I met Ali Khan through my host in Amritsar, a pharmacy shopkeeper named Pankaj. He wore long, white kurta pajamas that washed gracefully down his rotund, teddy-bear shape. I had just flown in from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and was surprised at how refreshed I felt, back in the warm, chaotic streets of India. Having started off my journey at a Sikh wedding reception in Delhi almost three months ago, there was some sweet closure in finishing in Amritsar, home to Sikhism's holiest place of worship, the Golden Temple.
Ali Khan, referred to by others as "Babaji," meaning "Spiritual Leader", quickly took me under his wing. He proved a charming host: instead of crashing on Pankaj's couch, as is generally the case through Couchsurfing, Ali got me a free room at a nearby hotel, and free food at the M.S. Food Plaza next door to it. A powerful "fixer," known to practically everybody in the area, he devoted most of the two days I spent in town driving me around on his Honda motorcycle: to local sites, to client's homes, even to discuss trading opportunities between India and China with local wholesalers. But most generous of all, he opened up to me in a remarkably candid fashion, giving me a depth of insight into his profession, opinions and experiences that far less interesting people would ever care to offer.
If ordinary people have a problem, they talk to Ali. His power comes through his connections to high-ranking officials, and using this advantage, he gets people what they need—for a commission, of course. His three cell phones ring consistently. ("My office," he joked, referring to them.) While sitting in Pankaj's pharmacy, I watched an auto-rickshaw driver and his family come in, kneel respectfully before him, and ask for assistance with getting a doctor to inspect the driver's failing eyesight. They also asked him to visit their home, so that a neighbour they have been fighting with will stop squabbling.
"They just have to see that Babaji knows (the family), and their neighbours won't cause them any more problems," he explained, with a dash of boastfulness.
Coming back from the Pakistan border, where an evening show of patriotism runs nightly, we stopped at the home of a widow, whose husband was killed by terrorists. She sought a promotion in her government teaching job, but if she asked her superiors directly, she risked them demanding a huge sum of money or worse, to sleep with them. Ali could get her the promotion whilst saving her significant face.
Not all the requests he gets are major. When leaving a restaurant, the owner's son asked Ali to talk to his father about getting him a motorbike.
"I'll get you your bike," he responded.
In all the dealings I witnessed him attend to, Ali was never distracted or dismissive. He grants everyone an attentive, kind audience, and it is partly through his immense, natural charisma that I think he has become so powerful. Everywhere we went, people approached him and lightly tapped his knee, a sign of respect afforded to seniors in India. Some seemed to look upon him wearily, but most, even if they might fear him somewhat, displayed sincere affection towards "Babaji."
"But without me, how would all of these average people be able to solve their problems?"
A native of the troubled Kashmir Valley, Ali spent 13 years in the Middle East, working his way up from delivery truck to manager within the fast food industry. But after meeting his current wife, he moved back to Hyderabad in eastern India in 2003, hoping to work in a BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) center, using his fluent Arabic and English, or to open a fast food restaurant. After an unfruitful year of searching, he was unemployed when his sister-in-law asked him for help. A local don was illegally building on her land, a practice most people without connections in India are essentially powerless to stop.
Ali went to the illegal construction site, where he said he encountered about 25 goons, intimidating men who earn their livelihood through violence, or its implicit threat.
"You may be able to hurt me," he told them. "But I am from Kashmir Valley, and my family will send men to come down and destroy all of your families."
He was bluffing of course, but the local don bought it, and Ali was able to save his sister-in-law's land. Word spread fast of a new don in town, and soon people were approaching him asking for assistance in their own affairs. Without trying at all, Ali became a broker between the local dons--the same ones he had stared down previously--and ordinary people.
As his power grew, he took the extreme step of having a police officer fabricate a charge against him, imprisoning himself for 21 days in India's largest prison. There, he became friendly with five major dons doing time inside, and it was partly through them that he learned some of the extortion-and-blackmail methods he explained to me.
