"Here, take!" says Jamila, tugging at a garnet ring that must surely be her most prized possession. Freeing it, she attempts to press it into my hand in exchange for the inexpensive souvenir I have just given her, a replica of a John I'. Kennedy coin on a small key chain.
"You are the first American I have met," says Jamila, a Muslim mother of five and one of several women picking cotton on a collective farm in the southern tier of the Soviet Union, a part of the work) once called Turkestan.
Today old Turkestan is known as Central Asia. Almost half as large as Europe, Soviet Central Asia encompasses the territory from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east; it is bordered on the south by Afghanistan and Iran, and on the north by the largest of the USSR's It constituent republics, Russia - the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, or RSFSR.
Central Asia's vast area, with its five republics of Uzbekistan, Kirgizia, Turkmen in, Tajikstan and Kazakstan, is inhabited predominantly by Turkic Muslims, like Jamila.
Jamila is an Arabic word meaning "beautiful," and indeed she is a beautiful woman, with a quick, engaging smile. "And how is your President Bush?" she asks, adding, "liven though I am a farmer, I keep up with the news." Jamila says she is happy to know that Tashkent, the capital of her republic, Uzbekistan, and the fourth largest city in the USSK, is a "sister city" of Seattle, Washington. Such ties, she says, "will help bring more understanding."
On my first visit to the USSR, in 1979, when the wind sol the Cold War were still blowing, I felt I was seeing only stony laces and stone walls. Yen years later, in the era of Gorbachev and his twin goals of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), I was astonished by the eagerness of Soviet citizens to shake hands, to assure me of their desire for world peace- and to practice their English.
But when photographer Brynn Bruijn and I arrived in Terghana, in southeast Uzbekistan, In tourist guide Elitgaly ("Ali") Usmanov, a native Uzbek, greeted us in neither English nor Russian. Instead, he put his right hand on his heart, bowed slightly and wished us peace: "Al-salaam alaikum."
"But," I exclaimed to Ali, "that's Arabic! Do you speak Arabic?"
"Only a little," he said. "But the greeting in Arabic is universally used throughout Central Asia."
Ali explained that the Arabs had come to this region B centuries ago. While they themselves staved in Central Asia only from the seventh to the ninth century, they bequeathed to the land both the Muslim religion and the Arabic script, which was widely used there for 1300 years.
Fifty years ago, however, the Soviet government - concerned by the cultural unity of the Turkic peoples living under its rule - imposed different Cyrillic alphabets on each of the Muslim nationalities of the Soviet Union, effectively cutting them oil from their common literary language and making it more difficult for them to communicate with each other as well.
Yet I found the legacy of Muslim hospitality to be very much intact as I traveled in Soviet Central Asia. Nowhere have I ever found people who are more warm and generous in spirit. Jamila, the Ungenerous woman in the cotton fields, seems typical of this hospitality. Additionally, however she is typical of the region in three other ways: ethnically, linguistically and economically. Ethnically, Jamila is not Russian, but Turkic, and the language she speaks is a Turkic tongue.
I had talked with Jamila using Ali as interpreter. Ali and Jamila spoke to each other in the Uzbek Turkic language, and he translated into English. Their language is not very different from the Turkic language spoken by other Central Asians, nor from the Turkic language spoken in Turkey. Indeed, Jamila calls herself a Turk, as does Ali. "Three-fourths of the Muslims living in the Soviet Union belong to the Turkic linguistic family," said Ali, adding that the other quarter are Iranian peoples, including Tajiks, Kurds, Iranians and Baluchis, who speak a dialed of Tarsi, the Persian language.
In addition to being ethnically and linguistically Turkic, Jamila is representative of her people in a third way: She, like most Central Asians, is a manual laborer. Jamila and other workers on the collective farms rise before dawn and go lo the fields. They are grouped under the administration of vast state or collective farms, with names such as "Communism," "Twenty-First Party Congress" and "Lenin." They live in small clusters of private mud-brick homes opening onto pleasant family compounds with shady courtyards. Many of the workers now have television.
