Settle down with a nice cup of green tea--or a bowl à la Uzbek fashion--and live vicariously through Christopher Aslan Alexander’s exhilarating and exasperating rug-weaving adventures in exotic Uzbekistan.
In his extraordinary memoir, A Carpet Ride to Khiva, Alexander kicks off his escapades in Uzbekistan by volunteering for Operation Mercy, a Swedish NGO, and working on a guidebook on Khiva. And like a travel book, or better yet, a sophisticated primer, Alexander provides readers with history and cultural lessons about the region. But it is his sharp eye for traditional handmade crafts, and his keen sense of entrepreneurship that he realizes he can actually do much more, and that’s when the heart and soul of the memoir starts: when Alexander takes on UNESCO’s proposal to become the project manager in setting up a natural dye and carpet weaving workshop in Khiva.
Alexander has natural talent for telling historical asides, and he shares the plight of carpet weaving during the Soviet era when it was nearly extinct due to ideology and factory mass-production. However, there was a bit of a revival thanks to the design improvisations of clever weavers who included woven homilies to Father Lenin. These tributes to Communism led to special commissions of large portraits of Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet leaders that kept the art temporarily alive. And it’s with this great story-telling skill for interspersing history with his own experiences that whets readers’ appetites and lures them deeper into his rug-weaving venture.
With dogged determination, and with the help of UNESCO, he finds a ramshackle madrassah and turns it into an operational workshop, recruits Khiva’s handful of experienced dyers and weavers, and finds a ragtag team of apprentices that come from the most unfortunate of circumstances. Like all employers, he must deal with employee issues, find the right tools and materials, in this case looms and copper pots, and deal with the rampant corruption that eventually will end his seven year stay in Khiva.
Yet readers who love process or just those who are curious about the minutiae of detail will rejoice when Alexander visits the homes of Uzbeks who raise silk worms. There, he closely studies the evolution of gluttonous caterpillars munch on their endless supply of mulberry leaves, to spinning their silken cocoons with the actual silk that will be used in weaving the carpets.
Experienced natural dyers will appreciate how far he will go in his quest to find powdered madder root to achieve the rich red dyes for his carpets. He travels to dangerous Afghanistan where he discovers at the bazaars an abundance of powdered natural dyes along with sacks of opium poppy heads. Once he acquires a king’s ransom of dyes, he must cross back to Uzbekistan and pray that a stray poppy head didn’t tumble into his sacs of powdered dyes, and face the scrutiny of drug sniffing dogs.
Carpet Ride is not all about the pursuit of reviving an ancient tradition. Like T.E. Lawrence, Alexander goes native and immerses himself in the cultural landscape of his new home. There’s a great deal of love and respect, and Alexander writes poignantly of his Uzbek family who accept him from the first moment he steps into their home.
He writes with amusement of the superstitions of avoiding the evil eye, to the gastronomic challenges of eating plov, the unappetizing national Uzbek greasy dish of rice, carrots and mutton. However, he never shies away from many of the horrific daily happenings including circumcision ritual ceremonies for young boys, forced marriages, misogynistic beatings, and the constant bribery among political and business leaders.
A Carpet Ride to Khiva is like flying on a magic carpet first class. Alexander’s words transport readers to a wondrous and unforgettable journey all in the comfort of their homes with bowls of green tea and a side dish of plov (vegetarians, you can pick out the mutton).
A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road
By Christopher Aslan Alexander
Totem Books--US Release November 1, 2010
336 pages with color photographs