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A graduate of medicine is likely to become a physician, a graduate of physics is likely to become a physicist, a graduate of mass communication, however, is likely not to know what kind of job they’ll end up with. A gap year is a good thing for the undecided, the ones without job offers or the merely adventurous. For Christopher Aslan Alexander all three options may have applied, he doesn’t elaborate on the reasons why he moved to Khiva, a desert oasis in the Central Asian state of Usbekistan as a volunteer for the Swedish NGO Operation Mercy. He was to stay there for two years to write an online guidebook on this UNESCO heritage site and to help blind children in a local institution. The two years stretched into seven, but when he was seriously thinking of settling down and perhaps getting married, he was refused a return visa after holidaying in Aserbaijan. He was never given a reason, but he suspected the mayor of Khiva had pulled some strings when he didn’t get four silk carpets as ‘presents’.
Silk carpets? For the first months Chris lived with a Swedish couple and their children in crowded conditions. He decided to move out, Koranbeg, an Usbek with ’contacts’ he had met by chance invited him to stay in his house until he’d find accommodation for him. This never happened. Chris was ‘adopted’ by the Usbeks, they became his ersatz family. His host and his brother Madrim renovated ancient wooden ceilings, Chris was fascinated by this traditional craft and from there it was only a small step to traditional Usbek silk carpets. Once the pride of the ton of Khiva the craft was seemingly dead and Chris and Madrim set out to revive it with the financial support of UNESCO.
The long forgotten art of dyeing with natural colours, finding, traditional designs, turning them into ‘wearable’ patterns, finding weavers capable of turning them into high quality carpets and last but not least selling them profitably became the focus of Chris’ life in Khiva.
If one has to label A Carpet Ride To Khiva the category travelogue comes to mind. Yet, if this is defined by a protagonist moving from one exotic place to the next and recounting their adventures along the route, then the book is not typical, it’s more than that. Chris does travel, his search for natural dyes takes him across Usbekistan along the so-called Silk Road and even to Afghanistan, but travelling is not what he’s really interested in, staying is. He wants to understand his host society, their customs and habits and adapt to them as far as possible without giving up his own beliefs.
The book doesn’t fall into the category ex-pat lit, either. I’ve read several specimens of this genre and remember always feeling slightly aggressive towards the authors who think that buying and renovating a derelict house, getting to know some neighbours and bumming if off on their hospitality in some Southern European country means being integrated. I’ve warmed to Christopher Aslan Alexander immediately, though, who btw got his Tuzrkish middle name because he was born in Turkey. Some of the living conditions, the age old customs, the current habits of the Usbeks and the human rights violations in the country are outrageous from an average European point of view, nevertheless he never feels superior and is never in danger of patronising anyone. One mustn’t forget that he’s an odd one from an Usbek point of view, tall, blond, pale, bespectacled, a vegetarian who hardly drinks any alcohol, not circumcised, without an inclination towards ‘bad women’ or donkeys. He seem to be guided by a firm Christian belief of helping thy neighbour, but he doesn’t proselytise. When he sees the possibility of improvement, he suggests it politely and is happy with the people if they succeed.
The book is partly a manual on carpet weaving as this is Chris’ main occupation. It’s clear that the reader learns a lot about it. I now know about the importance of madder, I’ve also got close insight into the breeding of silk worms (Usbekistan is the third most important country concerning the production of silk after India and China), a repulsive and fascinating affair at the same time.
A Carpet Ride to Khiva can also be read as a contribution for the discussion on foreign aid. Chris’ experience is proof that it is possible to improve living conditions - provided local politics support the effort.
Most interesting for me is the information on post-Soviet Usbekistan, a country between Marx and Mohammed according to Chris. It became independent in 1991 and has been under the brutal dictatorship of Islam Karimov ever since. What has remained of the Soviet influence in every day life, in state politics? How strong is the influence of Islam in modern day Usbekistan? They have found an own way in some respects. One example: when Saudi Arabia financed the building of a mosque and Saudi representatives came to celebrate the inauguration, they were deeply shocked when scarcely clad young women served vodka to the guests. Corruption is an all-pervading theme, if one isn’t subjected to it, one can read the story about policemen who rent their uniforms to friends so that they can collect bribes from drivers for breaching traffic regulations (for example, by wearing a seat-belt!) as an anecdote, if one has to deal with corruption day in , day out, things look different.
What has impressed me is how elegantly the author has woven (!) personal experiences together with factual information, his personal experience being the warp (the vertical threads that make up the backbone of a carpet) and factual information being the weft (the horizontal threads that weave between the warp threads). I’ve always been interested in Usbekistan because the most beautiful Islamic architecture of the world can be found there, in the towns of Samarkand and Bukhara. Sadly, it‘s also a country with outrageous human rights violations. Now I‘ve got some insight how people live far away from the capital Tashkent, I‘m grateful for that.
In the last chapter the author informs the readers about his life after the expulsion from Usbekistan and ends with the sentence, “I’d love to write more about this, but it’s a new chapter, and first it needs to be lived.”
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