"I don't keep enemies," he explained outside the pharmacy. "I either make peace with them, or destroy them completely."
One method he has employed involves calling in false charges against an enemy, each charge being called in to a different police station. After being released from one prison (a good beating having taken place inside), the person is immediately arrested by the next station, and so on each day, until he agrees to submit to Ali. The police stations take the bribe, and people learn not to make trouble with him.
In a drunken rage, his neighbour in Hyderabad once tried to attack Ali with a sword, narrowly missing. Ali had charges pressed against him in Punjab, on the other side of the country, where the neighbour was detained for five months, while his family begged Ali to release him.
Exploiting the country's inefficient bureaucracy and utterly corrupt police force is fine and well, I thought, but how does he establish such high-ranking political connections, those through whom his power ultimately rests, in the first place?
Often enough, he laughed, through the same bluff he used against the local don in Hyderabad. Ali will call up a police superintendant or similar official, telling them that he knows their superiors, even if he does not. He doesn't disclose his intent to them, but merely takes them out for meals, and later on, drinking whisky until 4 am. By about the third or fourth session out, in the midst of their drunkenness, the official will have revealed some dark detail about himself that Ali can later use for leverage when asking favors.
"Illegal property, women, booze, drugs...every man has a weakness," Ali smiled. "And I am very smart at finding a man's weakness."
When chatting inside the hotel, waiting for Pankaj to open his shop, Ali showed me a photo of a young woman he kept on his cell phone.
"You see the mark on her neck?" he asked, unusually sombre for someone extremely convivial with those he meets.
"They used telephone wire to strangle her."
The woman was 19, a young bride who Ali had cared for like an uncle, buying her saris when her single mother could not, even sleeping in the same bed and washing her when she was already 17. Ali had helped to arrange her marriage to a very wealthy family. The bride murder though, was not over a supposedly insufficient dowry amount, as with other cases he has dealt with, but education. He believes the girl had gotten into a fight with her host family over continuing her schooling, and they had beaten her. Shamed and afraid she would complain to outsiders, they decided to murder her, then bribe the police and cover up the investigation, claiming it was a shower accident.
When the girl's mother called Ali after finding out what happened, he gathered 200 people to go to the groom's home. There they lay down on a nearby highway, stopping all traffic, whilst chanting the provocative slogan: "Pakistan! Zindabad!" ("Long Live Pakistan!")
But why chant "Long Live Pakistan?"
"Because if the media comes and senior police find out that there have been some pro-Pakistan protests in this district, the local police will be in serious trouble," he explained.
Having turned the police over to his side, Ali had the bridegroom arrested and the 200-odd crowd stormed the station, beating him. Presently, his family is paying huge sums of bribe money to keep him from imprisonment, and have hired a powerful lawyer (Ali knows him) to represent them. Yet for now, Ali thinks they will try to keep the groom inside for fear of revenge murder. Every 14 days after temporary bail, he sends a group of people to hurl insults at the groom outside court.
Ali took the murder personally, like losing his own daughter, and the rage is subdued but still clear as he retells the story.
"I broke every piece of glass in their house. The windows, the kitchenware, the TV...everything."
And even though he usually doesn't believe in killing, he has discussed the matter with the bride's mother, who has a 14 year-old son. As a minor, if he shot the groom himself, the boy would only be in jail for seven years, particularly given the connections that Ali can pull.
For a man who doesn't read or write Hindi, Ali wields remarkable influence over the handful of cities which he constantly travels to and from. But when I asked whether he preferred his current job to, say, an ordinary white collar profession, he responded immediately.
"If I could choose, I would like a family life like Pankaj's...maybe to own a restaurant. I don't want much from life," he confided.
"But I'm in too far now. If I don't do anything, people call me. If I sit at home, the police will ask for me."
It sounded surreally like a scene from a "Godfather" movie, except shouted over his back through the dusty, crowded streets of Amritsar, whilst he took me to the train station.
Besides, what would the cities that Ali works in be without him?
