Tales from the Mahallas of Osh

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by Elmurad Kasym on 1/16/2013 · 2 comments

In a groundbreaking new book, an anthropologist explores the lives of the Uzbeks of southern Kyrgyzstan – a community caught between a rock and a harsh place. (Originally posted on TOL.)

Under Solomon’s Throne: Uzbek Visions of Renewal in Osh, by Morgan Y. Liu. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. 296 pages.

A city sitting on the edge of the Ferghana Valley in southern Kyrgyzstan, Osh has a significant ethnic Uzbek population, which found itself under Soviet leadership in a newly crafted Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1920s and under independent Kyrgyzstan since 1991. Witnessed by the silent Taht-i-Sulayman mountain, several generations of Osh Uzbeks transformed and adapted to often-harsh realities. In Under Solomon’s Throne: Uzbek Visions of Renewal in Osh, Morgan Y. Liu offers a groundbreaking firsthand anthropological and sociological examination of the lives of Osh Uzbeks in political, economic, societal, and religious contexts, bracketed by two traumatic episodes of Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflict in 1990 and 2010.

Liu, a cultural anthropologist at Ohio State University, first identifies the contours of post-Soviet Central Asia, a region that appeared on Western political radars with its engagement in the U.S.-initiated War on Terror in 2001. Then he zooms in to ground level: the Osh bazaar, the politically intertwined lives of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, the daily routine of his interlocutors, and the architectural peculiarities of Uzbek homes, all the while providing anecdotes from his conversations and personal observations.

The idea and lived reality of the mahalla, or neighborhood, in Osh Uzbeks’ lives is central to Liu’s book. A mahalla is a complex web of narrow streets on one hand and of layered societal relations among its dwellers on the other. In strong contrast to the apartment houses where most Osh Kyrgyz live, a mahalla consists of a line of adjacent courtyard houses built with sun-dried bricks. It can exist on its own without much interaction with the outside world, yet some have mosques, bakeries, car repair shops, and hairdressers.

The mahalla plays such a vital role in Osh Uzbeks’ lives that they preferred barren lands on the outskirts of the city to concrete apartments when a Soviet administration demolished and rebuilt several neighborhoods in central Osh. According to Liu’s sources, only in a mahalla setting one can bring up a decent person able to contribute to the community.

Having spent several long spells in Osh and able to speak Uzbek, Liu taps into the real “Uzbekness” of the matters covered in the book, from the market and the mosque to philosophical discussion and the mahalla-dwellers’ relations with the state. Under Solomon’s Throne can serve as a go-to manual for policymakers and researchers involved in Central Asia, because, as Liu writes, “the issues that have been playing out in Osh – massive unemployment, social injustice, Islamic revival, strident nationalism, ethnic misunderstanding – go to the heart of trends that affect the stability and prosperity of the entire region.”

The predicament of the Osh Uzbeks is that, as an “ethnic minority” in a strongly Kyrgyz state, they have been denied opportunities to contribute to the development of either Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. Uzbeks in this part of the Ferghana Valley have decades-long political, economic, and societal relations with their cousins across the border, which had been virtually absent in Soviet times and porous afterward. When Kyrgyzstan gained independence, its leaders – willfully or otherwise – failed to engage the Uzbeks in the south, who naturally gravitated in outlook to neighboring Uzbekistan.

Against this backdrop, the Uzbek state’s positions, disseminated by the mass media, were easily absorbed by Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. They reacted with dismay in 1999 when Uzbekistan unilaterally restricted traffic at the border post near Osh – an unpleasant and bitter slap in the face of Osh Uzbeks, who often cross over to visit relatives and conduct business. Still, though the restrictions were a clear indication of Tashkent’s disinterest in the Osh Uzbeks, these “stepchildren” of Kyrgyzstan continued to make excuses for it. Liu’s quotes an argument advanced by one of his friends, that tight border controls were necessary to safeguard the Uzbek state and its citizens from “Wahhabis,” a broad term employed by official Tashkent to marginalize any dissent whether religious or temporal.

