Summer in Samarkand, Part II

Composite Camel with Attendant, 16th century, Safavid Period, from present-day Uzbekistan, gouache on paper, 6 x 8". Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource.

If i didn’t really resist the circumstances that pushed me to Uzbekistan that summer, it was because I believed that out-of-the-way places and literatures are never wasted on writers. But I never did write about Samarkand, not for many years.

Since I didn’t write about Samarkand, I didn’t think about it much either. I was reminded of this anomalous episode only some years later, when I was reading “Onegin’s Journey,” the excised chapter of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, intended to bridge the three years that pass between chapters 7 and 8—three fatal years during which Onegin wanders around Russia and the Caucasus, and Tatiana transforms into a Moscow grande dame. Whatever Pushkin wrote in the first draft of “Onegin’s Journey,” he didn’t like it—he burned the manuscript, publishing some fragments only in later editions of Onegin, as a footnote or appendix. All that anyone really knows about these fragments is that Pushkin rewrote them in 1829, upon returning from his own journey to the Caucasus, the subject of his travelogue Journey to Arzrum. Pushkin had last been to the south at 21, when he wrote Prisoner of the Caucasus, and nothing was the same: “Whatever feelings I harbored then—no longer exist. They all either passed or changed.” Pushkin turned 30 on that second trip.

Lepyoshka

If there is one thing I heard a thousand times in Samarkand, it was how they have the greatest bread in Uzbekistan because of their amazingly clean water and air. The famous bread of Samarkand comes in round, flat loaves, known in Russian as lepyoshka. As legend has it, the Emir of Bukhara once summoned the best baker of Samarkand to bake him some Samarkand bread. The baker arrived in Bukhara, bringing his own flour and water and firewood, and baked some Samarkand-style bread. But, according to some kind of international bread arbiter, it didn’t taste the same as the bread actually in Samarkand. The Emir decided to have the baker executed, pausing only to ask if he had anything to say in his own defense. “Well,” the baker replied, “there isn’t any Samarkand air here, to leaven the bread.”

The Emir was so impressed by these words that he spared the baker’s life, which you would think was a story about the baker’s cleverness, rather than about any actual properties of the Samarkand air. But that’s how this story was cited: “Even all the way back then, Samarkand was famous for its clean air and water . . .”

Instead of relying on one of the abstract or inedible representations of “bread” so popular in other parts of the world, the Samarkand bread sellers used, as signage, an actual lepyoshka hammered to a board with a large iron nail, like the body of Christ. Looking at those signs was like witnessing the first glimmerings of abstract thought. How is a loaf of bread nailed to a board different from a loaf of bread in a store window at an unmarked bakery? Both indicate the sale of bread . . . but you can actually buy and eat the bread that you see in a bakery window. In Samarkand, the bread has been sacrificed—rendered inedible, by being nailed to a board and hung out all day, or maybe for multiple days, in the sun—in the name of signification.

My introduction to the lepyoshka of Samarkand took place on that first evening at my host mother Gulya’s house. I was just back from my first meeting at the university with Vice-Rector Safarov and my future language teacher Muzaffar. I was so tired I could barely walk. I thought Adam would be asleep, but found him in the dining room, which was covered with Bukhara-style carpets, with long ghostly gauze curtains floating in front of the window.

He was sitting in a fake Louis XV chair at a long Louis XV table, solving chess problems. The sun was setting outside and orange light filled the room, bouncing off the mirrored walls and the crystal chandelier.

“You’re awake!” I said.

“I waited for you,” said Adam.

We stumbled into the next room and collapsed onto the bed. In my dream, the poor ward was trying to move Jane Fairfax’s piano. “Emma! Emma!” shouted the ward, but the piano was still falling down the stairs, falling and continuing to fall, making a terrible racket. Gulya was rapping on the window. “Emma!” she called. “Em-ma!” I staggered out of bed and fumbled with the window latch. The sky outside was a deep, liquid blue. “Emma, dinner!” Gulya said. She was standing outside the window, just below eye level. Her features looked exaggerated, cartoonish; the black-outlined eyes, the cartoonishly mouth-shaped mouth.

The first installment of Summer in Samarkand appeared in Issue 7.

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