Muslim Couple Preserves Remnants of Jewish Life in Uzbekistan

Few Bukharan Jews Remain in Central Asian Land

On the Silk Road: The famous Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
Jacopo Jakuza Romei/wikimedia commons
On the Silk Road: The famous Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

By Alanna E. Cooper

Published December 30, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
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With her audience still captive, Mastura switched gears. She conferred with our tour-guide and translator, who announced: “We have been allowed into this private home on condition that our hostess be able to show you some of her wares. She has a small factory that produces handmade embroidered textiles that she will now display.” At this point, my memory resurfaced of Mastura, the saleswoman, with whom I had interacted in the mid-1990s.

She moved to her piles of folded material and began opening each piece. One by one she held them up for all to admire: tablecloths, pillow cases, wall hangings, and bedcoverings. She described the fabric and the threads from which each was made, the symbolism of the design, the colors, and the stitching.

I was taken aback by this sudden shift of events. Others too may have felt the disconnect between Mastura’s narrative about the Jewish home and her sales pitch. But if they did, the beauty of the items she displayed, their affordability, and the sense of comfort they felt in her presence overwhelmed.

A buying frenzy ensued. The tourists rose from their seats, gathered around, touched, discussed, conferred and bargained. By the time we left, just about every person in the group had bought at least one item. I stood by, only watching. My rough estimate is that Mastura grossed $450 that hour, significantly more than the country’s average monthly salary.

As the group began to exit the home, I went to have a closer look at the corner that housed the Jewish artifact collection. I found that the old Torah scroll, unfurled for display, was upside down, as though a metaphor for the upheaval experienced by the local Jewish community.

Saddened by the twisted use of their past towards economic ends, I also felt admiration for Mastura and her husband. They have come a long way since they were a small-time outfit. They understand the tourist industry, and know how to tell a good story to draw people in, make them comfortable, and engender their trust.

More importantly, though, on account of them, the home of a 19th century Jewish merchant, David, and his successors has been preserved.

Perhaps when the synagogue in Bukhara no longer has enough worshippers to function, it will fall to the hands of a shrewd local, who will turn it into a profit-making museum.

Alanna E. Cooper, PhD is a cultural anthropologist who directs the Jewish Studies Division of Case Western Reserve University’s Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program. Her book, “Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism,” was published in 2012 (Indiana University Press).

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