It was 1989, and I was in Moscow. I had come at the invitation of Moscow News. From my editor’s office on Pushkin Square, I watched on television the last Soviet troops leave Afghanistan and arrive in Uzbekistan, retreating across the Amudarya River on the Friendship Bridge (built in 1982 to ferry Soviet troops into Afghanistan). Even as the troops retreated, mujahideen snipers continued to target them, with US arms still being poured into what was already a powder keg. I was intrigued by this little-known part of the world, and remembered a dream-like trip as a Russian language student in 1980 to Tashkent, with its elegant opera house and its bountiful fruits, soaring mountains and hospitable people.
After five years in Moscow, I had had enough of the city in upheaval, where food was scarce and expensive, and people were losing their laid-back Soviet ways and embracing the worst features of the West. I was robbed a number of times (once by the train police waiting in a suburban station on the way to Uzbekistan), and remember gunshots in my Vikhino apartment building entrance one night, then being told the next day someone had been found murdered just a few feet away from me. Moscow had lost its charm. I yearned to live in a Muslim society. Uzbekistan seemed to be the most developed, cultured of the Soviet ‘stans’ and a short hop away from Mazari-i-Sharif. My 1980 memories made me decide to take the leap. I looked on the budding internet (still in its infancy 20 years ago) and signed on to a ‘friends of Uzbekistan’ notice board, where I found a call for English speakers to teach at the new English-language university in Tashkent. Despite protests from my Moscow friends (‘You will be mugged or killed by the Muslim insurgents. Russians are all escaping, and you are going there willingly?’), I made the wild leap to Tashkent to teach at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy (UWED), and bought a $15 platzkart (third class) one-way ticket, bracing myself for the long journey in mid-August heat. As the train pulled out, as if on cue, a band of robbers climbed through our open window (they were later kicked off trying to rob someone further down the car).