There were reasons for this pro-Uzbekistan sentiment. The Kyrgyz Uzbeks saw how the agricultural and urban infrastructure across the border stayed intact under the strong-hand leadership in Tashkent; Bishkek did not follow suit. Osh’s main employers – the gigantic textile factory, the pump factory, the silk plant – were haphazardly privatized and then bankrupted by the late 1990s. With the Kyrgyz leadership seemingly helpless to save them, factories, businesses, and farms collapsed, leading to massive unemployment in Osh and an even greater influx of ethnic Kyrgyz into the city from nearby villages.

Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz authorities continued a Soviet policy of reshaping the city into a more “Kyrgyz” place. Independent Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akaev, hailed the celebration of Osh’s notional 3,000th anniversary in 2000 in an effort to “redefine the city’s long history, which was problematically too ‘Uzbek,’ into an exemplar of multiethnic contact and long-standing coexistence.” Local Uzbeks greeted mentions of the anniversary celebrations with “either yawns or chortling,” Liu writes. Over the last several decades, local authorities have carved several large mahallas out of the Osh municipal administration’s jurisdiction, even though they lay within city limits, and annexed several predominantly Kyrgyz settlements outside the city. Uzbekistan responded to these “reforms” with silence.

The violence in nearby Andijan in May 2005, when Uzbek troops brutally put down a rally of unarmed civilians, drastically changed Osh Uzbeks’ attitude toward Uzbekistan; some even started expressing gratitude to be Kyrgyz citizens. Their previously unconditional support for the new “khan” in Tashkent was irreversibly shattered with the June 2010 interethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan. The Islam Karimov administration ignored the bloodletting for two weeks, then kicked out hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks who had fled across the border.

A feeling of abandonment by both countries to which they feel attached has not stopped the Uzbeks of Osh from seeking to better themselves. They do not limit themselves to the mahallas but are – or were, at least until June 2010 – actively engaged in commerce, art, and sports. (Local politics remains almost entirely a Kyrgyz affair.) The bazaar began to play an even larger role in their lives as the closure of local factories resulted in massive unemployment.

Entrepreneurial Uzbeks established business ties with foreign markets for importing goods as well. The concepts of tarbiya (upbringing) and adab (morals, ethics) to which Uzbeks are exposed in the mahalla manifest themselves in their trading ethics. Liu observed that a shopkeeper will look after an absent competitor’s goods and will quote the competitor’s prices even when they are lower than his or her own. While this testifies to honesty, such behavior is also motivated by piety, since the competitor may well be absent for congregational or individual prayers in one of the mosques whose number has dramatically increased in Osh since 1991. Mosques, too, contribute greatly to the tight-knit fabric of Uzbek mahallas and prevent conflicts, Liu’s interlocutors insist. One elderly man tells Liu that if he quarrels with a neighbor today, he knows he’ll be seeing him at the mosque tomorrow, “so I won’t let myself get into a fight.”

By such anecdotes analysis, Liu captures the centrality of the mahalla paradigm in Osh Uzbeks’ life and minds. His interviewees argue that the rigid and solid mahalla hierarchy, whereby elderly women and men are respected and listened to, can be applied at the state management level. Uzbeks keep their mahallas clean and tidy: young women and girls water and sweep the streets in the warmer months, while men call on the institution of hashar – unpaid cooperative labor – to maintain the ditches and build each others’ houses. Just as the mahalla – the central “authority” in Osh Uzbeks’ lives – supplies a moral and social order on a small scale, so the state is, or should be, a mahalla writ large. And despite the formidable circumstances they face, Osh Uzbeks have not given up trying to improve their political, economic, and societal situation.


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– author of 4 posts on Registan.net.

Elmurad Kasym holds a master's degree in International Security from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Kasym comments on Central Asia affairs and is currently based in Moscow.

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{ 2 comments }

Peter Rankin January 19, 2013 at 2:03 am

“Liu observed that a shopkeeper will look after an absent competitor’s goods and will quote the competitor’s prices even when they are lower than his or her own. While this testifies to honesty…”

Had to chuckle at this. Academics… you can’t beat them.

tnerb January 29, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Can’t beat them? Join them!

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