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Journey to Khiva

..."Only in 1968, the neat little lady guide told Alex and me, had the first visitors been permitted to enter the city; and so careful of their trust had the authorities been that even now the tourist would find, she promised, "a museum-city" uncontami-nated by the hotels and restaurants and everyday buildings which disappoint the traveller elsewhere. We could look forward to a city of mosques and medressehs and palaces sleeping in the shadow of Khiva's evil name as the central vortex of the slave trade into which were sucked all the unfortunates captured on Turkestan's borders. To the Khiva market were dragged — literally dragged at a rope's end - the Persians snatched from Khorassan, Russian fishermen seized on the Caspian, prisoners from Kokand's or Bokhara's wars: anyone, in short, whom the Turcoman brigands of the steppes could catch and bring for sale. It was a reign of terror. "No Persian [the Turcomans boasted] ever approached the Attrek without a rope round his neck"; indeed, so resigned were the peasants of the Persian border to their fate, and so dreadful was the Turcoman's name for cruelty, that the poor captives would bind one another and hand over the rope's end as soon as a chappaw surprised them in their fields. The old were slaughtered, women flung across saddles, the men dragged on foot after the far-trotting Turcoman horses whose stamina on a diet of chopped straw carried these raiders hundreds of miles across the steppes on their forays."

..."The moment we were through the gate arch, and Khiva's first street lay ahead, trim brick lined with trim tourist stalls, I knew that the pool was empty. Whatever the general outcome of travelling in Central Asia, i knew that I had wasted my time in coming to Khiva. That required no thinking about. It was a conclusion - a disappointment - which head and heart jumped to together at once, and wouldn't jump even halfway back. I knew the pool was empty, and that I might as well reel up and wade ashore.

It is hard to put adequately the case against Khiva as the Russians have restored it. Their renovations have been exact, their accuracy in matching paint and tiles no doubt scrupulous, the tidiness of street and square is beyond reproach, the glass-case displays in scrubbed-out mosques as informative as scant material allows, the stalls selling rock music cassettes and nylon fur hats are tastefully recessed into walls in which not a brick is out of line. But what has renovation, matched colours, taste and tidiness, to do with an Asiatic city? The deadly aim of those weapons has killed Khiva stone dead. Never, at any period of its history, was this perfect suchness the appearance of Khiva. Never did every coloured tile glitter in its place on the facades, the streets were never swept like this, nor the squares empty nor the lanes silent and clean. It is a museum: a museum directed by an authority wilfully out of sympathy with the material it has preserved, an authority indeed with nothing but contempt for the true past of this Asiatic city.

In Disneyland you can walk through a dandy little replica of New Orleans, a brick square neat as pie alongside a Mississippi a foot deep; and this is what has happened here. Russia has replaced Khiva with the theme park facsimile. Is it spite, is it contempt: or is it fear? — is it, in a modern form, the old Russian fear and hatred of the place which tricked and slaughtered so many thousand Russians sent on successive expeditions to subdue it? In Russia's scouring and sanitising of Khiva I can make out the motives of the settler in Africa who puts a lion's skin just where he steps on it getting out of bed, or makes his wastepaper basket out of an elephant's foot - who makes into something servile the claws and tusks his instinct fears. Just as the elephant's foot must be hacked from the body, and scoured out and treated with preservatives, so have the centres of the old cities of Turkestan been severed from the Asiatic body, dipped in formaldehyde, and put down to have tourists tipped into them. It was the boast of Russian conquerors in these parts that they, unlike the British, did not interfere with native government but allowed (in Soboleff's words) "full liberty to native manners"; though it meant the perpetuation of native tyranny, their policy did indeed leave the teeming cities unchanged, their bazaars thronged, their mosques tumbledown but in full employment — left an immemorial Asia, in fact, to survive alongside the steam train and the machine gun.

But such tolerance did not survive Russia's revolution. Mass deportations and razed cities, the tsars' weapons used to break the tribes of the Crimea and the Caucasus, were now employed by Stalin in Central Asia. Citizens and races were divided and scattered, mosques profaned, caravanserais and covered markets dynamited, history eradicated. As best he was able, Stalin broke the backbone and severed the limbs of the Asiatic elephant which General Kaufmann, for all his brutality, had only ever tethered as a beast of burden to work for Russia. Now the cultural colonialism of Moscow has turned the dead creature's feet into wastepaper baskets and its carcass into a museum. Here in Khiva's dead streets and whitewashed mosques - very much like the interior of a dead elephant -here is to be seen, at last, the full retaliation of Russia for all those humiliating failures to capture the city, for all those Russians under Cherkasski murdered in its streets, for Per-offski's thousands dead of cold in its steppes, and for those Caspian fishermen sold in its market place. Delenda est Khiva. As the Romans did to Carthage so Russia, by her scheme of renovation, has finally laid waste to Khiva, and taken her revenge upon it."

