Monday, January 03, 2005

Osh in the New Year

Today, the first work day after the New Year, I went to the market, and was surprised to find most of the vendors at work. It was a muddy place, with melted snow dripping down onto shoppers from the weak plastic tarps, forming puddles on the narrow dirt pathways.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a holiday or not, people will be at the market,” Shavrat told me. “Even if there is an earthquake, they’ll find their way there. People have gotten used to it and they can’t live without the market now.”

I saw a new product there today – an orange-colored crystallized sugar, like rock candy, that comes from Uzbekistan. One woman sat in a booth surrounded by the glittering orange crystals, as though she basked in a unique light.

I saw another sort of light as I came home this evening, my first time coming home by foot after dark. Coming uphill from the frighteningly dark, empty, muddy road, I looked out over the city, where the stars in the black sky and the twinkles from down below were almost indistinguishable. A city with virtually no street lights can be a beautiful thing – all of the lights are square, they are as separate and distinct from each other as the stars, they all come from places of warmth, where people gather.

The sound of a mosque calling believers to pray rose up over the city to me, distant, but audible. Entering the residential neighborhood, I navigated my way from the lights on peoples fences and from the illuminated windows. Only a block or two from home, I heard the sounds from another mosque, this one closer by. There must be one in my neighborhood that I haven’t seen yet. My street, Construction Street, is one of the one streets in Osh with street lights. They are low-powered, bathing the empty street, lined with several dirty old cargo trucks, in a faint golden glow.

When I got home, I belatedly made a fruit salad for Nigora’s birthday. Nigora, Shavrat, Lutfulo and I gathered around the table to eat it, excited by the new dish. Their two younger sons didn’t come until later. Habib was walking around the neighborhood with his friends. “Probably getting shashlik (grilled beef or lamb kebabs) from the nearby bazaar,” Nigora said. Their 12-year-old son Faruh was at Arabic lessons.

I asked about the lessons and Shavrat said they were held almost nightly at a teenager’s house. When Faruh showed up, he said that almost 30 kids attended, all boys.

“It’s the fashion now,” Shavrat said. “He wants to go because all his friends are going and that makes it interesting. If it was just him, he wouldn’t go.”

He told us that when he told his English friend Marvin about his son studying Arabic, Marvin said, “Oh, he’s going to be a fundamentalist.”

Shavrat reassured him. “No, I told him, we’ll let him study for a little while, then we’ll pull him out.” He pulled the back of his own shirt collar, indicating how he would pull his son away before he got too deep.

He also told me about a biweekly gathering of all the men in the neighborhood, that takes place at a chaikhana (a teahouse) over plov. I asked if it would be possible to see one of these gatherings and Shavrat said yes, even though Habib repeated several times that it’s only men.

“You know why it’s only men?” Nigora asked me. “Because they want to escape from their wives and children. And why do they meet in a chaikhana? Because in a cafĂ© you have to sit up and behave yourself. But in a teahouse you can relax,” she slumped in her chair. “No one will yell at you for getting drunk, for talking too lately, or for smoking in the house. Even the young boys gather there.”

I asked Habib if he went and he said he goes rarely because most of his friends are Russian and Russians prefer cafes to teahouses. The teahouses are primarily haunts for Muslims.

They told me how there are 50 rooms in the chaikhana, all full of men, and how the plov is out of this world.

“It has to do with the fact that plov is made over and over again in their pots,” Shavrat said. “It does something to the taste.”

“And it has a man’s touch,” Nigora added. “It is really, really good plov. Maybe we could order some and bring it home,” she suggested.

“It needs to be eaten hot,” Habib said.

“We’ll get it home right away,” she said, and the idea floated in the air.

I hope I can find a way to visit one of these gatherings. It sounds like an atmosphere worth experiencing.

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