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Book Review: A Carpet Ride to Khiva, By Christopher Aslan Alexander

Christopher Aslan Alexander_A Carpet Ride to Khiva

Christopher Aslan Alexander – A Carpet Ride to Khiva

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

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Today I met the Queen…

…Not the octogenarian in England.

I’m referring to the Hindi film that has been receiving rave reviews since it released about two weeks ago.

Over the years most of my movie viewing experience has involved waiting for reviews (mostly from multiple ‘professional’ critics) before standing in line for a ticket. There was the sole instance of running across a deserted parking lot to catch a 10am first-day-first-show of ‘The Last Samurai’. But that was more about a Tom Cruise phase and mostly about the boy I was running with.

As it stands, I end up watching very few Hindi films in theatres. The industry produces an obscene number of very trashy material every year that I have no tolerance for. And when there is something interesting to watch there’s the challenge of finding a willing partner. One CAN watch a film alone, (It was just me at ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ for instance), but something about Hindi films makes them more family outing (adults only) friendly. As it turned out, all through dating years the boyfriend never wanted to step anywhere Hindi films. But now that he is the husband he has no choice.

So after the girls at work (and random people on twitter) were gushing over ‘Queen’ (“Every woman should watch this film”) I decided to force my man along and make a Sunday of it. Keeping clear of spoilers, I had been given to understand that this was going to be about a woman finding herself, in some form or another.

Having seen it and under no obligation to keep quiet, an elevator synopsis would explain it thus (SPOILER ALERT): Simple, sober, homely Delhi Girl gets stood up at the altar – decides to go on her honeymoon alone – Gets to Paris where she faces troubles at first but triumphs, meets French-Indian free-spirited woman who helps her loosen up (with ample alcohol) and widens her horizon (not ‘Mulholland Drive’ wide. That’s illegal here) – our Delhi girl then travels to Amsterdam where she continues her vacation at a hostel, sharing her room with three appropriately-ethnically-diverse men (French, Japanese, Russian) and finally finds herself.

I will give the film brownie points for not labouring on any matter endlessly and instead maintaining the feel of a holiday everyone is taking alongside the girl while she ‘discovers’ herself. But I will not call it a “path-breaking” film and am surprised so many people are labelling it that. It is peppered with several formulaic features like typical Delhi humour that has become quite common in recent films (Punjabi music, jokes, supporting actors and their quirks), cardboard characters she meets during her trip with their little background stories (Parisian girl with child out of wedlock because “that’s what people do here”, Muslim girl working at a strip club in Amsterdam to support her family, Japanese roommate who lost his parents in the Tsunami etc.). The only real departure it makes from the norm (of Hindi films) is side-lining the need for a male partner in the scheme of things.

It seems to me that the main reason everyone is applauding this film is the centrality of the female gaze and perspective and the fact that the film ends with a rejection of the reconciliatory advances of the fiancé who had left her at the altar. Perhaps the culmination with her walking out of his house after an honest hug is to complete the circle the film had begun with their cancelled wedding at the outset.

So riddle me this: Why is it that in coming-of-age films with central male characters, women are incidental to the story (usually only as sexual partners) and not linked to the man’s journey to self-discovery? And here everyone is rushing to applaud a film where a female character’s self-worth emanates most significantly from her rejection of a subscribed relationship?

Perhaps a truly “path-breaking” Hindi film that sets out to celebrate freedom would be one that does not need to establish a male character who must be rejected/accepted by the woman in order for her to discover herself.

And it should be family outing and popcorn-cola worthy. For all else there’s After Hours with Simone de Beauvoir.