Improbably and unlikely, yet it happened. How many people in Kansas know anyone from Uzbekistan? How many in Kansas even know Uzbekistan exists? How many know it’s a country? Very, very few, if any. A few more people, most likely teachers of Asian history, might even know that Samarkand exists. Half the globe separates the two places, yet two men met and formed a close friendship – as inconceivable as that would ordinarily be.
I grew up on a rural Kansas farm, near Berryton. Hasan grew up in urban Samarkand, Uzbekistan half the world away. Recently emerging from under Soviet domination, he was learning about the outside world for the first time. I became part of that process.
The strictures under which his life before his visit were inconceivable to me: no criticism of the government, no expression of ideas that weren’t legally acceptable, dysfunctional social services, poor infrastructure, etc. The differences were so great we could have been on different planets.
The neighborhood I grew up in, and the surrounding small towns, were all white and focused on agriculture. Friends were relatives first, then those who lived near enough to help each other out, usually living only a few miles away. Interests and concerns were the same for all: the weather, prices offered for crops and sale animals, and actions of the government. There was no time for anything else. Recreation was what you might do during a Sunday afternoon. Community gatherings, school and church consisted of various combinations of the same people. Life and social circles were very specific and seldom changed. We were settled people, most had lived in the neighborhood two or three generation or more. I was of the fifth generation there.
I went away to college and broke out of those circumstances. I met a variety of very different people, ideas, and possibilities. I became friends with blacks, Native Americans and Asians. I even changed my religious affiliation. The last was of most concern to my family. These decisions all had profoundly expansive consequences as my life proceeded. One result was a very unique friendship. It was an unequal relationship, but a satisfying one for both of us. Hasan was an outsider to American society. I was the one who knew his way around. I enabled him to extend his stay in the U.S., for which he was grateful.
It all began one day with an email from a friend in a nearby city. I had no idea how it would change my life. I did not save the wording, but it went something like: “Hasan Shodiev, a Bahá’í from Pakistan, will be in Topeka on (date), staying at (hotel).” I knew the hotel, it was downtown, not far from where I worked.
A day or two after the stated arrival date I went to the hotel and asked if he was there. The answer was affirmative and I was given his room number. Over twenty years ago this openness was not unusual, I don’t know if I would get the same response today, the world has changed so much.
I went to the room. When the door opened, I asked his name and greeted him. He was astonished.
How could I know about him, he asked. I related the content of the email. It seems the message was relayed through several countries by various people, some of whom were not native English speakers, until it reached me. But it did not reach me clearly.
Most of the information was clear, which was remarkable since it soon became evident that not everyone passing on the information would cut and paste. Much was accurate, but the most obviously not, was his place of origin. He was not from Pakistan, but from Uzbekistan, Samarkand, to be exact, he stated.
That new information excited to me. Samarkand is one of those cities which had intrigued me ever since I learned of its existence as a boy: foreign, ancient, historic, exotic. From time to time I had done some research into its history. Now, those wanderings paid off.
The email had indicated that he was a member of the Bahá’í Faith. I indicated I was also. In our conversation, he said he had wondered if there might be any Bahá’ís in Kansas, and if he might be able to search for them. The fact that one simply came to his door amazed him!
I told him (because I know a little history) that Bahá’ís were present in Kansas just ten years after Bahá’ís in Samarkand. He was astonished again. Just two summers before his visit, Bahá’ís of Kansas had celebrated our 100th anniversary in the little town of Enterprise. News articles appeared across the state about that centennial. He was, again, amazed. The freedom in America to openly be Bahá’í, and easily express that affiliation, impressed Hasan. That would not have been possible in the old Soviet Union, nor even in Uzbekistan after its collapse.
I asked if he would like to meet more Bahá’ís in town. When he said, yes, I took him to a friend of mine who teaches at the local university, just as Hasan taught at the University of Samarkand. There, Hasan was the Head of the Department of Intellectual Property and Scientific Information. In that role he had come to the U.S. to learn.
On the way back to his hotel, he expressed amazement at the “palace” my friends lived in. I assured him it was no palace. It was simply a typical, middle class home. That amazed him more.
