“My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”
The earlier blistering sun was soft and low on the horizon now, Somoni Park with its dwarfish bushes and dusty brick paths bathed in an ominous golden glow. The Samanid Mausoleum was sand-thatched, diminutive, and padlocked shut; I chided myself for not coming earlier, Uzbek heat be damned. Still sleepy-eyed I peeked through latticework wooden windows at the Spartan tomb within.
This country was full of monuments to ancient Sufi saints and such. You never see plaques in praise of the everyman hero, cobbling together his life of ordinary courage under the sepia shadow of despots. Marketplace fig-woman, cotton kerchief beauties, cackling boys in cool, brown river in the shadow of the massive Ark.
Rapping rapscallion Hasan.
Stretching lanky limbs his cool, steely eyes took in the evening calm. He didn’t notice my smitten gaze, fixed on his beatific face. I couldn’t shake the image of me inside the bawdy youthful fantasies he confessed to me earlier that day.
“My favorite time of day. Work is over, children come out to play, everybody happy…”
Rubber-legged and lazy we meandered through the patchwork park, unrushed by the setting sun, in and out of dusty alleys, back to Lyabi-Hauz, where smiling youths and sweat-caked tourists sat on wooden benches and carpeted tapchans around the lake, sipping leisurely tea and frosty beer over steaming plates of bread and kabobs.
Hodja Nasruddin, crazy trickster saint of Sufi lore smiled atop his braying ass, outstretched hand in silent blessing, silent admonition.
“Have you heard of Hodja Nasruddin? You should read his stories, they are so funny. We Uzbeks learn a lot from his wisdom.”
I made a mental note to read them later, was steadying my camera for a shot when Hasan leaped up on Nasruddin’s shoulders.
“Take a picture of us! Haha!”
Onlookers shot disapproving stares as Hasan straddled their bronze mystic mullah. They say the Hodja spoke divine truth disguised as humor and madness. I searched Hasan’s face for signs of higher truth, got sidetracked by his shining eyes and sandy freckles.
“Hey! Wake up! haha”
Hasan lept back to earth, dusting off his heavy hands.
“As you can see, Lyabi-Hauz is for tourists. I’m gonna show you where my friends and I hang out. Let’s go to Semurgh.”
We walked and walked under twinkling stars and faded street lamps until we reached a wide plaza. A few of his friends from the pool were waiting, crouched on bricksteps, stood up to greet us, soft, warm hand sandwiches and pearly grins all around.
“I’m hungry… let’s go here. Theo! You have to try this ice cream. Best in Bukhara!”
I followed Hasan and his friends through the plaza to a quiet corner of the street, where a smiling vendor waved from a small stall. He had the confident, dignified air of a self-made man in his late-thirties early-forties and the smooth copper skin of someone much younger. Hasan introduced me to his soft-serve friend, whom I greeted in Persian, to obvious delight.
“Welcome to Uzbekistan! You are my honored guest, please, take ice cream,” he said, shoving a cool vanilla cone in my hand. Charmed by the hospitable gesture, I took a bite, creamy liquid milk coated my lips. The ice cream was rich and sweet, obviously homemade. I tossed unwelcome thoughts about pasteurization (or lack thereof) into a mental bin and licked my treat, practically inhaling it. Hasan and his friends ordered cones and devoured them with squinting, mirthful eyes.
“Do you like it? Have another!”
He pushed another cone into my sticky palm. The price on his cart was amazingly cheap so I accepted and wagged my tongue with wild abandon. Full of frosty goodness, I asked what I owed him for two cones. His eyebrows lept with skepticism, then relaxed.
“No! Nothing! As I said, you are my guest! Thank you for visiting Uzbekistan.”
Overwhelmed by his hospitality I insisted, but the kindly ice cream man refused. Feeling vaguely guilty, the (relatively) wealthy American mooching ice cream from smiling beat Uzbek youth, I paid for Hasan and his friends’ cones as a goodwill gesture. It was the least I could do to thank them for taking me under their wing.
We sauntered back to the plaza and grabbed a plastic table and chairs next to the snack kiosk. I ordered a samosa and a beer, assuming Hasan and his friends would follow suit. They ordered nothing.
“Won’t you drink anything?” I asked, trying to liven the atmosphere. They seemed quiet and distacted.
“Not now, maybe later,” they responded, craning their necks in silent vigil around the night-swept plaza. I suddenly realized we were girl-watching. Hasan puzzled at my indifference to the sport, saddled into cold Baltika reveries of my own.
“Look at that one,” he said, licking his lips. “I want to fuck her!”
The wild, mischievous glint in Hasan’s eye was back, erasing his relaxed demeanor in the park. I must have cringed at his outburst, as his friends suddenly turned to Hasan blank-faced and silent with expectation. He translated into Uzbek and they grinned slyly.
A beer buzz bubbled up to my brain and I began to feel uneasy, questioning the wisdom of this outing.
I was glad to make local friends, but I didn’t know how to react to their lecherous habits. And why weren’t they eating or drinking anything? Maybe they didn’t have any money, they were young after all. In an effort to melt the thick atmosphere, I offered to treat them, and a few took up my offer. Hasan ordered some kebabs, then a soda, and my beerfuzzed brain grew paranoid. Was this his plan all along? Maybe this was their thing—recruiting solo tourists to pay for fun and games. They’d invited me to a club the next day, Friday—would I end up paying there, too? A round or two? Cackling joymouths approaching the door, the tugging of empty pockets when asked to pay a cover. Was this their plan? At least now they weren’t drinking alcohol, probably mindful of the watchful eyes of nearby elders. What was going on?
