EastEast’s Editor-in-Chief Furqat Palvan-Zade has been contributing to Letters against Separation, a project by e-flux journal. A series of his letters, written during the months of the ongoing pandemic, link personal and historical narratives that unveil his subtle relationship with his homeland. Photographer Rakhim Kalybaev accompanied Furqat on a walk through their native Tashkent.
This is the first note I’ve written for the Letters against Separation project. Usually I start with my name: it’s Furqat. In this case, my name is actually quite relevant, as Furqat means “separation” in Arabic. Nice to meet you.
I was named after the prominent Uzbek poet Zakirjan Furqat. Furqat was not even his real name, it was his pseudonym. He is one of the last poets to write in old Uzbek, also called the Chigatay language. Most of his poems are incomprehensible to me, although he died only a century ago. He witnessed and, in a sense, provoked the creation of the modern Uzbek language especially through his contributions to newspapers and literary magazines. He was a vocal advocate of modernisation and saw the Russian language as one of its entry points for his compatriots. He thought that through colonial institutions like schools and libraries Uzbeks could gain access to modern science and culture. I’m still not sure why he chose such a sad pseudonym, but maybe it was a premonition; his name defined his entire life.
In 1891 Furqat left Tashkent and set off on a journey from which he never returned. Samarkand—Ashgabat—Baku—Batumi—Istanbul—Mecca—Jeddah—Medina—Bombey – Srinagar—Lhasa—Yarkand. I’m still searching for the full list of places he visited, but the fact is he ended up in the Xinjiang province of China, mostly inhabited by Uygurs who share the same linguistic roots as my people. Furqat kept on sending letters to his homeland with his new poems and articles. They say that he had reevaluated his attitude towards the colonial rule of the Russian empire and that’s why the authorities never wanted him to come back. When Furqat initially chose his pseudonym it was meant to mean separation from a person, or being lovesick but the name actualized itself into a new meaning, that of separation from home, or being homesick. Furqat stayed in Yarkand until his death in 1909.
I’m in Tashkent now. Local authorities have imposed strict self-isolation rules. Public and private transport is not allowed. You can only go out of your home if you need to go to the grocery store or a pharmacy. This situation has me thinking about my home all the time. I’m at my parents house and I feel alienated in this place. They built it when I was already living in Moscow. Now I’m stuck here for almost forty days and thinking about my ethical position towards my home. What should I do to stop feeling alienated here? This is the only place I can call home, isn’t it?
Dear friend, I hope you don’t mind that I’ll be using this situation and task in a practical way. I promise to send ten letters to you but in those letters I will be researching my home, or at least, I will start my research. What is a Yevrodom, or the arrangement of a traditional Uzbek house? What can I say about the Karasu canal situated near my home, or why the history of Tashkent is the history of water? Maybe I’ll send a daily gastronomic routine in Uzbekistan and talk about how I cooked my first plov with my mom, or detail some of the other (mis)adventures of Furqat in his home. Sounds a bit too ambitious, but I’ll do my best to stick to that plan.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 26 April, 2020
Today I had a bad dream—something about the pandemic and my parents’ health. I don’t know if it’s common in many cultures but in my country they say that you should never describe a bad dream to someone and should instead tell the story to a source of running water. It’s probably thought that water can wash away bad energy and dark thoughts; it can heal your soul in that sense. I don’t believe in superstitions but I always liked this particular one.
I’ve never realised how important water is for my homeland, although it should come as a pretty obvious fact. 75% of Uzbekistan’s territory is desert and steppe. Even in the western part of the country where weather is relatively moderate, summers are too hot. People cannot survive without the collective efforts that go into growing plants and sustaining households. The famous oases of Central Asia haven’t just appeared out of natural conditions; they’re a result of social contracts and cooperation.
If you look at a map of Tashkent and check the names of the city districts, this emphasis on water becomes quite clear. Many of them are named after the specific canals that run through the area. The system of canals in Tashkent was established almost 2000 years ago. The Bozsu is the most important one, as it runs through the whole city. Actually, I always thought it was a natural river, not a canal. I used to swim in the Bozsu when I was a kid. I still remember the mountain water: it was ice cold. The smaller canals draw from the Bozsu and for centuries this network of canals served as a source of freshwater for the whole city.
Historically, Tashkent’s entire feudal period also revolved around water. The feudal lords primarily controlled access to the water, not to the land itself. One section of the Bozsu is called Jangob, which literally means “water of a battle.” The name is a reference to events from the year 1784, when the area became a battlefield between residents from four sections (or dakhas) of the city as they fought for control over Tashkent. This civil war ended with a victory for one of the leaders of those city sections, Yunuskhoja, who then declared a new city-state of Tashkent.
