A Conversation with Tom Bissell
In 1996, Tom Bissell went to Uzbekistan as a naive Peace Corps volunteer. Though he lasted only a few months before illness and personal crisis forced him home, Bissell found himself entranced by this remote land. Five years later he returned to explore the shrinking Aral Sea, destroyed by Soviet irrigation policies. Joining up with an exuberant translator named Rustam, Bissell slipped more than once through the clutches of the Uzbek police as he makes his often wild way to the devastated sea.
In his memoir, Chasing the Sea (2003), Bissell combines the story of his travels with a beguiling chronicle of Uzbekistan's striking culture and long history of violent subjugation by despots from Jenghiz Khan to Joseph Stalin. Alternately amusing and sobering, this is a gripping portrait of a fascinating place, and the debut of a singularly gifted young writer.
In January 2005 he published a collection of short stories, God Lives In St Petersburg, about Americans colliding with remote and often perilous parts of Central Asia, such as Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
This interview was conducted shortly after the publication of Chasing The Sea, and before the publication of God Lives In St Petersburg. However, the interview continues to be relevant with regards to the latter book as he explores many of the same themes and places from Chasing The Sea.
First, Chasing The Sea is set in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, where you had been a Peace Corps volunteer for several months in 1996. What made you want to return in 2001?
When I joined the Peace Corps, I was looking for a way out of the very experientially sheltered Midwestern life I had enjoyed to that point. The terrific irony of this is that I was scared, as they say, of my own shadow. The idea of going so far away all but paralyzed me with fear. But I did it. Strangely, once I got used to living in Uzbekistan and got over that fear I found I was suicidally miserable. So I ran back home with my tail Krazy Glued between my legs.
My experience in Uzbekistan, then, was extremely haunting for me personally, and I felt I had really failed the people I joined the Peace Corps to (however theoretically) help. When I started writing nonfiction for various magazines, one of the first ideas I had was to convince someone to send me back to Uzbekistan to write about the Aral Seabut the secret, personal point of the journey was revisiting this failure of mine, to try to make something up to the country and people I'd abandoned. The piece was originally sold to Harper's as an article that was partially about the Aral Sea and partially a Peace Corps memoir, but that part of it was scuttled very early on. That was part of the reason I was relieved to write the book: it meant a really crucial part of the story was finally going to be dealt with in some way outside of my own head. Once I understood that, I could understand the other parts of the story.
What differences did you find when you got there?
The differences between 1996 Uzbekistan and 2001 Uzbekistan were enormous. So much had happened in those five short years. The people were much less impressed with Americans, for one, and the number of stores and shops had at least quadrupled. Internet cafes were everywhere, and there seemed to be so much more money sloshing around in the cities (even as official numbers for per capita household income were in the statistical toilet). Perhaps most distressingly, the government had grown much, much less tolerant of any kind of activism, be it Islamic or democratic. Keep in mind that in the beginning of 2001 it was easy to criticize the Uzbek government for harassing "militant" Muslims. Now that the world has had a much closer look at some of these militant groups (you'll notice I did not absolve the phrase with quotes), I think we're all in a tougher moral bind. In few places is this ugly reality better exemplified than in Uzbekistan.
Some folks may not know much about Uzbekistan. Tell us a little about its history.
For the vast majority of its history, Uzbekistan was a gigantic topographical non-entitythe equivalent of the kind of place across which old mapmakers used to scrawl, "Here there be dragons." It was not a country but a series of kingdoms and city-states, and variously ruled at that. However, it has had some celebrated passers-through, from Alexander the Great to Marco Polo, and some famous sons, from the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who invented algebra, to Babur, the founder of India's Moghul dynasty. And, in the 1800s the Russians and Brits had a cold war over control of Central Asiacalled the Great Gameand the Russians eventually prevailed.
Then seven years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of Soviet power, Joseph Stalin sat down, grabbed a map and a pencil, and quite literally created Uzbekistan (as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) on Lenin's orderone of Lenin's last orders, as it turned out. The idea was to impose ethnicities on groups of people who had never understood themselves as having specific ethnicities. Prior to the Soviets, one's understanding of oneself as a Central Asian was either tribal or city-based. This divide-and-conquer gambit was hugely beneficial to the Soviets and how they ruled a region not a few would-be conquerors had concluded was unruleable.
What about Uzbekistan today?
Uzbekistan today is a strange place. On one hand it has Islamic traditions dating back to the earliest decades of Islam, on the other hand it's sternly secular. On one hand it's very Asiatic; on the other it's very Russian. This bilingual, bitraditional, bicultural reality makes for one of the most interesting countries in the world. It is modern in some ways (the capital, Tashkent, has a sushi restaurant, for God's sake) and dismayingly unmodern in others (two words: pit toilets). The people are wonderful, but almost all of them are, quite frankly, confused and worried. Who are they? To whom are they to look? What world do they belong to? Of course, what is rich and interesting to outsiders such as myself is a matter of a lot of emotional unrest to Uzbeks themselves.