Jamila tossed fistfuls of white bolls into a long, deep bag slung over a shoulder. She has taught all five of her children to pick cotton, she said, and they all helped after school. Formerly, schools were shut for two months of the year so children could help with the harvest, but in 1988, Soviet authorities passed a new child-labor law designed to eliminate the practice.
The Law, prohibiting children who have not finished high school from working, has brought little change, however. I saw that women routinely take their children, some as young as 10 years old, to pick cotton after school. Employment of children to help bring in the harvest is traditional, since the adult labor pool never seems sufficient to meet the official production goals. The target for Uzbekistan's cotton production in 1988 was five million metric tons. Workers exceeded that goal, according to official statistics, producing 5,600,000 tons.
Half the cotton produced in USSR is still handpicked. One day, Jamila said, she picked 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of cotton, her all-time high. "But yesterday I picked only 50 kilos [110 pounds]." At 14 certs kilogram, she earned $7.70 for nine-hour day
Central Asian workers produce 90 percent of the cotton grown in the Soviet Union, most of it in the one republic of Uzbekistan. According to Rafik Nishanov, a former first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan - became chairman for Soviet nationalities in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR last year - only six percent of the cotton grown in Uzbekistan is both processed and sold there. The rest is sent to the RSFSR for processing, and most of the products made from it are sold abroad to earn hard currency.
Many Uzbeks are aware that the economic relationship between Russia and their republic is like that between a mother country and its colonies. Uzbek writer Muhamed Salih says Central Asians should manufacture cloth as well as produce raw cotton. "We sell cotton as raw material. The cotton goes to the Russians and they sell us our shirts." He adds that Uzbeks pay the equivalent of $42 for a shirt made in the European part of the USSR, whereas if they manufactured them at home a shirt would cost only about seven dollars.
Writing in a Central Asian Turkic newspaper, a tanner on a collective farm complained, "Most of our cotton is sold at low prices to the state, which in turn reaps, enormous profits." He said that farmers sell a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton to the state for the equivalent of 20 cents, and the state sells the same kilo overseas for the equivalent of $3.50.
While conditions have in many cases improved for Central Asian workers, they still earn 40 percent less than other workers in the Soviet Union. The average Soviet worker earns the equivalent of $ 150 per month; workers in Uzbekistan earn $85 per month. (These wages are not comparable to wages abroad because main necessities of life rent bread, transportation are subsidized in the USSR.)
Soviet officials are working to remedy some of the obvious inequities in the economic system that benefit Slavic bosses more than the Central Asian workers who produce such raw products as cotton - but larger-scale changes under way in the country may distract them from the goal. Meanwhile the land inhabited predominantly by Muslims remains a rich and vast storehouse of natural treasures. In addition to its mammoth crop of cotton Central Asia is the third-largest producer of oil in the USSR; it produces one-quarter of all Soviet natural gas, one-quarter of the copper, half the country's gold and 100 percent of its uranium.
Ali arranged for us to hire a car and driver to travel extensively in the Ferghana Valley, an area somewhat larger than Massachusetts, that includes portions of the Uzbek, Tajik and Kirgiz Soviet Socialist Republics. The valley consists partly of the very fertile Karakalpak Steppe and partly of desert land. It is nourished by many mountain streams and drained by the river Syr Darya. In the north the Ferghana Range rises as part of the Tian Shan system the Heavenly Mountains – Mountains- and in the south are the Pamis, so high they are known as "the root of the world."
Although the main last-West trade route, the Silk Road, once passed through Ferghana, few foreigners have visited the valley in recent decades. (See Aramco World , July-.August 1988) Our guide, Ali, said most visitors came from the Soviet-bloc countries, and that the second-largest group of tourists was the Japanese. Ali, who has worked with the Soviet Intourist Agency for the past 21 years, said that, except for an official agriculture delegation during the Khrushchev era. we were the only Americans he had seen in Ferghana. And other than one group from Hungary, I saw no other tourists during my stay in the Ferghana Valley.
