of Afghanistan means that the ending verges on the schmaltzy. Undoubtedly the removal of the Taliban was positive for Afghan women, and we shouldn't be surprised if his characters draw strength from it. But in the last chapter, as the rains return, the cinemas open, the children play and the orphanages are rebuilt, the reader cannot help but feel that Hosseini's understandable longing for a beautiful return to life for the oppressed people of Afghanistan has made for an ending that is just a little flimsy.

(Review in italics by Natasha Walter. The Guardian, Saturday 19 May 2007)

For me, this novel was a little too pat, i.e. sympathetic characters overcome terrible adversity and finally triumph to reach a happy ending. As Natasha states above, Hosseini’s “desire to believe in the eventual redemption of Afghanistan means that the ending verges on the schmaltzy.”

I can’t blame him for that on a personal level, but I can’t help feeling that this adds a gloss that isn’t there, to the current straits of many Afghans in the country today. That said, there can be no disputing that Hosseini, with his two novels, has brought a sense of the lives of ordinary Afghans to a vast Western readership which might otherwise have been indifferent or downright hostile to their fate.

I now move on to Afghanistan’s rather less well-known neighbour, Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan was once the world's most feared territory. Since the time of the Mongols, the nomadic tribes of its vast desert wastes were deemed ungovernable. Russians and Persians were captured as slaves and carried off by the fierce Turkmen. Even now, as an independent country located between the hot spots of Afghanistan and Iran, with one of the planet's largest natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan remains virtually unknown to the outside world.

Therefore it is with some trepidation that I set out from Kabul to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. There are no direct flights from Kabul to Ashgabat, and in selecting flights you should be careful on two counts – safety and price!

The British FCO warns against the use of a number of Afghan airlines due to safety concerns so it is worth paying a bit extra, even it if means an inconvenient connection. There is a difference between adventurous and reckless! That said, you should beware of ridiculously inflated air prices. Having been quoted over £3000 to fly via Delhi (with Air India) to Ashgabat; I find a more direct and less pricey flight with Turkish Airlines that leaves Kabul at midday and arrives in Istanbul at 16.15. After a rather lengthy wait I then leave on a connecting flight for Ashgabat at 23.35, arriving 05.10 the next day – for a less pricey £653 one-way!

My trip in Turkmenistan is courtesy of “Unknown Sands” by John W. Kropf. A lawyer with the U.S. State Department, Kropf, his wife and their two-year-old daughter travelled to the far corners of a country still reeling from Soviet occupation and, later, the impact of the 9/11 attacks (which occurred whilst he was there).

Hurramabad – a Russian Perspective on a Tajik Tragedy

"Hurramabad" is a collection of short stories on the theme of ethnic Russians in Tajikistan. The Russians of Tajikistan, who arrived as Soviet administrators and skilled workers, emigrated en masse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially in the lead-up to the civil war.

The English translation of "Hurramabad" includes seven short stories, only one of which does not have ethnic Russians as the protagonist(s). Russians (and other ethnicities) had many reasons for leaving Tajikistan. Fleeing a country at war is obvious enough, but there were many other factors, including rising nationalism and economic problems. I don’t suggest here that Russians were the primary victims of the war, as it was Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pamiris who made up the overwhelming majority of casualty figures. But many Russians were victims in the broad sense. Volos should know, as his family was forced to leave this country where he had been born and raised.

Volos’ book falls into the category of historical fiction, as real people, places and events form the backdrop for the fictional protagonists. But the fiction is barely fiction. “Hurramabad” is obviously Dushanbe, and the events in the book all match up nicely with what actually happened. That may lead some readers into not seeing as large a picture as those who know the history of Tajikistan. For example, in one passage men have a cantankerous debate about which public square to go protests at, an anecdote that lets the informed reader know that the date is April-May 1992. In another instance two Russian women discuss riots that occurred in February, an obvious reference to the February 1990 riots and demonstrations in Dushanbe. And “that snake Yusupov” is clearly Shodmon Yusuf, the then leader of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, who scared the hell out of ethnic Russians when he got on the radio and strongly hinted that bad things may happen to non-Tajiks (although in the novel the event is out of its proper place in time).

