Love in Transoxiana

The first thing to know is that Transoxiana (Transoxania) is a western fiction: The name stuck in Western consciousness because of the exploits of Alexander the Great, who extended Greek culture into the region with his conquests of the 4th century BC. Transoxiana was the far north-eastern point of Hellenistic culture until the Arab invasion. During the Sassanid Empire (>7th century CE) it was often called Sogdiana, a provincial name taken from the Achaemenid Empire, and used to distinguish it from nearby Bactria. These now sound like names out of mythology. Perhaps they are, partly. But their purchase on the land, the culture, the people, and the cities is permanent.

Once upon a time this was a center of Arabic learning—in the so-called Sassanid period—due to the immense wealth the region derived from the silk road. The Arabs knew it simply as the “land beyond the river” (Ma wara’un-Nahr ) and its two great cities—Samarkand and Bukhara–attracted large numbers of well-off and educated Iranians to the area. (Their descendants are easy to spot. They are fair, often have startling blue eyes) Later still, between the 8th and 14th century Transoxiana flourished under successive Arab dynasties and then under the rule of Genghis Khan and his successors.


But that is history, mixed with mythology and characterized by loose geographical borders and the migratory patterns of mountain people who clung to their nomadic ways and cultures, away from the meccas of central Asian civilization. The later history of this area is a history of consolidation under the protective wing of Mother Russia, under the Czars, and under the Soviet Regime. East Europeans, Germans, and thousands of Russians entered or were enticed to the area creating an ethnic mix unlike anything you are likely to encounter anywhere else on earth.

When you leave China—which, recall, is essentially a one- family country since the end of Mongol rule—the Han of the Middle Kingdom–you leave the pleasant ennui of a pattern of physical and facial features that evolves from three thousand years of family business. Westerners are often accused of a kind of racial blindness when they say All Chinese look alike. Obviously this is not true at one level—especially if you are Chinese. Your uncle Harry looks different from your father, after all. But the fact is, one will never feel so foreign as one does in China, especially in a country that celebrates its cultural sameness in much the same way that mono-cultures have throughout history. “God made everyone different,” a Facebook poster says. “He got tired by the time he came to China.”

But to cross the border from far western China into Kyrgyzstan is to cross from mysterious Asia to a mystical Indo European world where Asian features, raven hair, dark eyes, high cheekbones and a severe intelligence blend with pale skin, auburn hair and blue eyes at every corner, in every shop and restaurant. If you know the fascinating history of the Silk Road, the trading route that traversed the mountain ranges and valleys of central Asia into China, you can easily imagine camels and horses and elephants along the way. Even in the 4th century BCE Alexander lost soldiers to the allure of the area, and began a long history of people toppling into the patchwork of khanates and kingdoms that would emerge as the modern nations of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. –stan, incidentally (meaning the place where one stays) has the same Indo European root, Persian *sta-, as its distant Germanic cousin, English (stand).

What ties everyone together here is language, which in Bishkek (and Kyrgyzstan, more generally) is Russian. Russian is spoken by everyone, all the time, as the principal means of communication. Following the pattern of many nations, the local language, a Turkic language, Kyrgyz is spoken by the rural population and by others, usually at home, who see it as an import symbol of national identity and independence. If you want to buy a shirt, or a hamburger, or a shot of vodka, or a massage, however, you will need to know Russian.

Which is okay, because after German I like Russian best. My taxicab Chinese and my reach-for-the-dictionary-Arabic have gotten me by. But Russian is a language worth knowing. It has more grammar than, well, a Russian bazaar has sausage. It has all the intricacy a linguist could desire: complex verbs, gendered nouns, weird plurals, case endings, idioms that seem to rise out of the sinew into the consciousness as easily as steam pours off water. Russian is a good language for pot-bellied bureaucrats with square jaws and also for slim, throaty beauties named Natalya. After French it is the best first language to speak if you want to speak sexy English or just sound like a person who needs to be taken seriously. I don’t think you can refuse someone with a Russian accent anything.


Bishkek, which used to be Frunze, is the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, which used to be the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic, and an integral part of the Soviet Union, which is now the Russian Federation, sort of. After year five, Russian-speaking children in schools were given the choice of learning German or English, at least in city schools, and many chose English. Unlike China where even university students are immune to the dulcets of English and the general population totally unaware that their Han dialect isn’t universally apprehended, a lot of people in the central Asian capitals speak a little English. Some speak it well. I’m told there used to be a sizable German population in the city—now nowhere to be found, as a group, but their legacy is that a lot of Kyrgyz people know a little German as well.

