When I try to remember how I ended up spending an entire summer in Samarkand, I am reminded of an anecdote about the folk hero Nasreddin Hoca. Walking along a deserted road one night, the story goes, Nasreddin Hoca noticed a troop of horsemen riding toward him. Filled with terror that they might rob him or conscript him into the army, Nasreddin leaped over a nearby wall and found himself in a graveyard. The horsemen, who were in fact ordinary travelers, were interested by this behavior, so they rode up to the wall and looked over to see Hoca lying motionless on the ground.
“Can we help you?” the travelers asked. “What are you doing here?”
“Well,” Nasreddin Hoca replied, “it’s more complicated than you think. You see, I’m here because of you; and you’re here because of me.”
The scene immediately conjures itself: the road at nightfall, a dog doubtless barking somewhere, the smell of damp soil, the sound of approaching horsemen, and ﬁnally the faces peering over the wall, concerned and mildly astonished. This story encapsulates the riddle of free will in human history: a realm where, as Friedrich Engels observed, free wills are constantly obstructing one another so that, inevitably, “what emerges is something that no one willed.” Nobody, least of all Nasreddin Hoca, willed for Nasreddin Hoca to end up lying in the graveyard that night. Nobody forced him there, either—yet there he was.
The chain of events that eventually deposited me in Samarkand was set into motion by my decision to study Russian literature: in itself an impulsive decision, not unlike jumping over a wall and ending up in a graveyard, although things on the whole worked out for me. Still, learning Russian takes a long time, and time passes so slowly in college. After two years of what felt like endless study, I still couldn’t pick up a Russian book and read it. I couldn’t understand a Russian movie without subtitles. If I tried to talk to Russian people, they stared at me like I was retarded. I decided that the only solution was to actually go to Russia.
In the spring of my sophomore year, I applied for a grant for a study abroad program in Moscow, and for two jobs: one as a personal secretary to a frozen-foods exporter from Peru who was negotiating with a Moscow-based supermarket chain, and the other as a researcher for the Let’s Go travel guides in Russia. The outcome of these applications wasn’t exactly bad, but it wasn’t anything I had willed, either. I got a travel grant—for half the amount I asked, not enough for the program tuition. The Peruvian entrepreneur said I could be his secretary—pending submission of a “recent full-body photograph.” Let’s Go offered me a job—in Turkey, because they said my Russian wasn’t good enough for travel in Russia. My Turkish, by contrast, was good enough for travel in Turkey. The previous year, Let’s Go had sent a young man who spoke no Turkish at all and who had consequently, as the result of a never fully explained “misunderstanding,” gotten beaten up by a pimp in Konya, after which he had a nervous breakdown, which was minutely documented in Rolling Stone magazine as part of an exposé.
I tried to make the best of things. I wrote a polite refusal to the Peruvian, I used the grant money to arrange a two-week stay in Moscow with some destitute academics, and for the rest of the summer I took the job in Turkey.
The poshest of the Turkish itineraries—Istanbul and the Aegean coast—was assigned to a Turkish-born archaeology graduate student called Erhan, who got himself kidnapped somewhere near Ephesus, only it then turned out that he hadn’t been kidnapped at all but had gotten married; nonetheless, he never came back to Boston, and never sent in any copy, either. My family was in an uproar—not about Erhan, because we didn’t know about that at the time, but because I had been given such a dodgy itinerary: the disputed territory of Northern Cyprus; the Mediterranean coast, where the Eurotrash discos ended only as you approached the Syrian border and had to start looking out for the terrorist PKK; and the backwaters of Central Anatolia. My mother claimed never to have heard of half the cities on the list.
One city was called Tokat, which literally means “a slap in the face.” This is also the title of a famous manifesto by the Russian futurists: “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste”— or, as it is known in Turkish, “Toplumsal zevke bir tokat.” The “Ottoman slap”—a technique developed in the Ottoman army, where punching was considered bad form—is known as Osmanli tokat (or, more grammatically, Osmanlı tokadı), and if you enter this term in YouTube you will see hundreds of videos of Turkish people getting slapped in the face, mostly by other Turkish people, although also, in one case, by a monkey. My mother had particularly bad feelings about my going to Tokat.
When I got to Ankara, where I stayed at my grandmother’s apartment, I gradually realized that my mother had taken steps to ensure my safety. She somehow convinced my aunt Arzu, an ofﬁ cer in the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, to have me followed after sundown: not by an actual intelligence ofﬁcer, but by one of their chauffeurs. I met my pursuer one night in Gaziosmanpas¸a, where all the foreign embassies and ﬁve-star hotels are. I was wandering around an enormous, depressing nightclub called No Parking, trying to determine the price of an Efes Pilsner, when a man in a suit tapped my shoulder and informed me that my car had arrived.
“But I didn’t call a car,” I said.
Nonetheless, explained the man in the suit, the car was there. It had perhaps been sent by a distinguished lady, possibly some kind of a relative.
“She gave a very detailed description of you.” And, giving me a once-over, he repeated: “A very detailed description.”
I followed him outside. Another man in a suit was standing beside a parked car. When I understood who he was, and why he was there, I felt so beleaguered that I burst into tears.
