44. Smell in Uzbekistan during 1876 - 2007
Feb. 3, 2022
Pete takes Ryan to the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan to sniff out some history of smells. He unveils the charms and rituals of breaking bread and discovers the diversity of Uzbek melons. Metaphorical smells also feature – the stench of corruption and hypocrisy and the story of one British Ambassador who dared to speak truth to power.
The Republic of Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country in Central Asia. This means it is surrounded by countries that are also landlocked. There are only two such countries in the world, the other being Liechtenstein.
Despite this, Uzbekistan does sort of have a navy – the Uzbek River Force who patrol the 156-kilometer border with Afghanistan along the Amu Darya. Their tasks include countering drug trafficking, smuggling, and illegal immigration.
Uzbekistand is in an area sometimes known as The Stans, because Uzbekistan has Kazakhstan to the north and west, Kyrgistan and Tajikstan to the East, and Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to the South.
The suffix –stan is Persian and Urdu for “place of,” and there are 7, ‘stans these 6 and Pakistan which is the other side of Afghanistan to the south.
Uzbek is the first language of Uzbekistan, although Russian as a useful language a lot of people speak due to its soviet history. Tajik is also spoken in various places as is Karakalpak, which is similar to Kazakh
Economically, although no longer soviet it’s still a Soviet-style command economy, about which more later. But basically no free market, the government direct economic activity. This includes being a substantial exporter of cotton – which has some rather tragic side effects in the nearby Aral sea. The Aral Sea began shrinking in the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. By 1997, it had declined to 10% of its original size as a result of the diversion of rivers to feed into the cotton fields, often with wastage of up to 80%.
The country also produces gold - with Muruntau being one of the largest open-pit gold mines in the world and is the 2nd largest producer of carrots (after china) and Apricots (after Turkey)
Probably the most famous Uzbek was Timur aka Timur the Lame aka Tamurlane. He was a 14th century conqueror, from India and Russia to the Mediterranean Sea, and about whom Christopher Marlowe wrote the famous play Tamburlaine the Great
Smells of Uzbekistan
Desk research (mostly among the subreddit r/Uzbekistan) revealed the following smells of Uzbekistan’.
“Chorsu Bazaar (a famous tourist hotspot) in Tashkent. It was strawberry season and everyone was selling strawberries. I've never smelled such a strong aroma of fresh berries before or since.”
Chorsu is a traditional bazaar located in the center of the old town of Tashkent. "Chorsu" in Persian means "crossroads" or "four streams" and there, daily necessities are sold. Tourists go in part because of the architecture. The bazaar is situated in a huge beautiful blue dome, one of the iconic buildings of Tashkent
“Tomatoes in spring and the smell of Tashkent in summer. There is smell of buildings, roads, trees, grass because of the heat and you feel like your nose is burning.”
“the smell of burger and fries at Yulduz Burger.”
But more than anything else, one smell was identified as typically Uzbek.
“A piece of freshly baked "non" (bread) just out of "tandir"”.
Uzbekistan takes its bread very seriously. Non and Patyr are different types of bread, both cooked in the tander (which you may know as a tandoor).
To make your non bread, coal and firewood are placed in a tandir and it is heated for several hours. The walls of the tandir are sprinkled with salt water so that the ready-made cakes are easily separated, bread dough is slapped onto the inside walls of the tandir. These look like circles of dough with a depressed centre and they cook very quickly at high humidity and temperatures of 400-480 degrees.
The result is a round, relatively flat bread. In the middle, you’ll see a pattern of little indents, often very elaborate and beautiful. This is the makers brand for the bread as well as bringing some art to the loaf and is made with a device called a Chekich. This is like a stamp with a wooden, usually walnut handle with a bunch of small pins or nails driven into it in a pattern that you can then press into your dough when making bread to both prettify and identify your handiwork.
So it’s tasty and nice to look at, but Bread it much more than this - Uzbeks have a particular and profound reverence for bread.
“Respect for non is respect for country,” is an Uzbek proverb
And that means there are rules for bread.
At a meal it’s the first thing to be put on the table, usually by the eldest person present. And don’t put it down upside down (ie flat side up), this is disrespectful. When it come to start the meal, you start with the bread… but don't cut the bread with a knife – you have to break the loaf by hand.