For me, a traveller who grew up with the chance to live and work in a society that offers opportunities and a system of rule of law that most Indians could never imagine, I find it difficult to consider the sort of brute street justice he metes out desirable. Yet for the hundreds of ordinary people that he has helped, sometimes on commission, but sometimes on donation basis, Ali gets them the dowry sum, the reduced hospital payment sum, the promotion...the small benefits that allow them to get by a little easier in a system where normally only an elite few pull every string.
On my second day in town, Ali took me to visit a former client, who was feeling unwell. Her husband and children treat him like family, and his concern for her, like his concern for Pankaj and many others that I met, went well beyond that of some stereotypical, cold-hearted gangster. I asked him if this empathy for others comes from his Muslim faith (A heavy smoker and drinker, he considers himself a "bad Muslim.")
He shook his head. "I've always had it inside me, ever since I was a child."
"Call me when you get to Delhi," he requested, before leaving me at the station platform. "Otherwise, I'll be worried all evening."
Mohammad and Mike are both keen on emigrating to the West. But where one has a plan, the other is simply hoping for something special.
He studies English in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, which is an independent republic within Uzbekistan. I had just come from Nukus the previous day, having separated from the travelling friends I'd made first in Esfahan in Iran, then bumped into in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and who were also travelling on to Uzbekistan. Nukus is home to the famous Savitsky Art Museum, which houses thousands of paintings by Uzbek and other artists that were considered unfit by critics during the period in Soviet history when only official Stalin-approved Socialist Realism artwork was allowed. I'd gained a quick, fascinating introduction to a land few people have heard of, let alone pronounce. We'd agreed to meet up in Khiva, famous for its slave trade during the mythic days of the Silk Road.
Mohammad makes money as a tour guide there, but had agreed to show us around free of charge to see some lesser known sites, outside the iconic mud-thatch walls that enclose Khiva's old town, from which the European tour groups that flock rarely step out from.
"Some of the old people complain that things were better during the Soviet times, but that's because they are lazy. They expect the government to give them a job," he told us, as we walked towards the Emir's old guest palace.
"Look at that girl over there. All she can do is manual labor, carrying that bucket of water. But I can earn money through my language skills."
As he showed myself and some backpacking buddies around, effortlessly rattling off facts all the while, he begun to quiz us on moving to London. Cost of living, opportunities as a Russian teacher, getting a student visas...in exchange for his insight into local Uzbek life and a free tour of town, Mohammad was learning how to make it to the promised land. A good trade, all in all.
In contrast, Mike, as he had us call him, was less smooth about his intentions. I met him through his friend, Sukhrob, the only local in Bukhara that agreed to meet up with me, a few days after we left Khiva. We went to a bar near Lyabi-Hauz, the peaceful square around a pool in the city's famed old town.
After less than an hour, Sukhrob left suddenly, apparently to take care of some sort of business. When we had first met, I asked Mike what his job was.
"Personal trainer," he'd responded with some hesitation, and Sukhrob had interjected to help him explain he works in people's homes. But soon after, he told us he was a school teacher, and invited us to speak to his class of 14 year-olds tomorrow. My travel partner Caroline and I agreed to go the next morning.
When Stalin carved up the Central Asian states, he handed them national identities where previously only semi-nomadic tribes and loose ethnicities used to exist. In Uzbekistan, Bukhara and Samarkand, two of the most famous cities of the Silk Road period, are majority Tajik speakers. So it was interesting to see how Mike, a native Tajik speaker who considers himself Uzbek, referred to Tajiks from neighboring Tajikistan.
Hungry for a taste of Uzbek club life, I headed out with him, after dropping Caroline back at the hostel. Soon we were walking in the pitch darkness, out from Bukhara's winding, narrow old town streets, away from all the tourist restaurants and handicraft stores and hotels, and into the main political center, that separates old from new Bukhara. The utilitarian Soviet football stadium was on our left, new monuments, celebrating the rule of President Islam Karamov, and stark, rectangular glass government buildings stood on either side of us.
