A Carpet Ride to Khiva, By Christopher Aslan Alexander

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The Independent Culture

The British author collected his middle name in Turkey where he was born, his fearlessness from a childhood spent in war-torn Beirut, and his idealism - one has to deduce this, because he's personally reticent - from a can-do brand of Christianity. Volunteering to work in Central Asia for a Swedish NGO, he begins to compile a guide book to the medieval Uzbek oasis of Khiva. Meanwhile, he finds himself embarking on a much more quixotic project: to set up a carpet workshop, in which the ancient arts of Khivan dyeing and weaving will be brought back to life.

Hand-made carpets did not sit well with Soviet ideology, as the labour-intensive process was predicated on poor producers and rich buyers, so factory ones became the norm. Turning a derelict madrassah into his workshop, and enlisting some of the remaining traditional dyers, Alexander starts to put the clock back.

At which point his book changes character, its splashy prose suddenly acquiring such force and focus that one hangs on every word. He tells us everything he sees and thinks, he details every problem and its solution, and offers vignettes of every character in his newly-constituted kingdom. Because he's clear-headed and single-minded, the picture which emerges hangs beautifully together, giving a pungent sense of what life is like for ordinary Uzbeks today.

If you're poor, disabled, or merely a woman, it's pretty terrible, as Alexander finds when recruiting apprentices from the most deprived corners of Khivan society. Soviet attitudes to disabled children still persist, with the state all too ready to bang them up in institutions: some Uzbek children grow up learning Braille when a pair of glasses could solve their problem overnight.

The Soviets may have done much to release Muslim women from feudal bondage, but things have now slipped back. When female weavers turn up at the workshop black with bruises, their colleagues don't need to ask why: wife-beating is common and anything can trigger it, particularly in a place where unemployment is the norm, with men forced to migrate north to Russia for work. We all know about the dissident whom the Uzbek government boiled alive five years ago: Alexander shows how that was the tip of a more widespread evil, with the secret service penetrating every corner of civic life.

Financial corruption pervades his story like a poison. Alexander's laudable fair-trade policy is constantly undercut because every civil transaction is oiled with bribes, on which teachers, doctors, police, and local politicians all depend for their livelihood. Alexander's eventual reward for refusing to play this game, as his workshop becomes a celebrated success, is deportation from the country as undesirable alien.

But the fascination of his book lies in the flip-side to all this grimness, as Alexander falls deeply in love with his work-team, his adoptive Uzbek family, and with the ancient designs he rediscovers in miniatures and on ornate medieval doors. He notes the multifarious folk customs and superstitions which permeate daily life, and goes native in all the seasonal rituals.

His book also serves as a primer on the mysteries of sericulture, and on the endless ramifications of the natural-dyer's craft. His pursuit of powdered madder root takes him deep into Afghanistan, whence he emerges after close shaves. This remarkable young man has now set up a yak-wool workshop in the Pamirs: his next book should be just as good.