Letters From Uzbekistan: Tashkent Nights




Dear Rick,

Thank you so very much for all you have done for me and my agency and the nation that owns it. Since your efforts to promote our country we have received evidence of increased interest (and actual investment) in visiting our country, particularly Tashkent. A total of 19 European nations have shown interest/booked flights and hotels, including one secret one that goes by the moniker »E. U.« Isn’t that strange. (Here’s another odd one: We had a group from Puerto Rico fly in and they were listed separately in the computer from the United States yet carried United States passports. I guess you can imagine how long they were clearing customs…) 18 Asian/Middle Eastern nations showed increased interest and actual investment as well, even within Uzbekistan. We had five caravans from Karakalpakstan alone in April and the first half of May! None going the other way, but I attribute that to the season. Australian visits are up nearly 50% over last year, and we received our first governmental delegation of ‘Kiwis’, I hope it i sall right to call them. In a big city, of course, there will be some problems and perhaps over time we will be sufficiently savvy in tourist matters that we will never put the Kiwis with the Indonesians again. I know Geography about as well as the next person on a flight were I on a flight, but I never realized they shared an island with Indonesia! And apparently unhappily. Wait—oh, my assistant, L., points out that the Puerto Ricans actually never did clear customs and were sent on the first flight back. I have so many questions for you, Rick, and let that be one of them, if you could shed light on that. But primarily I write to thank you, tell you how well the work is going, how happy my superiors are with me, and finally to ask you to allow me to withdraw my permission to be in your novel or any novel you may write. And please do not ‘fictionalize’ me. I ask this as your friend, knowing I could never stop you no matter how many favors our Montenegrin guests come to owe me (astonishing how much like Russians these people are, and I mean that they share the finest qualitites!).

Of course, things may change,

And until then, or before then even, I will remain


Arslan Levantinovich

P.S. If you post this on your blog, please consider ‘Tashkent Nights’ and if you could use the attached photo we would much appreciate the gesture.49105-tashkent-nightlife-tours

Streets of Old Izola: Smrekarjeva

  1. Hinko Smrekar Street



Hinko Smrekar’s Ode to the World War, or Harp of Death

On the other hand, artists were celebrated by Slovenes – dead artists even so to this day. Before Slovenia began using the euro, their currency was the tolar, which included a religious author (he wrote the first two books printed in Slovene and looked a great deal like Vincent Price), a natural historian and author, two painters, an architect, a composer, a poet, and a writer of fiction. That’s a lot of money, leaving out only a mathematician, who was worth fifty tolars. Hinko Smrekar was a poor and unlucky artist born in 1883 in Ljubljana, where he was also shot dead, in 1942 by the occupying Germans. His work is quite varied, largely because he had difficulty earning money for his artworks, so he illustrated books, and was even the first Slovene to decorate tarok cards (tarok is a popular card game with regional variations that may or may not be a corruption of bridge combined with tarot created by drunken Hungarian soldiers on an orgiastic night in a Romanian gypsy town). The image above is Mars, one of many of the world’s gods of war, ‘On his head he has a crown of knives; he is sitting on a bag of money and is singing and playing to crippled human figures. A skeleton (war hero), bearing a laurel wreath, has climbed onto the crosspiece of the harp (coffin): “He is depicted, playing – on the instrument of human passion = a starved skeleton, wrapped in the desire for glory, which is getting an echo from the coffin. The skeleton is decorated with pendants of various awards from holy and secular authorities. A great mass of people are gathered around the monstrous instrument – they are literally crammed in like matchsticks, human money worshippers who are staring, devotedly bowing, sighing from starvation, all engrossed and following the money monster’s every move. They are staring at it with feverish greed in a nervous throb, staring and staring into the sinister cauldron of voices from the coffin and its cadaverously hollow echoes.” (Elko Justin, “Hinko Smrekar in his pictures”, Tovarish, 1948, no. 41) [from Damir Globočnik, writing in: http://www.livesjournal.eu/library/lives6/damgl6/reflection6.htm]

This is a man who deserved a great street and indeed got one.

