I had two unusual requests – one from the US State Department and one from David Halberstam. The State Department invited me to speak to female athletes, aspiring journalists, and entrepreneurs in Uzbekistan – a country with no freedom of the press. And David asked me to write about it. I was thrilled to do both.
A longtime friend, Sarah Talalay, who is the Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Tashkent, invited me to speak two or three times a day for a week to students and businesswomen who were eager to hear about professional women in the West. Ambassador Jonathan Henick and his wife Dominique Freire kindly had me over to their Thanksgiving Dinner at the Embassy. We had lots of conversation about Thanksgiving football (they wanted to hear about turkey-day on the MaddenCruiser, and did turducken really taste as bad as it sounded?)
In turn, I wanted to hear about the challenges facing Uzbekistan. It’s an authoritarian state with limited civil rights, yet they claim to be moving more toward the West. There is a frightening issue with domestic abuse in that part of Central Asia (Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan) and the women told me they were grateful for the US Embassy classes in self-defense.
Uzbekistan is rich – in history – the Ancient Silk Road went from China through Tashkent, Bagdad, Damascus and Istanbul carrying the finest silk scarves to the European shores. Those scarves are still made in small factories, where the materials are beautiful and inexpensive. A scarf that would cost $800 in Bergdorf Goodman can be scooped up for $10, even bartered down for less.
The average household income in Uzbekistan is only $1300 year, and it’s all cash, no credit cards. In their currency, 1,000,000 Uzbek soms, equals $88 dollars. People literally bring giant bags of cash to dinner! The people speak three languages – unfortunately for me, none of them English. As a former Soviet Republic, Uzbeks speak Russian (it’s the only TV programming they get) and as a predominantly Muslim country, they also speak Arabic. Currently, there is an appetite for Uzbek. I was 0-3 caught looking. I did learn “rahmat” which seemed to be “thank you” in at least two of the languages.
The communication barrier proved difficult at first, but I had a wonderful translator named Feruz Akobirov, who not only spoke perfect English, but was crazy for Tom Brady. In our first conversation, he wanted to talk about – of all things! – whether it was Gisele’s fault they that were getting divorced! (he whispered that he’d discovered access to US bloggers.) We spent many hours together traveling to different parts of the country, and I realized that Uzbeks are optimistic people, despite the constraints on important segments of society.
Many young women want to come to America, and thousands apply for US Embassy exchange programs, although one woman, who had a chance to play tennis in the Midwest, came to me in tears because her father would not let her go.
Another young woman won a scholarship to the United States to study forensics, but her Muslim father told her that Islamic law prevents her from doing an autopsy and she would have to find something else to do.
I came back to the US thinking that, yes, there is plenty wrong with America, but there is also so much right. “Democracy,” as Aristotle wrote, “arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects.” It made me want to try harder.