Letter from Tashkent

Christopher Merrill’s essay in the May/June 2013 issue of Orion, “The New Face of War,” written largely from the author’s frequent travels to an increasingly thirsty Middle East, depicts the change coming to how we fight and what we fight over. On June 18, join Christopher and guests for a live call-in discussion about the future of war—learn more and register here.

The vice rector, studying the writers’ biographies compiled by the embassy and translated into Uzbek, cut off a student’s question to our panel and turned to me.

“What is your interest in water?” he said.

Our session on contemporary American literature, at the National University in Tashkent, had taken an unexpected turn. My fellow writers looked at me. A line from Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater—“It was a year of brilliant water”—had furnished the epigraph and title for a collection of my poems, Brilliant Water, which had nothing to do with the issue the vice rector wanted me to address: the shrinking Aral Sea, which lies between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

I began with a story: how in my childhood a hurricane, making landfall on the south shore of Long Island, had swept my family’s house out to sea, sparing only my bedroom—a fact that once inspired Richard Nelson to observe that Native American elders would interpret this to mean that I was destined to witness great chaos from the safety of my bedroom.

“Great chaos within his bedroom!” replied a friend.

This drew laughter from the students in Tashkent. Likewise my decision to pour a glass of water from a plastic bottle set before the microphone. What the hurricane impressed upon me, I explained, was the power of nature to upend our lives—a recurring theme in my work.

This was familiar terrain for my audience. The desertification of what was formerly the world’s fourth largest inland sea continues apace, though the prevailing wisdom is that the Soviet Union is to blame for the environmental disaster. Indeed the draining of the sea to irrigate cotton fields—Uzbekistan’s “white gold”—dates from the Soviet era. In the last forty years, the sea has lost half its surface area and split in two; its fishing industry has collapsed; overuse of pesticides has poisoned the surrounding land. But Uzbek authorities promote its cotton industry with the same zeal as their former masters. With an expanding population the prospects for restoring the sea are dim.

But all I said was that I understood the difficulty of solving the issue. Then I refilled my glass and raised it in a toast to the vice rector.

“Cheers,” I said.

Christopher Merrill is the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. The author of many books of nonfiction and poetry, his latest book, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, chronicles his travels in Asia and the Middle East in the wake of the war on terror. Read more of his writing at University of Iowa’s WhitmanWeb.


  1. Perhaps the most telling comment I heard during the years I worked in Kazakhstan was from a farmer by the Aral Sea. I had been sent by a major international aid organization to explore possible “income generating opportunities” for the regions remaining residents.

    “For years foreigners have come here to help,” the farmer said. “They take pictures. They write reports. They make movies. They write songs. What have they done? Nothing.”

    In fact, a major survey of “stakeholders” revealed that their top priority was to leave the Aral Sea area. That priority was entirely ignored when in the late 90s aid organizations met with local representatives to discuss what to do.

    However, the lavishly paid foreign experts did patronize a local consortium of Central Asian public officials to discuss the issues.

    Bottom line: the Aral Sea disaster is an excellent example of central planning, government and “experts” ignoring the wisdom of local people. On-going crises mean on-going salaries for the experts and the bureaucrats.

    And let us be humble enough to admit that it also provides on-going stories for magazines and film makers.

  2. Ahmad taroqchi mn sizga qgrihsliaim yoq umuman xech kimga qgrihsliaim yoq hamma uzbek xar xil uzlarida tashvishlari etarli!!!Ammo Solih akangizni tanqid qililishimni sababi shundan iboratki Bir usha Solih akangiz oinaga qarab uzini basharasini kurib turib,qani qancha yaxshi ish qildim,qancha yomon ish qildim deb hammasini miyasidan bir qator sanab kursin,lekin oinaga qarab kuz yumasdan bir uylab kursinchi?yaxshiliklari kup bulganmi yoki yomonliklari buni uzlari ham juda yaxshi tushunib oladi?ammo 100 yaxshliki bir yomonlikini joyini oladi shuni ham xisobga olsin!!!quysin endi uzbek xalqi uzlari asta sekin yulini topib ketsin qachongacha Solih akangizni tavoqshurva saytlari va sarguzashtlari deb uzbek xalqi bir ishni dadil qila olmaydigon bulib yursin?Joyni bushatib Abutovga berdim desa ham mayli edi? ammo Abutovni ham uyinchoq qilib saytiga baylab quyganini kurib turibmiz…tanqidim qalampirday achiq uzr ammo lekin…

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