Memories fade but linger in Andijan, Uzbekistan
The coarse dust shakes the air from its particles as the road leading to the Juma Mosque plumes under the weight of the descending men. The imam’s voice is careful not to travel more than a metre or two past the doors. Noise, in both the immediate and the broader sense, is a nuisance. Only footsteps and construction dent the old town, which will soon require a fresh nomenclature. On the first Friday of Ramadan, it’s 40 degrees and the faithful wear their prayer mats on their heads for some relief.
Even for an atheist, it wouldn’t be the same without the call to prayer: like trying to imagine Europe’s cathedrals without stained-glass windows, or Eastern temples stripped of gold. The bureaucratic mosque is at one with sandstone rubble, looking as though it was designed by a team of capital city apparatchiks, and it probably was. A cartoonish sign above the front entrance of the mosque reads, “2015: Respect for the Aged.” But if you dare to look up towards the midday sun, you see they’ve allowed a small dome, some blue-green tiles, even a passage of Arabic script.
Opposite the entrance to the mosque, a tiny hose gurgles up through some rubble like a wounded animal. Only a few of the men stop for their ablutions. Gracefully, carefully, they wash their faces and hands, but not their feet. It’s hard to believe among all this dust that the Fergana Valley is so revered for its fecundity. I move into the shade to suckle on a handful of sour cherries. While the mosque is made so deliberately of this world, the stone fruit is ethereal.
In his poem The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot told us that fear can be found in a handful of dust. He might have been on to something there, but when he proclaimed April to be the cruellest month, he was surely not reckoning with a summer Ramadan. Nor that cruelty needs only a day. Ten years ago, Andijan ceased to be a city, because it became an event, now inseparable from its context, like Dresden or Srebrenica, an ugly shorthand.
The people of Andijan don’t like to remember the day the government gunned down some 700 of them not far from the mosque in Navoi Square, but it’s not as though they’ve not been given a choice: those who do talk about it have been hunted down as far away as Sweden. Ethnically and culturally, Andijan is the heart of Uzbekistan, the pip in its cherry, but since 2005, few in the country will even utter its name.
My camera shows less discretion than valour, and I am beckoned by a policeman on watch at the door of the mosque, rocking back on his heels. He wears the standard bottle-green uniform with the Brezhnev-era cut, trousers flared to cover imposing boots. Macho cops, wherever you go in the world, all have a similar stance. It commands you to notice that their knees angle outwards, inviting you to think about the size of their balls as much as they do. Other men’s heads bow as they pass the cop before they enter through the door.
I name him Javert. He has a deep vertical scar that runs from the left of his cupid’s bow to his nostril. It is perfectly straight, as though it were made to calibrate measurements. Unusually, he’s not interested in inspecting my passport. We exchange some words in each other’s language, but the jig is fixed. He pulls out his trump in stern guttural: “Vorbitten. Gho.”
Men are now gathering at diagonals on their mats in the shade of trees outside. I throw myself in the other direction into the mercy of the jagged maze of streets, hoping that by the time I disentangle myself, the sun pounding his dark green uniform will see Javert away.
Women aren’t allowed in the mosque, but my god they can sell. A parade of Eves line the surrounding alleys, tempting me with samples: sour cherries, sweet cherries, apricots, nectarines, plums. They wouldn’t be caught dead in a hijab; their little headscarves match their dresses and advertise the rainbows of ikat silk available further up the road. Next to the silk vendors lie the large silver vats of fresh cherry juice and ayran that somehow keep cool. Ayran is my midday ritual. I throw back a bowl of the fizzy, sour yoghurt drink and think nothing of being seen wiping my hand along my chin to enjoy the surplus.
“Excuse me,” an eager male voice says behind me as I walk away, and my legs thud into gear. “Excuse me!” A teenage boy runs up beside me. “Can I walk beside you?”
“I saw you and I just wanted to say hello.”
“I don’t get much chance to practise English,” he says, blushing, or it could be the heat.
“Can we walk this way?” Seeing he’s holding a prayer mat, I point in the opposite direction of the mosque.
“I want to go to university in America,” the kid says. “They say my English must be better. I don’t understand. What do you think? I like to practise. Do you have Skype? Oh!” He stops. “Have you tried our apricots?”
“I ate half a kilo for lunch yesterday.”
“The plums are very good also.”
“They are. Maybe I should have them for lunch today,” I say, and before I can walk on, he has bought me a kilogram.
The familiar screeching megaphone of patrolling police cars means we’re up near the makeshift bazaar now, the one that sprung up when nearby construction forced the old one away. My companion helps me find a moneychanger and we find a quiet side street to do business. The US dollar is king: it gets you twice as much on the black market as dealing with a bank.
“What are they saying?” I ask softly as another rolling megaphone passes us and we head back into the maze. A turn or two later, he whispers a translation: “‘We are building.’ ” Then louder, “I should really go back now. Thank you.” He smiles, puts on his white prayer cap, and bounces back up the road.
A few men with carts are sitting with their hands open in dua, the prayer of supplication, like sign language for reading a book. Some female beggars kneel in the dust in the same pose. I decide to brave another walk past the mosque, but the glinting bronze grin of the chickpea vendor first catches my eye. He crafts a cone out of handwritten goods receipts, folding three or four together before spooning in the warm, salty chickpeas and topping them with shredded cucumber. I reach into my bag to pay him and see Javert approaching the bread vendor next to us. Both he and my chickpea man are instructed to move on.
Rattled, I take off, too, but I’m not worried for me. I am not Valjean; that is the misfortune of the people around me. Andijan’s construction boom is guiding its soul to compliance.
Veering away from the mosque, I cut a long path back to my Soviet hotel, which shoulders the square. An old man in light prayer on his porch grins, his hands also opened in dua. He might be too old to kneel, or he might not want to. Islam has its own complexion here. Sanitised by the Soviets, when mosques, like churches in Russia, were given over to grain storage for their sins, religion was the only thing in the Union to be privatised. Rituals were assimilated, authority was decentralised, tradition skewed by oral teachings.
I am beginning to understand why the fall of the Soviet Union has seen Islam come back so strongly to many Uzbeks, and in particular, Andijanis. They know, better than anyone, that not remembering is entirely different from forgetting.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "Memories fade". Subscribe here.