The Soviet modernisation of the city was also closely related to water. They say Tashkent was chosen as the newborn Soviet republic’s capital largely because it had access to water, in contrast to Samarkand, which had limited water resources. From the late '20s as part of Lenin’s famous GOELRO plan until the collapse of the Soviet Union, a beautiful cascade of hydro-power stations continued to be built on the Chirchik river and the Bozsu canal—almost twenty different structures that still provide the city with energy.
I live in a district called Karasu, which literally means “black water.” Last week I discovered that this district is also named after a canal. Wikipedia says that in the late XVIII century the same Yunuskhoja (a very ambitious leader, apparently) triumphed over the troops of Kokand khan, captured seventy soldiers from his rival’s army, and executed them in public. Less than a century later, in 1865 on the bank of Karasu, the first Christian Orthodox cemetery in Tashkent was plotted to bury Russian soldiers from general Chernyaev’s army. During these years, Chernyaev led a campaign that resulted in the Russian empire’s conquest of both Tashkent and the whole Central Asian region.
This morning when I woke up I went for a walk. I made my way to the canal and shared my worries about my parents’ health and my bad dreams with the water. It helped.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 4 May, 2020
The strict self-isolation rules were softened this week. Now you can use public and private transport in the mornings and evenings. I haven’t gone outside yet but I will tomorrow. It will be my first day at the office since mid-March. It would be great if they allowed us to travel inside the country at least. The first day they lift virus restrictions I’ll go to the Charvak Reservoir, located about forty minutes driving distance from Tashkent. I’m also planning to go to the Surkhandarya region and visit my grandpa. I’ve never been to his tomb. The cemetery is located in a town called Shurchi that sits at the border with Afghanistan.
This week we had some news that was not pandemic related: there was a catastrophe, as well as a new addition to an ongoing public discussion concerning language and nationalities. It means life is getting back to normal.
In the neighboring region of Syrdarya, a dam that was recently built burst and the surrounding villages were flooded. Tens of thousands of people are now homeless. There was so much water that it swept over the border and flooded a town in the neighboring country of Kazakhstan. I’ve never realized the level of solidarity in my culture. My mom asked me to send some money to the victims but did so in a very simple and calm way, as if it’s an absolutely normal thing to do (which it in fact is). Later when I read the news I saw that this kind of support was widespread and the general population of the whole country had contributed money, food, and clothes to the people affected by the flooding. My mom said that it’s always this way but I think perhaps this time the support was even stronger because the catastrophe happened during Ramadan. Every privileged Muslim is expected to support the poor and the homeless, especially during the month of Ramadan.
There was also another discussion (although it’s hard to call it a real discussion at this point) about the Uzbek language. The government urged its bureaucrats to use the state language in all written internal communication. This means that you should always have an additional copy of every document in Uzbek if the original is written in another language (it’s funny that they didn’t name the real competing language here, which is very obviously Russian). The Russian-speaking public found this provision outrageous. I still don’t understand why people resent the idea. It should be normal practice everywhere (but of course, normal doesn’t always mean the right thing to do; you never know what exactly is right with these post-colonial practices). For example, it’s hard for me to imagine bureaucrats in Egypt communicating with each other solely in French or bureaucrats in the Philippines only using English when drafting official papers.
The most interesting thing for me during the discussion was the use of the term Uzbekistani (or Узбекистанец in Russian), which simply means a person who lives in my country. Some of the Russian speaking citizens of Uzbekistan are trying to adopt this as a new term to describe belonging to the nation and as a way of avoiding the ethnically marked word Uzbek. Again, I don’t know what’s the right thing to do in this situation but if you look at the history of the ethnonym Uzbek, you’ll find that it was originally used as an umbrella term in the first place. Since the late middle ages people have used it to describe all the free people who lived in the territory of modern Uzbekistan. According to the legend there were ninety two different tribes including Tatars, Turkmen, Arabs, etc. – all of them were called Uzbeks. I think this list of tribes can easily accommodate one more; Russians can become Uzbeks, too. I have nothing against that.
That’s how it is for now.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 10 May, 2020
I’ve spent a record amount of time at my parents’ place during this pandemic. I don’t believe I’ve ever stayed here for such a long time. My parents built this house when I was already studying in Moscow. I remember I visited them in 2006, when they were already in the middle of its construction. I remember my dad planting trees; or at least he was managing the process. The saplings were so small and miserable, it was hard to imagine they would ever grow as tall as they now stand. In our garden you can find two types of cherry trees, an apricot tree, a pomegranate tree, two pine trees (they’ve been yellowish and weak for years but my dad refuses to cut them and says you need to wait and give them a chance), two oak trees, a few rose bushes, and even a bed with edible greens. A couple of weeks ago I witnessed the trees blossoming. Now the fruits are ripe and they’re super delicious. Come to think of it, the garden is my favourite place in my home and it’s strange that I spend so little time there.
