It seemed to have been written in the stars that the first place I would be drawn to in Samarkand is the remnant of an observatory that was the most well-known throughout the Islamic Golden Age and the largest in Central Asia, preceding Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg and Taqi al-Din’s observatory in Constantinople by more than a hundred years.
The great mathematician and astronomer behind this observatory, whose computation of the length of the sidereal year was more accurate than that of Copernicus’s, is Ulugh Beg.
Although what remains of the observatory is the arc of a gigantic sextant (used to measure the transit altitudes of the stars and to produce the most comprehensive star catalogue in the period between Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe); the splendid madrasa that he built right at the heart of the city still stands.
He turned Samarkand into an intellectual center, inviting mathematicians and astronomers to study there — but no longer by force. He was, after all, a sultan of the Timurid Empire, the grandson of Tamerlane, and his tomb lies at the foot of his grandfather’s in the Amir Timur Mausoleum.
…to trace the constellations of Samarkand’s history and look at the stars that have burned the brightest… and bask in their afterglow… what a dream.
When Soviet archaeologists exhumed this tomb in 1941, they allegedly found this inscription inside: “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble. Whoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.”
In a matter of hours, Hitler’s men invaded Russia resulting in millions of deaths. Stalin ordered the remains to be reinterred in 1942, and soon after, the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad. Coincidence or not, it is a remarkable story.
Two years ago, I listened to a series of podcasts about this man for whom this mausoleum was built. I found him frightening and intriguing! There aren’t enough books written about him, and eurocentric history merely dedicates one or two measly paragraphs to him!
This man, known in the West as Tamerlane, is Amir Timur, “iron” in their language. It was he who freed his people from the yoke of the Mongols and proceeded to establish the Timurid Empire in 1370 and conquered lands spanning parts of Russia, and north western India to Syria.
During his reign, he and his armies decimated 5 percent of the world’s population! On his Persian conquest, they massacred and constructed towers out of the bodies. He was as brutal as the Mongol Khans, but unlike them, he spared the intellectuals, the architects, the writers, the rug makers, the craftsmen, the artistic and the educated, and brought them to Samarkand. And thus began the flourishing of Timurid arts and architecture, well exhibited in this very mausoleum up to this day.
Where I am staying in Samarkand is a wall away from this mausoleum.
The moon was still up when I walked over this morning and the muezzin’s call to prayer accompanied my quiet footfalls.
I sat on the steps with a book thinking it would still be off limits at such an early hour, but the caretaker noticed me and offered to let me in and left me on my own!
Heart pounding and knees slightly trembling, I entered and thought I heard throat singing along with the muezzin’s call…
What is it about the rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints between a lone stringed instrument, a drum, and throat singing that fire up the blood and make you want to conquer the world? This must have been the music that ran through the veins of the formidable khans and Tamerlane. As if my heart was not already drumming wildly, the perfect soundtrack for how I felt greeted me through the train speakers — music so visceral, so empowering and liberating.
It was a day that started with a huge bowl of yogurt and honey, crisped walnuts that I did not expect to be so flavorful, plump dried apricots, raisins that had retained their blue, all these topped with crumbled cottage cheese; and a cup of coffee to further fuel an excitement that I had not felt in a long time.
I left for the train station amidst a glorious Tashkent sunrise while half of me was still in disbelief that I was finally going to a land that had achieved mythical status in my mind, a land I thought I would only be able to visit through books.
But today I walked into a poem. I found myself welcomed to a courtyard with a garden framed in abundant grapevines. My wonder must have been apparent that the owner of the guest house started pointing at each fruit-bearing tree and incanted, “Fig, apricot, orange, apple, quince, plum, persimmon, pear, peach, walnut, cherry, mulberry…”
“Mulberry? What the silkworms eat?” I asked.
“Yes.” She rummaged through the renowned leaves of silk history and held out gems of a deep magenta towards me.
As the mulberries burst into color and flavor in my mouth, I realized how perfectly symbolic this initiation was to a place that was once known to the Greeks as Maracanda — metropolis of the Sogdians, the wealthiest and most successful merchants of the silk roads.
What a most beautiful thing to finally be able to write in my journal, that today I arrived in Samarkand, the heart of the Silk Route.
In which city did Alexander Solzhenitsyn miraculously heal from a stomach tumor that he chose the place to be the setting of Cancer Ward? Where did Mikhail Bulgakov’s widow hide the manuscript of Master and Margarita before it was published? To where did Anna Akhmatova evacuate during the Leningrad siege? For which city did Vronsky refuse an assignment significant to his military career in favor of Anna Karenina? In which city is the oldest Quran kept? Tashkent.