Bishkek was once the greenest capital in central Asia and of all the former soviet republics. Taxi drivers will now wag their heads sadly and say, No. Not anymore. Now it’s (take your choice) Almaty (the capital of Kazakhstan) or Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan.

But Bishkek is undeniably special: it is very green. The streets drip with leafy trees, the city is dotted with parks and flowers are planted in every crevice. Behind this vernal cover there are interesting shops filled with clothes, fabrics, toys, books, and food. Bishkek has no tall buildings, unlike its competitors in the larger neighboring states. It is queenly and quiet and clean. The sidewalks are a jagged mess of original cement and decades of patches, but it gives them a kind of durability, as long as you’re not on your way home from a local watering hole at 1 AM and balance-challenged on your journey.


I fell in love with the city at first sight, and now every day I can hardly wait to get out into it.

Unlike east Asian cities, it has no obvious love for glitz or modernity. Unlike the soviet days, it seems full of plenty: produce and merchandise spill out onto sidewalks. There are no shortages, no sad faces, no empty stores—or not many. Compared to American cities I’ve seen in the last year, where whole malls are a spread of dead retail space, Bishkek is alive and happy. It’s packed with vegetables and fruit—and what fruit—enough for everyone to have a watermelon every day and the largest and most succulent white melon (not cantaloupe, which I hate) I have seen anywhere. I am not a melon fan, but I am being converted to the taste.

Whereas China counts success by the number of mobile phone stores that can be squashed into a city block, Bishkek is inadvertently varied, understated, sophisticated and eclectic: you can probably find what you want here, not always easily or at first shot, but the fun is in the looking and sometimes finding what you don’t want. I’ve bought sausage at Osh Bazaar, a lampshade at an IKEA rip off store that calls itself IKEA and uses its bags, done my grocery shopping at a Turkish market called Beta, and my electronics browsing at the old Soviet megastore called TSUM. I have stumbled into clean, modern dental offices by accident to pay my rent, and rented satellite (sputnik) TV that (notwithstanding occasional power outages) gets me 120 stations, 20 in English. Nineteen if I discount CNN, which truth to tell uses some other language that sounds like English but makes no sense.

There is something very French about Bishkek, but I keep shoving the analogy to the back of my analogy pile. It reminds me of the French (Catholic) sector of Beirut, (Ashrafieh) الأشرفية where I used to get coffee and pastries when I felt like making the slog over from Hamra where I lived. Bishkek is like that: a curity of cafes and bread and tea and delicious things, punctuated by interesting whisky (read: vodka) bars and restaurants of every conceivable taste and provenance.


I came here for a reason: the attraction was the American University of Central Asia, which in its brief twenty years has established itself as the premier university in central Asia, the only one of real quality, and one of the best examples of the American liberal arts tradition overseas.

AUCA has a student body of about 1500, students from all the ‘stans’ working—entirely in English– towards degrees in the classical subjects areas in alliance with Bard College, a potted ivy league liberal arts institution in New York State, about four hours away from my home in Ithaca.

I came with some reservations. To be cynical, the term “American” appended to the word “university” has become devalued by overuse. The original two—the American University of Cairo (1919) and the redoubtable American University of Beirut (1866) were founded as bold democratic experiments that clung tightly to the founding principles of liberal education, then sadly lacking in the Middle East.

The British had built schools and even organized a few external degree programmes with the University of London in their colonies, especially in Africa and India. Much later, just at the edge of the independence era after World War II, they created British-style universities in Africa. But as time would prove, these universities were almost unsustainable without injections of money and European “missionary” faculty, and only a few today have any reputable programmes. (I speak as a recurrent missionary faculty type.)
But the two original American universities grew and prospered and became real beacons of learning for the sons and daughters of the wealthy and well-educated classes of the region. Over the course of time they developed significant programs in medicine, law, the sciences and business. AUB, for instance, carried out a vigorous program to create a Palestinian intelligentsia who then went on to successful careers in academia and business. Their success was so great, in fact, that in the 1990s new “American” universities sprung up in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Sharjah, and even Afghanistan and Iraq (Sulaimani). Some were funded by petrodollars but almost all were academically weak, their relevance and connection to the prototypes a simple matter of name-as-cash-value rather than vision.

