Tom Bissell, Chasing the Sea

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Pantheon
Released: 2003

Buy at Amazon

I bought this book, initially, because I wanted to learn more about the ecological disaster area knownas the Aral Sea. The Aral was once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world, but due to an idiotic Soviet agricultural policy, it has shrunk to a sliver of its former size (see the photo below). It's a horrible story made all the more horrible because it has been virtually ignored by the west. I was hoping that this book, Chasing the Sea, would shed some light on this tragedy. That's why I boughtit. However, I probably should have read the full title: Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia. This title doesn't (as you might have noticed) mention the Aral Sea by name (though the description of thebook on Amazon certainly does suggest otherwise).

Instead, as I was to learn when I first started reading, the book is really an autobiographical account of one writer's journey to Uzbekistan in early 2001 (significantly, before 9/11). This author, Tom Bissell, spent several months in 1996 as a Peace Corp volunteer in a small city in Uzbekistan. While there, he got sick, depressed, and suicidal, and went home early. His second trip, then, was an attempt to confront those demons that forced him to leave in the first place. However, that's not what he told his bosses at Harper's. He told them that he was going to Uzbekistan to write an article on the Aral Sea disaster. So the book is a feint; while this book does, indeed, discuss this disaster, it does so only in the book's final chapter. The rest is devoted to Bissell's journey through Uzbekistan--his encounters with police, his friendship with his translator, his exploration of the ancient cities of Samarkand and Burkha, his journey into the mountains of the Fergana Valley, and (most significantly for Bissell) his return to Gulistan, where he briefly taught English in 1996.

When I first started reading this book, it didn't take me long to realize that it wasn't the book I thought it would be. But the more I read this work, the more I enjoyed it. Bissell's writing is incredibly honest. He critiques Uzbek history and culture, yet he also critiques American history and culture. For example, he points out that the Aral Sea's dissipation can be traced back to the American Civil War. Prior to this conflict, the American south had exported much of its cotton production to Russia; the war stopped all cotton shipments to Russia, forcing the Czar to look elsewhere for cotton. He settled on Central Asia, and went about irrigating modern Uzbekistan for cotton production. The Soviets went even further, virtually monopolizing the major rivers that flow into the Aral Sea for cotton production, meaning that today no water at all gets to the Aral Sea. So, you see, it all leads back to the United States.

Moreover, Bissell isn't afraid to throw himself into the story, to point out, up front, that his view of Uzbekistan is just that--his view. He shares his most private fears and his most embarrassing desires, yet he never wallows in his own self-pity or self-aggrandizement. This is especially true because he mixes his personal thoughts and feelings with the larger cultural, political, and (above all) historical context of the places he visits. Although a lot of the stories he tells about Samarkand, Bukhara, and the other famous places of Uzbekistan have been told many times before (like the massacre of British officers Stoddard and Conolly in Bukhara in the 19th century), he also includes some information that I've never been able to glean from other writers (like the fact that Depeche Mode and The Offspring are really, really popular in Tashkent, or the fact that "barf" is the Tajik word for "snow").

The pop culture information--information that travel writers like Thubrond and Moorehouse are just too British and snooty to bring up in their accounts--really makes the cultural divide (or lack thereof) come alive. Bissell's description of the divorced mom in Samarkand whose kids love Eminem says more about the reality of Central Asian life than a thousand historical anecdotes ever could. It says, above all else, that our attitudes about traditionally Muslim countries are fundamentally wrong; that the world is a LOT more complex than the news or the politicians ever try to make it out to be.

This book makes no mention whatsoever of traditional Central Asian music (just Depeche Mode). In fact, I noticed that Bissell's very comprehensive bibliography doesn't include Theodore Levin's The Hundred Thousand Fools of God, which is a bit odd since Levin's book is, in some ways, the closest in spirit to Bissell's own (in that both are contemporary, personal accounts of Americans visiting post-Soviet Central Asia). But perhaps Bissell's omission of traditional music says more about the reality of traditional music in Uzbekistan than any token reference possibly could: that it no longer matters to the vast majority of the country's people. I know that's not true everywhere--Levin's book proves that--but it is worth noting. Heck, the bulk of the traditional musicians of Bukhara have already immigrated to New York, so that shouldn't be a surprise.

In all, this is an outstanding work that combines travel narrative with confessional writing with historical analysis with pop culture. It's a valuable resource for any westerner (particularly an American) who is interested in learning more about this fascinating part of the world.

Note: But what of the Aral Sea? Well, as I said, it only shows up in the final chapter, but it IS a good chapter, filled with as much detail about the region and the effects that this horrible disaster has caused to the many people who live there. Personally, I wish that the chapter was longer and more detailed. Specifically, I wish he'd actually gone to what remains of the sea, rather than simply visiting the former fishing village of Moynaq, which was once surrounded by the Aral but is now nowhere near it.

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