Second Prize Peace Corps Fund Awards: “Samarkand Calling” by Beatrice Hogan (Uzbekistan)

 

Beatrice Hogan served in the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers in Uzbekistan (1992-94), and in 2001, returned to the region as an International Reporting Project (IRP) Fellow. She’s worked as a book editor, a radio reporter, and a magazine researcher, and her work has appeared in More, Business 2.0 and Marie Claire, among other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Georgetown and a master’s in international affairs from Columbia.

Samarkand Calling

WE WERE IN UZBEKISTAN, heading for Bukhara, an historic city about four hours outside Samarkand, when a soldier flagged down our car with a white baton. My husband and I stared at each other nervously as our driver pulled into the checkpoint. I was in Central Asia on a month-long journalism fellowship; Kevin had come along as my photographer. The soldier demanded our passports and disappeared into a roadside shack. I realized that I had neglected to register with the OVIR, the office where foreigners submit their itineraries for approval.

“Let me handle this,” I said to Kevin as he reached into his pocket for money. I could almost see a fever blister forming on his face as I got out of the car.

“I used to live in Uzbekistan,” I told the soldiers.

What I didn’t tell them was that I had been longing to get back there ever since.

 

“VAT IS YOUR AIM, Beatrica?” my student demanded.

Akbar was a senior in my English-language class at Samarkand State University in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Each Thursday at 4 PM, he’d take his position in the back row with the other boys and fire questions at me. A cultural abyss stretched between us, and we eyed each other warily across the classroom.

I held my breath for a couple of beats, not quite sure how to respond.

Dobrovolets,” I finally said. “Volunteer.”

My students didn’t buy it. The Cold War may have officially ended by this time — I arrived in 1992 — but my reception in Uzbekistan was chilly. I was the first American these kids had ever met, and although they had been told that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, they assumed I was an undercover CIA agent. Nothing else could explain why, at 23, I would have left the relative paradise of my small, middle-class town of North Wales, Pennsylvania, and come halfway around the world to work for free.

Each week brought news that another Volunteer from my program had decided to ET (“early terminate,” in Peace Corps–ese), and I often thought about leaving myself. When the Peace Corps recruiter had asked how I felt about “living in a fishbowl” (which is what all Peace Corps Volunteers have to endure), I assured him I’d be OK with it. But the isolation and intense scrutiny were starting to wear me down. Uzbeks who learned English mostly did so to spy on foreigners. I’d often pick up the phone to hear breathing on the other end. I remember discussing a story I’d read in Newsweek at my friend’s house, and the next day, a woman at the mayor’s office asked if she could borrow my copy of the magazine when I was done with it.

And as someone who had grown up within driving distance of the ocean, I found living in a double-landlocked country claustrophobic. Two vast deserts, the Kyzyl Kum (red sand) and the Kara Kum (black sand), dominated the landscape, and the dirt, pounded by centuries of galloping armies, was as fine as talcum powder. The dust billowed up and settled in a thin layer all over my body. Thick calluses formed on my feet, and deep fissures cut into my heels: I felt like a cloven-footed centaur clopping around in the slip-on sandals I’d bought at a local bazaar. American soldiers stationed in nearby Afghanistan would later describe the Central Asian soil as “moon dust,” and I remember thinking how lucky their feet were to be encased in combat boots.

My affiliation with the university helped smooth my way in Uzbek society. Intellectuals are highly respected in Central Asia. Even Tamarlane, the 14th-century conqueror known for making pyramids out of skulls and burying his victims in walls, had a soft spot for his teacher. Tamerlane’s tomb, the Gur-e-Amir, is topped with a blue fluted dome. Down below, where the graves are laid out, his domla, or teacher, occupies the place of honor and is buried above his former student.

The chair of the English department seemed to understand the benefit of having students interact with a native speaker and allowed me to design my own syllabus. At the university library, I sifted through a selection of anti-capitalist screeds — Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Charles Dickens’s Bleak House — before I settled on the less caustic and easier-to-digest Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger. There would be a story for each week left in the semester and plenty of things to talk about.

The students read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” about a man named Seymour Glass, who, recently returned from the Army, feels alienated from his culture. He watches his wife apply nail polish and yap about shopping, and finds he can connect only with children.

“Let’s talk about how the world of children and the world of adults are different,” I said to my students. I drew a line down the center of the blackboard, the chalk exploding into tiny pebbles. For the adult column, the students filled in shallow, materialistic, phony. For children, innocent, playful, funny.