You definitely shouldn’t drop bread. If you do, it should be picked up and placed on top of a wall or in the crook of a tree for the birds while saying “‘aysh Allah” (“God’s bread”). And if you don’t do it, a passer-by will.
Beyond the everyday, bread has a crucial role in Uzbek culture as well. Oaths are sworn on bread and when a baby is about one week old, a ceremony is held, known as beshika boghlash. In this, the baby is placed in the beshik, a traditional cradle and a piece of bread is placed under the pillow of the beshik by one of the most respected older women either from the extended family or from the neighborhood. As she places it there, she says a prayer that evil spirits will not harm the baby and, bread being regarded as holy, evil spirits will be kept away.
The same day a ceremonial dough is distributed with bread throughout the neighborhood announcing that a special guest (i.e., the baby) has arrived.
There’s more. When a baby walks – bread is placed between its legs to bless its path in life
And when the baby becomes an adult and wants to get engaged, bread comes into it again.
If the families agree to a match, it’s agreed with a bread breaking ceremony. Again, bread is distributed in the neighbourhood. When bread arrives the question is “who is this bread from and why is it being given,” and the answer “family X has broken bread for their daughter,” so you know it’s an engagement and that the young lady is off the market.
If you want to come home after war – you’re going to need some bread too. Before an Uzbek son leaves home for a long journey, such as military service or to study abroad, he will take a bite from the edge of two loaves of non placed face to face; the family then dries the bread in the sun and hangs it near the ceiling until the son returns.
So, give us this day our daily bread, but lets make sure we treat it right.
As well as bread, Uzbekistan is also known for its variety and history of melon cultivation.
In 1333Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan travel writer from the 14th century, who wrote the Rihla, (aka “A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling”, wrote
“There are no melons like Khorezmian [a place in Uzbekistan] melons, maybe with the exception of Bukharian ones [Bukhara the silk road city also in Uzbekistan], and the third best are Isfahan melons [Iran]. Their peels are green, and the flesh is red, of extreme sweetness and firm texture. Surprisingly, they cut melons into slices, dry them in the sun, put them into reed baskets as it is done with Malaga figs, and take them from Khorezm to the remote cities in India and China to sell. They are the best of all dried fruit.”
Clearly melons have a long and proud history in Uzbekistan
In 850 Ali ibn Sahl al-Tabari wrote Paradise of Wisdom, in which he mentions long, sweet melons, and in 955, Muhammad Abu al-Qasim ibn Hawqal, described a long melon that was ugly but of the highest sweetness.
He also mentioned that the melons were cut up, dried and “sent to numerous places in the world.”
This traditional continued. In the mid-15th century, Armenian merchants took melon seeds to Italy where they really caught on. But beware the melon - medieval physicians thought cold and wetness could undermine the body's natural heat and upset its equilibrium to the extent that in 1471 Pope Paul IIs death was attributed to eating too many melons.
IN 1895 the ethnologist and British spy Arminius Vambrey wrote his book Travels in Central Asia, and he describes caravans of over a thousand camels carrying:
“fruits, the superior merit of which not Persia and Turkey alone, but even Europe itself, would find difficult to contest … but above all, to the incomparable and delicious melons, renowned as far as even in remote Pekin.”
It goers on. Captain Frederick Burnaby, wrote a 1876 book A Ride to Khiva describes how they travelled.
“Melon traders would shovel up snow and ice during winter and store it in deep underground cellars. Then in summer the most succulent melons were packed with ice and placed in large lead containers. These were then heaved onto camels to journey across the deserts to the banqueting tables of the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Peking and the Mogul rulers of Northern India.”
“throughout the winter, melons are preserved according to an old method where they are put into straw or net bags and then hung from the ceiling of a special warehouse called a kaunkhana [qovunxona, or melon house].”
In fact, you can still see these hanging melons today in modern Uzbekistan, where they are still very serious about the melon business.
40,000 hectares of land are devoted to melon growing approximately 450,000 - 500,000 tons of melons every year and growing.
They can be eaten fresh, but also can be dried and then is braided, as a snack with a longer shelf life.