“Please don’t upset yourself, miss,” the driver said, opening the door to the backseat.
I climbed in. We drove back through Gaziosmanpas¸a, past the bulletproof glass cubicles in which soldiers were reading newspapers and smoking cigarettes, back to Kavaklıdere, where my grandmother lived. The driver addressed me only once, at the big intersection outside Swan Park. In Swan Park, vendors sell bags of almond crackers, which you can eat yourself or feed to the swans. As a child I was fascinated by these crackers, which do not contain almonds, but are shaped like almonds. This was my ﬁrst lesson in metaphor versus metonymy. Here, stopped at a red light, the driver half turned to face me.
“Would you like an apple?” he asked.
“No thanks,” I said.
“I picked these apples myself,” he said. “With my own hands, from my own garden.”
From a plastic bag on the passenger seat, he produced a small apple.
The apple was hard, green, and misshapen, like the answer to some pointless riddle.
I left Ankara early in the morning, before my grandmother woke up. I left a note telling her not to worry, that I would call her soon. I did not specify my destination. Nonetheless, when I got off the bus in Tokat, I was personally greeted by the municipal water inspector. A melancholy bureaucrat with a mustache, he spoke of my aunt Arzu with great respect, and took me to visit the waterworks.
As I discovered over the next weeks, my aunt Arzu had mobilized a diverse group of contacts to look out for my welfare. One evening in Kayseri, the Turkish pastrami capital, I was collected from my hostel by a sergeant in the army. The sergeant drove me to a military kebab restaurant on top of an extinct volcano called Mount Erciyes. Skiing Turks, who I believe are not numerous, go there in the winter. At this time of year there was no snow on Erciyes. Outside the windows of the military restaurant, the sun was setting on some grazing sheep, dyeing them pink, like big dense clouds of cotton candy. It was strange to eat lamb while watching these pink ﬂ uffy sheep.
The sergeant asked about my studies. When I said that I studied literature, he asked whether I was reading the works of Yas¸ar Kemal (a famous Turkish novelist who wrote his ﬁ rst short story during his military service in Kayseri). I was not reading the works of Yas¸ar Kemal.
“What author are you reading? What author are you concentrating on?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “Maybe Pushkin.”
“Pushkin? Who is that, an American?”
“Well, more of a Russian, actually.”
This information clearly made no sense at all to the sergeant. He blinked once or twice and told me how lucky I was to study at such a famous American university, how many Turkish boys and girls—and not only boys and girls—would give their ears to have such an opportunity.
“An opportunity for what?” he demanded rhetorically, leaning toward me over the table.
“An opportunity for what?” I echoed.
“An opportunity for having their voices heard! For telling people the truth about Turkey, and not the nonsense propagated by Europeans!”
It was dark when we drove down to the city, past Kayseri’s third claim to fame, after pastrami and skiing: a hulking ﬁfteen-hundred-year-old citadel, hewn from black volcanic rock. Lit by spotlights, it resembled a diabolical cauldron.
Looking back, I am surprised by how much I took to heart the words of people like this sergeant. If I didn’t actually believe in my responsibility to tell Americans the truth about Turkey, nevertheless I did feel it was somehow wasteful of me to study Russian literature instead of Turkish literature. I had repeatedly been told in linguistics classes that all languages were universally complex, to a biologically determined degree. Didn’t that mean all languages were, objectively speaking, equally interesting? And I already knew Turkish; it had happened without any work, like a gift, and here I was tossing it away to break my head on a bunch of declensions that came effortlessly to anyone who happened to grow up in Russia.
Today, this strikes me as terrible reasoning. I now understand that love is a rare and valuable thing, and you don’t get to choose its object. You just go around getting hung up on all the least convenient things—and if the only obstacle in your way is a little extra work, then that’s the wonderful gift right there.
But I was younger and dumber then, and demoralized by the state of the Turkish novel. The thing that immediately struck one about the Turkish novel was that nobody read it, not even Turkish people. I often noticed this when I was in Turkey. Most people just weren’t into novels at all. They liked funny short stories, funny fables, serious fables, essays, letters, short poems, long poems, newspapers, crossword puzzles—they liked practically any kind of printed matter better than novels. Even in 1997, of course, there was already Orhan Pamuk, already writing novels . . . and you could see how miserable he was about it. I bought The Black Book that summer. It was about a man who had lost a woman called “Dream.” This guy was walking around the streets of Istanbul calling: “Dream! Dream!” I remember reading this on a bus in Turkey and feeling deeply, viscerally bored. I spent the rest of the bus ride looking out the window. I was interested by the names of towns. I remember the sign for a town called S¸ereﬂikoçhisar, literally, Fortress of the Honorable Ram.
As a less strenuous concession to the idea of “local color,” I started reading Pushkin’s Turkish travelogue, Journey to Arzrum. I found it much more entertaining than The Black Book. I was already entertained by the very premise that Push-kin had ever set foot in Turkey. It was fully as entertaining to me as the premise of Jesus Christ having set foot in England is to English people—for example, to William Blake: “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?” Interestingly, one of Pushkin’s most famous lyrics is an elegy to feet: “Ah, little feet, little feet! where are you now? . . . Cosseted in Oriental languor, you left no tracks on the sad northern snow.” Pushkin is not here referring, of course, to his own feet. Nonetheless, I saw a pair of Pushkin’s boots once in a museum, and they were very small.
