My Police State Vacation

A tour through the lighter side of the sometimes brutal U.S.-allied nation…

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In the customs line at Tashkent International Airport, a digital screen positioned above the X-ray machine informs visitors to Uzbekistan of items that are prohibited in the interest of peace and security. Narcotics are first, followed by materials encouraging religious extremism, fundamentalism, or separatism. When I recently visited the Central Asian nation, memorably referred to by pizza magnate and former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain as “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” I was carrying none of the above.

I was, however, slightly concerned that my profession itself might not be on the list of state-approved activities—as suggested, perhaps, by the fact that said state plays host to the world’s two longest imprisoned journalists.

Fortunately, not being Uzbek myself meant I’d be spared the rehabilitative services the government reserves for its in-house opposition. Even among torture-states, Uzbekistan has achieved some impressive levels of brutality. Treatments have ranged from having suspected dissidents boiled to death to freezing them in icy cells to simple “asphyxiation with a gas mask,” as the U.S. State Department noted in 2001, shortly before it appointed Uzbekistan one of its key BFFs in the War on Terror.

But I wasn’t in Uzbekistan for journalistic purposes; I would not be investigating its various unbecoming practices, such as the forced labor in its cotton fields or its forced sterilization of women. Nor, curious as I may have been, did I intend to look into the story of permanent president Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, a Harvard University alumna whose career as a diplomat-cum-pop diva-cum-fashion designer-cum-racketeer has for the moment ended in house arrest.

Instead, my itinerary centered around viewing pretty monuments and drinking cheap vodka, and I didn’t want this disrupted by any official misreading of my intentions. For that reason I had exercised borderline paranoia when applying for my letter of invitation (LOI) from the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in August—a document that would supposedly facilitate my acquisition of an Uzbek visa. Required to provide a letter from my employer as part of the LOI application process, I tasked my mother with fabricating a temporary identity for me as a client services and marketing liaison in the innocuous business of rental property management in Spain. (Having failed to adequately rehearse this exotic new title, I subsequently went with the deer-in-headlights option whenever any Uzbek asked what my job was.)

Armed with my LOI, I proceeded to the consulate general of Uzbekistan in Istanbul early one morning in September to collect my visa. I had parked myself in the south of Turkey for a few weeks in between trips to Iran and Lebanon and had arranged to fly to Istanbul for only a single day. I began to lose hope when calls to the consulate in the days preceding my flight produced this information: the office was in the middle of relocating, but nobody could recall the new address.

Luckily, a last-minute intervention by a Turkish friend resolved the matter—until I handed over my paperwork at the new Istanbul office and was told I could retrieve the visa in two days. Thus commenced a five-hour period of pathetic and hyperventilated entreaties to the consular staff, who eventually took pity on me and sent me on my way, 160-dollar visa in tow.

When I finally arrived to Tashkent on October 20, I cleared customs without issue. My cab driver, although charging me possibly half the average monthly Uzbek salary to transport me to my hotel, kindly did me the favor of exchanging my dollars for me at the black market rate, which at the time was more than twice the official one. He parked on the side of the road, disappeared into an alley, and reappeared with a black plastic bag teeming with 5,000-som notes, each of them the equivalent of less than a dollar on the black market.

My hotel had the appearance of a cheerier version of a Soviet concrete block (until the sun stopped shining), and a sign in the lobby courteously informed guests that we were subject not only to continuous video surveillance, but audio, as well. Reassured, I headed out to explore the wide, tree-lined boulevards of the Uzbek capital and quickly learned a valuable local survival tip: Never assume that pedestrian walk signals and traffic lights are coordinated.

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At a busy outdoor market, I bought a giant slab of onion bread from a woman with a wheelbarrow and gleefully set about calculating how many billions more slabs of onion bread my bag of som would buy. I made a note to purchase ceramics and sequined leggings with zippers on them prior to departing the country. I visited numerous parks and squares, among them one dedicated to the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane, whose claims to fame include having been born in the fourteenth century in territory that is now Uzbekistan and having casually engaged in mass decapitations. Tamerlane’s prominent spot in the center of Tashkent had previously been occupied by a statue of Karl Marx, who was ousted during the de-Sovietization campaign.

The Tashkent metro system, meanwhile, was an attraction unto itself, with each station boasting its own unique décor. The styles ranged from elegant to discothequey to, for example, the Kosmonavtlar station, the walls of which featured large renderings of cosmonauts in space gear against a backdrop of decreasing shades of blue.

