When I speak to my new cultural teacher, he tells me not to talk about politics or religion, two themes that influence the work that I will do. I can say that the people of Karakalpakstan are closer to their neighbours in Kazakistan than Uzbekistan. Their history, according to my teacher, is dominated by forced movement of a people from the Black Sea to the devastated Aran Sea, the engulfing by other new republics during the long history of the former soviet union and now a silent acceptance of their fate in the cotton fields, making money that, as far as I can see, fails to make their living conditions any better. Nukus, the Capital is desolate and desperate to maintain its national identity, but trapped by its fear from those that listen. I choose to ask questions with discretion and write with care as to not make the life of others more difficult.
I don’t want my teacher to be worried about me so I try to be neutral in my questions and ask him what tradition he feels would be lost if another country would take Karakalpakstan over. He flicks his shiny cotton suit, bunches his skin above his nose, taps his glasses closer to his eyes, and smiles. As with all traditions, it is about the man and the girl and their courtship. He calls me the ‘strong man’ (I feel proud as this 'strong' word is rarely used with me) when he describes the courtship.
“Let's say Kartik was in love with a girl. He would tell his girl that he will kidnap her (I look shocked). He will tell her that she better get her bags ready on Wednesday because he will take her away. His family and friends will then get in the car and take her from her house to his uncle’s house where Kartik will be waiting. When she arrives she will resist, but this is her love and her life. The relatives who have taken her away will go to her family where they will bow their heads (he bows his head) and tell her family they are guilty. Guilty of what? Guilty of kidnapping. The family shout and scream but this is formality. They know that Kartik was friends with the girl and that he might do this thing. The family is happy and it is “Allah’s wish” that the two lovers should get married.”
Romantic, macho and a tradition that is apparently not meant to be forgotten.
At 5.30 pm the light of the day changes to a matted sunset grey, the time for shopping for dinner. There is a bazaar 10 minutes walk along the railway line from the MSF office. The apocalyptic buildings to the right appear warm and friendly and behind these unstructured sandy constructions is the ‘bazaar’, the outdoor market in which prices can be lowered, a notion that I have been taught well by my own culture and traditions!
Like a kid, I am drawn in by the colours of different fruit and vegetables, the sounds of the chatter. It seems that people draw into me as well, curious about my heritage. I draw my map of India to explain just the beginning, but am lost trying to explain the migration from India to Kenya to England! I stop at the first shop, interested largely in the tomatoes of different sizes, dark red colours as though they had just been uprooted from the ground. These tomatoes and peppers are rich and they taste fantastic and given my experience with many tomatoes and peppers, probably the best in the world! The family is a handsome family with tall chiseled features, probably in their late 20s but appearing slightly older in dry desert heat. My pepper woman proudly permits me to take a picture of her peppers.
Smells of bazaars and markets remind me of life in Kenya, of freedom to touch the fruit without the plastic covering or the perfection of fruit so common and un-natural in the modern world we all live in.