As the summer rushed on, I took night buses from one unknown city to another, visiting caves where Christians had hidden from Romans, and Greek amphitheaters that had been converted into caravanserais by the Seljuks; drifting in and out of sleep, I looked out the bus windows for Pushkin’s tracks. They could be anywhere! Indeed, Pushkin’s cartoonish omnipresence is one of the wonderful things about Russian literary culture. Daniil Kharms wrote a play about it, called Pushkin and Gogol, in which Pushkin and Gogol keep tripping over each other:
gogol, getting up: This is mockery, through and through! (walks, trips on Pushkin and falls) Push-kin again!
That’s how it is: Pushkin is everywhere. To this day, “Pushkin” is used interchangeably with the phrase “someone’s uncle” in Russian expressions such as: “And who will foot the bill—Pushkin?”
My favorite part of Journey to Arzrum is that Pushkin himself keeps stumbling over a nobleman called . . . Count Pushkin. Pushkin and Count Pushkin decide to travel together, but argue and part company. Pushkin will have no part in Count Pushkin’s plan to cross a snowy mountain pass in a britska pulled by eighteen emaciated Ossetian bulls. Their courses diverge . . . but they meet again in Tiﬂis. They can’t escape each other. In Turkey, I was reminded of Count Push-kin every time my path crossed that of another Elif, a thing I wasn’t used to, growing up in the States. I went into all the stores called “Elif Clothing.” I bought something from every “Elif Grocery.” Once I gave some money to a Gypsy woman, who asked my name and offered to tell my fortune. “My daughter’s name is Elif!” she exclaimed. “Isn’t that right?” I was startled to realize that the daughter was actually standing beside her: a skinny child, ﬁve or six years old. The Gypsy looked at my palm and told me to beware of a woman called Mary.
The further I read in Pushkin’s Journey, the more parallels I found with my own experience. As Pushkin was in hiding from the secret police, so was I hiding from my aunt Arzu. As Pushkin was mistaken in his travels for a Frenchman and a dervish, so was I mistaken for a Spaniard and a pilgrim. As Pushkin happened in his travels upon a soiled copy of his own earlier Caucasian poem, “Prisoner of the Caucasus”—the very text he was supposed to be updating with his new Eastern impressions—so was I constantly stumbling, in teahouses and gardens, upon earlier editions of Let’s Go. Finally, as Pushkin, a Russian, was ambiguously positioned between the “Orient” and the seventeenth-century Anglo-French tradition of travelogue, so was I ambiguously positioned between Turkey and the exasperating twentieth-century discourse of “shoestring travel”: the quest for an idyll where, for three U.S. dollars, Mustafa would serve you a home-cooked meal and tell you about his hair collection. The worst part of this discourse was its specious left-wing rhetoric, as if it were a form of “sticking it to the man” to reject a chain motel in favor of a cold-water pension completely ﬁlled with owls.
I stayed in all the novelty hotels—tree house hotels perched on stilts, troglodyte hotels carved from dolomites— and everywhere I found the same atmosphere of distrust. The travelers lived in terror of getting ripped off, or missing an “authentic” experience. The locals were terriﬁed lest they miss some “opportunity” afforded by their foreign visitors.
Of course I met many kind and reasonable people among both groups, but by deﬁnition it’s the importune ones who sought one out: the tourists cadging insider tips, the locals demanding that I lure rich foreigners to their establishments. A Turkish schoolteacher turned hotelier gave me a typed report he had written debunking the Armenian genocide, for me to give to the American government. A tour-bus operator wanted me to help his uncle get a kidney transplant “in Houston.” “And who will pay for that,” I reﬂ ected gloomily. “Pushkin?”
I spent the last two weeks of the summer living in Moscow with two very kind but depressed Russian academics: a mathematician from the Academy of Sciences, and his wife, a biologist who had recently been ﬁred from the Academy of Sciences and who spent all night in the kitchen playing Super Mario Brothers on a Nintendo Game Boy. They were renting me the bedroom usually occupied by their daughter, who had been banished to a grandmother’s dacha.
Back at school that year I managed to get a somewhat larger grant, and to enroll for the spring semester in a study-abroad program. This program was operated by two Russian entrepreneurs, both named Igor, and had a distant afﬁ liation with a liberal arts college in Kansas.
Moscow in 1998 was like Paris during the Restoration. The Caspian oil pipeline had drawn the largest foreign investment in Russian history. The city was overrun by speculators. Mayor Luzhkov resurrected Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks, and plotted the construction of an underground city in the suburbs. The state had stopped funding the maintenance of Lenin’s corpse in Red Square, and the vast reserves of unemployed master embalmers were hired to restore the victims of Maﬁa car bombings, and to mummify the nouveau riche in marble mausoleums.