If you ever find yourself in the old city of Tashkent, you will notice that all the private houses are enclosed by walls. Sometimes the old city even looks like a labyrinth of walls. It may seem like Uzbeks are very closed off and that they put strict borders between public and private spaces, but that’s a little too simple to be true. In our tradition, the garden is an integral part of the house. When you enter an Uzbek home you find yourself on the patio. You can say the garden, not the house, is in fact the center of the Uzbek home. The living area is located around the edges of the patio. Given the climate, it’s only natural to want to spend your time in a shady garden. There you can work, celebrate weddings and other events with family, and receive guests. So, Uzbeks tend to expand their homes and include gardens in them.
After the collapse of the USSR, when millions of my compatriots were met with the new conditions of a free market and possibility of rebuilding their everyday life, they started using their imagination. “Evroremont” (which can be translated as “Euro-makeover”) is quite famous in post-Soviet space. It’s a new style of renovation that became possible in the '90s when Western construction materials first became available. I think people wanted to distance themselves from the Soviet imagery that was associated with the depressing '80s. Besides Evroremont, in Uzbekistan we also have Evrodoms. It’s the same phenomenon but describes small architecture and private houses. I find Evrodoms odd primarily because in my country people combine them with the local custom of building blank walls around the property. And if we used to have a garden in the center of a home, now it’s a Evrodom.
I think a lot about the imagined West these days (I highly recommend Alexey Yurchak’s book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, where I came across this concept). I think it’s a helpful concept for understanding contemporary culture in my country. We construct ourselves through imagining and imitating the West—in everyday life, in our communication with others, in art, in building institutions, etc. I wonder what this process will lead to. Would it be possible to invent a new, Eurasian aesthetic that combines the imagined East and imagined West? Or will it be just a low-quality version of the global West?
I think about this so often that I came to the absurd thought that I myself am, in a way, a Evrodom. It’s hard to formulate which culture is closer to me now, especially since I moved away from Moscow and started living between my old home in Uzbekistan and in Georgia. But it seems I need to embrace my hybridity and live with it. Maybe the whole periphery has become my home?
Five or six years ago I traveled to Georgia for the first time in my life. It was a very difficult and intense trip. I was sick and I was visiting the country with a large group of both friends and random people which I find is a very frustrating way to travel. Nevertheless, I fell in love with the country immediately. I didn’t have this feeling of alienation that I usually experience in Europe. Maybe it’s that I share common cultural codes with Georgian people and not just those that are a result of the Soviet past; I think the commonalities are much deeper. For instance, both Uzbekistan and Georgia were for centuries under the influence and on the periphery of Persian culture.
Two years ago, after I had to relocate from Russia to Tashkent, I decided to go meet some friends in Tbilisi. My trip was meant to last two or three weeks but something stuck and now I’ve spent almost two years of my life there. My first winter in Tbilisi felt like a psychedelic experience. I’d lived in Moscow for fifteen years and had become accustomed to the Russian version of that season. Thank God Tbilisi showed me an alternative to brutal Moscow winters. The first summer in Tbilisi was the happiest summer of my life. I felt like I had found a home in Georgia, a place where I could be ready to grow old.
I don’t know when they will open up the borders but I will go to Georgia the moment It happens. My friends and comrades are waiting for me there.There is also my bar; during the quarantine my partners have painted it white. I really want to see it as soon as possible.
In Russia they say you have two homelands: one small, one big. The small homeland is where you come from, your village or town: basically this is your home. The big homeland is the country where you act as a citizen and realise your social functions. I think my story is in fact the opposite. I found my small homeland in Tbilisi/Georgia where I feel most at home. My big homeland is Tashkent/Uzbekistan where I’ll potentially become a responsible citizen (I don’t have this feeling of responsibility yet, but I think inevitably it will come); I’m even ready to serve as a bureaucrat here.
These are very different countries but both are very important to me at the moment. It seems my future will move along this Tashkent-Tbilisi trajectory.
Someday I will organise an expedition to bring construction materials from Uzbekistan to Georgia and build a yurt on the roof of my bar. I will rent a minivan, grab three or four of my best friends and travel from Tashkent to Tbilisi. Maybe at this point the world will have stabilized and we’ll be able to travel through Afghanistan and Iran.
The mere idea of future journeys warms my heart. I wish they would open the borders soon. I wish I could finish these endless projects that I must complete in order to build a place I can call a home.