At one point in the book you describe Central Asia as "Massive, sometimes flat, sometimes mountainous, sometimes terrifically hot, other times frigidly cold, plagued with thousands of miles of penetrable borders, lacking an identifiable geographic center, and home to citizens know figuratively and sometimes literally to cut the colonialist's throat the death sentence of several empires which attempted to hold onto it." With all of this in mind, what made you want to go in the first place, and perhaps more importantly, why do you keep going back?
Whenever I am in Central Asia I feel as though my imagination has been injected with the equivalent of vitamin B-12. There are so many amazing stories and things to see there, and you really feel as though you are in a place so few Westerners have experienced. As I said earlier, it's a weird place, but a wonderful one. The often brutal physical environmentthough there are many lovely parts of Uzbekistanis softened by the fact that the people are incredibly hospitable and welcoming. Many times in Uzbekistan I have been in a strange village and in troublea flat tire, made a wrong turnand simply knocked on someone's door. The amazement and gratitude you feel when a stranger drops everything he or she is doing to help you . . . I don't know if I've ever felt anything remotely similar anywhere else. And Uzbekistan is changing so much so fast that each time I go back I feel like I am watching someone grow up. I don't mean that in a patronizing way. It's the only way I can think of to express the awe I feel to see such drastic change over such a short period of time.
Chasing The Sea crosses many genresit combines your smart and sometimes very funny travelogue with a stark look at both history and current events, and is ultimately a plea for the environment. What did you hope to achieve by its writing?
My ambitions were actually pretty modest. I wanted to write a book that everyone who traveled to Central Asia would want to read, and I wanted to write a book that everyone who joins the Peace Corps has pressed upon them. You know, like, "Oh my gosh! You're joining the Peace Corps? You have to read this." What grew in my ambition as I wrote was exactly what you asked about: a plea for the environment. As I wrote and researched , I watched as the U.S. current administration grew more and more intent to scrap or turn away from some extremely substantial and long-standing environmental legislation, and I started to think: This book and this story actually has contemporary relevance. It's not just my story or a story about how one very unlucky part of the world was shredded and forgotten. It became less a sad story and more of a warning. A plea, just like you say.
The destruction of the Aral Seaquite possibly the worst man-made ecological catastrophe in historyis a prime example of what can go wrong when big industry overshadows environmental protection. What went wrong? What could have been done to preserve the Aral Sea?
The Aral Sea's feeder rivers were diverted away from it to fertilize the Central Asian desert and grow cotton, which tsarist Russia lost access to when the American south, its supplier, began fighting the American north in the Civil War. The tsars set themselves up fairly well in Central Asia, and their irrigation schemes were damaging but not, as I say in the book, insane. What went wrong was Soviet policies, which were destructive, shortsighted, incredibly greedy, stupid, and, in the end, not even that profitable. They said to themselves, "Look at the money we could make if we don't care how much water we waste!" And that's what they did. They drained the Aral Sea, the fourth-biggest lake in the world, because it would give them more cotton money for a decade or two. It's so hubristic it boggles the mind. Now, certain people will say that, in the long run, humankind can't really damage the environment, and in one sense they're correct. Five thousand years from now the Aral Sea may be fine. But we don't live in the long run, and you can't treat the environment as though we do, because mistakes can make the present we have to live in extremely unpleasant. The Aral Sea is Exhibit A for those who say environmental legislation is pointless, or that environmental regulations are nothing but a waste of time and money.
Could a disaster of that same magnitude happen in the U.S.?
I think the answer is probably no. We have too many people who would complain and agitate and picket before something of comparable magnitude could come to pass. If you agitated in the Soviet Union, as often as not, the KGB would come knocking on your door. That said, Lake Erie did used to catch on fire. As I researched I learned how truly bad the U.S. environment was in the late 1960s. So bad, we need to remember, that the great liberal paragon Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.
Rustam, your translator, is quite a character. In fact, his use of American slang (women are "bitches," socializing is "kicking it," and "dude" is how he commonly refers to you) must have provided some comic relief during your travels. What's his story?
Rustam (which is not, of course, his real name) is, today, no longer my old translator but a very dear friend. And I must say I'm a little worried how he will react when he reads the book. Maybe I'm hoping he'll never get a chance to! He's a really intelligent guy, obviously, and funny as hell (he does an eerily good Beavis and Butthead impersonation), but he is also a perfect example of the cultural confusion it seems to me a lot of Uzbeks feel. Seeing young Uzbeks dress like Westerners and call you "dude" can lull you into thinking that we're really the same, deep down. But of course we're not, and Rustam and I have had long, painful discussions on topics ranging from Stalin (Rustam thinks he was a great leader, despite it all) to the position of women in society (even though he is a perfect gentleman). I am fascinated by people caught between cultural impulses, probably because, as an American, my culture is the one doing a lot of pulling around the world. But we have to remember that sometimes the things American culture is pulling against are not always terribly worth preserving. Sometimes American culture can be a positive influence. Other times it is a disastrous influence. I hoped in writing the book to show that battle being waged within Rustam, the good and the bad.