Varieties of melon include “Old Lady melon” because it is wrinkled on the outside but sweet on the inside, Wolfs head, Mirza aka the torpedo and the Gurvak – often described as the sweetest and most only grows in a relatively small region of Uzbekistan – Khorezm - and is said not to travel well, so it’s something the Uzbeks are keeping to themselves for now.
So melon lovers, you’re going to have to head to Uzbekistan.
A bad smell – corruption and hypocrisy in the war on terror.
n 1924, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was created as an independent republic within the Soviet Union. In 1938 in this nation was born a man named Islam Karimov. His childhood is not well documented but it’s believed his parents were not wealthy, nor were they particularly around, as he ended up on 2 occasions being put into an orphanage.
He made it out of the orphanage and went to University in the Central Asian Polytechnic Institute (now Tashkent State Technical University) to study mechanical engineering and from there, into work, and not-coincidentanlly the communist party.
Karimov rose through the ranks of the communist party until he rose to the leadership, aka First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan.
In 1990 to 1991, he served as a member of the Central Committee and Politburo – making him a significant cheese even at the level of the broader Soviet Union, to the extent that he was even a participant in the failed coup attempt against Gorbachev.
So you’d think it would be bad news for him when in 1991 the Soviet Union fell apart and Uzbekistan claimed its independence. Not so. In fact he is the one who declared independence and after the 1991 elections he becomes president of the new republic.
Sadly, Uzbekistan under the Karimov government was classified as a hard authoritarian state. Which is perhaps how, in 1995, his term was extended until 2000 through a referendum with 99.6 percent of voters voting to extend Karimov's term.
It was not a hugely open country though. Only 7 western countries even had an embassy in Uzbekistan. Foreign investment slowed to a trickle under Karimov and very little news and information comes out of the country.
Then, 11th September 2001 the twin towers were attacked, and America declared its war on Terror.
Suddenly, this terrible, authoritarian regime, is also a ‘friendly’ nation not so very far from Afghanistan which the USA is looking at with interest.
They suddenly realise that Karimov is a lovely man, with nothing but the best interests of freedom at heart, as well as being a key ally in the war on terror, and a totemic Islamic one at that.
Even better, Karimov allowed them to open an airbase at Karshi Kanabad in Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, the freedom-loving Karimov is proving not just authoritiarian, but also corrupt. He closed down all the bazaars, except for supermarkets which by an astonishing coincidence, one of his ministers happened to own.
Trade slowed down and the economy contracted, although the IMF, allegedly influenced by American pressure, happily reported 3% annual growth for this time, a figure that sits side by side with the World bank’s figure of a drop in Gross Domestic product for Uzbekistan of 3.2 billion dollars for the same period.
And it’s not just economic. There are reports of widespread arrests, torture and the deaths of people doing nothing more than opposing the Karimov regime.
Enter Craig Murray, a young British Ambassador newly arrived in Tashkent.He is unlike previous Ambassadors who tended to stick in the embassy. He wanted to get out there into the sights, sounds and smells of the real Uzbekistan and really make a difference.
He does not like what he finds. Appalled that the West is claiming Uzbekistan is making progress on freedoms and democracy, at the same time as he can see for himself it’s still a murderous, repressive regime, he wrote a telegram home (although not publicly).
The summary reads: “US plays down human rights situation in Uzbekistan. A dangerous policy: increasing repression combined with poverty will promote Islamic terrorism. Support to Karimov regime a bankrupt and cynical policy.”
That was just an internal memo though. Later on, he went on to make a public speech in which he said
“Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy.”
This is, whilst true, was exactly the opposite of what the Americans had been trying to say about their regionally important ally. And it was a truth NEVER spoken aloud in the highly repressed Uzbekistan.
The foreign office didn’t like it. The Americans didn’t like it. But the Uzbek people LOVED it.
As Murray travelled the country he uncovered more and more repression and corruption. Factories where aid or loans had been used to buy equipment, but the actual equipment was either ancient and shoddy or doesn’t exist at all. A whole winery appeared to have never existed, despite full funding.
Craig Murray also came to realise that the CIA and MI6 were receiving intelligence reports from Uzbekistan. And he knew how the Uzbek powers got their information, because he gets repeated reports of indivduals being tortured and killed, including one man who, from the photos, appears to have been boiled alive.