There was hardly another soul out, it was extremely dark, and I was walking towards a club in some posh hotel with a man I hardly knew. At some point, I wondered, will my good faith in strangers I meet online in Russian and Tajik-speaking, post-Soviet Uzbek dictatorships land me in harm's way?
The club felt seedy and desolate, and charged a cover I wasn't willing to pay for both of us. Mike had apparently neglected to bring any money, and on my shoestring budget, I decided it was time to head home.
After giving up his efforts to get me to walk to another club, Mike agreed to accompany me back, and soon the topic shifted to overseas friends. He spoke of two acquaintances that had made it to Australia, and begun to ask about his prospects of finding work there. Not wanting to get his hopes up, as with the many people who ask me to help them go to Australia that I've made on this trip, I told him that they only take skilled workers in particular fields, and that even then, it's very competitive.
"But what about other jobs?" he asked. "Like a construction worker, a car washer...jobs like that?"
Mike claims to have taught himself English alone, which would be quite an achievement given his relative fluidity. He begun to curse the Uzbeks who'd made it to the West for failing to help people such as himself to come over. This in turn led to a more general screed about how the people today are "too wild, rude and selfish."
As we neared the hostel, all I could mutter feebly is "Good luck with your dream," as he referred to it. But he continued to press me on the topic, using the euphemism "selfish people" to imply, well, me. Just as we reached the steps of the hostel, he gave it one last pitch:
"I'm still waiting for some one person to make my dream come true," he continued. "Maybe I can give that person a gift, like some money, and they can write me a letter to go to Australia..."
I looked to him, a young, pimply-faced man, hardly 20, likeable enough and with English skills far superior to most of his peers. He saw in me some golden opportunity he had to push for, and though there are millions of others just like him, just as there are millions of beggars who yearn for your change, I thought for a moment of saying something other than outright refusal.
Something along the lines of: "I can see if I know somebody," or "I'll see what I can do to help."
But instead, I awkwardly spouted: "Well, I'll see you tomorrow morning then," in reference to our earlier agreement to talk to his class.
Caroline and I waited for him the next morning for half an hour, and when Mike didn't show up, neither of us was surprised.
Hossan and Hassan: Smoking in an Empty Club in Tashkent
Where Mohammad and Mike are working on getting there, Hossan and Hassan have already made it. Well, at least out of Uzbekistan, which is no small achievement, given the amount of activity one sees at Tashkent International Airport, the most desolate, emptied airport I have ever seen. There, you cannot even buy goods in the local currency, Som, but must use Euros, Pounds or Dollars.
It is surely a symbol of the country's continuing struggle for national identity, when the national opera house, in staging its traditional Uzbek dancing performance, uses Russian to introduce performers, rather than Uzbek. But later that evening, having attended the performance, a mix of traditional dance with sporting efforts at belly dance, flamenco, samba and pop idol, I met Hossan and Hassan, twin brothers, at Diplomat-S, a club in the heart of Tashkent, Uzbekistan's Russified capital.
It was not quite midnight, and few people had arrived that Halloween evening. Almost all of the tables were reserved, and as the evening wore on, we were shuttled about by bouncers and bartenders telling us the few locations within the club at which we were entitled to stand.
"90 percent of the girls here are prostitutes," Hossan explained, and proceeded to educate me on prices and tastes.
"I don't like Uzbek people," he told me, "even though I am an Uzbek. They just want to f*ck each other all the time, for money...Kazakhs are better. I don't look Uzbek, so if I talk English to them, they think I'm a foreigner."
When I asked what he does, he told me he is a model and an actor. He pulled out an iPhone, and fast-forwarded through a video to show me clips of him punching a bag, talking to girls and other scenes from a film released in 2007 throughout Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. When Hassan came over, he showed me a popular Sprite commercial in which Hassan jumps into a pool.
He spoke of the model girls he slept with while modelling for over a year in Bangkok, of working for Diesel in Dubai, even of a short-lived stint as an English teacher in China, which happens to be my most recent job. Yet I can claim no affiliation with Christian Dior or Brazilian models, as Hossan does, with almost effortless cool.
