Thursday, April 24, 2014


In Osh, Wandering Through The Remains Of The Days

My view from the cafe, of other cafes similarly gutted across the street
My view from the cafe, of other cafes similarly gutted across the street
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If you’ve been reading Chaikhana, you probably know I was in Osh recently. I was also there in April, the day after former President Kurmanbek Bakiev fled Kyrgyzstan. (I’d been in Jalal-Abad until then.)

Just across the street and down the road from the Imam al-Buhari Mosque in Osh are some restaurants. I never bothered to learn their names. One of them served the tastiest kebab I’ve ever had.

On April 16, Namaz was still being said at the mosque and I was in the restaurant. My companions for lunch were friends – one Tajik, one Uzbek, and one Kyrgyz. The significance of dining with representatives from each of the three major nationalities in the Ferghana Valley was not lost on me at that moment.

Nor was the moment when Namaz ended and groups of older men, just come from prayers, entered the café. They sat at the tables together – Uzbeks with their duppi or tebeteikas (square skullcaps), the Kyrgyz with their kalpaks (cone-shaped felt hats).

The spoke animatedly and laughed often.

At my table, we perceived the magic of that moment. My Tajik friend, Mirasror, commented that it was a good way to spend your retirement years.

“You go to prayers, then meet to have tea, eat, and talk with your friends about anything and nothing,” Mirasror said.

We all agreed.

I was back when Namaz was being said on June 18. Since prayers were still in progress I went back to my kebab house, though I already knew what I’d find. It was ransacked and burned.

There was no one there. I wandered around, looking to see what had happened, what was damaged, what remained. Some of the tables and chairs hadn’t suffered too much, so after 10 minutes of roaming I decided I would grab a chair, go back to my table from April -- which was still standing -- and smoke a cigarette.

The remains of the ethnic Uzbek school in the Ak-Buura district of Osh
As I stared across the street where other cafes were similarly burned, two young Kyrgyz men entered the restaurant to my left. They were surprised to see me, but I quickly bowed my head, put my hand over my heart, and said, “Salam alaykum.” They bowed their heads a bit but didn’t bother to reply.

I asked, “Kalaisiz?" (How are you?) They didn’t reply to that either. Instead, they made their way into the rear of the restaurant, emerging a few seconds later with three still-usable chairs and vanished across the street.

I sat there until I finished my cigarette, remembering how different it had been exactly nine weeks earlier. But nothing is forever -- not the restaurant and not my cigarette. I put it out on the floor (the whole place was essentially an ashtray at that point) and got up, thinking it was time to leave because those two guys would probably return for my chair and table soon.

Earlier that same day. I passed by a burned-out Uzbek school in the Ak-Buura district of Osh. Standing by the school's gate, I heard someone yell “Stop!” and knew instantly there was someone guarding the neighborhood. He was a police officer and immediately accused me of “maraderstvo” (looting).

I pointed out I was a foreigner, a journalist. He wasn't impressed. As we discussed my impending detainment, the officer commented on a leather bracelet I was wearing on my right wrist. I told him my bracelet ($10 on Amazon) was a talisman of sorts and had brought me great luck. I suggested he might need more luck more than I at that moment and offered it up as a...gift.

I lost the bracelet but kept my freedom.

-- Bruce Pannier
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