It has played important roles in literary history, and literary history seems to be woven along the threads of daily life here. Three of Tashkent’s Metro Stations that I was able to pass through today are dedicated to writers: Alisher Navoi, the greatest writer in Chagatai history; Abdulla Qodiriy, the nonfictional character of the novel, The Devil’s Dance, which I read earlier this year, and writer of what is considered the first Uzbek novel; and Alexander Pushkin!
A baffled immigration officer at our international airport asked me, “Why Uzbekistan?”
On the question of loneliness: “Isn’t that lonely, what you’re doing?”
(I have just returned from a solo trip to Uzbekistan.)
Well, these friends came along for the ride: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk, for the long Istanbul flight; The Captain’s Daughter by Alexander Pushkin that was fortunate enough to have a photo at the Pushkin Metro Station in Tashkent and was enjoyed under the shade of the trees of Amir Timur Square; Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, read during those days at the Halva Book Cafe whilst waiting for the Bukharan sun to soften; and A Carpet Ride to Khiva by Turkish-British Christopher Aslan Alexander, which accompanied me through Khiva’s storied alleys.
As there is currently so much more outside book covers to commit to paper, I release myself from the discipline of writing book reviews this month. “Regular programming” will resume in this blog in July. Haha
But I have to mention that Pamuk, who sacrificed painting and architecture school so he could paint with words, taught me a Greek word through this book — “Ekphrasis”. Simply put, ekphrasis is, “To describe something, via words, for the benefit of those who have not seen it.” This inspired me to somehow practice ekphrasis in my little way as I traveled through Uzbekistan, and doing so has allowed me to savor experiences twice.
Pushkin, although political, was not as existentially heavy as Dostoevsky and not as heavy literally as Tolstoy — a purely delightful travel companion!
A Carpet Ride to Khiva seems to have left no stone unturned about Khivan society. It is written in simple prose, bursting at the seams with honest observations, this book is an entertaining overview of the country’s history and politics — which is, perhaps, one of the reasons why the author is banned in Uzbekistan, and why I only brought the e-book with me. I, too, have my own observations, but will keep them to myself for the time being. But it has to be noted that along with reading, traveling is a most comprehensive education on geopolitics, among other things, if one cares to engage and observe.
Solnit, with a title perfect for a trip, shared this Eskimo custom of offering an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system by going in a line across the landscape; “The point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.”
I, who had no anger to release, did mark the places that bore witness to the strength and length of… something else. I enjoy traveling solo. I would not keep doing it if I didn’t. It is almost like a sort of essential meditation for me and I always go home a better person. I do not feel sad with my own company. But I did mark those places, those experiences so ineffable I could think of only one person to share them with. I would prefer to call it love than loneliness. (But why is conquering anger about letting go and conquering something else the opposite? But I digress.)
As I reluctantly tuck in this unforgettable trip lovingly and a little bit pensively in the folds of memory, I am reminded that the Old Uzbek language had a hundred words for different kinds of crying. And I wonder, what about laughter? What about happiness?
It struck an evocative chord when Aciman indicated that writing about places are coded ways of writing about himself. I, too, have been doing this unintentionally… even when the pandemic caused travel destinations to be proxied by books.
Writing to excavate, rearrange, cipher, decipher, lace a narrative, find a certain space, leave things behind, and even to hold on, are what these essays on elsewhere are inadvertently teaching me as it accompanies me on my current meanderings across this breathtaking archipelago.
“I like thinking that perhaps this is how we should travel, without foresight or answers, adventitiously,” he writes.
My brain violently disagrees, but my heart seems inclined; and it appears to have been orchestrating adventitious travels behind the former’s back.
The first trips post-lockdown are not to places, but to people — to my nerve centers, my life’s capital cities.
There is the romantic in me who would like to write an ode of admiration to this exceptional journalist for tackling a most pertinent matter and there is also the dormant journalist tempted to fangirl. However, the teacher of little children prevailed and simplified the lessons instead.
Who is my “Other”?
Those who do not hold the same beliefs. The most obvious right now are those who do not share the same political views.
How should we relate to Others?
There seems to be three approaches: War, isolation, and a third one learned through trade routes like the Silk Road — cooperation.
Why not war?
“It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathize with the Other, to be kind and reasonable…”
Why not isolation?
“The idea that prompted man to build great walls and vast moats, to surround himself with them and isolate himself from others, has in modern times been given the name of the doctrine of apartheid.”
