This is a tale of emotions swinging from one end to the other, like a pendulum. It is also a tale of one sentence uttered at two different times in a single day. “There is a saying in ‘our’ language, [that] it is better to be a beggar in one’s own land than to be a king in a foreign land.” I gathered Sergi’s life story in between the two times he uttered this sentence.
Sergi is nearing age 60; wears a white shirt and grey trousers with razor sharp creases and polished sandals; a cap of dubious origins, perhaps a Russian version of a peaked cap. It was a kind of a uniform. White haired, thin and agile, he smokes thin, white filtered Pall Mall cigarettes with obvious relish. He is a storyteller, and takes pride in his knowledge of history — not the official guidebook kind but the real one, that one acquires from reading books.
He looks up to Ulugh Beg, the grandson of Tamerlane, who is remembered in the history books as a conqueror, not an astronomer. Back in the 14th century, Ulugh Beg defied obscurantism by building an observatory on a hill in Samarkand. His son and a group of religious leaders sent him to Mecca and got him killed on the way back.
The stories of Byzantine intrigues of men in the name of God are not of interest here but the tale of swinging emotions is.
Sergi and I sat at the small café, shaded by a cluster of old chinar trees near the observatory of Ulugh Beg in Samarkand. As the late spring breeze fluttered the chinar leaves, we sat there sipping Samarkandi qahwa, talking about Ulugh Beg. He told the king’s story with obvious pride as if tying his insignificance to some imaginable significance.
In a moment of temporary elation, he said he was a king in his own ways. People knew him for the last 30 years as the top tourist guide. He had taken people of importance around the 2,700 years old city of Samarkand. He had lived and breathed in his city of birth. He had seen the city’s restoration.
Even though Sergi’s story is bittersweet; he’s quite a talker. Age has made his account personal, nostalgic and emotional. In that perfect setting of the café under the chinar trees, he mused… what will he do if he goes back to Russia? Teach English to Russian primary schoolchildren. Oh, how insignificant! He will lose his deep sense of belonging to the city of Samarkand, where his parents are buried and he co-owns a beautiful house surrounded by old mulberry, apricot, almond and peach trees. He will miss the kind shade of the trees under which he and his brothers grew up. He said, “There is a saying in ‘our’ language, [that] it is better to be a beggar in one’s own land than to be a King in a foreign land”.
Our conversation that started under the chinar trees ended in the shade of old maple trees, as we moved from one historical sight to another. This was the first time he uttered this sentence, the first time his emotions swung from one end to the other.
We went around historical places. Sergi’s narration of history was always passionate. He was proud of what he was doing; he wasn’t going to sell his words cheap. So, he’d abruptly stop when he thought I was losing interest. I was forced to stay attentive.
As we developed an unsaid understanding, the day went on well.
He had this curious habit of trimming loose threads of the restaurant and café tablecloths with scissors that he carried around in his black leather pouch. He explained that he liked ‘order’ in things — everything to be in place, clean and meticulous, just like the razor sharp creases of his trousers. He’d rearrange small objects on tables where we sat down to eat — a nudge to the napkin, repositioning of salt and pepper shakers, adjusting of his chair… He did all this without fail. He reminded me of Hercule Poirot, the famous detective of Agatha Christie novels.
He would take out a folded plastic bag from his black leather pouch and fill it with the leftover food for his dog. He had an Alsatian. He didn’t mention his name, and if he did, I forget. Sergi tells me he sits in the verandah of his old house built by his parents with an air gun by his side to shoot wild pigeons or doves which the dog then runs to fetch. He has a lot of spare time, as the job of a tourist guide is only seasonal.
He talked most fondly about his library of 10,000 books in English and Russian, including an encyclopedia of Soviet days in 40 odd volumes which besides propaganda also has a wealth of information. He honed his storytelling ability through the information carried in the 10,000 books collected mainly by his mother. He couldn’t take these books away with him if he decided to leave. According to the law of the land, any item more than 30 years old is classified as antique and cannot be taken away to any offshore destination. There are many priceless first editions in the collection. He cannot sell the books because there are no buyers of old Russian and English books in a country rediscovering its suppressed Islamic identity stubbornly and resolutely. There were no buyers of old English and Russian books in the 2,700 years old city of Samarkand.
His form of greeting was Assalam O Alaikum. He also knew about various formats of Arabic script — Kufi, Nastaleeq et al. While discussing his practiced monologue on Islam, he’d smirk, quiver the corner of the mouth, and twitch his left eye. He was an agnostic. His careful selection of words was a giveaway. He has disassociated the history of Samarkand from the overwhelming influence of Islam. He wanted to wish this away yet keep it too.
When he provided details of the restoration of the historical monuments of the city of Samarkand, he always used the words ‘our’ for the archeologists who restored these fabled blue domes and minarets of Samarkand. ‘Ours’ actually meant Russian archeologists. This transpired during our discussion on niches and cornices of the fabled domes and minarets. He described how in his childhood the mosque of Bibi Khanum was a ruin and how he had seen it being restored to its present form by the “Russian archeologists”.
He has two brothers, one is in the US, where he went for the treatment of his only son and stayed on, and another is schizophrenic “in some asylum somewhere in Russia”. They jointly own the old house. He does not want to sell his old house because he was born in that house and has played in the shade of old mulberry, apricot, almond and peach trees. In fact he had planted more mulberry, apricot, almond and peach trees and has seen them grow and bear fruit. “You don’t plant trees in a place which you intend to leave,” he thinks out loud.
He has a daughter. His wife wanted him to leave Samarkand and teach English at a primary school in Russia. He wouldn’t leave as he was too attached to his profession and his house and library. As his wife didn’t see a future for Russians in former Soviet Union, one day, she took away their daughter and vanished in vast Russia. He tried to find them through mutual acquaintances and friends. He hung her photographs in a friend’s restaurant frequented by Russian tourists, and, by chance, someone identified her. Viola! Sergi was jubilant.
His daughter lived with her mother and studied medicine in a city in Russia. He got her email and contacted her — and rediscovered his family.
Sergi has finally found a place to go to if he had to leave Samarkand, away from his birthplace, old house, fruit trees in his garden and library. But, things are changing around him. A decade ago he was one of the few English-speaking tourist guides in Samarkand. Now there are 200 of them. His patronage is dwindling, and so is his income. He is struggling to keep himself relevant. He is no more the king of his craft in the 2,700 years old city of Samarkand.
The new corps of tourist guides is younger, energetic and brims with a sense of pride in the Islamic past. They can relate to it. To them Ulugh Beg is a much lesser hero than Tamerlane. Their stories start when Arabs conquered Transoxania. Their sense of identity is strong. Sergi’s passion is slowly being overshadowed.
This saps the passionate tourist guide. The 2,700 years old history of Samarkand with a strong Islamic past now belongs to the new group of guides. Sergi has become a mere onlooker. He is torn between the love for his daughter and his city of birth.
Before we parted, he said, “Samarkand is my heart but Russia is my soul. There is a saying in ‘our’ language, [that] it is better to be a beggar in one’s own land than to be a king in a foreign land”.
Where did he belong, Samarkand or somewhere in vast Russia? As his emotions swung like a pendulum, we shook hands and I watched him walk away in the fading evening light, against the blue dooms and tall brick minarets of Samarkand.