In Moscow, for the ﬁrst and last time in my life, I dated bankers. Things didn’t work out with the ﬁrst banker, but I still remember the second banker fondly. His name was Rustem, he had remarkable yellowish brown eyes, and he had until recently been an engineer at an explosives factory in Yekaterinburg, designing bombs that were named after ﬂ owers. Now he was working for Bank Menatep, which the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky used to manage the state funds for Chernobyl victims, and also to commit alleged embezzlement and tax fraud for which he is, at the time of this writing, serving a prison sentence. Rustem was saving up money to pay for parachuting lessons.
Rustem regularly traveled to Uzbekistan: his sister had married an Uzbek businessman and now lived in Tashkent, which Rustem said resembled the American West of cowboy movies. He could count to ten in Uzbek, and I was amazed to learn that the numbers were almost the same as in Turkish. I had been told, but had not believed, that Uzbek was related to Turkish. The fact hadn’t been presented in a convincing way. A distant uncle of mine had married an Uzbek beauty called Lola, who never talked to anyone or even opened her mouth (although she smiled often, showing beautiful dimples). Only two years after their marriage did it become generally known that Lola had three gold teeth. Everyone would always ask my uncle: “How do you live with someone you can’t communicate with?” And my uncle always shouted: “Uzbek Turkish is very close to our Turkish language!”
I hadn’t believed my uncle, partly because he was crazy—hadn’t he spent his later years in a gardening shed in New Jersey, writing a book about string theory and spiders?— and partly because, in my experience, Turkish people thought that every language was close to our Turkish language. Many times I had been told that Hungarian was related to Turkish, that the Hungarians and Turks descended from the same Altaic peoples, that Attila the Hun was Turkish, and so on. When I went to Hungary, however, I discovered that Hungarians do not share these beliefs at all. “Of course we have some Turkish words in our language,” they would say. “For example, handcuffs. But that’s because you occupied our country for four hundred years.”
But Rustem had some Uzbek money in his apartment, brilliantly colored bills on which the familiar Turkish words were set in Cyrillic type, above portraits of stern, almond-eyed Central Asian bards and geographers. It was like play money, the currency of a fantastic land where Turkish and Russian overlapped and generated some other thing.
Several years later, while writing my dissertation (about European novels), I formulated a theory of the novel: the novel form is “about” the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books. Looking back, this is how I understand my interest in Central Asia: there was an actual place you could visit, with a language you could learn, that linked my favorite books with one of the more arbitrary and “given” aspects of my life: being Turkish.
Once I learned about the existence of Tashkent, it, too, kept turning up. Anna Akhmatova was evacuated to Tashkent from Leningrad during the siege. So was Bulgakov’s widow: that’s where she hid the manuscript of Master and Margarita. Solzhenitsyn’s stomach tumor was miraculously cured at a Tashkent hospital, which became the setting of Cancer Ward. In Anna Karenina, Vronsky ruins his brilliant military career by refusing a “ﬂattering and dangerous assignment in Tashkent,” instead running away to Italy with Anna.
I decided to visit Tashkent over spring break. Rustem wanted to come with me, but he couldn’t leave the bank. The nation’s bankers were working long hours in those days. I wasn’t following the escalating ﬁnancial malaise, which Rustem rarely mentioned; as for Raisa, the elderly pensioner with whom I was living, she only turned on the news when it was about the Lewinsky scandal. “I don’t watch our news— it’s so dark. It leaves you feeling bad.”
“Monica Lewinsky leaves me feeling bad, too,” I said.
Raisa shrugged. “For you in America, it’s a big drama, but for us, it’s just funny. Your Clinton is a young, healthy, good-looking man! Where’s the misfortune? Look at our half-dead Yeltsin . . . if we found out Boris Nikolaevich was sleeping with a young girl, we would declare a national holiday.”
Meanwhile, at the university, the smaller of the two Igors turned out to be a friend of Anatoly Chubais, the privatization czar who was at that point in charge of the entire, collapsing economy, and even got him to come and give a speech to the advanced Russian class. “You know who must have a lot of free time,” I remarked to Rustem later, “is this guy Chubais. He’s going around to universities, talking to foreign students.” It took several minutes to convince Rustem that I wasn’t joking. “She’s seen Chubais!” he marveled. “And what did he say?”
Unfortunately I couldn’t remember anything he had said, except that he had used a lot of participles.
I ended up going to Central Asia in the company of one of my classmates from the university, a Taiwanese mathematician called Alex. We got to Tashkent in the pouring rain and started to walk from the bus station to our hostel, making our way through a maze of courtyards, ignoring all the dogs that were barking at us from behind chain-link fences, crossing a huge puddle on a bridge made from a rotting plank.
“Tashkent is the Venice of the East,” Alex announced, in his peculiar monotonic voice.
My recollections from this trip are scattered but vivid. We lived on some kind of chocolate spread, which we ate from a jar using a souvenir Uzbek scimitar. We constantly had to bribe people. At one point we spent twenty minutes wandering through a pool hall near a bus station, trying to identify the guy we were supposed to bribe. I had to do all the talking because nobody could understand anything Alex said. To my dismay, I also had to do all the ﬁ nancial calculations.
