In one of the sessions of the Fourth International Conference on Central Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (September 27-30, 1990), it was suggested that we might have underestimated the intensity and the importance of the inter-ethnic rivalries and struggles current in the Muslim republics of the Soviet Union. What follows is an affirmation and illustration of that remark.
I arrived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on April 19, 1990, as a delegate to the International Symposium and Music Festival of East Peoples devoted to the 1400th anniversary of Borbad, the well-known musician at the court of Khusrau Parviz. I found Dushanbe to be a delightful city surrounded by the snow-capped elevations of Hissar. The authorities and the inhabitants were equally charming. I was to participate in the proceedings of the Symposium for the next ten days; I hoped to visit Samarkand and Noble Bukhara before returning to Minneapolis.
When, at Tajikistan Hotel, the authorities collected the passports as they handed the keys, all hopes for visiting other places were dashed. Upon expressing my concern to my friend and guide, however, I discovered that a trip to Samarkand (in Uzbekistan) had been scheduled as part of the program of the Symposium. This trip would be realized, we were told, if the authorities in Samarkand kept their promise.
Meanwhile, I had realized that a trip to Bukhara was absolutely out of the question. Three things seemed to creep into my conversation with the Tajiks and with my colleagues familiar with the Soviet scene. One was the Tajiks' intense fear of the Uzbeks. The Uzbeks, the Tajiks said, would gladly take over Dushanbe just as they had wrested Samarkand and Bukhara from them. The other was the Tajiks' contention that both Samarkand and Bukhara, contrary to the Uzbeks' claims, were Tajik-speaking urban centers. In order to prevent the world from recognizing these cities as centers of ancient Tajik culture, the Tajiks claimed, the Uzbeks had restricted access to them. The Uzbeks, of course, denied this. Finally, a major stumbling block to a trip to Bukhara was, I was told, that the monuments of Bukhara, unlike those of Samarkand, were still not renovated to the scale of those in Samarkand and thus were not ready to be presented to an international body.
In Samarkand the visitors were met by the usual offering of bread and flowers. A troop of musicians and dancers entertained the visitors. The guests danced and talked to the welcoming party for about ten minutes before heading for the buses waiting to take us to the city and the monuments therein.
At the gate of the airport, the buses were stopped. After a few minutes, the drivers and group leaders went to the office at the gate to find out the reason for the delay. The Tajik and Uzbek authorities, they said when they returned, were deciding which language, Tajik or Uzbek, should be the main language for describing Samarkand to the guests. The Uzbeks felt, we were told, that Uzbeki, the language of the Republic of Uzbekistan, should be used. They offered to provide translators for it to be translated into Tajiki. The Tajiks were adamant that since all guests knew Tajiki there was no need for Uzbeki at all. Meanwhile the clock was ticking towards 5:00 p.m., when the party was scheduled to return to the airport for take-off for Dushanbe.
This haggling went on for a while longer before the "elder brother," to use Stalin's interpretation, stepped in and resolved the problem. Both the Tajiks and the Uzbeks quickly pulled their horns in. Russian, it was decided, should be the language used to describe the sights and the monuments. The group leaders would then translate the Russian into Tajiki or Uzbeki as needed.
Once the dispute was over, the buses speeded through Samarkand and stopped in front of the Opera and Ballet Theater where guests were entertained with Tajik composer F. Bakhor's "Maqami Ishq" and the rest of the visit proceeded smoothly from there. As guests, however, we were not given a chance to talk to Samarkandis and decide for ourselves whether the inhabitabts were primarily Uzbek or Tajik. On the pretext that there was no time, we were shepherded through the city and the monuments and returned to the airport.
The seemingly simple incident at the gate, however, played a major role in bringing home to me the depth of the inner ethnic tensions not only between the Tajiks and Uzbeks but among the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmens. I noted thereafter that in most speeches in Dushanbe there were distinct references to the recovery of the Tajiki-speaking cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. Later on, I became aware of the even less visible tensions between the Tajiks and the Russians. Indeed, the integrity of the Tajiki language, and efforts at keeping it safe from Russian, placed me in a tough spot in a book store in Dushanbe. When speaking Tajiki, apparently I used "ruble" instead of "sum," the Tajik name for the same. A Tajik youth standing next to me protested vehemently. You should not use Russian equivalents, my guide explained. Either speak Russian or Tajiki. Do not mix languages!
Language, of course, is a system of symbols. The use of these symbols invokes different reactions by different people. And there were other symbols. While helping me buy several postcards at the hotel, my guide got into an argument with the hotel clerk who was a Russian. After we were alone I asked about the incident. He told me that she was angry with him because he wore a beard. Further discussion made it clear that he was identified with a group of Dushanbe intellectuals who were anti-Russian and who wore beards as a sign of their protest.