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Bruce 'Burhan Beg,' The Central Asian


At times I would be at least 1,000 kilometers from the closest U.S. Embassy, not that there would be any phones where I was heading. No one would be coming to help me if I got into trouble.

For several years now I have been seeing these reports in Western media about Central Asians in the ranks of Islamic extremist groups.

Often Central Asia is described as a "breeding ground" for terrorism.

I don't use Qishloq Ovozi to tell stories about my time in Central Asia, but in the aftermath of this week's tragic attack in New York City, a city I lived in, I'm going to now.

On a rainy night in March 1992 I stepped off a plane at the Almaty airport.

I was completely terrified and had spent the whole flight from Moscow thinking I had made the worst mistake of life, maybe a fatal mistake.

I had agreed to conduct sociological research in small villages in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and that is where I would be living until the end of the year.

When Teodor Shanin (he's famous, look him up) offered me the job at a meeting in Manchester, England, it seemed like a fantastic opportunity, one no one had ever had. But as the day of my arrival approached, the weight of my decision pressed on me.

I had been to Central Asia before. I attended Tashkent State University in the summer of 1990.

But that was when Central Asia was part of the Soviet Union, and I was in Tashkent, the biggest city in Central Asia and one with enough foreigners that I did not feel so out of place.

But now I was going to remote areas. From then on, there would just be all the people who lived there -- Muslims, of course -- and me.

At times I would be at least 1,000 kilometers from the closest U.S. Embassy, not that there would be any phones where I was heading. No one would be coming to help me if I got into trouble.

Thoughts such as those swirled around my brain, and quickly another realization hit me: I would be totally dependent on these strangers, these Muslim peoples, for almost everything.

I would be living in their homes. I couldn't bring enough food to feed myself for weeks at a time, so I would be counting on them to feed me. And as I would soon come to realize, I was the strangest person they had ever seen.

Admittedly, I was not totally alone. There were locals who were working on the project with me. They actually lived in these villages for eight months at a time, whereas I passed through, staying for 10, maybe 18 days at most before moving on to another village.

But of course, I didn't know these colleagues when I arrived. We would arrange to meet in some big city or town and immediately leave for the village.

The peoples of Central Asia have a well-deserved reputation for hospitality, but in the first weeks I was working in the villages I had the sort of suspicious nature one gets from living in New York City. The more people smiled, the nicer they were, the more I smelled a trap.

But it gradually dawned on me that there was no guile, no ulterior motives at work.

Not everyone trusted me at first. They had heard stories for decades about evil Western capitalists and American imperialists and all of a sudden I showed up on their doorstep, the first Western person they had ever seen.

My instructions were to observe everything the people in the villages did and join in as much as was possible. Working alongside them, eating at the same table, and sleeping on the same floor made us friends.

For example, in Uzbekistan, one of the places now being described as a breeding ground for terrorism, I went from being "bizning mehmonimiz" (our guest), to being "bizning dostimiz" (our friend), to simply "bizning" (ours).

And I willingly became "theirs."

And I did not have to "go native."

I am a Christian. In fact, the entire time I was working in the villages I had a gold-cross earring and I wore a cross on a neck chain. Always. Everyone, all the Muslims in these villages, knew.

This was actually better. It created an additional bond between us.

They believed. I believe. We talked about religion all the time. Never an argument, just comparing notes.

On the overnight train from Tashkent to Margilan in late June 1992, one of my Uzbek colleagues and I managed to get a cabin we shared with two other travelers.

The conductor, who I would soon learn was a very religious young man, came and checked our tickets and asked where I was from.

Within 15 minutes our cabin was packed with people, all Uzbeks. Everyone had questions they wanted to ask me.

But many of them, the conductor included, had a difficult time with "Bruce." They couldn't remember the name.

We started talking about religion. I remember one person asked the crowd, "How can an ant breathe?" He answered the question, saying: "We don't know. Only Allah knows how an ant can breathe."

I agreed, only Allah knew, and the conductor suddenly had an idea.

"You are Burhan Beg," he said to me. "It's one of the names from the Koran."

Everyone nodded in assent.

At the start of August, when we had a group meeting at Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek colleague on the train to Margilan with me that night told all the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and other Uzbeks working with me that story. For the rest of the time I was working in the villages, I was always Burhan Beg.

What I am going to say now is the most important part of this story, especially at a time when some Western media are portraying the peoples of Central Asia, and Uzbeks in particular, as intolerant extremists, or at least potentially intolerant extremists.

This Burhan Beg remained a Christian. That did not bother anyone, but the times I felt most separated from the people was when they went to mosque. I participated in all the Islamic ceremonies marking births, marriages, and deaths, but going to prayers seemed to me a different matter.

I talked about it and these Muslims, by now my friends, made the greatest of gestures.

They asked me to come to mosque, as a Christian, and pray with them. Eventually I was even given my own prayer rug as a gift, and I took it with me along with the rest of my baggage from village to village.

I never fully understood the words I was saying when I prayed at mosque, the same way I couldn't tell you what all the Latin words I say at church mean.

But I was accepted -- as a Christian, as an American. We were all Allah's children, or God's, if you prefer.

In November 1992, I met again with Teodor Shanin in Moscow. He asked me if I would consider continuing to work in the villages through 1993.

I didn't even let him finish his question before I said, "Yes."

There are bad people in the world, and they exist among every group you can name. The same can be said about good people.

Yes, some Central Asians have joined terrorist groups. So have people from other parts of the world.

Most people do not know much about Central Asians.

I do.

My fate has been in their hands more times than I can count and I never had reason to regret that.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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