“Aren’t you the math major?” I asked Alex once, in the middle of trying to sort out who owed what for a Kirghiz visa.
“I only deal with numbers on a theoretical level,” Alex intoned.
We spent three days each in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. We spent a lot of time in bus stations, where Alex made us do calisthenics, “like the Germans.” “We are wasting minutes!” he would shout, attempting a German accent. Sometimes, the buses turned out to have been requisitioned by soldiers—there was a war in Kyrgyzstan—and then, even if there were empty seats left, we had to wait for the next bus.
“Couldn’t we take this bus, too?” I asked once.
“What—with the soldiers?” exclaimed the station attendant. “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
In Bukhara we visited the emir’s palace, which was overrun by peacocks. Some of the rooms had been ﬁ lled with cement. “That used to be the conservatory but the Soviets objected to grand pianos.” In the Kirghiz mountains, we visited a thermal bath, where we sat in wooden cubicles, immersed in sulfurous water. The sulfur blended with the sickly sweet smell of horsemeat, which someone was boiling outside over an open ﬁre. In Bishkek we rode a Ferris wheel that marked the place where Tamerlane had allegedly once expressed the wish to be buried. He hadn’t been buried there. The Ferris wheel stood in an otherwise empty plaza, where a little boy with several gold teeth was riding a bicycle in circles; another boy, dressed in a gray suit, was shooting at a lone shrub with a toy machine gun.
But the city that left the strongest impression on me was Samarkand, with its abandoned Soviet department store, and the astronomical observatory where, in the ﬁ fteenth century, Ulughbek had mapped the coordinates of 1,018 stars, and the deserted medieval university. The Lion Medrese’s mosaic lions—half tiger, half clock—were clearly the work of someone who had never seen a lion. Samarkand is where Tamer-lane was actually buried, under a six-foot slab of jade taken from a temple in China. It crossed my mind that I might like to come back someday, when I was less tired, dirty, and confused.
Shortly after I returned to the United States that summer, the Russian ruble crashed. Many of the banks, including Menatep, collapsed overnight. Rustem liquidated his rubles by buying fax machines; he occasionally sent me faxes at my summer job, in the copyediting department of a big New York publishing house. Eventually the faxes stopped; the summer came to an end.
Back at school that fall, I started studying the “Russian Orient”: I read Soviet realist stories by Uzbek and Kirghiz writers, Pan-Slavic treatises by Soviet linguists, Pan-Turkic treatises by Kemalist Turks, “Caucasian” poems by Russian poets. I signed up for a beginning Uzbek class, which was taught by a graduate student, a Samarkand native called Gulnora. I was fascinated by the language, which seemed to me like a harsher, more naïve, more Russian version of Turkish. Where Kemalist Turks had borrowed French words (for things like trains and ham), the Soviet Uzbeks borrowed Russian ones. At that time I happened upon a book about Pushkin by Stanford professor Monika Greenleaf. According to Greenleaf, Pushkin’s journey to Arzrum was actually a substitute for a journey to Paris: a city Pushkin had dreamed of all his life—“In a week I’ll deﬁnitely be in Paris!” begins an unﬁnished play—but had never visited.
Pushkin’s travels began at age twenty-one when, on the basis of some radical political verses, he was banished from Petersburg on a civil service assignment to present-day Dnepropetrovsk. There he made the acquaintance of the 1812 hero General Raevsky, with whom he traveled for three months through the Caucasus and Crimea, accumulating material for Prisoner of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. Pushkin was transferred next to Moldova, and then to Odessa, where he fell desperately in love with the governor-general’s wife, fought several duels, and was obliged to leave the civil service. Meanwhile, the secret police had just intercepted a letter in which Pushkin mentioned “studying pure atheism” from a deaf Englishman in Odessa who had conclusively dis-proven the immortality of the soul. On the pretext of these heretical lines, Pushkin was exiled to Pskov.
In 1826, the new tsar, Nikolai I, allowed Pushkin to return to Moscow, and even undertook the duty of censoring his works. Unfortunately, the tsar turned out to be Pushkin’s most annoying censor yet. Worse still, he made Pushkin directly accountable to Count Benckendorff, the head of the secret police, who had to approve all his travel requests. (By this point, Greenleaf observes, Pushkin’s “loudly lamented exile in the early 1820s” had already begun to “represent the peripatetic freedom of his youth.”) When Benckendorff denied Pushkin’s request to travel to Paris, in 1829, Pushkin decided to slip across the border to Turkey. And so the Orient, which was supposed to represent “the open spaces of adventure and personal reminiscence,” actually represented the opposite of freedom: banishment from Paris, the center of the world, to the most meaningless peripheries.
When I returned to Stanford as a second-year graduate student, I had to start taking a Russian-language pedagogy class, to prepare for my mandatory year of teaching Russian to undergraduates. The class was taught in Russian by a Soviet-trained linguist called Alla who advised us, among other things, to treat our more stupid students with sympathy, “as if they had cancer.”