"In innumerable places, in countless cities and scenes, you can find that unbroken cord of authenticity - it isn't rare — but it is not to be found at Khiva. You can't believe in any past behind Khiva's present appearance: it is a stage-flat without perspective. I walked through it from end to end after Anatoly had left me at the gate, better supplied than yesterday with questions to put to it, and there was no life in it. The authenticity of Khiva has shrunk to the dimensions of the tourist-carrying camel's suffering eye. I walked through its neat streets and came out of the chief gateway and sat under the willows in a species of garden planted in an angle of the walls, and listened to the fountain's patter.

I was aware of the many varied impressions made by Khiva on different men, Vambery finding a city alive with threats to his disguise, Abbott repining over his semi-captivity in the cold of winter, Shakespear making himself out as jolly as a cricket whilst bounding about to collect the Russian slaves: but I couldn't imagine any of them in the streets behind the walls. It must then have been a dirty, teeming robbers' lair, its unas-sailabilty confirmed by Peroffski's failure, the slave market its chief source of wealth. "Slave market!" European hands were thrown up to varying heights by the "horrors" of slaving and slavery. The term gholan, a slave, "is not one of opprobrium in Eastern countries", Sir John Malcolm, historian and diplomatist, gently reminds his readers, "nor does it even convey the idea of a degraded condition". "We are certainly far from approving of this hateful trade (wrote X. Hommaire de Hell, warming up to point out Western hypocrisy) but we are bound in justice to the people of Asia to remark, that there is a wide difference between Oriental slavery and that which exists in Russia, in the French colonies and in America." This cut was very near the bone, especially to the bone of Russia's contention that she was conducting by her Central Asian campaigns only a crusade to free the slaves. The Bokhariots would admit to Alexander Burnes no offence in making slaves of Russians, for "Russia herself exhibits the example of a whole country of slaves", prompting Burnes to "melancholy reflections on the liberties of Russia, that they admit of comparison with the institutions of a Tartar kingdom", and to further murmurs about "the freedoms of Bokhara compared to the black bread and unrelenting tyranny of Russian serfdom"."

"But where now are the crooked streets and narrow courts with their blank walls where Abbott lived and worried? Nowhere in Khiva as it has been restored is there the quintessential Eastern sense of enclosure, of unseen watchers, closed wooden doors, lanes like tunnels between shabby mud walls echoing your footsteps, dust and silence. It is not to be found in these clean brick streets with idling tourists their only traffic, or in the empty, functionless squares. At every mosque door at the door of every public building - a harridan shuffles lorward shouting angrily for money to let you pass into some poor array of broken pots and scraps of carving which are laid out 011 a trestle and called an "exhibition". With this museum-citу it was impossible to imagine forming that complex relationship of uncertainty mixed with exhilaration which is at the heart of the traveller's enjoyment of a foreign town, particularly in the East.

I had been better able to imagine the Khiva in which Abbott lived and suffered from reading of it by the fire at home than from my bench under the willows against Khiva's renovated walls. Rather gloomily I spread out my picnic. Because there is n0 everyday life about the place, only tourism and its predators, there is no background in which a visitor can make himself invisible, as there is in thriving cities: no busy crowd concerned with its own affairs, no mothers with children resting under the trees, no old men playing draughts. Every step I took in Khiva was self-conscious. Every step I took all morning had been followed by a pair of boys, not street children but clean unpleasant boys, who stopped a few yards off whenever I paused and held out their hands and shouted "Hey! Money!" These monsters were now occupying the further end of the bench on which I had set out my bread and fruit and tin of sardines, and soon began sidling along on their bottoms towards my lunch, both of them shouting "Hey! Money!" in my face. I threw them the tin of sardines - not easy to catch an open tin of sardines neatly - and walked off. As I had done with success at Bokhara, I thought I'd try a circuit outside the walls in hopes of finding a quarter which renovation hadn't obliterated."

"Journey to Khiva" by Philip Glazebrook