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Book Review: Robert Rand’s Tamerlane’s Children

“Uzbekistan.”

“Pakistan?”

“No, Uzbekistan. It doesn’t even border Pakistan.”

This interchange about Uzbekistan is not farfetched for people beyond Uzbekistan’s borders.  For the average Westerner, the “-stans” (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) of the world are a complete mystery. After September 11, 2001, Americans were quite aware of Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan (because of its shared southern border), but most of the former Soviet countries are still unknown to Americans. There are, after all, countries that exist between Russia, China, India, and Europe! One such country is Uzbekistan. Home to Central Eurasia’s largest population (around 30 million), Uzbekistan has played a major role in the Global War on Terror. For that reason, among many others, it’s time to start picking up books on Uzbekistan, like Robert Rand’s Tamerlane’s Children: Dispatches from Contemporary Uzbekistan.

I was quite pleased to find Rand’s book immediately before taking off for my second trip to Uzbekistan. Tamerlane’s Children proves an entertaining read, especially during the two-day trek from Atlanta to Tashkent (via Amsterdam and Istanbul, thanks to Delta, KLM, and Turkish Airlines). Rand lived and worked in Uzbekistan for three years (2001-2004) as a freelance journalist. His text is divided into two parts: first, seven chapters about various subjects, which include 9/11, Amir Timur, love, and cotton; part two has “dispatches” (diary-like entries) and a chapter on Andijon. Each part of this book serves as an illustration of contemporary life in Uzbekistan. He concedes in the introduction that the book is not a comprehensive description of Uzbekistan, but aspects of daily life he found most interesting. For anyone who hasn’t traveled to Uzbekistan, Rand’s accounts make the country seem like an extremely frustrating and sometimes backward place, which is why it may be off-putting to some. His accounts are, however comical, sometimes harsh. That isn’t to say, though, that these maddening aspects of Uzbekistan are all encompassing. The country is fascinating, beautiful, and enchanting. After all, that’s why I keep returning!

There are a few shortcomings in Rand’s book. All of his personal accounts are from Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. There is virtually no information about other major cities, like Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, or even Timur’s birthplace, Shahrisabz.  Contemporary life in Uzbekistan is not simply life in Tashkent! Additionally, Amir Timur (Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame), the “father” of Uzbekistan, is the namesake of this book. Rand mentions that he has taken poetic license in naming the book “Tamerlane’s Children”, since modern Uzbeks don’t descend from Amir Timur. Rand includes an insightful chapter on Islam Karimov’s decision to have Amir Timur as the national hero, but the overwhelming response from people Rand interviews is that they feel no connection to Amir Timur as a “father”.  Amir Timur, portrayed as a feudal villain in Soviet historiography, has replaced Soviet heroes, like Lenin and Marx.

The last sections of Rand’s book, however, absolve him of the text’s shortcomings. His interview with Craig Murray, Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan is very revealing. The last chapter on Andijon is concise, and it explains much of the controversy surrounding the 2005 events. Most of all, Rand’s text is entertaining. For example, he writes in his entry for the 7 January 2002, “The police pulled over the car I was riding in today because, they said, I was wearing a seat belt. Nobody wears seat belts in Uzbekistan. The cops thought I had buckled up as a safety precaution because the driver had been drinking. Why else would someone buckle up?” (130). For a book about a country not many Americans are familiar with, Rand’s serves as a great introduction with its brief, succinct descriptions.