While I was in pedagogy training, a scandal erupted around one of my classmates, Janine, a non-native Russian speaker who was at that time teaching ﬁrst-year Russian. Dropping in on one of Janine’s classes, Alla had seen her write on the blackboard the phrase vasha imia (“your name”)—which would have been ﬁ ne if imia (“name”) were feminine, but in fact it is an irregular neuter, so the correct form is vashe imia. Janine’s class was immediately reassigned to another graduate student (who now had a double teaching load); for the rest of the year, all Janine was allowed to do was grade homework papers, using an answer key.
I thought a long time about Janine’s situation. Granted, “name” is a pretty common word in ﬁ rst-year language classes, so the teacher should probably know what gender it is. On the other hand, what we were really talking about here was a one-letter spelling mistake on an irregular noun. Who among us was safe from such a misstep?
As I was having these thoughts, UC Berkeley announced a search for an Uzbek language instructor—a clear gesture from the “invisible hand.” I had had only one year of Uzbek language instruction, but the professor conducting the search— author of a famous semiotic study of suicide—said that if I took an intensive all-summer course in Uzbekistan, I could have the job. The director of the Stanford special-languages program also said I might be able to teach Uzbek at Stanford: either the Berkeley or the Stanford Uzbek class would count for my language teaching requirement. This seemed like a great idea to me, because who was going to refute my spelling of Uzbek words on the board? Nobody.
The only U.S.-accredited intensive immersion program in the Uzbek language was run by the American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR) and cost seven thousand dollars. “I wonder why it’s so expensive,” I remember remarking to the Berkeley professor. “Airfare is a thousand dollars . . . and after that, you’d think the overhead in Uzbekistan would be pretty low.”
The semiotician counted off on three ﬁngers: “One thousand for instruction, one thousand for room and board, and four thousand for the body bag to send you home.”
I got the seven thousand dollars, most of it from Stanford and the rest from the U.S. Department of State, but then came a new development. It suddenly turned out that the salary for the Berkeley job was paid by a government grant for which only native Uzbek speakers were eligible. Bizarrely, it also turned out that the director of the Stanford special-languages program had told the grant-awarding committee that I had fabricated the entire conversation and e-mail exchange in which she told me there was a possibility of my teaching Uzbek at Stanford. I still have the e-mail to this day. It says: “I would be delighted to have you teach Uzbek in the Special Languages Program.” “I never told that woman anything,” the special-languages director apparently told the grants committee.
I didn’t take the news too badly. Maybe, I reasoned, it was all for the best that I wasn’t being encouraged to run away to Uzbekistan with a four-thousand-dollar body bag, just because I was afraid of being caught by Alla in a spelling mistake. I made an appointment with the administrator in charge of Newly Independent States (NIS) region grants, to explain that I wanted to return the money. As I told her my story, the administrator’s expression grew more and more distant.
“This doesn’t look good,” she said ﬁnally. “You’re backing out of your research proposal just because you aren’t eligible for this particular job at Berkeley, this particular year?” She shook her head. “It doesn’t look good. I like you, Elif, and I want you to succeed. That’s why I’m telling you that, if you back out of your proposal now, the likelihood of this committee ever awarding you a grant again will be very small.”
Of all the circumstances that contributed to my ending up in Samarkand, this ultimatum was the most unexpected. Go to Uzbekistan now . . . or you will never get departmental funding ever again? My ﬁrst instinct was to tell them exactly what they could do with their departmental funding. But three things changed my mind. First, departmental funding and departmental goodwill are really, in the cold light of reason, nothing to sneeze at. Second, I was at that time greatly under the sway of The Portrait of a Lady, a book in which one ﬁnds the following line: “Afterwards, however, she always remembered that one should never regret a generous error.” As a result I was constantly rethinking all my conservative decisions and amending them in favor of “generous errors,” a category which surely included going to Samarkand to learn the great Uzbek language. Third, I was unhappy in love and wanted to get some distance.
The plan backﬁred somewhat because one of the people I wanted to get some distance from, my college boyfriend Eric, insisted on coming with me, for his own set of reasons (concern for my safety; his belief—accurate, as it turned out—that it would give us things to talk about later; and some obscure geopolitical ambitions that entailed a quest for total world knowledge). Despite myself, I was moved. I said I would ask what it would entail for him to come with me. As it turned out, it entailed almost nothing at all. Just a couple of hundred dollars added your signiﬁcant other to your homestay arrangement, and even to your accidental death and dismemberment policy, which I received in the mail a few weeks later:
two or more members: $25,000
one member: $25,000
thumb and index finger: $6,250
combined maximum of $50,000 for emergency or medical repatriation, or repatriation of remains.
repatriation of remains: covered services include, but are not limited to, expenses for embalming, cremation, minimally necessary casket for transport and transportation.
“Orientation” took place in Washington, D.C., at a midrange hotel decorated completely in mauve. There were thirty-ﬁve students in the Russian Language and Area Studies program, thirty-three of them going to Russia.
At dinner the ﬁrst night—“spring vegetable pasta” served at mauve tables in a mauve ballroom—we listened to an address by a linguistics professor who had invented a system of rating second-language proﬁciency. The genius of this system rested on the concept of rating second-language proﬁciency on a scale from one to four.