In the first short story an elderly Russian lady is being walked up a hill to a graveyard by her grandson. On the way to the grave of her husband she recounts – for the hundredth time – how she arrived in Tajikistan, or rather the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1930. Her account of a boat ride up the Amu Darya and the Panj river is one of trepidation, as anti-Soviet Basmachis rebels still make incursions across the river from Afghanistan. She has no idea if her husband, sent as a Soviet administrator, is still alive. As she struggles up the hill towards the graveyard you are left with the image of a dying old woman who, despite not being a Tajik or other local nationality, knows nothing but Tajikistan, and who will never leave.

The second, and my favorite, is the story of a Russian man who never lived in Tajikistan, but who became enchanted with the country and desperately wanted to “go native” and stay in the country. Abandoning his wife and children in Russian he takes a low-paying job in a bazaar and marries a Tajik. He becomes fluent in Tajik, much to the confusion of locals who mistake him for Tatar, as almost no Russians ever bothered to learn the language, even if born and raised in Tajikistan. Desperate to be accepted, but considered an outsider by locals, the man suffers through his daily existence as the country falls apart on the streets of Hurramabad (Dushanbe). And then finally, there is a chance to be accepted as a local… and it’s not what he wanted.

In the next story, an old Russian lady welcomes what she thinks is a harmless grass snake into her home while expressing her desire to remain in Tajikistan, whatever the terrible consequences may be. Nothing is what it seems, especially the snake. I guess this is where the English and Literature students take over and pull out the symbolism, metaphor, whatever… I get it, but I didn’t dwell to much as I was eager to move on to the next story.

In ‘A Decent Stone for a Father’s Grave’ you already know what the story is about. Searching out a decent gravestone the Russian protagonist encounters locals trying to buy his possessions at a price suitable to be asked by a man desperate to leave the country and who can’t bring all his possessions with him. The greed and opportunism of a local prospective buyer of the Russian man’s car is then put into perspective when the Russian finds out that the Tajik man who could build the gravestone to his specific needs was executed on the street recently.

The other stories include the kidnapping of foreign journalists by a local warlord, the trading of a kidnapped Tajik girl for a weapon, the theft of a Russian man’s dream house by armed commanders of the winning side, and the account of a man waiting to leave to Russia.

And the writing style? It’s quite clearly realism. The descriptions of activities on the streets and in the bazaars is nothing grand, but it’s gives you a clear image in your head. And the stories are mostly of very small events punctuated by the crisis droning on in the back ground. Things seem normal, and then you are given passages like this:

“The crucified city was howling in fear and pain; the air itself seemed full of violence, rape, and robbery. It would have been better if the telephones had not been functioning at all, because rumours of what was going on in the outskirts of Hurramabad were enough to drive you mad.”

But at times the characters’ – and indeed the author’s – love for the land is clear:

“ ‘I’m a foreigner here now,’ Dubrovin forced himself to say, shrugging his shoulders. He frowned as he repeated the word to himself. A foreigner, a foreigner! He found it to be a meaningless aggregate of sounds, because everything around him gave it the lie: this hilly, jagged land lit by a reddish moon in which two generations of his ancestors had been laid to rest; the hot violet sky in which the pure stars twinkled moistly; the smell of sunbaked dust and camel thorn; the chirring of the crickets; the outbursts of barking dogs in the kishlak”.

Volos is not often this florid in his writing style, and he wisely saves it for the right moment. Overall, you are given a vivid image of the place and time. You may not get all the references, and having been in the country may help you to imagine things more “accurately.” But you should get the same satisfaction even if you don’t understand the war, the country, or even the sprinkling of Tajiki. And despite the cruelty on the part of some of the locals, the book does show affection for the people and the country – so many of which were victims of the civil war.

(Christian Bleuer,

My next destination is, inevitably, much better known than Tajikistan – and similarly the author is likely to be more familiar to many than Volos. I am travelling to Afghanistan, courtesy of the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khalad Hosseini (also known for his debut novel “The Kite-Runner”).

And so I brave the charms of Dushanbe airport once again, catching a Kam Air flight at 5.30 in the morning and arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan an hour later (for the eye-watering amount of $230 economy). I spend a few hours in the new International section of the airport before heading to the slightly dowdier domestic terminal to catch another Kam Air flight to my destination, Heart (another hour-long flight leaving at midday for a slightly less eye-watering $122.)