Before I left, I invited him to the regular Bahá’í Devotions which would be held a few days later just half a block from his hotel. He was eager to attend.
On the day of the devotional service, I was standing outside the building when I noticed Hasan walking up. I feigned surprise and asked, seemingly amazed, if he had walked all the long way. He pointed back to the hotel, clearly visible across the empty parking lot, saying it was not far at all, bewildered why I’d referred to it as a long distance.
When he looked back at me, he saw I could not hide my grin and realized I was joking about the “long” distance of half a block. Then he began to laugh and could not stop.
I laughed too, but didn’t think the joke was that funny!
When he caught his breath, he said I was the first American he’d met who’d shown a sense of humor. He was here on a NATO grant to learn how to improve the University of Samarkand and foster free enterprise in his newly independent country. Everyone he had met so far was formal, official, serious and politically proper. I was not.
That’s when the friendship really began. An important part of our friendship was my being his guide to American society. Many times I would explain aspects of American society which bewildered Hasan.
Hasan participated regularly in our Bahá’í community activities and, after several weeks, mentioned in a conversation that the NATO grant would soon be spent, but he would like to spend more time in the country and continue to learn how businesses were started in the U.S. He didn’t know how he could stretch the balance of the grant to last longer.
During his stay he would walk from the hotel to the office where he was headquartered which was just around the corner from the office where I worked. When I looked out my window I could see his building. I thought about this for a while, then offered to let him stay at my place, and he could ride to work with me. He was delighted. After that meeting he checked out of the hotel and rode home with me. Our friendship deepened.
Shortly after this came a weekend when my two youngest children, ages 10 and 8, would be with me. They lived with their mother 120 miles away, so I would get them every other weekend. My children were as curious about Hasan as he was about them. He had two children, a boy and a girl, slightly younger than mine. He wanted to know what my children were interested in. My son, age 12, was delighted to show Hasan his comic books.
Hasan had never seen one before. That amazed my son, Trosten. He’d thought everyone knew about comic books! Delightedly, he began to explain comic books to this adult. Hasan could see the actions of the figures, but he did not know the words in large print. They weren’t in any dictionary he had ever used! My son was even more amazed at that and began to teach this grownup what the simple words meant. Hasan, holding a doctorate in Physics and Mathematics, had never encountered these words before and was fascinated. My son proudly taught him these “new” action words: POW, BANG, BOP, THUD, WHOOP!
Not long into our joint commute, Hasan expressed amazement about the quality of our streets and highways. The surfaces were so smooth and even, we could drive at high speeds as if we were floating across the countryside. I lived a few miles out of town. He said he missed his car, which he had to sell to afford the trip, and asked if he could drive. I said, yes. He was delighted. It was an unbelievable driving experience for him. He did much of our driving from then on.
An example of Hasan and I learning about each other came one evening while I was driving us home. That night, we learned so much more about each other’s cultures than I ever expected. We taught each other our obscene hand gestures! We didn’t start with the obscene ones, we simply progressed to them! It’s a guy thing.
Every culture has hand gestures and ignorance of them can result in serious complications. People of all cultures speak with their hands, and that language can be as different as the words. I surprised myself when showing him “the finger.” I do not use that gesture and had to force it, reminding myself that it meant nothing to him. The corresponding gesture in his culture takes both hands and is one I commonly do when I’m simply walking down the street! That surprised to me. Form a circle with the thumb and index finger of your dominate hand and slam it into the open palm of your other hand, making a noise. You have just seriously insulted an Uzbek!
I also learned that Uzbeks add a suffix to the names of people they are emotionally close to. The suffixes identify the relationship; indicating respect. If one is speaking and giving respect to an elder, they add the suffix, “aka” (aw-ka), to the name. If they are including someone in their intimate circle downward, they add, “uka” (eu-ka) to their name. Hasan is younger than I am, so he automatically addressed me as Duaneaka, and he instructed me to call him Hasanuka. But, we seldom did. I would forget and he followed the American custom.
Once we were traveling across country and planned to spend the night with my Aunt June. In the midst of my telling about her and her house, he turned to me in amazement.
“Her NAME is June!” He exclaimed in wide-eyed astonishment.
