National Geographic : 1968 Jan
Samarkand "the Jewel of Islam" (pages 48-9). I asked Maja if any trace of Islam remained. "But of course," she exclaimed. "We have freedom of religion here. Come, we'll go to the mosque." We drove to a termite-riddled wooden mosque on the outskirts. On faded carpets a few hundred Uzbeks and Turkomans knelt in prayer. With their long, quilted robes, skull caps, and heavy-lidded eyes, they might have stepped out of Tamerlane's court. "You see," said Maja. "But of course, only the old people believe in this now." She indi cated a group of giggling youths slouching nearby. "The young people come only to amuse themselves." Maja took us through crowded streets, the government department store, the produce market. "Look around," she said proudly. "Do you see a single veil? No! You see women in short skirts and nice clothes. Not even the old women hide behind those black shrouds they still wear in Moslem countries." Hospitality-a Duel With Vodka Near the end of our stay in Samarkand, Maja took us to visit an Uzbek family in their tidy little house in the old quarter. She introduced us to Mr. Akhmedov, our host. I commented on the name-the "Akhmed" part was Uzbek; the "ov" was Russian. "Many people here have Russianized their names," Maja explained. We removed our shoes and entered the liv ing room. Plastic and porcelain bric-a -brac crowded the shelves along the walls. A tele vision screen gleamed in one corner, a shiny radio in another. But if the walls spoke of the West, the floor proclaimed the East. We sat cross-legged on carpets around a low table. Mr. Akhmedov bowed and spoke in Uzbek. Maja translated: "He welcomes you and hopes his humble food will satisfy you." I glanced at the table laden with grilled fish, bowls of thick soup, and plates heaped with chocolates. Three more men joined us: a sturdy Uzbek theater projectionist, a round-faced Turko man manager of a state store, a slender Uzbek engineering student, all in dark suits. "Do you own your own car in America, or does it belong to the government?" asked our Intourist driver. I replied that we owned a car, as did most Americans. "Ah, but you have to pay for education and medical care," said the student. 44 I explained that education is free through high school, that state universities are rela tively inexpensive. As for medical care, we had a government program for the elderly, and others could subscribe to voluntary health insurance. The Turkoman proposed a toast. Maja's black eyes flashed a warning at our driver. "He's working," she said. I eyed the tumbler of vodka. At least three ounces, I estimated. "I'm working too." "Come, you are our guest. It would be rude to refuse to toast. It is our custom." He raised his glass. "To health," he said in Russian. "Za zdorovie. I drink to America," and downed the vodka in one swallow.