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Smrekar seen from Kristan Sq.                                             Arches and recesses by day

For some time, Smrekarjeva, Hinko Smrekar Street, was my favorite in Izola, and for the simplest of reasons: for the first few years of living in Izola I had no regular place to visit within the old town beyond Ljubljana Street, Manzioli Square, and the beach, which I usually reached by walking along the shore. When I did venture further in, it was usually at night while walking the dogs, random walks in darker lanes, some of surprising length, like Hinko’s street. And I never knew precisely where I was and so never knew where I would emerge, and though the possibility were decidedly undramatic, such as Manzioli Square and Kristan Square, each of these had several streets entering them, and I never recognized where I was before actually entering into the square. As for Smrekar’s Street in particular, there was also the combinaton of the curving street and the irregularity of the buildings that at night made me feel I was negotiating a cubist painting, the buildings closing and opening at the eaves, sudden open spaces revealing ultimately closed spaces or lanes that took me into entirely lost zones. One left turn is still Smrekar Street, opens onto By The Doors Street, yet turn out in its continuation to remain Smrekar Street. One wrong turn and you may be stuck at night in Courtyard Street, seeking in vain that slice between buildings that is the shortcut to Koper Street, yet in the dark of night seems to shift from one corner to another, more elusive as one’s panic rises. Worse, the connection to Courtyard is a two or three meter stretch of street with no name, no entrances, an indefinable space where all I have ever seen is a garbage wagon and various large pieces of refuse piled around it.

20151027_140305.jpgGrowing sinister as the sun slides toward the horizon


Innocent by day    


The middle length of Smrekar     20151027_140519.jpg

Down Alma Vivode, a concrete onion dome.


A stylish lintel



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The requisite ornamentation of days gone by: on the left un-retouched, on the right recently painted. Note the free mixture of stlyes, even to the point of faux columns.

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A final stretch of Smrekar                                    Smrekar ends where the van is parked




Day dreaming, driving, dementia without dolor, a fare without an affair, a frolic, oh the calm creep of crepuscule, safe on the sunny side of the Sierras, the sunnier side of the century, great grandmother Gravel, of whom our Donnie knew nought but of Nevada nativity and a taxi trade, while now Donnie, nude, feet on the patio table, coffee near, Hermione head nearer, nuzzling about his nethers, late morning of the third day of mating, reading the Review-Journal, ‘Christ, listen to this, after the usual drone strike kills militants in Pakistan, war crime enough, listen to this: US soldiers accused of hunting Afghan civilians, um, they made a game of it, picking out—it says at random—victims, taking turns, just killing whoever they felt like, shot kids in the head, old men, ladies, quote “There were few men of military age”, so the game was a sort of psycho roulette, as perverse as it gets, as if the least deserving, the most innocent’—now she lifted her head, ‘You’re serious?’ ‘If it makes the newspaper you can bet it was ten times worse. Normally this kind of shit gets hushed up…wait, here: for the last half year at least…reported by British, suspicious sequence of deaths…Ah: someone’s talking. That’s the thing. Unnamed. In protective custody. I wonder where that could be, the guy’s got more guns aimed at him now than the entire Taliban…’

Of course, Donnie had no way of knowing what went through his great-grandmother’s mind when she drove a regular from Virginia City to Carson City, the prescience wasted traveling from brain to mouth, but how utterly fulfilling it would have been to have known…and been able to fill her in on what happened since, perhaps even pick her brain for more thoughts. Did she know of the Maginot line? Did she intuit the Schlieffen plan or was she just vaguely correct in assuming a sort of Berlin to Paris route? Had she any notion at all, gathered from the practice wars leading up to the big one, that war itself had changed, that material technique had surpassed mental technique, that the war would be won by the rats and viruses? Her man was the last in the line to have foreskin: what would she have made of that? Maybe her son had foreskin, too, we can’t be sure. Donnie didn’t and he knew why and how ridiculous the procedure was. He was not a man for the trenches, not at all. Did she know how long it was all going to last, and did she know that the interment in trenches was unsustainable, so that the next big war—there would have to be two, anyone could see that—would of necessity be both bigger and necessitate the slaughter of civilians to end it. And that the extraordinary advances in civilian slaughtering techniques—accelerant bombing from the sky, factory gassings, nuclear bombings—would necessitate the fragmentation of wars, would have a multiplier effect on war itself, so that the civilian killing devices (there would be so many more—so many types of mines and ingenious combinations of cunning culling creations of new and ancient like cluster bombs and napalm) might be used more discretely, and more often, that areas of the globe previously of little concern outside colonial offices run by gin and quinine quaffing clubmen would of necessity require extraordinary concentrations of weaponry, that finally all these casus belli casuistree would castrulminate in a perfect symmetry of killing by drone whereby the machines flown by men at desks killed people who knew nothing of war—into the valley of death rode nobody anymore, and such had never made any sense anyway: when you’re at war with a country, what good does it to fight a fragment of that country called its military? That was never war at all. War, true war, is one side against the other, nation versus nation, and in that war one must recognize the nation as its people, and it is they one must defeat, not some mullah-picked army, not some upstart tribal chiefs soldiers, not some ideologue’s converts; what you want is the family of the enemy people at table, preferably an extended family, a family compound, twenty or thirty of them, round dinner time, and you unloose your typewriters on them and five or six or three hellfire missiles interrupt the meal, deal the people a blow; or you wait for a wedding, then you get fifty to a hundred, and you hit them where it hurts, right in the procreation, right in the virginity; and then you’ll have a funeral, attended at times by up to two hundred if you’ve done your job right, at which point your typists can strike at the very heart of meaning, the death ritual, which of course means nothing if it is accompanied by more dead than the dead, multiplies the dead, making of the funereal epic of tribe and nation a farce.

