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Day 23 – Everyone’s free in Uzbekistan to live however they want

“Everyone’s free in Uzbekistan to live however they want” Matluba, Kokand

23muse.gifIn pre-Soviet times Kokand was a major capital. It is now a small industrial town in the Fergana Valley. The main industry is still textiles, though over 50 percent of the population depend for their living on casual labour or working the local market. It is a familiar mix of Soviet apartment blocks, older Uzbek architecture and the grandiose statues and fountains celebrating the first Bolshevik leaders. The atmosphere is of calm tolerance with traditional Muslim lifestyles coexisting alongside modern aspirations and styles of dress.

As we drive through Muqimi park, Kokand’s recreation space I witness a disconcerting array of sights. An Uzbekistan Airways jet languishes in the trees, a steam engine resides on a disused circular railway and next to the swings, a palace, the ‘Palace of the Last King’. This structure sits uneasily with its eccentric neighbours. A ramp leads up to one of several decorative courtyards, wooden pillars support primary coloured patterned ceilings.

23jsilk.gifCompleted in 1873 and destroyed soon after by invading tzarist troops, the Palace was converted into a Museum in 1925. The remaining rooms and courtyards now host local history curios. Two original wooden gates from the walls that previously surrounded the city alongside musical instruments imprisoned behind glass. The display included a kobuz (see day 4) possibly evidence of Kokand’s prominent position on the old ‘Silk Road’.

One area that seemed to excite the team was a room full of patterned paintings. These works by Saidakhmad Makhmudov were bright, eye-catching and seemed to echo many of the decoration we had seen before – the walls of the Registan in Samarkand, the ceiling in our Jewish Guest House in Bukhara even the walls of the Museum of Applied Arts in Tashkent. These were fabulous designs and Gary took some stills which can be viewed on a separate page.

23bigw.gifLocal TV director Burkhon Shermatov arranged a meeting for us with Kursanoi Kodirova and Muborakhon Akramova. In a courtyard in the Palace they performed some Uzbek folk songs. Singing and playing doira, their songs mostly concern courtship and marriage. The traditional Uzbek wedding consists of three parts: Erkak Ash, a morning ceremony for men during which male musicians play, Khotin Ash an afternoon ceremony for women and Toy, an evening celebration for everyone. Kursanoi and Muborakhon usually perform in the afternoon and evening. One of the songs they sang for us was a standard of the repertoire called Yor Yor. It is sung as the tearful bride leaves her parents’ house for her new home. Legend has it that the prophet Muhammad once saw women taking a bride to be married and asked them where they were going. They said they were going to a wedding.

23twow.gifThe prophet then declared that everyone should be notified of weddings using a special song. Fatima, Muhammad’s wife, is supposed to have handed down this song which is still sung, over one thousand years later.Besides singing at weddings, Kursanoi and Muborakhon also perform in concert halls and at state events. They were recently awarded third prize at an international festival in Turkey. Their singing and dancing is direct and unfussy with an immediacy and humour that seems appropriate for weddings. Their manner is charming and engaging and it is easy to see, even out of context, why they are the most famous singers (or Yallachi) in the Kokand region.

Whatever may be the popular perception of women’s roles within Islam, it is clear that in this culture women have their own views and modes of expression.

I had the opportunity to talk to Matluba (our present translator) about the position of women in Uzbek society and in particular about the work of the Business Women’s Association of Kokand (BWAK). Matluba presented a very positive view of the way things are progressing. The BWAK is a non governmental organisation which gives advice and training to women wanting to work in both private and governmental sectors. Some of its stated aims are:
– to form an ideology of female business
– to support entrepreneurial initiatives
– to protect the rights of business women
– to improve professional skills.

23int.gifAccording to Matluba more and more women are coming to them for help and she sees the future of Uzbekistan in terms of an open and democratic system. Matluba describes herself as a Muslim, who ‘trusts in God’ and who is trying in her busy life to learn the namaz or prayers. At the same time she sees no reason why she shouldn’t wear modern clothes and make-up. It was extremely refreshing to hear so much optimism from a young person so soon after Independence.

I asked Matluba what she thought of an earlier description of the Fergana valley as being ‘a hotbed of Islamic Militancy’. This seemed totally at odds with her perception of the region. She stressed the extent to which people are increasingly free to live as they wish. Women may follow a traditional way of life or can dress in a modern way and have careers – as long as their families allow them to !

Matluba places a lot of faith in their President, Islam Karimov to take the country further forward into a tolerant and democratic future.

Tomorrow, Ochil Khan – shaman or female Sufi, join us and find out

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