Herat Airport also known as Herat Airfield, was established in the 1950s with American aid Herat Airport was initially used for military purposes. Later it was opened for civil use, although it has had to be extensively repaired following Allied forces bombing in 2001. It is now opened up to international air flights and is known as Herat International Airport – although it retains its militaristic feel, a reminder of the country’s recent and ongoing conflict…

Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan

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.

Where this book differs from its predecessor is in its narrator; Saffia Farr, an Englishwoman from Bristol who travelled with her water-engineer husband to Kyrgyzstan just before the country’s revolution. Complicating matters further was the fact that she was expecting her first baby as she arrived in this remote, largely unknown country. Indeed, the Revolution of the title is as much a reference to the personal revolution precipitated by her pregnancy as the wider political revolution going on in the country.

Giving away the ending of a book is not a good idea in a review; but knowing the end of this book will not spoil the experience of reading it.

“Revolution Baby” is not a novel, although to many readers some of it may seem stranger than fiction' - this is an account of Saffia Farr's experiences living in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

The revolution of the (brilliant) title comes very near the end of the tale - in 2005, Kyrgyz people overthrew Akayev, the country's corrupt president who "only built the Switzerland of Central Asia for his family". Saffia Farr credits an opposition politician with this last quote but it demonstrates her own lightness of touch and humour evident throughout the book.

It is really interesting to learn about the politics and history of this country, part of the former USSR (so remote Rough Guide hasn't found it yet'); but the abiding sense I've taken from Revolution Baby is of the writer herself.

Now living in Tockington, close to where she was brought up, Saffia Farr engages us with accounts of how vulnerable she felt expecting her first baby in a grey, grimly poor country.

We share her very real concerns (like worrying about being infected with AIDS from a less than hygienic blood test) but admire her ability to just get on with living.

And soon, the vertical concrete shoeboxes, inside one of which is her home apartment, become fascinating and even attractive - "I started to appreciate that tenements had different architectural styles; curves and crosses of concrete repeated over facades to create striking geometric patterns." Saffia's photographs deserve more exposure than the reproductions in the centre of this book.

The supporting cast in Revolution Baby is the Bishkek International Women's Club, a bizarre but comfortingly constant collection of ex-pats'. Playgroup' is the backdrop to Saffia's maternal pre-occupations ranging from holding out against having a nanny to Baby Tom's delayed' walking ability.

No review of the book would be complete without mention of the Kyrgyz food and drink that sounds so unappetising to western' ears - koumys (fermented mare's milk), parts of sheep's heads and plaited horse intestine sausages for instance. "The meat hall at Ortosai bazaar is not somewhere to visit if you are verging on vegetarianism."

And the pervading presence of vodka is intriguing - Soviet influence untouched by Islamic sensibilities in this region buffeted by so many greater powers.

In the book's Forward', Brigid Keenan recommends Revolution Baby to anyone who has ever had to travel abroad with a spouse. (Saffia is in Kyrgyzstan with her water-engineer husband Matthew.) I think the book has a much wider impact than this - I look forward to reading more of Saffia Farr's writing.

(Review in italics by Emily Thwaite, for which grateful acknowledgement is given.)

Flying regionally in Central Asia is probably not the safest thing in the world. That being said, fellow travellers have described it as being rather exciting and so with a degree of trepidation I take a plane from Bishtek to Dushanbe, in neighbouring Tajikistan.

The planes that fly between Bishkek and Dushanbe are all local (Tajik Airlines) and are quite small, seating fewer than 50 people, goats, etc.. The flight itself is quite dramatic, as the planes fly at a low altitude over the very dramatic Fergana Valley and Ayni Pass. A one way ticket cost $150, although cheaper options are probably avaialble if you know where to look…

The flight arrives into the international airport in Dushanbe. This is a not the most welcoming experience! The arrival gate, in the Customs Area, is a free for all, with fellow passengers pushing to get ahead in line. Customs and border enforcement can be seen blatantly receiving bribes and the arrival area is without electricity when I arrive...although fortunately it is daytime.

Thus I arrive in Tajikistan ready for the next leg of my journey, “Hurramabad” by native author Andrei Volos. This book is actually a series of novellas that describe various perspectives on the 1992 civil war that followed independence – largely from the viewpoint of the Russian community who suffered some of the worst violence and many of whom fled the country as a result. The Hurramabad of the title is a city, which is a very thinly disguised depiction of the capital Dushanbe.