Two Years Ago Today As

by Nathan Hamm on 9/10/2003

Two Years Ago Today
As I mentioned earlier, I never finished my journal during the Peace
Corps. In many ways, this serves as that finish, as tainted by two
years of time to think about it as it may be…

In a lot of ways, Navoi, Uzbekistan is like something off of Tatooine.
It’s 100% artificial, a series a large concrete buildings plopped down
onto enormous blocks in the center of the desert. It is exactly what
you would expect from Soviet urban planners in the 60’s. Three
triumphant main streets suitable for parades that run a distance of
about four kilometers. Every so often, smaller streets cut this
socialist workers paradise into large blocks, making a city of perfect
degree angles. The city ends very abruptly with nothing visible but
distant villages and even more distant mountains in nearly every
direction. I lived in a building where city met desert in Navoi in the
late summer of 2001. I hadn’t had much luck in this city. My school was
uncooperative and generally a bad place to work. I’d also had two bad
host families. In June, I decided to start anew that summer. I quit my
job and looked for a new school and then I moved out of my apartment
and away from the family that owned it. I had recently started dating
another volunteer in my city and moved in with her until I could find
my own place. That summer was fabulous. Education volunteers had as
little or as much to do as they wanted. We went to some summer camps,
visited friends in other parts of the country, took naps during the
hottest parts of the day, even got a little work done writing grant
requests. As the summer was winding down in August, a fire in my
apartment destroyed nearly everything I had brought with me. Here I
was, nearly as far from home as you could be and still be in the
northern hemishpere with just one pair of underwear (turning it inside
out only gets you so far). I spent the next few weeks in a serious
funk. There were only a few items of sentimental value I had lost and
Peace Corps was taking care of paying for the damage. They sent someone
out immediately to talk to the owners of the apartment, the police, and
to make sure everything was fine. But nevertheless, it had put me on
edge. Independence Day was approaching and police were becoming a
little more aggressive and I boldly (and perhaps foolishly) countered
their aggression with my own. I also had a flake of a translator who
left me on my own when dealing with the fire inspectors, and, well, my
Russian improved greatly while dealing with this overly bureaucratic
official. For some reason, he kept telling me he could press charges,
but he wouldn’t because he like me. In a way, he flaunted his power
behind his smile—like I said, I was in a bad mood and didn’t take it
lying down. I was more or less in a mood to call everyone’s bluff
against the employee of the US government. Let’s see how far they will
go before they back off.
I only mention all of this because by the second week of September,
things were looking seriously up. We had just opened an English
Resource Center, I had a new job I really liked, and I had found a new
apartment in a great neighborhood for a good price. I was speaking
great Russian and my second year of service looked like it would be
really good. One night after watching the Simpsons, all of our lives
changed in the blink of an eye and the life I had come to know came
crashing down in a shower of steel and glass. All the time, people at
home treated me like I was in some kind of dangerous place because the
country I lived in shared a border with Afghanistan. It’s ironic that
it was lower Manhattan that proved to be so much more dangerous. 9/11
was something I experienced so differently than anyone in America. I
can’t really relate to the fear that people felt here, and I don’t know
too many people who can understand the lack of fear I had in Central
Asia. I have been asked a lot, “What were you doing when 9/11
happened?” I can see that people want to hear something dramatic, like
that I was huddling in a cave because of a Taliban artillery attack on
the mud huts of my quaint village. They find it a little humorous that
the truth is that I was watching the Simpsons. It kind of is a bit
ironic, but it also disappoints
some people. There’s no drama. Life in a secular Muslim country is like
life in the US.
Also, it’s very hard to explain how 9/11 made me want to be invisible.
In public, I know that everyone pretty much knew I was an American, but
we all just pretended it was normal for me to be there. Suddenly that
social dynamic was thrown out of whack and the Americans and Uzbeks
really didn’t know how to deal with each other like we did. It was like
suddenly being in a new place. Some people assumed we might not have
heard what happened. What do you say to them? “Thanks,” “I already
heard”? Taxi drivers told me that it was horrible what had happened,
and I’d say that I really didn’t want to talk about it. Then they would
keep going, saying that there was a big war in America (believe me,
they didn’t mean this figuratively, they meant a literal conventional
war with armies on battlefields). I knew well enough that nothing I
could say would convince them otherwise. People we knew wanted to
comfort us, but didn’t know how. The guys did it in a good Soviet way,
hoist a glass to the fallen and think about the fallen while silently
smoking a cigarette.
Teaching was difficult to do. We were in limbo. We were almost
immediately placed into “standfast” mode, unable to leave our sites
without permission. Peace Corps told us that this would be indefinite
while the US determined its response, which we all knew would mean some
kind of military action in Afghanistan. They also said that evacuation
was only a remote possibility. We honestly thought that the only thing
we would really see different in our lives was an increased presence of
US troops, foreign press, and more aid workers. We would become the
“old hands.” MREs were brought to regional capitals as part of our
pre-existing security procedures (the possibility of a major earthquake
leaving us without power and water was the largest concern pre-9/11).
Then, right out of left field, cell phones of wardens and regional
safety people all started ringing at about the same time. We were
coming home and had a week to get to Tashkent.
Evacuation is probably the worst thing that can happen to a Peace Corps
Volunteer. Getting used to the idea of coming home is something that is
done slowly. We all saw the process with the people who went home in
August ’01. Over the summer, they started consciously forgetting their
Uzbek and getting excited to go on a large, long trip to somewhere
exotic on their way home. By the time they left, they were happy to go.
Being yanked out suddenly is traumatic for some people and readjustment
to life in the States is a bit more difficult. Evacuation is bad
enough. It is downright insulting when you are an adult who is being
evacuated against the reccomendation of Peace Corps and the State
Department because parents flipped out back home (my parents won’t be
accused, they were worried, but trusted my judgment—plus, I know
they’re both too busy to ever do something like call the Congressman to
bring me home). In a way, Peace Corps Volunteers were also serving as
the miner’s canary for the Uzbeks. As long as we were there, they felt
safe. When they heard we were leaving. They thought that meant that the
Taliban was going to invade, or that some other calamity would befall
them. When in Tashkent, we were all whisked off to one location and
told we couldn’t leave because our regional safety and security officer
was absolutely paranoid (he had the stairwells to our floors locked,
posted guards at elevators that only went to our floors, and put big
ropes on every floor for us to rapel out in case of fire—one and two I
can kind of understand, but three was too much). Staff was sad to see
us go and brought us beer and vodka everynight. We were allowed out on
9/26, our last day in country, and we cleaned out the bootleg CD stores
and bought the last of our souvenirs. That night, we were escorted by
State Department and Peace Corps employees to the plane taking us back
to a country entirely different than the one we had left. I get a lot
of criticism from some people I know because I talk about Uzbekistan a
lot. For me, it got old really quick to hear talking heads say that
America lost its innocence on 9/11, but in a way, my time in Uzbekistan
was an interlude that gave me incredible maturity, self-confidence, and
a far better understanding of the world. All of this was powerfully
punctuated by 9/11 for me. Literally and figuratively, 9/11 was the end
of my journey in Uzbekistan.
I always agonize over how to end things, but in life, there are no
clean points at which to cut a story off, so I’ll just leave this where
it ended naturally.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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