“Yes. I said that,” I replied, totally puzzled by his reaction.
“At home,” he explained. “When you are speaking to someone you love, and you want them to know you love them, you can add, ‘June,’ to their name. For instance, if you were my son and I wanted to show that I loved you, I could call you, ‘Duanejune.’”
“Not, ‘aka?’” I asked, puzzled.
“No. ‘June’ is more intimate. But,” he quickly added. “You’re not my little boy!” We both laughed.
My Aunt June was delighted to learn her name meant she was loved.
One day, I got an idea for a project that I thought might surprise and please him. I remembered that I had seen some letters printed in an early American Bahá’í magazine, from Bahá’ís of the time in Samarkand. Without letting him know what I was doing, I skimmed through those back issues and copied those letters.
Next, I put the information from them into a narrative. To that, I added some general history of Samarkand and closed with information he had shared with me about recent developments and changes as a result of the collapse of the Soviet system. Hasan may well have been the only person there, or one of very few, during the Soviet times to accept the Bahá’í Faith. He had only learned about the religion when he met the woman he would eventually marry. She belonged to one of the few Bahá’í families that managed to stay after the Soviet suppression of the religion in the 1920s. Eventually, after the collapse of the Soviet system, and religious organizations could once again exist, Hasan was elected to serve on the local Bahá’í administrative council, a Spiritual Assembly, of Samarkand. Shortly after that, he was elected to the Regional Spiritual Assembly for the area encompassing Uzbekistan. Later, Uzbekistan elected its own National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í community. His role in the restoration of that Bahá’í community is unique and historic.
At the beginning of the twentieth century there had been thriving Bahá’í communities in many cities in Russia. When the Bahá’ís there began to build a house of worship, the government sent a representative to the ground breaking ceremony.
Later,when the Soviets began to suppress religion, Bahá’ís became special targets. Though they were a minority, their existence gave lie to the Soviet propaganda against religion as being backward. In the Bahá’í community women are equal to men, science is a complimentary side of truth (in fact, if scientific knowledge conflicts with a religious idea, the religious idea is dismissed as superstition), and Bahá’ís are international in their outlook, evidenced by sharing letters internationally in the American magazine. Of special concern to the Soviets, Bahá’í youth groups were more popular than Young Pioneers, the Soviet indoctrinating youth organization.
As a result, hundreds if not more of the Bahá’ís in the USSR were imprisoned, tortured and killed, thousands were expelled from the country and the house of worship was confiscated and turned into an art gallery. It is even identified as such in an American encyclopedia. Very few families managed to stay. The Bahá’í communities in the Soviet Union virtually ceased to exist.
I wrote this story into a little narrative, then printed it as a booklet. When I gave it to Hasan, he was astonished and amazed. He had no idea any information from the pre-Soviet times had been preserved; at home it had all been destroyed. He urged me to let him send copies home, so I did. I was glad to give the people back their history. As a courtesy, I also sent a copy to the International Bahá’í Library in Haifa, Israel at the Bahá’í World Center.
Many years later, I obtained a newly released book which had collected official Russian, pre-revolutionary documents mentioning the Bahá’í Faith, and was shocked to find my little booklet listed as a source and myself named as one of the few experts on the Bahá’í Faith during the Soviet times!
Hasan found it difficult to believe that most Americans can speak only English. He lamented that we miss out on so much of the rest of the world. He was relieved to learn that I know a little German, one of his several languages. For entertainment once in a while, he and I would speak a few phrases to each other in German.
Even when the language was English, he had more to learn.
“What is that word you use instead of, ‘yes’? Hasan asked me one day.
I had no idea what he was talking about, I just talk normally. Shortly after that, he asked me a simple question to which I gave an affirmative reply.
“There it is!” He exclaimed. “That word you use instead of ‘yes!’”
Now I had to think of what I had just said.
“Yep?” I asked.
“Yes! What is that word?”
A conversation ensued about the regional use of ‘yep’ and ‘nope.’ But, that was not all. One day we had stopped at a store where I had made a purchase and spoke with the clerk while making payment.
“What language did you speak just now to her?” Hasan asked as we got back into the car.
“English,” I replied, puzzled.