I grew somber and silent while my imagination worked overtime. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d got in a jam over a pretty face, but I could still get out of it if I wanted to. I turned somersaults in my head, and the incandescent lamps took on a sinister hue. There were worse things than getting fleeced for beers by a bunch of cute guys. Uzbekistan was still a Muslim country, and the characters at the disco might be a little unsavory, or worse… oh hell…
After an hour or so of shooting the shit Hasan signaled it was time to go. I paid the bill at the kiosk, taking my time. Nobody offered to help. Theo, you offered, remember? Maybe I’m just being paranoid. No, this is weird. What happened to the honored-American-guest treatment? The world-famous Muslim hospitality?
Hasan’s wild eyes darted around as we shuffled to the edge of the plaza, gears-a-turning in libido overdrive. It was the same maddening gaze I’d seen in the faces of sex-deprived youth in conservative Muslim countries and musty high school locker rooms all over the world.
He paused at the top of the steps, then threw his arms into the air and shouted, in English, to the night:
“Let’s go fuck some pussies!”
I staggered at the sound of his crazy battle cry. Nobody else around batted an eye… apparently they didn’t understand such colorful English.
A thousand prickly doubts burst into my brain. What did these boys want from me? An exotic prop for their small town carousing? A newfound friend? Someone to pay the bill on a Thursday night? What did I want from them? Why was I still here, pretending to be straight, smiling and nodding at their boring sexist jokes?
I didn’t mind paying per se… You’re a few years older than them, Theo, a well-heeled traveler in a relatively impoverished land, of course you should pay. They’re showing you a side of Bukhara I’d never see on my own. But something about their presumption irked me. Is it just the beer talking? The gnawing discomfort ruined my buzz, and my mind grew weary of overlooking Hasan’s sexist outbursts. Okay, sure, I have my own, arguably more lascivious thoughts, but at least I keep them to myself… admittedly out of fear, not virtue.
My wicked mind snapped, floodgates opened, passive aggressive thoughts shattered my filters and rushed straight to my mouth.
Before I had even finished speaking, I knew I said the wrong thing.
“Who? Your sister?”
Single, sinister chuckle.
Those three words split the fabric of time. I would forever remember my Central Asian adventure in two parts—before and after putting my foot in my mouth. I froze, watched as the ripples of my outburst spread through space in a catatonic haze.
Hasan had already bolted down the steps and crossed the street in heavy, plodding strides. One of his handsome friends ran after him, shouting, stop, wait, stop. Confused, I turned to the others, “What happened?” They shrugged. Either they didn’t hear my little joke, or were too embarrassed to call me out.
I knew I’d fucked up, and I needed to fix it.
I hurried after Hasan, dodging languid family strolls and old Soviet junkers through the thick desert night, nearly got run over crossing the street.
“Hasan! Wait! I’m sorry!”
He halted, back turned, gazing up at a soft, cruel moon. I spun around to face him.
“I would have expected this from anybody but you.”
His words cut my gut like a knife. I could see him pushing down the anger deep into his belly, fighting the urge to hit me. I deserve this.
“I’m sorry. It was a stupid joke. It just came out.”
Hasan huffed, still refused to look at me, continued walking. The friend behind him looked bewildered. Does he know what just happened?
Hasan continued his madman march through Bukhara darkness, passing like a violent ghost beneath golden-glow lanterns and shadowy ruins. Hasan’s friend, whose name I have long forgotten, followed with me side by side.
“You know, in Uzbekistan, the family is sacred, especially we defend our women. We don’t make jokes like that.”
I pondered this for a second. Right, of course, I just misjudged our level of familiarity. I have my reasons. Hasan’s been making vulgar comments about women all day, how should I have known he’d get so touchy about his own sister? No, ridiculous. In what country of the world is it acceptable to insult a friend’s sister? Could a very close friend could slip in such a nasty barb or two, once in a while, and be forgiven? Maybe. But a new friend one barely knows?
Fuck cultural sensitivity.
The fact of the matter: I was being a passive aggressive idiot.
We followed Hasan through winding alleys and cobblestone streets, two desperate soldiers behind one fuming brigadier. Suddenly the all-enveloping shroud of eerie twilight Bukhara opened up to familiar walls and signs and windows. We were outside my hotel.
Hasan turned to face me.
“Here is your hotel. I’m going home now.”
A tinge of hurt cracked through his angry façade. This called for desperate measures.
I reached for Hasan’s still-clenched fists and held them in the traditional warm hand sandwich. I caressed his long, bony fingers with sincere contrition, ignoring the urge to enjoy it inappropriately. His palms were surprisingly smooth. I looked into his eyes, golden-honeyed like the light of the single melancholy street lamp that lit our path.
“Forgive me. I didn’t mean it.”
I craned my neck up, pointed on tip-toes, kissed left cheek, kissed right cheek, catching him off guard. In Uzbekistan such gestures between men were not taboo; this was me, pulling out all my cultural ammunition, the ultimate display of sincerity. It was all I had to give.
He kicked over a black anthill, sighed.
“Just be careful. Other people here would not be so forgiving.”
“Thank you, Hasan. I’m sorry.”
“Okay… I need to go. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow or something.”
Head bowed, exhausted, I watched him plod back down the alley we’d just marched through together. His tall lanky figure disappeared in the dusty dark, the silent, loyal friend a few paces behind.
I slept in fits and starts that night, replaying the blunder in my head over and over between ominous moonlit dreams. We said we’d go clubbing tomorrow, check out girls and other such manly pastimes. Now, after the rift, this plan seemed like a bad idea, and high unlikely. Does Hasan really want to see me tomorrow? Can I face him again? Will he or his friends come back with summertime smiles? Or with steely swords? Am I in danger? Or just a dolt?
The questions were too many and the road to Bishkek too long to sit and stew.
At 6:00 AM, when the burning orange sun had just begun to peek over the dusty horizon, I hopped on the first bus to Samarkand.
June 25, 2008.