What is the main content of the encounter with the Other?
Dialogue. Dialogical openness, perspective, and awareness. “The will to become acquainted.”
What should I equip myself with?
“…it is so important to have one’s own distinct identity, a sense of its strength, value and maturity. Only then can a man boldly confront another culture. Otherwise he will lurk in his hiding place, fearfully isolating himself from others.”
Why should we cooperate and why should we relate to the Other?
Because building bridges of understanding with Others “is not just an ethical duty but also an urgent task for our time in a world where everything is so fragile and where there is so much demagogy, disorientation, fanaticism and bad will.”
“The Self not only has to relate to the Other, but must assume responsibility for him and be prepared to bear the consequences for such a decision, such an attitude. Is there a Christian act of sacrifice in this? Yes — of sacrifice, renunciation and humility.”
The sound of sirens woke me up. Whose witty idea was it to celebrate Women’s Month with Fire Prevention Month in the Philippines? Woman is a fire you cannot prevent. Sirens are also women.
These were my tangled thoughts as I got up on the first day of March, a month I look forward to as a reading woman. It’s when I devote most of my reading time to women authors.
Rebecca had to be the first choice, because maybe my mind treats literature like medicine and it cyclically hankers for a more potent dose to achieve efficacy, and she lives up to this promise — this sort of writing that painfully confronts the hurts and pinpoints the ills but becomes the balm through impeccable information-giving and matchless storytelling, all administered with strength and grace.
The title is an acknowledgement to how the artist Georgia O’Keefe signed her letters for the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.” A way to measure physical and psychic geography together, Rebecca observes. “We’re close, we say, to mean that we’re emotionally connected, that we are not separate… emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby…” We can be distant from the person next to us but be hopelessly attached to another who is hundreds of miles away. Was it Ondaatje who asked, “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” It seems Rebecca understands and she holds your hand through this sadness.
But that is only one of the myriads of things meaningful to me that she weaves artfully into this narrative. The curious format of this book is a nod to the Arabian Nights. It was only recently when I remarked how Latin American and Eastern European literature are under Scheherazade’s spell, but this book makes me ask, “Who isn’t?”
“The fairy-tale heroines spin cobwebs, straw, nettles into whatever is necessary to survive. Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread. Penelope at the other end of the treasury of stories prevents her wedding to any of her suitors by unweaving at night what she weaves by day… By spinning, weaving, and unraveling, these women master time itself, and though master is a masculine word, this mastery is feminine.”
“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them…” This is the line with which Rebecca opens this book.
And this is how she ends. “Who drinks your tears? Who has your wings? Who hears your story?”
“Who has your wings?” Who else can ask such a poignant question?
This mastery is, indeed, feminine. Happy Women’s Month!
A Field Guide to Getting Lost
January 25, 2022
Life is unpredictable, but nothing highlights this fact more than the pandemic. If we care to admit it, everyone feels a little lost in the midst of this all.
This beauty of a book is the fresh perspective on being lost that I did not know I needed, for Solnit invites you to be at home with being lost and to be comfortable with it. She encourages you to “leave the door open for the unknown” and calls it art.
“That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse ‘los,’ meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home…”
The first two chapters took possession of me, the rest of it was simply a bonus. There are passages that are painful to read but in a cathartic way.
Sometimes, in our arrogance as readers, we approach a book as confident as Alexander on a Persian conquest; and in our confidence, we allow ourselves and others to believe that we have conquered it. Only to learn and be humbled, again and again, that the ones that matter, are those that conquer us.
March 11, 2022
When you turn to a book for solace and get chills instead.
Yes, this has got to be the most beautiful literary criticism of Nineteen Eighty-Four: It rethinks the man that was George Orwell, it guides us to reassess beauty, and it reviews Nineteen Eighty-Four in a light that is distinctly hers. But with Rebecca Solnit, you never know where she will take you next; it is only guaranteed to be a place of startling insight and perspective.
Written and published amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it surprisingly mentions and describes Putin as an admirer and rehabilitator of Stalin’s reputation; even calling to mind the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine, recognized by 16 nations as a genocide carried out by the Soviet government that killed 3-5 million Ukrainians from 1932-1933… and it seems like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will not be the only prescient book in question here.
What is chilling is the reminder that, “To be corrupted by totalitarianism, one does not have to be in a totalitarian country.” Orwell set Nineteen Eighty-Four in England, “To emphasize that totalitarianism could triumph anywhere.”