At one point Rustam argues that he is from Ferghana, though he lives in Uzbekistan. Is the tension between internal cultures apparent? Do you see a chance for common ground?
Not a few Western writers who have written about Uzbekistan have portrayed it as a boiling ethnic cauldron primed to explode. This is, and I hope you'll pardon me, bullshit. There are tensions in Uzbekistan, as there are tensions in England and France and Brazil and the United States. Whatever tensions that exist within Uzbek culture--between Russians and Uzbeks, between Uzbeks and Tajiks, between city-dwellers and villagers, between regionsare usually borne lightly. Put another way, people do not hate each other in Uzbekistan, and that basic tolerance can be traced directly to the Soviets, who actually did some good in a few areas, this being one of them. The problems in Uzbekistan are economic. Some very, very horrible ethnic rioting broke out in the heavily Uzbek city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan in the early 1990s, for instance. Babies were stuck on meat hooks, hundreds were beaten to death. Very bad. This riot started because two people were fighting in the market over the price of strawberries. One person thought he was being overcharged because of his ethnicity, and the whole thing just blew up. Economics. Now, obviously it's not only economics, but that is where the fuse explodes. People who have spent so much of their recent history living together in peace are not likely to jump up and kill each other because of "ancient hatreds," one of my least favorite phrases in the English language. Uzbekistan itself is, in a lot of ways, that common ground.
You and Rustam had your fair share of run-ins with the law in your travels. Did you find any anti-American sentiments? Did you expect to?
As far as the Uzbek "law" goes, my experience is, I think, fairly unrepresentative of how people are treated in Uzbekistan. I really do seem to get harassed a fair amount by the police, but I have friendsfriends who are journalists, evenwho never have any problems. From this I can only conclude I look shifty to Uzbek eyes or something. That said, I have never really experienced much anti-Americanism in Uzbekistan at all, though once I was asked why Ronald Reagan wanted to start World War III, which is how the Soviets disingenuously portrayed him to the Soviet people. The only people who are anti-American are the really, really old Uzbeks and Russians, who just never let go of the Cold War. What many Uzbeks seem to think about Americans is that they are all fantastically rich, which poses its own problems. One of my favorite stories about Uzbekistan: I was mugged once in Tashkent, and as the young guy was running away, he turned around and said, "Excuse me! I'm sorry!" I took that to mean, "Look, you're the rich one, and I'm just trying to make a living; I don't like this any more than you do." Uzbeks are also often intensely curious as to what Americans think of Uzbeks. I don't like answering that one, since it means telling them that very few Americans even know what an "Uzbek" is.
How are Muslims in Central Asia different from those in the Middle East?
I'm glad you asked this, because it's an important question. Anyone who imagines the Muslim world as some scarily consolidated force waging war upon the West needs to read about ten paragraphs of Muslim history. The fact is, the most terrifyingly militant Muslims out there in the world wouldn't recognize 90% of the rest of the Muslim world as Muslims. Certainly not the Muslims of Central Asia, the vast majority of whom are about as lax and secular as lounge singers. I'll never forget the time I watched two Uzbeks drinking vodka, eating pork, and smoking cigarettes in a restaurant say their prayers of thanks after dinner. The trifecta! Obviously, seventy years of being indoctrinated with Soviet atheism really took its toll on Central Asians' spiritual life, and to be perfectly frank I'm not sure this is all that bad. As Rustam points out in the book, Imagine if the Russians had won in Afghanistan. No terror network. No Osama. No September 11, probably. Are we really so sure we did the right thing in funding the mujahedeen? More importantly, Central Asians are Turks, not Arabs, and they have a completely different history of grudges and beefs and glories and traditions. The plight of the Palestinians, for example, does not much move the Muslims in Central Asia to whom I've spoken. They feel very remote from the Middle East. It's not their problem, and it doesn't resound. Any anti-Jewish sentiment that exists in Central Asiaand very little doesis a result of Russian and not Central Asian culture.
When was your last visit to Uzbekistan? Will you continue to return?
I was there in December of 2001 (covering the war in Afghanistan) and 2002 (among other things, I brought Rustam an XBox) and plan on going back in May of 2003. I'll probably go back in the fall, too. I have all these connections in Uzbekistan now. I can't escape it, not even if I wanted to. Which I don't.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Pantheon. Copyright 2003.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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