The medieval world of Abdir Akhman

A five-year-old jumps on to broken glass to earn his father a few pennies. In Bukhara, Uzbekistan, that's nothing. Phil Reeves reports from a city that has seen it all
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The Independent Online
WE ARE under instructions to pray and, judging by those around me, this is being taken seriously. The object of our entreaties stands before us wearing a green waistcoat, a head-to-foot coating of dust, and the bored expression of a seasoned professional. He is only five years old; he is poised to inflict a horrible injury on his feet.

Tousled and pale, Abdir Akhman Tishabayev - his name seems longer than he is tall - is standing on top of a small step-ladder, arms outstretched, and is about to jump onto a pile of broken glass. His father, a porcine Dickensian figure in a long black coat, is pacing around in the background, whipping up the mood by bellowing into a microphone.

To the right, before a wall that arcs round behind the side of a 14th- century mausoleum - the backcloth for this drama - an Uzbek band is blasting away on wooden pipes and drums. The boy's grandfather, Kazim - a wizened, white-haired, 91-year-old gentleman leaning on a cane - is watching on with an unforgiving eye.

But we, the crowd, the suckers, are praying. Praying that the little boy walks away from this unharmed, just as he has doubtless done scores of times before. Even a policeman in the audience has his hands cupped in front of his face, appealing to Allah to intervene in a matter which he - as an officer of the law - is better placed to resolve.

Of course, the boy gets away with it. He lands on the glass, bounces off the shards - without so much as a wince - does a couple of celebratory cartwheels, and dances off to collect money from onlookers. Minutes later, he's back - with a snake wrapped round his neck. We ask his grandfather if this is a proper way to treat a five-year-old. "Why, it's in his nature," he replies. "We can't force him to do anything. He does it of his own will."

For centuries, similar scenes have been played out in the markets of Bukhara, a city of 250,000 in Uzbekistan, on the old Silk Road, the ancient trading route linking Europe and the Middle East with China and India. In fact, by historical standards, this sad little circus does not even cause a flicker on the brutality gauge.

This city has seen it all: Genghis Khan, whose hordes swept in during the 13th century; Tamerlane - now a national hero among the Uzbeks, despite his fondness for using piles of skulls as a personal calling card; the 19th-century emir of Bukhara, Nasrullah Khan - know as "The Butcher" - who seized the throne after killing all his brothers, plus 28 other relatives.

And finally, the Soviets, who brought collectivisation, religious repression, hideous architecture and a scorn for the environment, crystallised in the destruction of Central Asia's Aral Sea in the name of the cotton industry.

The British got a first-hand taste, providing two figures in a particularly grisly piece of popular entertainment. On 24 June 1842, after being held for months in a pit, Col Charles Stoddart and Capt Arthur Conolly were marched out into the city and made to dig their own graves, and beheaded. Stoddart's crime was to arrive in town (on a diplomatic mission to reassure the Uzbeks about Britain's invasion of Afghanistan) without gifts for the emir - the vicious Nasrullah, again - or even a personal letter from Queen Victoria; Conolly was unlucky enough to be sent to rescue him.

Times have changed, but - as the little boy's performance reveals - the show goes on. It goes on even though the audience is thin on the ground, depleted by Uzbekistan's autocratic government, a suspicious view of outsiders, and an economy that has been struggling since independence in 1991. True, it is off-season; but we saw only one tourist, a German businessman being driven around the city (which, with its legacy of mosques and minarets, is among the world's treasures) in an empty bus. "I am a rare species," he declared cheerfully.

But Bukhara has not given up hope. Sacha Boltayev, 47, a former Uzbek football star turned hotelier, is one of a minority class of entrepreneurs in the republic. Business, he insists, is picking up. "Of course, compared to the Soviet days, where we had around 500 tourists a day, we have nothing now. But it is much better now than it was in 1991 and 1992."

He informs us that the city can be summed up in two words: carpets and Jews. He is right about the former - they are in abundance, although most are from Turkmenistan. But, after two millennia in Bukhara, the Jews are leaving. At 5,500 in 1991, they were the fourth largest population in the city, among 80 other nationalities. They have always been an interesting phenomenon, a pocket of Judaism which arrived via Persia and set up camp in what became the heart of Islam. But now their numbers have dropped to around 1,000.

"The situation here is just too difficult, It is too hard to earn money," said Stella Davidova, a 22-year-old accountant, whom we found waiting for the start of a Hebrew class in one of the city's two synagogues. But she was keen to practise her English. She knows she will need it when she gets to New York in April, following a path beaten by her family. Five-year-old Abdir is unlikely to be so lucky. For now, he will have to go on jumping on the broken glass.