Out of Steppe, By Daniel Metcalfe

Michael Church
Wednesday 04 March 2009 01:00
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This book's idea is timely: a quest for six ethnic communities that, after surviving the depredations of Sovietism, are now, as Central Asia modernises, disappearing. But the young author's motives have a whiff of the gap year: he wants to catch the "romance" of these dying micro-civilisations, and test his endurance in the process.

Armed with colloquial Persian and a mandolin, and ready to brave everything from bedbugs to brigands, he sets off via gloomy, paralysed Turkmenistan in search of his first quarry among the "lost peoples", the Karakalpaks of the Aral. These people are both depressed and depressing: trapped in poverty and disease, with their once-bountiful marine landscape turned to noxious dust, how could they be anything else? Daniel Metcalfe gets far less out of this encounter than did his predecessor, the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, from whose beautiful 1930s memoir he enviously quotes.

Next stop, the Jews of Bukhara, where he assumes a Jewish identity, the only way he can penetrate their tight world. Eating, praying, even digging a grave with them, he seizes something of their tenacious, colourful culture. Then it's the German community of Kazakhstan, about whom the world never knew much, and whose quasi-genocidal fate at the hands of Stalin remains a state secret. Their ancestors had been drafted in as educators by Catherine the Great, and they are still fiercely literate; one aged survivor's tale of her family's suffering has almost heart-stopping pathos.

Metcalfe's journey gets more risky as he pursues descendants of the fire-worshipping Sogdians in Tajikistan, the Shiite Hazaras in Taliban-controlled Bamiyan, and the shamanic Kalashas whom Kipling first brought to light in what is now north-west Pakistan.

It's a pity Metcalfe didn't have an editor to prevent his repetitions and solecisms, and there should have been a bibliography. But his book has many virtues, the greatest of which are courage and a keen eye for detail, plus an ability to convey the essence of a place through the briefest of anecdotes.

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