Uzbekistan, 3 June
You may find it strange but for me, thoughts about home and thoughts about death are always related. I’ve always seen myself as some sort of animal who is constantly changing its location in space, searching for the best place to die. Perhaps this is what a home is.
Of course, you shouldn’t read that too literally. But I often say to my friends that I’d prefer to pass away in a forest. I’d walk into a fir forest, find a suitable spot, lay down, and die peacefully in my sleep. This description may sound a bit optimistic but at the very least I’d like to ask my relatives to bury me according to Muslim rules: the same day before the dawn, but in the woods. That’s why I’ll build my future home at the edge of a forest. Just this simple idea helps my life take root.
They say that life in big cities deprives us of cosmic perspective. In a megalopolis we can’t see stars, so we don’t gaze at them and no longer correlate ourselves with the universe. The image of a peaceful death and slow (or fast) decomposition of my body gives me that cosmic perspective. Our bodies feed other creatures and all this compost eventually transforms into stardust.
Near my home in Tashkent, there is a Zoroastrian cemetery that dates back to the early centuries of the first millennium. These cemeteries are usually called “towers of silence” and basically served as storage for hundreds of ceramic ossuaries. This specific graveyard was discovered during the Soviet period and at some point became an archaeological site. Apparently the Zoroastrians and I agree on a few things: the best way to get rid of a dead body is to put it in a forest. But they thought that way because of their belief that land and fire are both sacred. So you couldn’t just bury or cremate a corpse. They used to carry it to the woods, let it lay there for a year and let the animals consume it. Afterward someone would collect all the bones and place them in a ceramic vase.
Today I went to my classmate’s wake. I haven’t been to one in Uzbekistan for so many years that I couldn’t remember the ritual. I must say I was quite indecisive and scared to go there but it turned out to be a very humane and simple procedure. According to Muslim rules the dead body should be buried as soon as possible; usually it’s done on the same day. During the three days after the funeral, friends and relatives of the deceased will visit the family for a prayer. We believe that the bigger number of prayers that are pronounced for the person, the better it is for him.
My classmate died in a motorcycle accident two days ago. I hadn’t seen him for almost twenty years until I met him again for the last time half a year ago. He talked enthusiastically about his passion. He collected vintage motorcycles and was very proud of this collection. He used to look for old vehicles and restore them. I was very surprised to find out about his love for motorcycles and he was delighted to know that I understood and supported his hobby, a very strange one for Uzbekistan.
I haven't sent you any letters for more than a month. It was one of the weirdest months I’ve ever experienced. My country has announced another lockdown. When the first quarantine was finished and people went back to their normal lives, the number of corona cases soared. At some point hospitals were overcrowded and the government decided to declare a second lockdown. I spent this month at home, again.
The last months have become an absurd preparation for the new life which presumably will start after the pandemic. In early March I sent my application to the Sandberg Instituut—and it was accepted. This specific programme of the school is about the representation of knowledge, re-editing history, and archival work. This is an opportunity for me to focus on one topic and start my own artistic practice.
I was following this school for years and was very happy when I found out that I'd be part of this research group. The programme seems to be tailored specially for me, as it allows me to work with the history of my country and the inner Eurasian region. Now that it’s been a couple of months since I was accepted, I feel like a lifetime has passed since that moment.
In May I was offered to lead a new publication called EastEast. It will present alternatives to outdated euro-centric worldviews and work to reshape the geographies of contemporary culture. Again, this project coincided with my own geographical turn and interest in so-called peripheral parts of the former USSR.
I feel like a whole eternity has passed since we began to work on this project. I’m glad we decided not to delay the launch; the web-site is live already. I really enjoy the mixture of history and contemporaneity that we have. You can watch a film by Metahaven or go through a linguistic journey into different words related to home. This is the topic of our first issue. And I’m thinking about it constantly. Maybe I’m getting old.
All of these serious changes in my life are happening while I’m stuck in my room. And I have that feeling that it’s almost impossible to reach that point where new life begins. Like Achilles struggling to catch up with the turtle. There is also death appearing here and there in the background. There were funerals in half of the six houses around my home during the last month.
I do my best to focus on work by saying to myself that death is a social construct.
One can say that death is an abstract metaphor, but you can not say the same thing about a child's birth; it is the most specific and serious thing that can happen. One week ago my niece delivered a girl, one more member of our family. That means my parents have become a great-grandfather and a great-grandmother. In this system of kinship I think I am called a grand uncle, which sounds quite serious.
This lockdown and the long period of staying at home have made me think about Western alienation and Eastern pragmaticism. Maybe, instead of getting stuck in the world of your own you should make simple and natural steps out of it. Instead of focusing on death or an abstract new life you can do something very obvious, like congratulating your parents, supporting your brave niece, and celebrating a real new life with them.
17 August, Tashkent