Bread of Life
I allow that I have the kind of personality that makes it easy for me to converse with a variety of people in many contexts and situations. On this trip, this ability I have has led to some wonderful exchanges and learnings and great experiences. But this morning, I didn’t do anything to make something special happen, and it happened anyway. I woke up early to take advantage of the morning light for some photos. Walking around in Bukhara, the most ancient and interesting city we have visited, I looked for the light in the right places and snapped away.
Before I made my way back to the hotel room, I stepped up into a small nook of a store for a little wake me up. I selected a Nescafé box drink that probably got to Central Asia packed on a Japanese container ship.
After I made my purchase, the owner of the little store invited me to have my snack on premises and pointed me to the inner sanctum that also served as a bakery. I entered the space to find two men working dough. One cut pieces off a large mass of pre-bread, weighed them, and formed them into loaves. The other man leaned over a table-trough and kneaded the dough by hand.
I’ve done a little baking in my life and I have kneaded dough. But I did it with an industrial mixer with a hook attachment that would have made Captain Hook envious. This man had no such technology available to him. I watched him pound, turn, lift, and pound some more. He worked with a mass of dough the size of my the suitcase I’ve been hauling all over the Silk Road. When he finished pummeling the dough, he carefully covered the mound with blankets. He told me he let it sit for two hours. Of course. I don’t speak Uzbek and he didn’t speak much English, so it took about two hours for me to adequately explain my question and he to answer it.
While the other loaves began to grow, some loaves were ready to go. An igloo shaped oven with an opening in its side was around the corner of the bakery. Perforated gas tubing lined the base of the oven heating the oven, the men making the bread, and the wannabe photog drinking his preservative laden import coffee beverage. Both men worked the individual loaves, flattening them, stamping them all over with a wooden thingy to perforate the breads so as to cook quickly.
Here comes the interesting part. The younger man then tied a bandanna around his head, grabs a mitt about the diameter of a vinyl record that has on it a cushion about the size of a half-basketball. He takes a flattened dough, covers the mitt with something like oil or butter, and then fashions the dough onto the cushion, which, as I said, is about the size of a basketball half. Then the brother placed his arms, head, and torso (in that order) fiery igloo-furnace, looks for an empty space on the inside wall of the oven, and slaps the damn bread-to-be on the oven wall- the hot part of the wall, not the igloo part. There the dough-loaves remained and baked away, stuck to the surface like some kind of cocoon turning a delicious golden brown. And bake they did. He filled the whole cavity with bread. Granted, he didn’t linger inside the oven. He moved quickly in and out of the flames, like a jack-in-the-box wondering why the fuck he got the kid who liked to wind up and pop his new toy, over and over, into the Easy Bake Oven.
The bakers let me have a look inside. I look in and determined that Shadrach, , Meshach, and Abednego sustained the torment of the terrible fire, not because they had Yahweh’s blessing but because they gorged themselves on the delicious bread all around them. Before too long, the brother went back in to get the sticky bread. He pulled the round, flat bread, called non, off the walls and stood them up on their edges whilst they cooled and waited for neighborhood folk to come by, drop about 4000 Cym (approx. fifty cents), and head home for breakfast.
About this time, a woman joined the operation and told me to sit down several times. I don’t think she understood I have this thing called a blog that requires my inquisitive skills. She went and got each a loaf of non and brought it back to the small table. I ate of the bread and was satisfied. I continued to eat and continued to be satisfied. My low-carb diet had disappeared on the steppe some weeks ago, and so I enjoyed the hot treat.
The hospitality of strangers in this town and during my adventure in general has been nothing short of extraordinary. I shared a train with a young unemployed man who was attending a ‘weeding’ . I thought it curious that he spent the money for the high-speed train to do some yard work. Once I drilled down, I deciphered he wasn’t going to pull weeds, but had plans to attend a wedding with his friends. He and I enjoyed his mispronunciation. I coveted his ability to converse in English, being wholly unable myself to converse with anyone in Russian, or Uzbek, or Kazak, or….never mind. I also coveted his ability to share. After I had wandered the train a bit and found the snack bar, I returned to my seat in front of my new friend. He called my name while I watched Uzbekistan race by. “Cet”, he said. I turned back in my seat and received from him the second half of his two-piece Snickers bar.
Another man, while I walked back to my hotel in Samarkand and found a neighborhood to explore, showed me an act of kindness. Four older gentlemen sat on a bench at what may have been a center for elderly people. I stopped to watch what the men watched- and listen to. Several light thuds on concrete caught our attention. We watched the kind man bend down to pick up that which was responsible for the thudding sounds. Turns out that Silk Road apricots announce their descent to earth with a distinctive voice. They also fall off their tree at a rather consistent rate and I envied that the fruit dropped at a more consistent time and beat than my dombra playing.
The harvester, a fistful of fruit in his hand, saw me looking on through the fence. He went wash the fruit in an outdoor sink then walked my way not to shoo me off, but to give me one of the catch. It was about as fine a piece of fruit as I have had, sweetened less by the tree and more by the man’s generosity. His kindness made it more than sweet. In fact, it made it delicious, it made it sacramental, it represented an undeserved kindness to a stranger most likely he will never see again.
I keep looking for the Muslims that hate me. Lots of people tell me that they are out there, alive and well and committed to me being neither. I remember what one of my students, Eduardo, said on the day I told my students I had gotten a scholarship to travel and study in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. After we both found the two republics on the map, he said, “Mister, there’s ISIS there” I didn’t try to disabuse him of this perspective. I don’t know if ISIS is here. If they are, they must be on holiday, because nobody has mentioned them or any other terrorist types on the trip. Eduardo shared that information with me about three days after a man killed 59 people at a Las Vegas concert from a hotel room. I told Eduardo and the rest of my students that I’d take my chances with the Central Asians.
Indeed, I have taken my chances, have come to this faraway place, and far from being more suspicious, afraid, and worried about my safety, I have been welcomed by strangers who seem genuinely happy to see me. I’m not a bad-looking guy, but my looks don’t explain why people I did not know and will never see again, have walked up to me and asked to have photo with them. ISIS types don’t typically photograph you until just before they chop off your head. I’m several photos in, and still have my wits about me.
For more than twenty years, before I became a teacher, I made a living breaking ritualized bread. I never doubted that ritual’s ability to bring people together, to nourish them, and strengthen them for the journey after coffee hour ended. But I broke that bread with people like me, with people, who in general, believed the same things I did. Here I have received from those very different from me; different languages, politics, oven technologies, and religion. The anxious part of me, the part that pays attention to warnings and anecdotal stories, has feared these others. That fear has not had the last word, however. Human relationship, shared laughter, and the nourishment of body and soul has won the day. For that I am grateful and satisfied.
Thank you Central Asia and the Good People of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. I shall never forget you, your kindnesses, generosity of spirit, and sacred spaces. Be well. Flourish in your ancient places until, by God’s grace, we meet again.