With his tall, thin frame and bespectacled face, alongwith a Turkish middle name sandwiched between his Christian roots, Christopher Aslan Alexander would have stood out in most places. As destiny would have it, this Turkey born, Beirut-bred lad from Britain found himself in Uzbekistan in the late ’90s, while volunteering with an NGO to write a guidebook about Khiva. At this western border desert oasis close to Turkmenistan, Aslan (his adopted name during his stay) was nearly 700 kilometers away from Samarkand, the tourist-poster city of Uzbekistan.
During his seven year stay here he would find a loving family, a crumbling town still reeling under a Soviet hangover (“Khiva was to play a crucial role in pushing Russian south towards India”, Aslan informs us early on), a voracious appetite for bribes amongst all government machinery and a nation united in their love for a Mexican soap opera.
In his diary from the time, ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road‘, Aslan takes us to the heart of the city, on foot alongside him through the labyrinthine streets within the Ichan Qa’la, or walled city, (‘the most homogeneous example of Islamic architecture in the world‘). He is also our guide in navigating the ways of this desert world, when he begins setting up a carpet weaving workshop, with help of his local family, recruiting marginalised members from nearby villages – the differently abled, the women secluded from society and those battling the rules laid by missing men.
The designs for these carpets are a stunning study in history, from Timurid patterns to Persian and Mughal miniature paintings. Traveling back to England during the time, Aslan meets with Jon Thompson, Oxford professor of carpet history, and gets his hands on Amy Briggs’ essay on Timurid carpets to prepare design inspiration references to take back to the workshop, being run out of an erstwhile madrassah. He enlightens us along the way on the motifs and their significance. Speaking about distinguishing features of Timurid carpets he writes, “The main giveaway that a carpet from Timurid was in the border, which consisted of stylized letters, evolved and embellished to appear like Celtic knots in some cases.”
In reference to miniatures, which are another major source of inspiration for the carpets created at the workshop, he tells us how the word itself has been derived “from a reddish-orange pigment ‘minium’, that was popular with Persian and Mughal minaturists” and “the centre of a miniature would never contain a human being, as only Allah could ever occupy this position.”
The love affair with silk is similarly illustrated through snippets from history, “Until 1924, the Khanate of Khiva was the only country outside China to use silk money, each note handwoven and then printed in the mint located in the Kunya Ark.”
When he is avoiding boisterous parties that end in intrusive questions on his non-existent marital life, this vegetarian traveler watches mountains of “plov, the national dish, ‘of rice, carrot-shavings and raisins topped with dumps of mutton and fat’” being readied for festivities, participating in them as much as a local.
We also follow him across the border into Afghanistan on a sourcing trip for natural dyes, a mis-adventure that is a reminder of what Aslan’s work in this region really entails. His love affair with the town, its people and his desires to make the workshop self-sustainable, are abruptly impeded by local authorities, threatened by the freedom, sincerity and appreciation the workshop has received. He is the outsider they would like to keep away and in the end they do, exiling him without proper documentation to prove the charges.
This book is a journey into a fascinating culture and its crumbling edifice, of daily triumphs amidst layers of corruption, of a young man finding a new life, a new family and a purpose in a land he now calls home.
“I wrote A Carpet Ride to Khiva because I needed a way of gaining closure on my time in Khiva, and I didn’t know what else to do”, Aslan said in an interview in 2010. He continues to find his way back to Central Asia, most recently working with yak herders to find distribution for their wool. When he’s not writing, he is “living the sequel”, one the world is waiting to read.
If, like me, you’re fascinated by this region, here are some more books on Uzbekistan to add to the reading list:
Travels in Central Asia by Arminius Vambery
A Ride to Khiva by Frederick Burnaby
Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell