A Day in the Life

by Nathan Hamm on 6/7/2005 · 6 comments

The following was sent to me by David Walther, an American living in Tashkent and frequent commenter. If you’ve been through any of this before in a place like Uzbekistan, well, this’ll bring back some memories. If not… Well, here’s a taste of what it’s like to accomplish something as simple as buying furniture. –Nathan

Today was one of those days in Tashkent.

This morning, just after my alarm went off, my cell phone beeped that I had just received a text message. Since 7:30 in the morning was a little early to hear the exciting news about “now being able to use my cell phone service” in the middle of the desert in some town I would never go to, I expected it to be one of the new text messages that the embassy had been promising to send out. I was not disappointed, but I was confused.

The message, issued on the whole warden system, let us know that embassy employees were not going to be allowed to send their children to school for the rest of the school year. It doesn’t take much to assume that this means they think we should follow suit. Since I don’t have any children, I didn’t let in ruin my morning—but the back of my head has been filled all day with questions about why they would feel it necessary to start our day like that. Do they know the attackers are in the city already? Did they get a threat against the school?

The warnings have been elevating somehow every few days, and they are maddeningly expert at entreating us to ratchet that threat level up one more notch without ever telling us why. Just one week ago, they were telling us in a meeting that Tashkent International School (practically a fortress) was rated the second-safest civilian site in all of Tashkent, and that they were confident the school should be safe. The bulky, ex-military Central Asian Security Chief spent a good ten minutes explaining to a concerned mother why a car would not be able to break through the gate in the school wall and set off a bomb inside the school.

And now they “tell us” not to send our kids to school anymore.

It’s gotten so bad, to be honest, that driving around the city today I was watching for target buildings—hotels, clubs, the Oliy Majlis, the USAID office right across from a hotel—and kind of, well, waiting for them to blow up. When I had to walk in front of the USAID office (which must be nearly empty by now), I nearly tried to find something to hide behind when a minivan pulled up and security guard ran out to with a mirror to check it for bombs underneath.

Those were the “outer threats” that made the day special, but more unnerving than that for me was something that I found today ‘within’ the system.

The project that I work on is moving, so after surviving the morning trip to work and spending a few minutes packing up our things at our old site (and discovering, to my delight, that our cook had not only thrown the breakable dishes all on top of one another in a soft bag, but had also packed poisonous cleaning powder together with our potatoes) I set out with one of my local coworkers, Lena, to buy some used furniture for our new project site.

Lena had found this used furniture store out by Hamza that she had heard was the best in the city. We walked into the store and I at first I almost felt at home—it was, for an American, something like a cross between a giant furniture garage sale and a cheap antique shop. The warehouse-like store was filled wall-to-ceiling with bookshelves, tables, office furniture, and beds, of all shapes and sizes, from brand-new to garbage.

At first I was excited that Lena had found a great store, maybe as she had hoped an ultra-rare one-stop shopping trip in Tashkent. But as I started looking at the prices, I sensed something was strange about this store. The variety was enormous, but at second look, the variety in the price was not all that enormous. The prices, in fact, were bordering on ridiculous—half the stuff was in such bad shape that they should have paid us to haul it away from their store, but broken tables were marked at $50, and sets of broken tables and chairs were above $100. The prices for things actually in decent shape were even more inhibitive. Our budget is very limited, and by the time we had made one round through the store, my dreams of one-stop shopping had already vanished. Lena called a salesman (if you can call him that) to ask about some of the prices and start the ancient tradition of bargaining. But that bubble burst as well. He announced that all prices were very firm, because this was a “government store.”

What does that mean? I ran the way he had said it over in my head a few times. I looked around at all the furniture, of all different kinds, and then wondered into the last little room that looked like a Goodwill back home: old clothes, bad paintings, broken musical instruments, beat up VCRs, antique computers and the like. The prices, again, were very strange—the stuff cost almost as much as it would new. And among the old VCRs and electronic equipment, there was some stuff that was basically brand new.

A government store. This means that the government owns this stuff… why would the government own a bunch of random stuff that looks it comes out of peoples houses?

We finally found some bookshelves that were reasonably priced, and the sales guy wanted to show us some more. He called us to come after him and walked through the “employees only” door into the back of the store, and with a little reluctance I followed him. We passed through a long, dimly lit hallway bordered on one side by padlocked storage rooms, and on the other side by offices from which I could hear the slow patter of a typewriter. Why would a store like this have four offices in it? What do they type?

He unlocked the padlock on a door and switched on the lights, leading us inside a big storage room that smelled strongly of mildew and dust. On the right, just as I entered the door, there loomed a mountain of black rubber boots, brand new, still in their packages or boxes. Next to them, a stack of brand new bottles of expensive imported motor oil. Next to that, promotional hats and t-shirts for the same brand of motor oil. On the left, a whole shelf of brand new looking computer equipment, complete with a very expensive laser printer, gathering dust.

