Akbar is a man on a mission. As he walks around the ruins in Bukhara he points from time to time declaring, ‘This renovation is no good’ and ‘This renovation was made by people with the talent of dogs.’ His passion is like that of well-versed evangelist, which to some extent he is. He is an evangelist of renovation and preservation. Some might like to call him the antiquarian of Bukhara.
Born in Bukhara in the same neighbourhood in which he now lives with his wife and two sons, Akbar is proud of his Bukharski identity. He attributes this as being one of the main reasons for his passion for renovating the city, a declining tourist destination in the heart of Central Asia. He explains that ‘I’m ethnically pure Bukharski and that’s why my heart is ill when I look around at the ruined buildings. We were living here long before the Uzbeks and Tajiks; we need to preserve our history before there are no ethnically pure Bukharski left’.
The love Akbar holds for renovating buildings started with his love of antiques, an industry he has been involved in since before the decline of the Soviet Union. He proudly emphasises that ‘I don’t need cars, I don’t need gold. It’s antiques I love. I opened the first antiques shop in Uzbekistan in 1990, and even sold a carpet to Prince Charles in 2002.’
Now the shop is run by Akbar’s wife Mastoora, who supports his renovation obsession with admirable dedication. This is all the more impressive considering Akbar’s admission that ‘she is not ethnically pure Bukharski. She doesn’t understand the importance of what I do.’ The antiquarian’s 250 piece collection stretches from traditional clothing to silverware and carpets and dates back as far as 1850. His antiques collection is ‘a little from Kyrgyzstan, a little from Turkmenistan, a little from Karakalpakstan, but most from Bukahra’ neatly encapsulating the intertwined ethnicities of Central Asia.
Akbar’s house is a wooden beamed property with an exquisite courtyard and intricate carvings in Hebrew, and can at first glance be associated with Bukahra’s rapidly diminishing Jewish population. Ever seeing an opportunity for renovation Akbar purchased the neglected house from a family moving to Israel shortly after Uzbekistan’s independence and proceeded to restore it to its former glory. It was in this process that he discovered a new passion.
Not content with one renovation Akbar began to see the potential that lay all around him in the ruins of Bukhara. He commented that ‘after renovation my house was beautiful but the mosque nearby was lying as a collection of rocks. It made my heart sick and I knew I had to renovate it, with or without government support. Finally now my soul is clean.’
The over-zealous Soviet renovations of Bukhara almost scream their fraudulent nature, and it is not difficult to sympathise with Akbar’s concerns of both under and over development. He points out the poor colours of the tile work of the Abdul Azizhan Madrasa which even an amateur can see are in sharp contrast to the originals. The antiquarian of Bukahra is carefully keeping an eye all new constructions as these concern him just as much as poor renovations, ‘I hope that Bukhara will be beautiful in the future. There is no need for three or four floor houses and new hotels. We need to focus on restoring what we already have.’
The dedication with which Akbar approaches the renovation process has met with a hostile reaction at the hands of his government, reflecting the repressive and ominous spirit that hangs over the whole of Uzbekistan. Aided by the war on terror President Karimov has found a new reason to dispose of his opponents by accusing them of Islamic Fundamentalism. In this context restoring Islamic buildings is a sure way to secure government observation, a fact Akbar is well aware of, ‘My wife is scared, she doesn’t understand. People come and ask questions. They think I’m a Wahabi because I’m interested in restoring Islamic buildings. But its history rather than Islam that I’m interested in.’
Akbar’s fear is not only limited to the government, as he pleads with me to find a new Western home for his antique collection, ‘I want to give everything to a museum in England. My greatest fear now is that I will die and people will come and steal all my antiques and then no one will remember our history. I want a museum to have my collection labelled ‘From Akbar from Bukhara’ so people will always remember the Bukharskis from Bukahra.’
On my final visit the antiquarian of Bukhara takes me to the latest building he has his eye on, introducing this as one of the five remaining buildings he wants to renovate. The glint in his eye suggests otherwise.