But tell me: would great-grandmother want to know? Would she consent to die as she subsequently did, self-somewhat-satisfied, disappointed as she was that her son was a drunk and yet poor roustabout, that is to say not one to come out on top in a brawl lest it occurred between he and his wife, and even then not so likely? The knowledge of the Great War’s surprises were now known to her, yes, but she certainly had no idea what they really meant, that such extravagant dementia was but a catalyst for suffering even trenchrats and gassed and shellshocked could not prepare one, for the factories, the flames, the evaporations, the one hundred civilians for the single Kraut, the famine of victors, the thousands eaten by sharks and crocodiles, the hydracockery of mass war rape, the six hundred in a valley narrowing to ravine and foibe yet increasing their catch to one hundred, one thousand times that number, a garish eldritchery of exponentional executionism.

Pirates of the Adriatic



History is fairly frantic with groups unfairly maligned both by contemporaries and, subsequently, careless historians. The Uskoks of Senj, which lies on the Dalmatian coast where the Gulf of Kvarner begins to ungulf into coastline, are an exemplary illustration. At the height of their piratical success in the 16th century, they were grotesquely caricatured by the Venetians as cannibalistic savages, half men-half beasts, whatever the Venetian minds of the time could conjure into nightmare. Adding to the caricature, it seems no matter who attacked Dubrovnik in the 16th century they were called Uskoki even though that was rarely the case. To make matters worse, the great historian of the common man of the latter half of the 20th century, Fernand Braudel, more or less provides his readers with a similar view of the Uskoks. Yet on the contrary, the Uskoks (from the Slavic ‘to jump’), represent one of the greatest displays of successful rapid adaptation to adverse circumstance in human history.

As the Ottomans drove northward up the Balkan peninsula they famously absorbed great numbers of the populace, converting many, mostly former Bogomil heretics of Bosna, and ruling others more benignly than they had been ruled in the past. They had the habit of stealing children that they would raise as Ottomans, specifically to become Janissaries, so that over the centuries many of the most able of Ottomans, including the extraordinary ‘foreign minister’, Sokollu, were Slavs. However, these interesting singularities tend to disguise the most normal result of such an advance of an empire of an alien faith, which is the creation of an endless flow of refugees whose enmity towards the conquerors is of remarkable endurance. Many of such refugees were called Uskoki, Uskoks. During the centuries of uncertain boundaries between Islamic Ottomans and Christian Europeans, many outposts, or garrisons, composed largely of Uskoks and financed by, usually, the Hapsburgs, were strung along wherever the border happened to be at the time. Those Uskoki who found their place on the shores of the Adriatic, primarily in Senj, though there were Uskok havens in the area of Rijeka as well, and certainly farther south than Senj, became people of the sea; pirates, if you will, whose mission was to avenge their fate by attacking Ottoman ships. The vengeful and zealous aspects of these Uskoks should not disguise the primary motivation for their and virtually all acts of piracy (privateering aside), which is economic distress. The Uskoki just happened to arise in a religiously clear-cut circumstance. Senj was an ideal location for the Uskoki. It was hemmed in by mountains but for just enough of a pass to allow the ferocious burja to prevent large ships from anchoring in its already shallow harbour. Virtually unassailable by land, and safe from the large ship favored by their enemies, the Uskoki developed light, swift boats with shallow drafts that could easily be hauled up onto land. Their success is aptly attested to by the numerous attempts by the Ottomans to root them out by both land and sea, attempts that failed. The composition of the Uskoki should receive a bit more mention for it would be easy for the reader to imagine a rather heterogeneous and motley assemblage of environmentally-sculpted thugs; yet there were Uskoks of all stripes: Albanians, every kind of southern Slav, Vlachs, Morlachs, and as their reputation grew, recruits from the Habsburg and Venetian territories. One particular irony is that Venetian propaganda was probably closer to the truth after various Venetian outlaws had joined the Uskoki cause.