My excursions on the subway brought me into contact with a mainstay of the Uzbek landscape: the police. Generally positioned at both the street entrance to each subway stop and at the turnstiles underground, they looked in bags, waved metal detectors, and never failed to request my passport as well as the slip of paper from the hotel certifying that my presence in the country had been registered with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The novelty of this process wore off after the first several instances. On a certain occasion the slip was deemed insufficient and one of three police officers present went off to phone the hotel while the other two endeavored to establish, in pidgin English, why a woman of my age had not yet reproduced. On the subway platforms, station guards resembling flight attendants thwarted my attempt to photograph the cosmonauts.

Following two nights in Tashkent I took the train to the ancient Silk Road gem of Samarkand, less than four hours away. In my second-class seat next to an old woman with an oversized bottle of soda and an apple that she diligently polished and gave to me, I learned that A) it was possible to half-communicate with many Uzbeks in Turkish, and B) there are people in this world with tattooed unibrows.

My bed and breakfast in Samarkand was located a stone’s throw from the mausoleum of Tamerlane, at which I spent much time staring as though on some pleasant hallucinogen. The rest of the town elicited the same effect. I won’t feign any intimacy with the architectural lexicon, but I can tell you there were mosques, domes, glazed tiles, mosaics, and lots of blue and turquoise. My early-morning solo tour of Registan Square—an otherworldly complex of madrassas and courtyards to which I gained off-hours access via a bribe to the policeman on duty—was interrupted only when that same policeman accosted me in a corner and asked me to exchange dollars for him.

A bit outside the city were the remains of the observatory built by the fifteenth-century ruler-astronomer Ulugbek. At the accompanying museum was a photograph of schoolchildren visiting the place, with a quote from Islam Karimov helpfully translated into English: “Our children should be more stronger, better educated, wiser and certainly more happy than we are.” Indeed, Karimov’s own contributions to the youth happiness quotient in Uzbekistan are second to none; what kid wouldn’t love to participate in slave labor during the annual cotton harvest? (Granted, international pressure has reportedly caused the Uzbek regime to curtail its practice of dispatching of children into the cotton fields. They’re still available for work in other fields, but the cotton mobilization now mainly targets doctors, teachers, older students, and other people who clearly have nothing else to do with their time.)

At Samarkand’s Siab Bazaar, I acquired three different kinds of almonds plus one of the more ingenious inventions of our time: an entirely plastic mini-corkscrew gifted to me by the proprietor of a liquor shop who was apparently moved by my disproportionate reaction to it. I felt guilty at having cost him this little treasure—a godsend for anyone trying to open duty free wine in an airport bathroom—before realizing that every bottle of wine was sold with a mini-corkscrew attached.

Negotiating in Turkish, I obtained a bottle of vodka for four dollars (one of the pricier options) and a bottle of Uzbek wine for a dollar and a half, which the man assured me was not sweet (it was). The wine and corkscrew came with me on my excursion to the local cemetery, where photographic reproductions of the deceased were emblazoned on tombstones of varying shapes and sizes. Female workers with buckets of water cleaned the graves and chatted, Uzbek visitors strolled about in sparkly two-piece sets, and I pondered what everyone in Uzbekistan must have done prior to the invention of the sequin.

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The graveyard turned out to be more expansive than I thought, and three-fourths of a bottle of wine later—politely concealed in a water bottle—I was lost. Fortunately, as there was still one-fourth remaining, there was no cause for alarm.

When I eventually extricated myself, I visited the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, a strip of exquisite mausoleums abutting the graveyard where the list of rules in English warned that it was a “sin” to beg the saints for forgiveness during the visit, to make a sacrifice, or to leave money on the tombs. The last of these rules, at least, had been wantonly violated, and a man made periodic rounds to collect the accumulated bills.

After Samarkand it was back on the train to Bukhara, the next Silk Road outpost, where I engaged in similar architectural gawking and ended up at the impromptu birthday party of a Tajik Uzbek named Sharif, who called me “Beeline” and couldn’t figure out why I was named after a Russian mobile phone company. The encounter began on the rundown patio of a small restaurant not far from Bukhara’s massive fortress, where Sharif and companions invited me to join their table for tea and a snack. The snack evolved into fish and shashlik—skewered meat—and what was meant to be one bottle of birthday vodka quickly multiplied into four, while the number of vodka drinkers remained the same (three). I was assisted in my attempt to initiate an impromptu dance party on the patio by Sharif’s taxi driver friend, who blasted tunes like “In The Army Now” from his cab. He used that same cab to cart me back to my hotel when by 5 p.m. I had become largely unresponsive to environmental stimuli.

Had I wanted to continue my Silk Road tour, I would have proceeded west toward the Kyzylkum desert and the city of Khiva. Instead, I took a seven-hour train ride back to Tashkent and then a seven-hour shared taxi ride further east to the city of Andijan in the Ferghana Valley, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. As I was the only female in the car, I got the front seat; this was unfortunate for the man in the back, whose incessant snacking while on winding mountain passes resulted in our having to make several vomit breaks. Other stops took place at government checkpoints, where my passport and I were hauled out for inspection, and at roadside shacks selling warm bread, balls of tooth-shatteringly hard cheese, and other crucial survival items.

