Summer in Samarkand

When I try to remember how I ended up in Samarkand, I am reminded of an anecdote about the folk hero Nasreddin Hoca. Walking along a deserted road one night, the story goes, Nasreddin Hoca noticed a troop of horsemen riding toward him. Filled with terror that they might rob him or conscript him into the army, Nasreddin leaped over a nearby wall and found himself in a graveyard. The horsemen, who were in fact ordinary travelers, were interested by this behavior, so they rode up to the wall and looked over to see Hoca lying motionless on the ground.

“Can we help you?” the travelers asked. “What are you doing here?”

“Well,” Nasreddin Hoca replied, “it’s more complicated than you think. You see, I’m here because of you; and you’re here because of me.”

I can vividly imagine Nasreddin Hoca’s experience: the road at nightfall, a dog doubtless barking somewhere, the panicked leap and heavy fall, the smell of damp soil, the sound of approaching horsemen, and finally the faces peering over the wall, concerned and mildly astonished. And what I like about the story is how perfectly it encapsulates the riddle of free will in human history: a realm where, as Friedrich Engels observed, free wills are constantly obstructing one another so that, inevitably, “what emerges is something that no one willed.” Nobody, least of all Nasreddin Hoca, willed for Nasreddin Hoca to end up lying in the graveyard that night; nobody forced him there, either—and yet there he was.


The chain of events was set into motion by my decision to study Russian literature: in itself an impulsive decision, not unlike jumping over a wall and ending up in a graveyard, although things eventually, on the whole, worked out well for me. Still, learning Russian takes a long time, and time passes so slowly in college. After two years of what felt like endless study, I still couldn’t pick up a Russian book and read it. I couldn’t understand a Russian movie without subtitles. If I tried to talk to Russian people, they stared at me like I was retarded. I decided that the only solution was to actually go to Russia.

In the spring of my sophomore year, I applied for a grant, for a study-abroad program in Moscow, and I applied for two jobs: one as a personal secretary to a frozen-foods exporter from Peru who was negotiating with a Moscow-based supermarket chain, and the other as a researcher for the Let’s Go travel guides in Russia. The outcome of these applications wasn’t exactly bad, but it wasn’t anything I had willed, either. I got a travel grant—for half the amount I asked, not enough for the study abroad. The Peruvian entrepreneur said I could be his secretary—pending submission of a “recent full-body photograph.” Let’s Go offered me a job—in Turkey, because they said my Russian wasn’t good enough for travel in Russia. My Turkish, by contrast, was good enough for travel in Turkey. The previous year, Let’s Go had sent a young man who spoke no Turkish at all and who had consequently, as the result of a never fully explained “misunderstanding,” gotten beaten up by a pimp in Konya, after which he actually had some kind of nervous breakdown, which was even somehow minutely documented in Rolling Stone magazine as part of an exposé.

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