The second chapter in the Uskoki story has two versions (I have actually skipped the very involved first chapter for the sake of relative brevity: the first Uskok bastion was Klis, indeed further south than Senj, a redoubt finally taken by the Turks, driving the first Uskoki north). The more appealing is that they were so appalled by their co-religionist Venetians trading readily with the Ottomans that they began to attack Venetian ships as well. The other version is that the Ottomans, thoroughly frustrated, appealed to the Venetians to send military escorts along with the Ottoman merchant fleets. Whatever the truth, the Uskoks were a seaworm at the bottom of the Venetian vessel. Many attempts were made to get the Austrians to rein them in, but they were of great use to the Austrians in more ways than one. For instance, the Austrian nobility was known to acquire some of the finer merchandise stolen by the Uskoks: a likely apocryphal story that nonetheless describes a truth is that a Jewish merchant robbed at sea later saw his very own jewels adorning a Habsburg princess at court. And of course it was hardly in the interests of the Austrians to aid Venice in its commercial affairs, or, especially, the Ottomans, whom they would be fighting at the outskirts of Vienna as late as 1683.  It was up to the Venetians to solve their own problem (by the latter quarter of the 16th century Uskoki were more their problem than the Ottoman’s), and so they sent a special detachment after them under the leadership of a certain Giovanni Bembo, whose abilities were not adaptable to the sea-guerrilla tactics of the Uskoks. His efforts often read like high comedy. In one instance, he had the Uskoki squadron hemmed in—the Uskoki were forced to take refuge on a small island from which there was no escape, especially since just after they landed a strong burja began blowing that Bembo knew no sailors could survive (his own ships dropped anchors to await the subsidence of the wind). The next morning, the wind had calmed, and the Venetians landed to find a makeshift fortification before them, the Uskoki determined to fight it out to the last man—precisely what Bembo wanted. The heavily armed Venetians approached cautiously until they could make out the individual weapons of the Uskoki, and kept approaching, until they could see that the Uskoki weapons were sticks aimed toward the beach and not a living soul could be seen. In the night, during the height of the wind, the Uskoki had dragged their boats to the other side of the island and escaped.

To be balanced, the Uskoki did commit a number of atrocities. Raiding towns, for instance on the Istrian peninsula, seems reasonable enough as they were pirates and the towns were under Venetia subjection—but did they have to chop off all those heads? Venetian propaganda made the Uskoki out to be savages, and cutting off heads of civilians may be savagery, but there is no record of the Uskoki making a feast of the corpses left by these victorious raids. To understand the quotidian demands of a people of such a long ago time requires extreme empathy and many guesses; but we do know the people of Senj had to eat, and such was there state of want that it has been said that most of there raiding was actually done on land, within a small radius of their fortress town. Vlachs and their herds coming down too near the sea at times of religious fervor—Christmas and Easter—were special targets of the Uskoks (nothing personal, just faith and hunger). For despite their rapacious anti-Turk drive, they were in fact still poor folk who stole for the most part to feed themselves and their families. Anyway, for the most part, such raids were a minor part of the Uskok story, which came to such a head that a battle was named after them—the Uskok war, mainly between Venice and Austria, which lasted from 1615 to 1617 and ended with an agreement to disband the Uskoki, who were sent into various hinterland areas that are today in Croatia and Slovenia. Subsequently, many historians as I have said disparaged the Uskoki, and many seem to be under the impression that the Austrians held them in their employ rather than tolerating them, supporting them, and occasionally profiting directly from them. But the fact remains that the Uskoki were an Ottoman creation, a band of outlaws, who adapted ingeniously to horrific circumstances, and in the face of one of the most powerful navies in history just across the narrow Adriatic, managed to prosper for nearly a century. Rebecca West, the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a sort of historical travelogue about the Balkans written in the 1930s actually credits the Uskoki with being an ingenious bunch, but ends her brief account by saying that no one knows what happened to them after they were disbanded. Other than those who settled in the aforementioned areas were the many who simply joined other outlaw fleets, dispersing independently throughout the Mediterranean—this I add to prevent the thought that after one hundred years of piracy, this subculture could simply be tamed. Instead, their manners and tactics endured as invisible threads through the history of piracy and banditry in the Mediterranean.uskok