One day we drove toward Kokand, an important city since the second century BC and once the capital of the anti-Bolshevik autonomous government of Turkestan. Enroute, Ali related something of its ancient history.
Ferghana was the original home of the legendary "heavenly horses," he said big, strong, intelligent beasts much prized by the ancient Chinese. When the people of Kokand repeatedly refused to part with their fine breeding stock, the Han emperor Wu sent a 60,000 man army 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to capture the city, opening up Central Asia to Chinese power for the first time and paving the way for China's first contacts with the West.
"If we arrive at a certain restaurant by noon," said Ali, returning to the realities of the 20th century, "we can be assured of a fine pilat" the delicious rice with lamb traditionally served throughout Central Asia. We were speeding to make the dead line when Ali Maidenly shouted for the driver to stop. He had seen a young Uzbek roadside vendor with steaming hot, round loaves of bread for sale and he ran to purchase half his supply to see us solely to our destination.
At the restaurant, a cooperative run by three young Uzbeks, we sat cross-legged on a small open-air terrace under an arbor of grapevines. Ali himself went to the kitchen, returning with plates heaped with the freshly-made pilaf, which we enjoyed along with the fresh bread. Later, Ali introduced us to the three voting entrepreneurs, who operate out of a kitchen hardly larger than a telephone booth.
On our drives through the Ferghana Valley, I was impressed by the productivity of areas that can be irrigated. In addition to cotton, the valley produces a wide variety of fruits - apples, apricots, pomegranates, succulent melons, pears, an abundance of grapes - as well as huge crops of carrots, greens for salads, tomatoes, and cabbages as large as basketballs. I also noted the rows of mulberry trees whose leaves are devoured by silkworms, famous for providing the silk that was traded for centuries by merchants traversing Central Asia.
"In Margelan," Ali promised, "you will see the best silk products in all Central Asia." After our car pulled to a stop in front of the Margelan silk factory, Nabijan Valiev, the chief engineer, greeted us.
As we began our tour with rows of shuttling machines operated by hundreds of young Uzbek women, Valiev, who has worked at the factory for 30 years, told us, "The factory was opened in 1928 with 250 workers. In that year, they sold about one ton of raw silk products. Now we have 10,000 workers, about 85 percent of them women and we have increased production 700 times."
Eventually we moved to a section where we saw the finished material rolling off the machines, silk-screened with one of the most famous of the designs of Central Asia, an imitation of the ikat weave called atlas a Turkic word meaning "silky". Another pattern, featuring a blending of brilliant reds and yellows, dates from the time of woodblock prints and today, made into dresses and pantaloons, is almost the national dress of Uzbek and Tajik women.
After the tour, engineer Valiev introduced us to his wife, who has worked at the factory for 30 wars. She proudly hold us that she is the mother of 10 children: five sons and five daughters.
Having 10 children is not unusual, I learned, in the Ferghana Valley. In Namangan, called "the city of apples," with its population of 180,000, we visited the home of Mahmud and Sobirahon Ahmadjenor, who have six daughters and four sons. Mrs. Ahmadjenor, 40, proudly showed us, pinned onto her dress, a "Hero Mother" medal, an award which the Soviet government presents to any woman who gives birth to 10 or more children.
The Soviet government created the Order of Maternal Glory and began the distribution of the medals representing the order's successive levels before the Second World War, to encourage the birth of more defenders of the motherland. Although they continue to hand out the medals, the Soviets are presently conducting a campaign urging Central Asians to practice birth control. Soviet writers in Central Asians journals extoll the virtues of planned parenthood, and in the hospitals, one Uzbek told me, "a Russian nurse will tell a Muslim woman, 'It is belter to have a small family.'"
I asked a Central Asian woman why, it the Russians were urging Muslim women to have fewer children, they continue to give the Hero Mother medals to those women having 10 children. "They must feel that it is now too late to stop giving the medals," she replied. Even if they stopped, it would not lower the birthrate. A Muslim woman does not give birth to a child to get a medal.