He had the wrong room, so he led us out to another storage room. In this one, the lightswitch was broken, and before ushering us in he retrieved a screwdriver and proceeded to stuck it right into the switchbox and fiddle around until he manage to get the light on somehow. This room was indeed full of old, half-broken bookshelves in the back, but more interesting to me, it was also literally full of books. Mountains of books, stacked in piles almost as tall as I am. I picked through a few, hoping to find some kind of salacious title that might confirm the theory that was now firmly lodged in my head, but I didn’t recognize anything, and I couldn’t keep myself from asking the question I had been afraid might step across some kind of line.

“Where does all this stuff come from?” I finally asked him, holding up a book.

He didn’t hesitate at all, “It’s confiscated.”

Lena was caught completely off guard, but the suspicion had been forming in my head for ten minutes already. Where else would the government get all this random stuff?

“From who?” she asked, startled.

“Organizations. It’s mostly stuff from the tax police.”

“And from people who go to jail?” I asked, prodding.

“Yeah, some of this stuff is from people who were thrown in jail,” he said with a shrug.

“So this whole store is stuff that has been confiscated by the police?”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Contrary to my fears, he made no issue of this fact and had no interest in why I would want to know.

We made our order, and they called a truck to come and pick our bookshelves up. I wasn’t sure how I felt about buying anything from the store, but we wanted to start work again already in two days, and mostly I just wanted to get out of there. The sales guy told us to pay the driver for the furniture when he dropped it off, and that he would deliver in an hour.

As we left the store, my head was spinning, wondering if it was ethical at all to buy anything from this store. Sure, in the U.S. our police sell stuff at auctions that they confiscate in drug raids and as evidence—but it was obvious that this stuff represented entire homes that had been confiscated.

“I’m thinking about this stuff, all that stuff in there,” I said to Lena as we walked away.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, where are the people whose houses this stuff came from? Some of them are in jail, rotting, and some of them are probably dead.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

We walked towards the street in silence, and then started to talk about where else to look for furniture. We had just decided to try the “SovPlastItal” store to buy some plastic tables and chairs, and had spotted a taxi waiting by the side of the street, when out of the corner of my eye I saw two gypsy girls with their eyes already locked on us.

The older of the two, probably in her early twenties, literally skipped towards us for about ten yards with a big smile on her face, and then as she zeroed on, the smile disappeared and the familiar, “my parents are dead and I haven’t eaten for weeks,” show face came on, twisted in so much fake grief that it was almost absurd.

She attacked: “Heeeeeellllpppp meee, uncle, heeeeeeeellllpppp me antie, pleeeaasseeeee,” in a shrill, whining voice that reached pitches even the most professional five year old never finds. She was joined by her sidekick, and there were two children coming towards us with their game faces already on.

“Give me some money for breeeaaaadd, uncle, pllllleeeeeaaaaassseee,” now the leader had latched ahold of Lena, seizing her hand and stroking her arm hard enough to rub off her skin with hands that looked like they had not been washed for weeks. The younger one sprang at me, running in for an attack and wiping her hand on my shoes. “God grant you never get sick, you’ll be happy, you’re not sick, happy, happpppyyyyy” she moaned in a tone like a funeral mourner, moving in for another attack at my shoes.

We were having to push them out of the way to make it to the car. They realized where we were going and tried their very best to block our way, the older one latched to Lena’s arm like a toddler throwing a tantrum, and the other one bending over every few seconds to make a run at my shoes–I think she was actually rubbing spit on them. It was all I could do to keep from accidentally kicking her in the head as she tried her best to keep me from moving, and I tried my best to get to the safety of the car.

I usually try to be polite or at least civil, even to gypsies, but these girls were clearly overachievers in their field, and combined with the stress and the bad mood, I decided to do something I had never tried with these kind of beggars before: I decided to talk to them like the locals do, which seems to be the only thing that works for merchants whose customers they are driving away.

“Get lost!!” I yelled in Russian. It had no effect at all. I was reaching for the car door and the one assigned to me was grabbing my hand and trying to pull it off the car door. “Get LOST!!” I tried again. Lena and I had both made it into the car, but this didn’t stop them. They were trying to open the car doors, and reaching their hands through the window that was already half open. The driver had started the car already and was trying to pull away, but their whole arms were through the front window, groping at Lena.

“Get out of here, you little bastards! Fuck off!” the driver yelled. No effect. He reached over and actually smacked their hands, hard. “Bastards!”

We drove away, the driver shaking his head, and I was probably just staring into space.