"Why did you come back to Tashkent?" I asked, if he disliked the place so much.
"To get married," he said, matter-of-factly. At 26, he felt already past the ideal age for Uzbek youth to marry (23 for men, 19-20 for women) and he wanted an Uzbek wife.
"Uzbek wives are better," he went on. "If you marry a Russian or a Korean, they will want more things. But an Uzbek wife will cook and clean for you."
Park, North Korean refugee to Trinidad and Tobago, Coconut Product Seller
I have a penchant for providing biographical details to strangers that are outright false. In high school, I convinced my entire grade that I was moving to Perth, two hours away, and would never see them again. The morning back from holidays, one of my best friends punched me so hard in the arm I struggled to write in class. Different professions, unusual hobbies, the riding of kangaroos to work in Australia...if there's an audience gullible enough to believe it, who am I to deny them a good yarn?
So it was a match made in backpacker heaven when I found out that James, an Englishman I travelled in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, had successfully conned the Chinese into believing he was the drummer in an Eagles' cover band. Why the drummer? So he wouldn't have to sing for curious locals, of course.
In Iran, I found that many people thought I was Afghani, due to the large number of Afghani refugees and immigrants working there. In Uzbekistan, try as I might, people refused to believe that I am from Australia, continuing to tell one another that I am Korean. So, rather than fight it, I decided to become, in a story developed with James, an honorary North Korean.
Over pints in the Blues Cafe, an American-inspired bar in Samarkand, once capital of the legendary Timurid Empire, we hatched our tale. A refugee from North Korea, I had arrived on the shores of Trinidad and Tobago, where James, a native there, was a coconut farmer. We had gone into the coconut industry with a fellow travel partner, a half Sri-Lankan Englishman named David, who we concocted to be our spiritual guru. His sect, an obscure offshoot from Sikhism, replaces the Sikh turban with half a coconut, and we three were currently business prospecting in Uzbekistan.
"What's your name?" asked a friendly Russian at the bar.
"Uhh...Park," I replied after a lengthy pause, having decided on the spot that "Park" worked well in the case that I accidentally spurt my actual name.
The next evening, when James and I were delivering our pseudo-biographies to another bartender, she responded "Korean? Oh, our bartender is Korean too!" The back door swung open and sure enough, out she came, looking vaguely Korean. It was only then that I recalled that Uzbekistan, amongst other Central Asian countries, has a significant numbers of Korean immigrants that had been brought over during Stalin's reign.
My face dropped. The only Korean I know is "Anyang haseo!" and I doubted that would cut muster before a native Korean speaker. The game was up, and I was about to send our merry ship sinking, ever so embarrassingly, to the bottom.
"Speak Chinese!," James whispered frantically, seeing how speechless I had become.
Of course! I am a Chinese-speaking North Korean!
So, after asking if she was Korean in Chinese, the bartender didn't respond. But she wouldn't have known anyway. It turns out, thankfully enough, that she, like many young Koreans who grew up in Central Asia, does not speak Korean, (nor Chinese), but simply Uzbek and Russian. Off the hook! But only narrowly.
In their inability to speak Korean, with Russian names like "Sergey," who was my Korean-Uzbek taxi driver, I felt an abstracted but distinctive solidarity. I too did not speak any Chinese at all before moving back to China in order to learn it, and was quite happy to assimilate into Australian society, much in the same way that Koreans in Central Asia seem to have there.
But next time you're in Uzbekistan, if you're ever hankering for a change of diet, having tired of the plov (pilaf) and shashlyk (lamb kebabs) that form the staple of Central Asian cuisine, you can thank heavens they didn't stop making their own cuisine as you tuck into some delicious kim chi and bi-bim-bap!
And as for Park and his fellow enterprising coconut sellers, they too have been left behind in Uzbekistan.
(Written originally in November, 2008, during travels through Central Asia and India)