It occurred to me that nobody was actually forcing me to stay in this room. Surely it would be more constructive to go buy a sun hat. (I have black hair and Uzbekistan is very sunny: along with Liechtenstein, it is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world.) The speaker either affected not to notice or did not notice my departure from the mauve ballroom. In the lobby I asked the concierge, whose name tag said albrecht, where I could buy a sun hat. Albrecht suggested that I might like to look for a hat in nearby Georgetown. “So we’re here . . . ,” he said, poising his hotel pen over a map. But the pen just hovered there, like a helicopter. Albrecht couldn’t locate our hotel on the map. “This is very embarrassing,” he said. His sincerity left a strong impression on me.
In the humid evening, ﬁ reﬂies hovered at eye level over little brick streets. Somehow I ended up in an Urban Outﬁ tters. All around me, girls were buying absolutely unwearable-looking clothes: sheer dresses with V-necks down to the navel; jeans measuring literally two inches from waist to crotch; rhinestone-encrusted G-strings with no elasticity whatsoever. I found a hideous white ill-ﬁtting sun hat, bought it, and ﬂ ed to Barnes & Noble.
There was one other student in the program going to Uzbekistan: Dan, a Tashkent-bound political science major who was indescribably average in both appearance and demeanor, like some kind of composite sketch. On the plane, Dan managed to befriend a group of twelve Uzbek and Ukrainian exchange students. During the layover in Frankfurt, we all sat in two rows of seats in a waiting area, looking at a photo album belonging to a young Uzbek called Muratbek. Muratbek was very tan, with bleached hair and a ﬁxed grin. To his every utterance in every language, he appended the exclamation: “Awesome!” “Turkcha gapirasizmi?” he asked me. “Do you speak Turkish? Awesome!”
Having extinguished two hours of my youth in this way, I went to meet Eric, who had skipped the orientation and was ﬂying to Frankfurt directly from San Francisco. His plane arrived in another, larger terminal. A BMW sedan, the grand prize for something, was parked in the middle of a vast atrium. On the other side of a glass panel, an open cart piled high with suitcases glided along the runway, against the pale early-morning sky. A wall-size television screen was broadcasting a World Cup match: Turkey versus Japan. A small group of Turkish janitors was gathered in front of the screen. At tense moments, they would drop their mop handles and grip one another’s arms, shouting at the players in German.
Eric came out of the plane wearing a white T-shirt and a backpack, looking, with his gentle blinking Chinese eyes, as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy. Because Eric was an intelligence ofﬁcer in the U.S. Naval Reserve (part of his geopolitical ambitions), we ended up in some kind of a military lounge. It had free Internet and bran mufﬁ ns, and a tiny television broadcasting the Japan-Turkey game. Turkey won, 1–0. Even inside the military lounge, we could hear the janitors cheering.
It was late at night when we got to Tashkent. The baggage claim area felt like a room in a dream, a room in someone’s house. A breeze was blowing through an open window. We passed through customs and ﬁled into a parking lot, where Dan’s Tashkent host family came to pick him up: three teenage boys with hangdog expressions, and their mother, Marjuda, an overweight woman with gold teeth and a bright red dress. Marjuda greeted us all warmly; she wrote her phone number on a piece of paper and told me and Eric to visit her in Tashkent. Then she gestured to Dan to come to their car. Dan turned to me. “So you’re going to stay with us tonight, right?” he said urgently, as though I were his closest friend.
“Ah, no, in a hotel,” I said. They were sending a driver to take us to Samarkand the next day.
“But she just invited you!”
In a haze of sleep, Eric and I got into the car of an ACTR ofﬁcer, who was taking us to our hotel. Propaganda slogans were printed in enormous letters on walls and billboards— I could recognize halqim, “my people,” and vatanim, “my country”—signed by Islom Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan since the fall of the Iron Curtain. His last reelection had been in 2000, when he won 91.9 percent of the vote against his sole opponent: a professor of Marxist philosophy, who later admitted that he himself had voted for Karimov.
In the morning, a tiny Korean car, buzzing with the vibrations of a poor-quality stereo, picked us up at a street corner. The driver, an inscrutable Tajik, turned off the stereo when we got into the car. Once we reached the main road, the sun blazed down and it was unbearably hot. The driver periodically made tiny adjustments to the temperature. He turned the air conditioner between “lo” and “off”; opened and closed the vents; rolled down the window a crack, then closed it again. No matter what he did, it was unbearably hot.
After an hour of silence, the driver turned to me and said, in Russian:
“So you didn’t bring any cassette tapes with you?”
We hadn’t, I said, but maybe we could listen to some of his tapes.
The driver remained silent for a moment. “What if you don’t like my music?” he asked ﬁnally.
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll like it,” I said.
The driver looked genuinely confused. “How can you say that?” he asked. “You don’t even know what kind of music I have.”
Thirty kilometers of the highway from Tashkent to Samarkand passes through Kazakhstan. The moment we cleared the police checkpoint, the landscape looked completely different. Patchy, grayish ﬁelds stretched as far as the eye could see. There were no trees at all, no human ﬁgures. Here and there stood a few melancholy, skeletal horses, with drooping prehistoric heads.