“What are bananafish?” I asked. “Are they real? What is the author saying?”

For students who had not been taught to think critically, this one was a challenge. Salinger’s bananafish are mythical creatures that look like ordinary fish but lead tragic lives. They swim in a hole filled with bananas, and once they get in, they gorge themselves and get so fat, they become trapped and die.

“Like capitalist pigs,” said Ulugbek, a young man named after the town’s famous astronomer.

I was taken aback, but not surprised. The English language textbooks were filled with propaganda decrying the merchants of capitalism. Soviet citizens may have lacked material goods, but they were quick to assert their moral superiority over the West.

Then Fatima raised her hand.

“The beach sounds so beautiful. I don’t understand why Seymour is so sad.”

The earnestness of her answer disarmed me. I knew that most of my students would never swim in an ocean or escape Uzbekistan except in their minds.

As the semester wore on, my students seemed to satisfy themselves that I was not spying on them, even as they watched my every move. I was an exotic fish in their country, but they were exotic to me as well, and like Seymour Glass’s, my head was filling with strange images.

That I would travel in a Muslim country without a father or husband was of endless fascination to my Uzbek hosts. Some speculated that I’d been cast out of my home — but for me, it was a self-exile of sorts, a chance to reflect on my life — I’d been floundering after graduation in a bad job market, and struggling with an on-again, off-again relationship — and to see if I could go it alone.

I had never felt so dowdy in my life — and I never had so many suitors, many, no doubt, angling for an American visa. Although I was single, I didn’t match the slutty stereotypes of Western women they got from cheap B-movie exports (think Jean Claude van Damme) and Russian-dubbed TV episodes of Dynasty. The entire country tuned in to Simply Maria, a Mexican soap opera, and traded gossip from the show’s plotlines.

As I let my guard down with my students, the Cold War defrosted in my classroom, and I morphed from Agent Beatrica to Domla Beatrica. I brought pictures of my family to class, and they were delighted to discover that I came from a household of 10 children; women in Uzbekistan who have 10 children were considered national heroes. The young women in the class fussed over me and wouldn’t let me leave the room until they’d brushed the chalk off my sleeves. Fatima took me to a local salon to get my hair cut. “Oh, it suits,” she nodded admiringly.

Another student, Zumrad, a mother of two young boys, lived next door to me on Aviator Street. She was married to the family’s youngest son, Farouk, and because of this low status, Zumrad was required to cook, clean and shop for three generations — grandmothers to babies — without the help of a vacuum cleaner or dishwasher. After class, she’d slip into her housecoat and galoshes and start her chores, with me keeping her company as she pinned wet clothes on the line in the courtyard. Her youngest would climb on my lap; let’s just say I learned the hard way that Uzbek babies don’t wear diapers. At night, after her children were in bed, I’d join Zumrad for green tea and English practice in her little kitchen.

When girls in Uzbekistan are born, their mothers start collecting items for their dowries: bolts of silk and fine linens, lace and china, and handmade rugs. Together, Zumrad and I unpacked the trunk she wished she’d received: a kinder husband, a mother-in-law who treated her with respect, an education that might take her to a different place.

 

AS LONG AS EACH DAY seemed to stretch in Samarkand, in retrospect the two years I spent there passed quickly. Back in the States, my old friends didn’t understand that I wasn’t the same person anymore, that the starter homes and fancy cars they seemed intent on acquiring didn’t much interest me. My dial had moved from local to global: I could no longer ignore international news; I could no longer let people lump all Muslims together or take casual swipes at foreigners; I could no longer look at a map without wanting to meet the people who lived there. When I’d share what I thought was a great story from my time overseas, after less than five minutes, I’d see someone stifle a yawn or politely ask me to pass the peanuts.

Though I had plenty of creature comforts, I often found myself longing for the life I’d had overseas: the highs seemed so much higher, the lows, lower. It had all been so absurd and beautiful and hilarious and terrifying. I saw my world change as if I were Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz — it had gone from black-and-white to color, and then faded back to black-and-white again. Passing through different worlds, as Seymour Glass discovered, can be painful. Though I eventually found my footing, my mind often wandered back to Uzbekistan, and I hoped I would find a way to return one day.

 

THAT CHANCE CAME seven years later, when in 2001 I won a fellowship to report in Central Asia.

I’d settled into a magazine job in New York, poring over other people’s stories. I was bored and longed to have another adventure. But this time my life was impossibly more complicated: I was married — to a man I’d left behind when I’d joined the Peace Corps — and pregnant. I felt the domestic walls closing in on me, so I decided to drop the Uzbek bomb on my husband.