The American University of Central Asia followed a completely different course: it grew organically from a kind of educational liberalization movement in Kyrgyzstan itself, a rebellion against soviet-style lockstep, lockjaw education. In 1991, as independence swept across Central Asian countries, the region advanced deliberately into a fast-changing world of free markets and democracy. This wave of change spurred new ideas in the educational system resulting in the establishment of the Kyrgyz-American School within the Kyrgyz State National University in Bishkek in 1993. The “school” experienced such dramatic growth over the next four years that it could no longer remain a dependent school within KSNU. In 1997, by a decree of the president of Kyrgyzstan, KAS became the American University in Kyrgyzstan and an independent international board was established as the governing body. The university was helped to achieve its goals by the Open Society Foundation of George Soros along with recurrent grants from USAID –the United States Agency for Industrial Development– which among its many unsung achievements helped to create the Lahore University of Management Studies (LUMS) in Pakistan, one of South Asia’s most distinguished universities.

The American University became the American University of Central Asia by default: guided by a pioneering faculty and visionary leaders, students from thirty countries, most but not all from the Central Asia region, enrolled to study for degrees. The reputation grew. When I was at JFK Airport a month ago, a woman returning to Istanbul asked me where I was headed. To Bishkek, I said. Are you at AUCA?, she asked. It struck me as surprising. Yes, I said. Going to teach there. Excellent place she said. I smiled nervously.
But in this small university tucked away in the gray-brown former headquarters building of the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz Republic (1938), the halls are filled with languages, and energy, and beauty and hope: the opening ceremonies awash in colorful displays of national dress and tradition and music. Students can study Russian Art History under the tutelage of the distinguished scholar, poet and translator Andrew Wachtel (who happens also to be the University president) or international politics at the region’s leading policy research organization the Tian Shan Centre.  Or do prehistoric archaeology in Naryn –or Islamic Civilization with R. Joseph Hoffmann. It is my favourite course. I love to teach it. I am privileged to teach it, especially here where one Tamburlaine rampaged and shouted, according to Marlowe, “Is it not passing fair to be a king and ride in triumph through Persepolis.”


Excuse the Wow. The place is not for everyone: Especially not for people who see the progress of culture as the next tall building, the next long bridge with the most LED lights. That is an entirely different Wow. It is the Dubai Wow, the Hong Kong Wow. The Bishkek Wow comes from the heart. It comes from the love of green places, the pursuit of excellence, and the splendid variety of humanity.

So as to AUCA and what it has to offer this complex place–I suppose when it comes down to it, the beauty of the American system is the beauty of the menu at a good diner: So much is on offer that it gets your tummy rumbling and your mouth watering. At least that is what it’s like here, in beautiful Bishkek, at AUCA.

A happy start to the new academic year to everyone who joins with me in the struggle to keep at bay the powers of darkness!

PS: I Love Omnia.

4 thoughts on “Love in Transoxiana

  1. Splendid essay, Joe. Thanks for taking the time and posting it. Bishkek, a lovely place with a rich cultural past and present. I had no idea. Happy for you. Jim

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Sounds a bit like Venice, or Hav. (I know that Hav doesn’t really exist. Took me a long time to figure that out, but I finally got there. For a while I was angry at Jan Morris for having so straight-facedly presented a fictional place as the subject of a volume of travel writing. But then I reflected on how much geography I had learned from years’ decades’ worth of ardently poring through maps and atlases and databases in search of a fictional place, and I became glad that I had been fooled.) Speaking of fiction, Kyrgyzstan during the period when the Soviet Union was giving it an alphabet and a written native language is the setting of an episode in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. (But maybe everybody in Kyrgyzstan already knows that.)

  3. Thank you, I like the place and I’ve been there several times. What is funny about the American university is that it kept the hammer and sickle communist symbol (as everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, but for an American university it’s kind of weird…). Anyway mant ethnic Russians are returning to the city (which used to be inhabited mainly by ethnic Russians). They miss the fresh air, the mountains, excellent honey and the cool, cheap place which Bishkek is. Eventough salaries are a bit lower compared to Russia.

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