Twenty minutes later, trees reappeared, leafy trees with their trunks painted white, on either side of the road; Uzbek police were guarding a roadblock.
“So we’re back in Uzbekistan?” I asked the driver.
“Yes, this is Uzbekistan. Trees, you see.”
“They, um, don’t have trees in Kazakhstan?”
He shook his head, frowning. “Don’t like them.”
“The Kazakhs don’t like . . . trees?”
The driver shook his head more emphatically. “No way.”
We pulled up in front of the house late that afternoon. Two massive wooden doors were set in a pink plaster wall; one of them swung out slowly and Gulchekhra, our “host mother”— they really called her that, as if we were tapeworms—came outside. Peculiarly familiar music drifted toward us. Gulchekhra smiled graciously at me and Eric, and less graciously at the driver, whom she addressed in Tajik: she was evidently trying to dismiss him, while he shufﬂed his feet and looked at the ground, with the appearance of somebody waiting to be paid. It was not, as we later learned, a deceptive appearance. The driver was a sort of relative, in the broadest sense, so one tried to be kind to him, Gulchekhra explained, but it was the Americans in Tashkent who had his money; they hadn’t given it to her.
We walked through a covered passage, to a stone courtyard with a square pool, its water green and cloudy with vegetable life. The hot, shimmering air throbbed with what I belatedly recognized as a ballad by Enrique Iglesias. Next to a large boom box, a boy with a weedy adolescent mustache was washing a Daewoo sedan with a garden hose.
Eric and I were given an entire wing of the house, consisting of three rooms: a bedroom, a little sitting room with a television, and a dining room with a long table that could seat twenty. (The malfunctioning toilet was in a different wing.) Gulchekhra told us to call her Gulya, and announced her intention to call me “Emma,” because my real name was so complicated. A former Communist apparatchik, she now worked as a travel agent and had been to “every country in the world, except America, Africa, and Japan.” She had two children: Inom, the teenager with the car, and Lila, a fouryear-old girl. Inom and Lila’s father had, Gulya explained, “become a yogi” and moved to California two years ago.
That afternoon Inom drove me to the university, where I met Vice-Rector Safarov, a personage whose refrigerator-like build, rubbery face, and heavy eyelids brought to mind some anthropomorphic piece of furniture in a Disney movie. Reclining in a leather chair in his ofﬁce, speaking in accented Russian, Vice-Rector Safarov gave me a speech about the importance of comparative literary and cultural study.
“We can study symbols and how they are used in different cultures,” he announced, “or we can study systems of folklore, or we can study how different languages structure people’s perceptions of the world.” He leaned back in his chair with his arms folded. “What kind of language do you wish to study here, in the principal aspect?”
“The Uzbek language,” I ventured cautiously. Did he already know that I was supposed to teach Russian next year?
Safarov took out a notebook and proceeded to sketch my program of study. I would have four hours of class every day: two hours of “spoken speech” and two hours of “written speech,” aka, the great Uzbek literary language. I was the sole student in these classes. Rising from his desk, Safarov opened the ofﬁce door with a ﬂourish, revealing a lanky young man in a button-down shirt. “Here is your language teacher,” Safarov said. “His name is Muzaffar.” Muzaffar, a philosophy graduate student, had pale skin, pale almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and a ﬂoppy, sad, puppetlike comportment. He bowed, lifting one hand to his chest. Despite his exotic appearance and foreign gestures, his general air of malaise was familiar to me from previous observations of philosophy graduate students.
Muzaffar had been instructed to accompany me back to Gulya’s house. I found his presence oppressive. At one point during our walk, we passed some Russian girls smoking cigarettes. “I have to apologize to you, Elif,” Muzaffar said in English, softly and in what seemed to me an insinuating tone. “Our girls, Uzbek girls, of course do not smoke in street, but Russian girls, they do this.”
“That’s ﬁne,” I said. I tried twice to invite him to go home and let me walk the rest of the way alone, but it was no use; man or God had instilled in him too strong a sense of responsibility for my welfare.
We turned onto Gulya’s street. “I will see you tomorrow,” Muzaffar said. “We will work very hard.”
“Great,” I said.
“At our age,” he observed, “we must work and study a lot, while we still have the strength.”
This remark for the ﬁrst time began to dispose me kindly toward Muzaffar. I laughed, and a glint of amusement appeared in his pale eyes. “While we still have time,” he clariﬁed. “Already time is running out, but soon we won’t have strength left, either.”
By now we were a few yards away from the massive wooden doors; I could already hear Enrique Iglesias. Muzaffar said that it was time to say goodbye, and that he would now stand behind a tree until I was safely inside the house.
“Oh, OK,” I said. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye. You go into the house now. Don’t worry. I will be here.” He pointed at an emaciated tree.
I knocked on the door, glancing over my shoulder where Muzaffar, faithfully stationed behind the tree, raised one limp arm. I returned this gesture. Inside the courtyard, the music was very loud. Inom was washing his car again.
“Was there a man hiding behind that tree?” Gulya asked, suspiciously.
“I didn’t see anyone,” I said.
*’Summer in Samarkand’ © 2008, Elif Batuman. The Possessed by Elif Batuman is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and Granta in the UK