I also became acquainted with Uzbek gas station etiquette, whereby all passengers alight from the vehicle outside the station entrance and are retrieved at the exit. After noting the presence of enormous methane gas cylinders in the trunks of cars, I wondered if the routine was simply meant to minimize collateral damage in the event of an explosion.

Unlike Samarkand and Bukhara, Andijan is known for its more recent history—and one incident in particular. In 2005, Uzbek security forces in Babur Square opened fire on demonstrators, the vast majority of them unarmed, who were protesting general injustice and specifically the arrest of 23 local businessmen on charges of Islamic extremism. The death count, according to the government, was 187. According to others,  it was up to a thousand. Since then, the state has changed its mind and made it clear that the Andijan massacre was Something That Didn’t Happen.

I arrived at my hotel, the Vella Elegant, to find that it was smack in front of a square organized around a fountain and a horse-mounted statue of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty who, like Tamerlane, had catapulted into the realm of Uzbek stardom following the Soviet collapse. This was clearly Babur Square, I told myself, and I set about having deep and ironic thoughts re: the Uzbek wedding parties now being happily photographed in front of the fountain.

After I had inspected the square from every angle, I went to the bread market, overdosed on its wares, and explored a street teeming with shops specializing in U.S. Green Card application photos. At a bookstore I found posters of a semi-smiling President Karimov and posters teaching children the English words for professions like “driver” and “militarian.” I walked more than an hour to the old part of town and was force-fed more bread along the way by someone overjoyed to hear I was American.

Back at my hotel, I conducted a brave investigation into internet censorship: I googled the words “Andijan massacre.” To my surprise, I wasn’t Tasered by some unseen force and was instead able to open every link I clicked—including one that led to pictures of Babur Square, which, as it turned out, was not the square in front of the Vella Elegant, although it contained the very same horse-mounted statue..

I got in a cab and asked to be taken to the real Babur Square, which was now sans Babur statue. Some wild gesticulations by the cab driver and a phone call to his English-speaking friend confirmed my suspicions: the monument had been moved sometime after 2005.

While in Andijan I learned that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was also in Uzbekistan, having descended upon Samarkand for meetings with Karimov and the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states. A Reuters article described one scene:

“As security men starting ushering reporters out of the room, one American reporter shouted a question to Karimov about the U.S. State Department’s own scathing critique of his human rights record. Karimov ignored the query. Kerry began responding but the reporter was pushed out of the room before he finished.”

The State Department has indeed proven itself most adept at typing up scathing critiques of the Uzbek government’s “endemic” corruption and reliance on torture, arbitrary arrests, and other varieties of freedom-quashing behavior (publicly insulting the president, for example, can get you up to five years behind bars). But in person, the U.S. approach is rather more schizophrenic. A 2005 New York Times dispatch—incidentally published 12 days before the Andijan massacre—offered a blow-by-blow of foreign policy dealings with Uzbekistan since 2001, which I’ll take the liberty of summarizing as follows:

1. Seven months before 9/11, State Department issues human rights report on Uzbekistan amounting to “litany of horrors.”

2. Immediately after 9/11, U.S. and Uzbekistan jump into War on Terror bed together. U.S. sets up military base on Uzbek territory near border with Afghanistan and proceeds to hurl money at Uzbek government. George Bush fêtes Karimov at White House. State Department continues to report on disastrous human rights situation.

3. Suicide bombings in Tashkent. Uzbek government embarks on anti-Islamic crackdown. State Department announces it’s cutting $18 million in aid due to human rights circumstances; Pentagon announces it’s increasing aid by $21 million.

4. Intelligence officials confirm Uzbekistan’s service as a CIA rendition destination. (Moral of the story: torturers come in handy.)

Following Western criticism of the assault in Andijan, Karimov evicted the Americans from their base. But the breakup was hardly definitive. Now, with so many new and improved threats emanating from the region—ISIS! Russia!—Uzbekistan is back in the game. And, hey, things are already looking up on the human rights front: shortly after I left the country in November, one of Uzbekistan’s many thousands of political prisoners was released from jail. Imprisoned in 1994 for what was supposed to be a nine-year stint, Murod Juraev saw his term repeatedly extended for offenses such as “peeling carrots incorrectly.” Of course, the return of Uzbekistan to the frontlines of the war on terror paves the way for mass arrests under the pretense of fighting ISIS.

On the domestic frontlines, meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s first daughter Gulnara remains under house arrest, but I dare say the lyrics of her pop star alter ego Googoosha ring eternal: “You look fine, but what do you hide in your soul?”

Author: Belén Fernández

is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.