I got back to the fact that I had just made an arrangement to pay the government of this country money for things it more than likely stole from its own citizens—and that I was going to pay the government to use this stuff to educate orphans that it refused to educate. It was a like a double reward for the government—first we were paying them to confiscate private property of its citizens, and then we were essentially paying them so we could take care of orphans they had already abandoned. There was nothing good in the whole thing. I felt sick to my stomach, I felt like I should have refused to buy the stuff and left. But at least it would go to a good cause, I thought, maybe that was something.

Back at our new site, we sat down on the floor Uzbek style to have lunch after moving all our boxes into the house, and were set to wait for the shelves to be delivered so we could start to set up and hopefully have out students back in two days. My cell phone rang, and Lena picked it up since she was waiting for a call from the furniture driver from the store, telling us he was in the neighborhood. Two hours had already passed, so when the phone rang we got up to get ready to meet him. But he was, of course, not in the neighborhood.

“You haven’t even left to go to the store yet?” Lena yelled into the phone. “You were supposed to be here a half hour ago!!” “No, four o clock does not work!! We are all here waiting for you! We called you this morning for this delivery!”

She yelled at him some more and he hung up the phone on her. It was not that he had other deliveries. Apparently he just didn’t feel like leaving his house yet.

So we passed time for another hour, and then, losing hope, I sent most of our staff home, while a couple of us guys stayed around to wait for the furniture.

We had just set up a game of Monopoly, Jr. (all we had available) to pass the time when the phone rang again. I picked it up: “Hello. This is the furniture store disturbing you. Is Lena available?”

I handed the phone to Lena. She started to turn red, and went outside where she could scream freely.

I was beginning to think it was a sign. The driver had finally gotten to the furniture store, but once he got there, the salesman who had agreed to sell us the furniture had apparently changed his mind. The driver was trying to explain it, and Lena yelled at him for several minutes (yelling over the phone is a national tradition, after all) and then demanded to yell at the salesman, who at first didn’t seem to understand even who he was talking to. Then he explained we just couldn’t get the furniture at all today. It was broken. In another country it would have seemed odd that it had not been broken when we looked at it only four hours before, but I didn’t think much of it.

Then, of course, the salesman told her that if she wanted the delivery today (which had been promised in an hour four hours before), she should have paid for the furniture at the store. She was now screaming into the phone, and sounded like she might start crying, “YOU TOLD ME TO PAY THE DRIVER WHEN HE CAME. YOU TOLD ME YOURSELF!!!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU??”

I spent a second reflecting how many times I had tried to buy something in the former USSR and gotten the distinct impression that the sales person actually didn’t want to sell it to me—like it was some kind of perverse pleasure that they got in pissing off customers so bad that they ran away in frustration.

But inside, as bad as I felt for Lena as she screamed herself hoarse into the phone to no avail, I was thankful that the deal had not worked out. The new deal was that we were supposed to come back to the store tomorrow and start over again. Why? I quit asking that a long time ago. But I knew this was my second chance, and I knew we would most certainly not go back to that store.

I tried to go on with the rest of my day after that, but I had no money left in cash, and I struck out with two straight attempts to either withdraw money on my Visa card from home or even change a few dollars into So’m—there was no So’m… there doesn’t seem to be So’m anywhere in Tashkent anymore. Not at a commercial bank, not at the hotels, certainly not at the state banks. It’s there, somewhere, in the morning, I guess. Everyone says that all the money goes to Andijon now: some say to pay back salaries, I think to pay all the police and military encircling the town. I’m sure it’s a mix of both.

So I went home, thoroughly defeated, with all of 10,000 so’m left to my name ($9) in the eastern hemisphere. Now I’m left to figure out how far that will get me, and how long I’ll even have to worry about it before things finally start blowing up or the government finally throws the rest of us out here.

Yeah, so pretty much it was just another day in Tashkent.


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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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{ 6 comments }

Katy June 7, 2005 at 1:42 pm

Thanks for posting this – very interesting.

uzari June 8, 2005 at 1:14 am

David,

You have truly captured the essence of life in Tashkent.

uzari June 8, 2005 at 1:16 am

PS – you’re buying the furniture with cash??? We can’t buy anything with cash… Only bank transfer. But no one you want to buy stuff from ever accepts bank transfers…

Matt W. June 8, 2005 at 1:59 am

You can order custom made furniture here from good artisians for not-too-expensive. Get my e-mail from the site admin. if you need some numbers. Of course, you probably need it sooner than it can be made.

david_walther June 8, 2005 at 6:26 am

thanks for the tip, matt.

Mark Hamm June 8, 2005 at 11:58 pm

Your gypsie story reminded me when Nathan and I were hiring a car in Navoi to go somewhere. Two little kids pestered us for some money. Of course I thought Nathan was being too mean to the kids, firmly telling them something Russian that I took to mean ‘get lost’. However, once we had hired a car the driver really lit in to the kids. I thought he was going to start beating them. Ahh, the memories.

Thanks for the story.

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