And what buttresses totalitarianism? Lies. “Lies gradually erode the capacity to know and to connect… Lies are integral to totalitarianism… demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The attack on truth and language makes the atrocities possible. If you can erase the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie, if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies, if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes. The first victim of war is truth.”
And yet, despite these ominous warnings for which Orwell is known, Solnit asks us to reconsider the word “Orwellian” and look at the man who, in the spring of 1936, planted roses. Beautiful is far from the first word that comes to mind when confronted with his writings, but there is a definition of beauty, Solnit emphasizes, that does not have to do with prettiness. “Another kind of beauty, of a toughness that is life…” The beauty to which Orwell was most committed and for which he strove was “this beauty in which ethics and aesthetics are inseparable, this linguistic beauty of truth and of integrity as a kind of wholeness and connectedness, between language and what it describes, between one person and another, or between members of a community or society.”
What was beautiful to him was truth, clarity, honesty — and roses. “Orwell was passionate about the beauty and gestures and intentions, ideals and idealism when he encountered them, and it was to defend them that he spent much of his life facing their opposites.”
“Orwell’s work was about ugliness of various kinds, but what he found hideous serves as a negative image of what he found beautiful.”
There is, after all, solace through the roses telling us that stopping to smell them does not necessarily distract us from the seemingly more important things in life, but strengthens us instead. Through Rebecca Solnit, and through the man who made my birth year significant in literary history, we are spurred to recalibrate what we deem beautiful, to acknowledge our need for beauty, and to always strive to pursue it.
Hope in the Dark
July 4, 2022
If it were not Rebecca Solnit who wrote this, I would have dismissed the title as another one of those inspirational books that I do not gravitate towards so much. But having experienced four Solnits this year prior to this, which all proved to be books I needed at the exact time I read them, I seized this as soon as it arrived. And once again, she delivered.
I felt it was written for me, who, upon returning from an exhilarating trip, returned to my country with a new president whom I did not vote for. Solnit’s books are extremely political, but she wrote this to make the case for hope, especially for those who, on the surface, seemingly lost:
To point out that just because my side did not win the election, does not mean we are not victorious in many things. To challenge myself to live the same way with the leadership I did not choose as I would have had my candidate won, and to continue being a responsible citizen and human being — because being victorious and seemingly right is small comfort when, around the world, and around the country, there is still injustice and there are still people dying and living horribly.
“Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.”
“The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative.”
Consider reading this if you, like me, paid your taxes dutifully and was called “self-righteous” when you pointed out that our new president failed to pay his; if you campaigned for your candidate without insulting anyone but the many enjoyed branding everyone on your side as toxic, even though poisonous ones were actually present on both sides if we care to admit (I have screenshots); if you were maligned and called names because of who you supported while the same people demanded respect but has been disrespecting your candidate for six years; if you, hopefully, like some of them, just wished for a better country. Consider reading this if you are frustrated and you think hope is lost, because it just made me realize that it isn’t.
This book reminded me that hope and action feed each other, and that every action and inaction have more impact than we know; to not merely demand change but to embody it.
Hope, above all, is action; and as long as we do our part and, if possible, do more than what’s required of us, there is hope.
June 19, 2022
…with a title perfect for a trip, Solnit shared an Eskimo custom of offering an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system by going in a line across the landscape; “The point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.”
I finished reading this book the day an article from the New York Times came into my inbox: “Afghanistan Has Become the World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis.”
A passage from page 59 immediately came to mind: “We just shared the towering profundity of our loss, tasting that resignation to fate that came to us from our Afghan soil, for even as children, we knew that loss would deepen us. That’s what it means to be an Afghan.”
Published after 9/11 when it was Osama bin Laden and the Taliban that put Afghanistan on the map of the majority of Western consciousness, and during a time when the world was angry and calling for the bombing of Afghanistan as retribution, Ansary felt an urgency to let the world know that the Taliban and Bin Laden are not Afghanistan.
“It’s not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators… Some say, Why don’t the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is, They’re starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering… There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets.”
“We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that’s been done. The Soviets took care of it already.”
Make the Afghans suffer? They’re already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did that.”
And yet, this memoir gave room to a heart-warming aspect of Ansary’s writing. From his childhood in Kabul and Lashkargah to adulthood in the United States, there was still space for life, love, friendship, and even for travel.
Unfortunately, 20 years after this book’s publication, the dam is breaking in Afghanistan once more.
“History is like a river, except people can only live in lakes, so they dam the current and build villages by still waters — but the dam always breaks.”