Years Go By

The past as present in modern-day Uzbekistan

01 January, 2018

IN 1420, THE TIMURID RULER and astronomer Ulugh Beg completed construction on the first madrasa in Registan Square, Samarkand—then a bustling trade intersection on the Silk Route—and hoped that it would blossom into a centre for education. Dotted with caravanserai, or roadside inns, the square grew into a space where science was celebrated. Massive darskhonas, or lecture rooms, formed an integral part of the square’s surroundings.

The square is one of the locations shown in “New Year in Uzbekistan,” a compilation of photographs by the Pakistani photographer Aun Raza, published as a book in December 2016. Between December 2013 and January 2014, he visited Uzbekistan and documented his time in the capital, Tashkent, as well as cities such as Samarkand, Khiva and Nukus. Raza had early associations with the landlocked former Soviet colony: he recalled reading about djinns, magicians and fortresses in the One Thousand and One Nights, and also the Hamzanama, an epic about the exploits of Amir Hamza, a relative of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Having seen the array of cultures that have influenced the country, he likened it to a painting where “the base coat seems to be of the Silk Road and one of the heaviest washes is that of the Soviet times.”

The Russian Empire advanced into Central Asia in the 1800s, and Russian power held sway in the region for over a century. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1991, when it declared independence. Raza’s images of Christmas and New Year’s in Samarkand bring out part of the legacy of the Soviet period. Despite the Gregorian calendar not having particular significance in some Islamic countries, the Soviet tradition of celebrating New Year’s is entrenched in Uzbek culture. Christmas is also marked, but with faint, if any, religious overtones, as in the Soviet habit.

Beyond the festivites, Raza also records disquieting images of dilapidated buildings and relics from the Soviet era, such as abandoned gunboats beside the dried-up Aral Sea. These suggest that the country has, in some ways, been suspended in time. A photograph of young men peering anxiously at their seasonal lottery tickets appears alongside a close-up of an advertisement for gas voda—gas water—in Nukus, a city that, Raza explained, has a severe shortage of water, compelling locals to drink boiled tap water despite the knowledge that it is contaminated. “It is not a happy or flourishing country,” Raza said. “It is a place where ordinary people are still used as forced labour each year to work in cotton fields. Their currency is extremely devalued. They have had one of the biggest man-made disasters of human history, the drying of the Aral Sea.”

Raza’s images capture what he referred to as a “silent, global homogenisation” in Uzbekistan, where Soviet influence overlaps with the American and Chinese ones that have followed it, often to surreal effect. In one image, policemen keep watch outside the Samarkand Vokzal—a train station—anticipating unruly crowds around street entertainers dressed as Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus. In others, a group of young men assemble plastic Christmas trees, newly imported from China, at Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent; a butcher, dressed in a Santa Claus costume, prepares meat for a customer; and children play under towering water pipes from the Soviet era. Raza’s framing of his subjects sets up a constant interaction between history and the contemporary moment.