Hardly the freedom and justice we were supposed to be fighting for.
The list keeps getting longer. Murray remained outspoken about the problems he finds, and continued to state that Uzbekistan is not making any progress towards freedom, nor intended to do so.
Suddenly the Foreign Office began to claim there have been complaints about his conduct – drunkenness, sexual favours in return for visas. A whispering campaign was clearly afoot.
This came to a climax in a set of formal charges laid against him – 18 complaints that he is told will be investigated. He is also told not to mention anything to anyone about the complaints.
Which made it rather difficult to prepare any kind of defence.
He is not able to do this – Murray tells some of his staff what is going on in an effort to gather proof of his innocence.
The end result was that he managed to get 16 of the 18 complaints basically thrown out. Leaving only 2 complaints of supposed ‘behaviours’ of which actually they were only one-time events.
Except there was now a 19th complaint – in preparing his defence he’d obviously told people about his situation, so now he stood accused of breaching the request to tell nobody about what was going on, and he was clearly guilty of that.
How’s that for a catch 22?
For all this, Murray received a formal warning, but it’s not enough to get rid of him, and he is determined not to jump, or to change his ways.
He soon sends another telegram to the ambassadorial equivalent of ‘all staff’ describing the receipt and use of information obtained by torture as “immoral, impractical and illegal”.
This telegram mysteriously finds its way to the Financial Times, and the foreign office blame him for it. Finally this was enough for them to remove him as ambassador to Uzbekistan.
But who was the winner in the end?
In 2004 Abu Graib prison and other scandals continued to cast doubt on whether USA and the UK were really the good guys in this war on terror. More and more people started to come round to Craig Murray’s way of thinking.
But the most important change to happen was that Uzbekistan decide to cosy up to the Russians instead. A multi billion dollar oil deal was made with Gazprom and Karimov gave the US notice to quit their airbase.
In an astonishing coincidence, now is the time the US and the UK remembered they bloody hate torture, and also noticed that Karimov is running a corrupt and repressive regime.
In the end, Karimov himself lived and stayed in his position until 2016, when he died in office.
Justice at last. Sort of.
It’s a fascinating story and well worth reading Craig Murray’s book on the matter, Murder in Samarkand, retitled Dirty Diplomacy in the United States.
The return of Karimov – or how to cover the stench of corruption.
In 2012 in a nightclub in Tashkent’s opulent Ichan-Qala Hotel there was a lavish party in progress –a launch party. It’s the launch of a perfume - 'Mysterieuse'.
The man who made this fragrance was Bertrand Duchaufour, who has blended aromas brands including Christian Dior and Givenchy. But this particular brand was for a young woman called Gulnara.
"Through the 'Mysterieuse' fragrance I tried to convey the image of Gulnara, her femininity and sensuality," said Duchaufour. "The women's fragrance has notes of every flower that can be found in the Orient."
This included Moroccan rose, Jasminum auriculatum, Coriander, Saffron, Ylang-ylang, Vanilla, Sandalwood, musk. Lovely .
Duchaufour added, "I am perhaps the first man in the history of perfumery who has tried to link France and Uzbekistan through perfume," as if that was something everyone had been trying to do for years.
That same night, viewers were treated to a the video ‘How Dare’, by Uzbek pop singer Googoosha.
But, look closely and you’ll realise Gulnara and Googosha are one and the same woman. Who was presenting her latest range of jewellery designs that same night.
How does one become such a wide-ranging success in Uzbekistan? It’s easy if your last name is Karimov. Gulnara Karimov aka Googoosha, is the daughter of Islam Karimov, dictator of Uzbekistan.
She was described by US diplomats as a "robber baron" and "the single most hated person in the country" and had billions of dollars in various business, sometimes referred to as a mafia empire and was said to have taken over $800 million dollars in bribes.
It’s not clear how successful the perfume turned out to be, but what is known is that Gulnara had a falling out with her father in 2013. After this she found herself various of her many jobs and being placed under house arrest.
In 2017 Karimova was sentenced to 10 years in jail for fraud and money laundering, where she resides to this day.
As for the perfumier Duchaufour, he later commented, “"I have been a little bit naive and just considered the good part of the project ( money ) and didn't realize what was behind."
Well, we all make mistakes.