“It’s not the way we talk,” he replied.
“Oh. It was Street English, or Black English.”
He was totally bewildered. Why would anyone not want to speak the dominate language in a country when that language is needed to function and advance? In answer I explained about slavery and the lingering effects a century and more later. He had no idea that kind of repression existed here in “the land of the free.”
The most profound lesson I’ve gained from our friendship is the role of the individual in society. He came from a culture that is not individualistic. The Lone Ranger is no ideal. The concept in his culture is difficult for me to describe. There are few words in English and the concept is unfamiliar.
In his culture, the social unit is more important than an individual. If all the individuals work together for the welfare of the group, then all members of the group will survive and maybe even prosper. The togetherness of the group is more important than the ego of an individual. When he came to stay with me at my house, Hasan immediately considered the two of us as one social unit. The social unit of “us” was more important than either he or myself singularly.
I had never experienced this perspective before. To him it was automatic, fundamental and obvious. We lived in the same house: therefore we were a social unit. When the Fourth of July came around, I wanted him to experience a typical mid-western celebration. I was not interested in going; I don’t do well with crowds or loud noises. He refused to go without me: if I was going to stay home, he was content to stay with me. We were a social unit. It took a great deal of convincing for him to agree to go with friends of mine with whom he was also, by then, acquainted. Finally, he consented to go without me.
I was left with amazement for the difference in our perspective. I think if more Americans could appreciate and adopt his Asian perspective on the role and value of social units over our individualism, we would have stronger, longer lasting marriages, and a more harmonious society as a whole. I hope someday more Americans can learn this. That hope is one reason for my sharing this experience. There are more ways than we know for people to function together in groups. But, at this time, we don’t even have an adequate vocabulary to describe the possibilities.
The money Hasan saved by staying with me allowed him to spend several more weeks here and when he left he was determined to return. We tried to keep in touch with email, but service there was not reliable, even at the university and that eventually ended. Several years later I received an email from him saying he and his whole family were now in Potsdam, New York where he was enrolled in a doctoral program at the university. I went and spent a week with them. They needed my assistance.
His wife could not teach here because she knew no English, but they needed more income. She had learned how easy it was to record and market CDs here, and she had recorded two CDs of her singing. She was a voice and piano teacher and had performed solo on stage in Uzbekistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and India. Though Hasan could speak English, his subject areas were physics and technology, her songs were about love and home. She needed liner notes for the CDs to explain the songs. They were confident I could convey the meaning of the songs. They told me about the songs and I wrote the notes. Her voice is beautiful. Even without knowing the languages, her songs move listeners to tears. I say, “languages,” because she sings in Uzbek, Russian, Turkish, Farsi and others I can’t remember.
Because of my visit he instructed his children to address me as “uncle.” So, I now have Uzbek nephews and a niece.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hasan and his wife had seen the educational system also collapse. When Russians left Uzbekistan there were few native Uzbeks to replace the professionals. Hasan and his wife wanted better education for their children and planned to immigrate to the U.S.. The university degrees which Hasan and his wife have (he held a doctorate of philosophy in physics and mathematics, hers in voice and piano) did not transfer to equivalent positions in the U.S. The new degree he would be getting would give him professional standing here.
Unfortunately, even with the new degree, those plans did not work as they might have. From Potsdam they moved to Virginia, then to Texas: nothing was working. Finally, they decided to try Canada where the government welcomed refugees. He was able to obtain a position with a university, not commensurate with his doctorates, but he is productive and teaching in his field. I accompanied him when he took the last car-load of possessions from Texas to their new home. I’d never been in Canada for any length of time and was delighted to experience summer up north. It never got hot. I’m invited to return. When summer days here in Kansas get over 100 degrees, I seriously think about returning!
Improbable as it is, this has been a surprising and satisfying relationship. I never imagined I would, or could, have such a friendship. When I try to describe it to people, they look at me in astonishment. I’ve generally stopped mentioning it. It is so inconceivable, it is difficult for people to grasp. How many others in Kansas even know Uzbekistan exists, let alone know a native? Not many, yet I and my children do – and I’m glad. Thank you, Hasanuka, for enriching of my life.