Living in Harmony in Uzbekistan

Understanding Uzbeks, Jews, Culture and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict…

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My family was one of the average ones in Uzbekistan, a country with a Muslim majority in its population. A middle class secular family, whose Islamic practice was limited to little more than pronouncing God’s name as Allah. I do not remember anyone in my immediate and distant family observing Ramadan fast, or daily prayers. I did not know what Halal was. However, I recall flashbacks from past that many of my friends and neighbours did not go to school on Saturdays and sometimes shared Matzo with me.

As a child I had never heard of Israel. Neither had I heard of Palestine. In fact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never bothered me until the day I got married to a man from the Middle East, Lebanon precisely. That is when I realised that the life of any Middle Eastern family would somehow involve a conversation about the never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine. Living in Harmony in Uzbekistan Almost all of our Arabic speaking friends, regardless of their faith, would support Palestinians and condemn Israeli politics towards residents of Gaza and the West Bank.

Almost all of our Arabic speaking friends, regardless of their faith, would support Palestinians and condemn Israeli politics towards residents of Gaza and the West Bank.

Over the years, living outside of Uzbekistan, my understanding of the conflict, as well as reflections on its origins evolved. I also kept reading and researching this subject during the most recent episode, when war unfolded before my eyes on the TV screen. That is when I met Davud. Whether it was by the will of God or just a coincidence, it encouraged me to investigate whether this ugly hostility between Israelis and Palestinians might affect other Muslims; Uzbeks for instance.

Davud is a 65 year old pensioner from Uzbekistan. We met in Bournemouth when he was visiting one of his three sons who now live and work in Europe. We spoke of people, Uzbekistan, changes and the old days. We discussed Israel and also what was going on in Gaza. Davud is Jewish, he was born, raised and lived in Bukhara and had no intentions to leave his mother land.

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The presence of Jews in Central Asia has been embedded into the history of the region for many centuries. According to tradition, the oldest of Uzbekistan’s Jewish communities, that in Bukhara, was founded by the exile of Eretz Israel following the Babylonian destruction in 586 BC of the First Temple, built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Other accounts tell of Jews fleeing Persian persecution more than 1500 years ago while others bring Jews to Uzbekistan as merchants on the Silk Road in the seventh century.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Uzbek government officials never declared nor expressed any anti-Jewish propaganda. Even during the mid-1990s with the mass migration of Russians back to Russia and ethnic Jews to Israel and the US, the indigenous population remained warm and showed no hostility towards the remaining Jews. Jewish and Muslims sustained a closely integrated societal relationship which is still alive today.

According to Davud, Uzbek understanding and embracing of the Islamic faith in Uzbekistan evolved just before the dawn of the new millennium. The so-called “reincarnation” of its people as practicing Muslims occurred in a different way in that it was not actively influenced by external forces, like Saudi Arabian or other Middle Eastern Islamic doctrine. This particular way of “learning” the Islamic practice as well as the geographical remoteness of Uzbekistan from the Middles East avoided aggravation between the Muslims and the Jews in the country.

“How would you deal with the situation if someone brought up the Jewish-Muslim tension in the conversation?” I asked. Davud smiled and replied, “Uzbeks are the connoisseurs of diplomacy and tact.” He told me that questions about Jews and Muslims often come up, but they would usually resolve because people see the similarities in teachings of the Quran and Torah. Indeed, Uzbek people culturally avoid confrontations.

A lot of Jews have left the country. Before there were nearly a hundred thousand Jews (Ashkenazi and Bukharan) residing in Uzbekistan but today only a couple of hundred remain in Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and the Fergana Valley. Davud’s explanation of this type of mass migration is not anti-semitism, but a pursuit of a better life and financial stability. He says, Bukharan Jewish girls prefer marrying Jews in the West, who typically have a better financial position than young Jewish men in Uzbekistan. Subsequently Jewish boys also have to leave to find a better education or job and eventually marry other Jewish women.

The views of Davud are, of course, subjective and mostly uncritical, however it does represent an average stance. Yes, Muslims (and non-Muslims) in central Asia are more politically educated and alert today. And, yes, Muslims are more involved in the daily practice of Islam, but none of the above endorse an estrangement and bitterness among the population. For centuries people of different faiths have been able to live peacefully in the same neighbourhood. The sad part is that in Middle East the very same Jews and Muslims have never managed to find that peace.

by Hurshida H. Saleh

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