When I visited Moscow and Leningrad, I noted that in these cities most couples have no more than one or two children, whereas many Central Asian women have five, six. seven or more. These statistics mean that Muslims are no longer simply one of the Soviet Union's many "minorities," but the only rapidly growing segment of the country's population. At Ferghana airport, for example, I saw 150 army recruits in a long line boarding a sleek llvushin 62 troop-transport plane that would carry them to training camps. Some Central Asian experts saw that by the year 2000, one of the every three Soviet recruits will be Muslims. And a daring Russian comedian claims that he performed at a military base where all the officers laughed uproariously at his jokes, while none of the enlisted men even smiled. "Don't worry about that," an officer allegedly told him, "it's just that none of them speak Russian-they're all Central Asians."
Among the two million people in the Ferghana region, there are 6,000 Hero Mothers. And, said our Intourist guide, Ali, that ratio holds true in each region of Central Asia: "Large families are closely associated with honor, respect and sell-esteem." Ali added that when he and relatives or friends greet one another after a long separation, "We do not ask, How are you?' but rather, 'How many children do you have?'"
I noticed a special respect and esteem paid to the elderly in Central Asian families. "Here," said Ali, "we traditionally look after our parents. When the eldest son marries, he and his wife live with his parents until the second son marries. Then the second son and his wife live with the parents and this continues until the youngest son marries. Then he will remain with his parents until they die."
One Central Asian woman in her 30's, who told me she was a Communist Party member, said, "There is something remarkable about the way Muslims look after their old people. It I see an old man sitting in a park and he looks lonely and miserable, I know he is probably Russian, and if I see an old person sitting in a park who looks content, I know he has a pattern to his life, a home to which he can return, and I know he is probably Muslim."
I heard expressions of respect for Islam from another communist, the young editor of a Ferghana newspaper whom I had asked about the problem of drugs in the Soviet Union. "People living in the villages are more influenced by Islam, and have fewer problems with drugs. In the small towns, the mosque leaders say, 'Don't drink, don't take drugs', and they call on people to have good behavior. But in the large cities," he said, "there is less influence of Islam and some of the people do have these problems."
As we prepared for our departure from the Ferghana Valley, Ali told us that his neighbors were inviting us to a farewell luncheon. We arrived at noon at the home of Husanali Akramov and his wile, Salimahon, who have three handsome and well-behaved sons, Murad, 14, Umid, 12, and Nodir, four. The couple and their children share the home with his parents, Karim and Makhuba Akramov.
Ali had told us that the family owned the home, and when I asked Karim Akramov, an electrician with the city hydroelectric plants, how in a communist country he was able to own his home, he said that in 1958 the state had given him 500 square meters of land (5380 square feet). "Then I began building, with my own hands." He built one section for himself and his wife, who works in a factory, then started another section for his son and his son's family.
As we talked, seated in cushioned comfort on a carpeted floor, we sampled a variety of appetizers, including small slices of cheese and moat, as well as olives, and a variety of fruits and nuts: grapes, pears, apples, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, Every 15 minutes or so, our hostess, the younger Mrs. Akramov, brought more food: green radishes and a compote of stewed peaches, cherries and mulberries. After we had talked and nibbled for an hour, she arrived with a pilaf.
Our host that day, Husanali Akramov, had traveled to Tokyo, Singapore and other cities in the Far East, and had recently returned to the Ferghana Valley. He said with conviction, "I did not find a single place I liked as much as Ferghana."
The Soviet government, bowing to outside ethnic groups speaking on their behalf, has permitted only three groups of Soviet citizens to emigrate: Jews, Armenians and Germans. To an Uzbek who had received a Soviet exit visa for a visit to the United States, I posed the question, "How many of your people would leave if they could?" "Few," he said -adding that during the Stalin period, those who could get out did so. "But most of the people love their homeland; they have always lived here and they will stay here."
