Tea Without Respect

Uzbek pillarsIt’s 3:30 in the morning on Friday. I’ve been awake for 15 minutes, lying in the cool breeze that cuts across my colleague Melissa’s apartment at night. I was startled out of sleep by the call to prayer booming through a scratchy loudspeaker in the minaret of a nearby mosque and almost rolled right out of bed onto the floor. I don’t know how I’ve missed the cry of “Allah akbar!” every other night here—I must have been exhausted. As I lay in bed, I listened to the street noises outside. A horse cart passed by, followed by a car, surely exceeding local speed limits, the theme to “The Godfather” playing on its horn in a strangely dopplered way (that’s very popular here, as is “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” I want to meet the person who thought it would be cute if car horns played oddly chosen melodies...)

As I type, I can hear women in the alley, clattering cooking ware and speaking in hushed tones, countered by louder, male voices arguing about unloading a truck of fresh produce brought to market—they are speaking “Uzbekiston,” a local dialect that is part Russian and part Uzbek—I can understand a small bit of what they say. The men don’t seem to be too worried about the fact that is so early—there are already roosters crowing and a pack of dogs barking in response to the winding tune from the mosque. When the breeze picks up, I can smell naan (the local bread) baking in tandeer, rounded clay ovens that poke up like grey beehives along rural roads and in city alleys (the Uzbek equivalent of tandoori, I assume.) The bread here is wonderful—you see young boys transporting fresh hot naan all day in wide trays balanced precariously on the handlebars of their old bicycles. They deliver the steaming trays to their mothers, garbed more often than not in the traditional tunic and pantaloons of colorful tribal-patterned “Atlas” silk—which provides a stark contrast to the short skirts and bell-bottoms of neon greens and oranges favored by the hip youth of big city Tashkent.

The bread women sit in the shade on street corners, chatting with their colleagues who market tea, spices, folk foods, bottled drinks, and western sweets to passersby. Even in the shade the temperatures hover around 90 (it was over 100 today—as it has been since I arrived) and the women keep their straight black hair pulled back into brightly hued kerchiefs, revealing almond-shaped eyes set in rosy-cheeked faces the color of café au lait. The people here are beautiful—they have features that hint at their mixed ancestry of Asian, Slavic, and Semitic peoples—and their language (Turkic and Arabic, with smidgens of other tongues as well) demonstrates this too.

For centuries, Tashkent was known as a hospitable caravan serai, providing shelter, food, and a market for traders and wanderers along the Silk Road. The hospitality of the Uzbek culture can be overpowering at some points, but I find parts of it delightful. Today, when I visited the first Goodwill store in Central Asia (which caters to the needier members of Tashkent society, but is ironically located across from the 5-star Hotel Intercontinental) I was immediately offered a full cup of steaming green tea. The people at the Tashkent Goodwill know I love green tea—both for the flavor and for the wonderful effects it seems to have on my blood pressure and temper when working with them.

When one of my Uzbek colleagues handed me the full cup he said, “For you, May-leesa, tea without respect.” I took the tea, but was confused. He laughed at my befuddlement and told me that, according to Uzbek tradition, when you have guests come visit, you show respect by filling their tea cups only half way. This way, you have to keep filling their glass (to the halfway point again) throughout the evening, keeping your honored guests with you. When your cup is filled to the rim, that is your host’s way of indicating that the evening is at a close. To be given a full cup at the start, “without respect,” indicates a familiarity and comfort found within families. I was very touched.

I have two weeks of hard work with my Uzbek colleagues ahead of me. I’m fairly sure that, by my last day here, I expect my tea will be served in half cup increments, with a full cup by the end of the day!

Time to sign off now. I’m going to try to get a couple more hours of sleep. I don’t know whether or not the phone connection I’ve found here will work—if I had a local account, it would be no problem, but trying to connect to a finicky machine 8,000 miles away is a nightmare.

Maybe more before I go—off to Samarkand (resting place of Tamerlane the Great) on Saturday and a horrid little place called Nukus on Sunday (where, reliable and shorn sources report, the hotel gives you lice. I’m planning to sleep on the street, myself...)

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