“How could you even think of going back there now?” Kevin demanded.

“If not now, when?” I begged. “This might be my last chance.”

“Do I have to pull out your old letters?” he asked.

I’d written to Kevin frequently during my sojourn, detailing the illness and corruption and hardships in Uzbekistan. My misery thus documented, he could point to a paper trail showing exactly how I’d felt about Uzbekistan. That we’d reconciled and eventually married, four years after my return, was no small miracle. So he could not grasp how, at six months pregnant with our first child, I’d jeopardize the life we’d built together to travel to a country that had one of the world’s worst maternal mortality rates.

I got a sonogram right before I left and saw the baby, balled fists at her cheeks, mouth frozen open like the figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. “Don’t take me there, Mommy!” I imagined our daughter shrieking.

In the end, I invited my husband to accompany me on the trip; he said he would be my “fetal Sherpa,” and I hoped he would finally understand my fascination with the place.

When I called my former neighbor, Zumrad, to tell her I was back in Uzbekistan, she insisted we stay with her in Samarkand instead of at the Intourist Hotel. My husband and I arranged to meet her at my old stomping grounds, the university boulevard. As soon as she saw me, she started running toward me, and we hugged each other.

She’d become an English-language teacher at the university: “I tell my students to think about the characters’ names. See more glass.” At first I didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Seymour can see more because he’s so sensitive,” Zumrad explained.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I realized she was sounding out the main character’s name in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and was teaching the same lesson to her class that I’d once taught her.

Since I had last seen her, Zumrad had moved out of the family compound and into an apartment near the university boulevard. She wore Western clothes and was no longer serving as the house drudge for her in-laws — in fact, she was estranged from Farouk.

“All your friends are leaving their husbands. Now I understand why Uzbekistan didn’t want Western women roaming around and setting a bad example,” my husband joked.

Although Zumrad was five years younger than I, her two children were already school age. She tsk-tsked when I indulged in the slatki stol, or “sweet table” filled with chocolate-covered wafers, round bread and cracked walnuts, warning me not to gain too much weight in my final trimester. “The baby’s head will get too big,” she said. “It can get stuck in there and be a dangerous situation.”

 

“UZBEKISTAN IS LIKE  a second home to me,” I told the soldiers at the checkpoint in my halting Uzbek. “I taught at Sam-du — shorthand for Samarkand State University — for two years.”

The soldiers were discussing whether to send us back to Samarkand and summoned their superior to weigh in. I was pregnant and had to use the bathroom. But I was fixed in his crosshairs, his eyes trained on me. Then, without warning, the ice melted as a glimmer of recognition flickered on his face.

“Domla Beatrica,” he said, pushing his rifle aside and placing his hand over his heart, a sign of respect in Central Asia.

“Akbar?”

It was my classroom inquisitor from my Peace Corps days — the one who was so determined to out me as a spy.

Assalamu Alaikum,” I greeted him. “Katta rahmat” — “Thank you” — I added as he waved us on. You just saved my marriage, I thought, glancing over at my stone-faced husband.

As we pulled back onto the highway, I finally exhaled.

 

ZUMRAD MADE HER own journey several years later. I was reeling from the changes in my life — at home in New Jersey with two small children and overwhelmed by the fixer-upper we had neither the money nor the skills to repair — when she called to tell me she had moved to North Carolina, where she was studying to become a social worker.

I invited her to come up north for a visit, and took her touring in Philadelphia. At the Liberty Bell, my wise friend turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, Beatrica. You will find your way back.”

6 Comments

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  • Such a great piece. I was a PCV in Thailand 1963-65 (at about the same stage of my life as Beatrica’s service); and I lived for several months in Kyrgyzstan and took a week-long vacation trip through Uzbekistan. The cultural differences between the Central Asia countries were striking; and Samarkand and Bukhara were particularly memorable visits.

    My Thailand experiences from more than fifty years ago continue to shape my life in many ways. I’m sure that you’ll find this to be true as well, in the years ahead. Savor them!

  • Beatrice I enjoyed your story very much, Congrats on your award. I hope to see more of your adventures.

  • I enjoyed reading your very interesting story Beatrice. After experiencing a very different culture, you have a better understanding of your own culture. What a difference educating women in Uzbekistan makes.

  • Thank you! You reminded me the best time and people, there was so much excitement for being around PCVs, to go to conferences, to meet counterparts from other parts of country, it is unfortunate that Peace Corps is suspended in Uzbekistan

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