I asked Ali and others the same question, and always the answer was more or less the same: Some few would leave, but most would not want to. Like people everywhere, Central Asians are attached to their homeland and to the place where they were born. But their feelings may be unusually strong because of the foreignness they perceive in the rest of the Soviet Union. Tajiks, for example, do not emigrate and more than 90 percent live in their native land. Even when offered better jobs in Russia or Siberia, they will generally not leave home.
Flying over the huge expanses of Central Asia, From the Caspian Sea to the Chinese border, I marveled how the early Greeks, Turks, Persians and Arabs had traversed, by horseback and on foot, this region of mountains up to 8500 meters (28,000 feet), rocks plateaus, sand dunes and desert wastes. It is a land of geographical contrasts, much of it taken up by the scorching, arid Kara Kum and Kyzyl Kum deserts. As in any instance when nature runs to extremes, one finds the scene at first not beautiful, but overpowering, awesome. "It is difficult for you to imagine," said a guide in Tashkent, "looking at our parks and fields with their trees, plants and flowers. But most of Central Asia is a desert, and cities such as Tashkent are oases in that desert. Now it is .April, the rains are over. And those of us who live in Tashkent will not see rain again for 200 days, form April to October."
Not only is the area arid, it is prone to devastating earthquakes. Taskhent suffered serious temblors in 1946, and in 1966 a big quake devastated the city, "For the next two years we suffered one, two or three shocks a day," the Tashkent guide related. "We had more than 2,500 earthquakes. With the big shock, they left 75,000 people homeless"
Ashkabad, the capital of Turkmenia, was almost leveled by earthquakes in 1948. The destruction wrought by an earthquake that struck Armenia, west of the Caspian Sea, in 1988 brought the deaths of some 25,000. In early 1989, seated in a Moscow cafe, I was one of the millions worldwide who witnessed on television the tragedies suffered by the Tajik people after an earthquake destroyed much of a rural area of Tajikstan.
Flying to Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakstan, located in the far eastern part of that vast Muslim republic, I learned of the rapid changes taking place. They are important changes, but have little to do with the Kazak people's Islamic culture.
"Turkic-speaking Kazaks have for centuries been admired as skilled horsemen," our guide, Eugenia, told me as we traveled about this capital, set spectacularly at the foot of the snow-covered Altai Mountains. "Formerly this was a land of nomads. Families lived in yurts, circular felt-and-skin tents with a framework of withes. They raised sheep and moved about. My father, until he was drafted into the Soviet army, was a nomad." Posted to Moscow, he met and married her mother, a Russian.
"We are proud of our educational accomplishments," Eugenia said. Before the revolution, "there were less than 20 literate people per 1000. Women were almost all illiterate. Now, illiteracy has been all but eliminated. More than hall the adult population has a secondary or higher education."
In recent years, "due to the intensive development of our 'virgin lands', many Slavic farmers have moved here. They came alter Soviet agronomists pinpointed Kazakstan as an ideal place to grow wheat and they turned vast tracts of heretofore uncultivated lands into the Soviet Union's second-largest granary, after the Ukraine," Eugenia said.
We had journeyed a long distance in our travels in Turkestan. One day I walked a short distance from my modern hotel to a large, new bus station built on the site of a former caravanserai on the old Silk Road. The centuries-old traffic continues: A Dane, my next-door neighbor at the hotel, told me, "I will leave in the morning by bus to travel all the way to China. China,' he said, " is only 200 miles from our hotel."
Writer Grace Halsell and photographer Brynn Bruijn independently submitted the idea of a special issue of. Aramco World on the Muslim peoples and provinces of the Soviet Union at about the time we were covering the region in another context, for our earlier special issue "Traveling the Silk Roads" (September-October 1988). Some two years later, as television and newspapers report dramatic changes in the crescent of Muslim republics across the southern USSR, this issue - produced by the contributors named below - has become more timely than we anticipated. We hope it illuminates the present and the future as well as the past.