Friday, May 29, 2015

First Afghan Women’s Team to Enter an Ultra Marathon - The 2015 Gobi March

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Nelofar and Zainab train at a Kabul gym
For the first time ever, two Afghan women will take part in a seven-day foot race across the Chinese Gobi desert. This unprecedented sports opportunity for Afghan women was organized by non-profit organization Free to Run in collaboration with Skateistan in Afghanistan.

The Gobi March is part of the 4 Deserts Race Series and consists of a 250 kilometre, 7-day self-supported foot race, or "ultra marathon" taking place in China from 31 May - 6 June 2015. Competitors are required to carry up to 11kgs of supplies on their backs the entire way.

Nelofar and Zainab, two staff members from Skateistan, were selected by Free to Run founder and seasoned ultra marathon runner, Stephanie Case, through a competitive process. Although neither Nelofar nor Zainab has experience in running, Stephanie immediately noticed their remarkable mental strength as well as their desire to act as role models for other Afghan women.

"I think another meaning of sport is peace, so I think if we finish the running in the Gobi March, we will bring a very big change in Afghanistan," explains Zainab. "All the females of Afghanistan will be interested in sports and they can believe it is possible, and they can believe that everything is possible for women of Afghanistan," she says.

In Afghanistan, where female participation in sport is severely restricted due to certain cultural norms and beliefs about the role of women in society, simply finding a place for the women to train and run safely was a logistical Everest.

"Running is so, so difficult here. If you are a girl and you want to run in the street, people think you are crazy and [there] will be lots of risk for you," says Nelofar. "But whenever I start running, I feel that I am free. I feel a different kind of freedom in my heart."

Thanks to the tremendous support from their colleagues at Skateistan, and from Free to Run, it has been possible for the women to train safely at the Skateistan skatepark facility, at local gyms, and through Afghanistan’s beautiful mountain ranges on chaperoned runs.

Free to Run’s team of international mentors, including world-renowned ultra runner Ray Zahab, have provided Nelofar and Zainab with advice, support and encouragement through weekly interactive Skype sessions.

For one year following the race, Nelofar and Zainab will be acting as Free to Run Ambassadors in their community, helping to inspire other women to get involved in sports. "The Gobi March is not just a race", says Stephanie. "It’s a chance for Zainab and Nelofar to prove to everyone what Afghan women are capable of. This is an opportunity to redefine the strict limits that have been imposed on them by society."

RacingThePlanet, a leader in endurance competitions and equipment, is providing Nelofar and Zainab with all of their running equipment for the race. They will receive the highest quality running shoes, clothing, backpacks and other items needed for racing in harsh desert climates.

For this extreme 7-day run through the Chinese desert, Nelofar and Zainab have named their team, Team Asma’i, after a mountain range located outside of Kabul.

What inspiring young women! Uzbek Journeys wishes them a safe and successful marathon.

Related posts: Skateistan - Empowering Afghan Youth Through Skateboarding 
White Silk Road - Snowboarding Afghanistan
Cricket in Afghanistan and Tajikistan 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Samarkand: Hazrat Hyzr, Patron Saint of Travellers

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Suzanna Fatyan
Suzanna Fatyan, one of Uzbekistan's finest tour guides, has contributed several pieces on this website about Samarkand as well as about Uzbek cuisine. In this article she describes the story of the mystical Hazrat Hyzr and his mosque in Samarkand.

Samarkand has always been a place where real events are interlaced with myths and legends, and where historical personalities acquire some traits of fairy tale characters. This is the city where civilizations met and interlaced. By enriching each other, they created a unique mixture.

Ancient cults evolved under the influence of new cultural trends and imbibed the most significant and impressive elements of different traditions, thus bringing together seemingly distant worlds.

One such cult is associated with Hazrat Hyzr, (or Al Khadir), the mystical figure and patron saint of travellers. The Hazrat Hyzr mosque was erected in Samarkand in the 11th century and rebuilt in the 19th century. It is one of the most magical places in Samarkand.

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Hazrat Hyzr mosque, Samarkand. Image: Urs Sieber
Hyrz is believed to have the faculty of reincarnation. You can recognise him only when you shake hands with him because Hyzr has no bone in his right thumb. This legend gave birth to another. Local dwellers think that the custom to shake hands first appeared in Samarkand, then spread all over the world.

The striking personality of Hyzr has attracted the attention of many prominent scholars. V.Bartold, E.Bertels, M. Piotrovsky, and P. Franke wrote about him. The latter dedicated a whole book to Hyzr titled "Begegnungmit Khidr” (Encountering Khidr)", based on Arabic, Persian and Turkic sources. Articles about Hyzr are included in Islamic encyclopedias in different countries.

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17th century Mughul painting of Hazrat Hyzr
According to legend, Hazrat Hyzr was a righteous person. Alongside Isa (Jesus), Idris (Enoch) and Ilyas (Elijah), he was one of the first men granted immortality and revelation. Hyzr is described as the spiritual guide of many prophets and his mission on earth is to inspire faith and hope in all people.

Different versions feature Hyzr either as a real person, as a mythological personage, or as a mystic entity endowed with great spiritual strength and real power. Each of his hypostases is reflected in such literary works as Gilgamesh, Shahnameh, the Alexander Romance (about the mythical exploits of Alexander the Great) and also theological treaties and hadiths, the sayings of the prophet Mohammed.

The image of Hyzr looks quite mystical in the hadiths: he is three cubits taller than a man of medium height; his footprint is one cubit long. He emits radiance and communicates with prophets; he sits at a green dining table laid by angels. In Central Asia, particularly in Samarkand, Hyzr is a pious old man, with no aureole of mysticism. If you wish to please him, you should treat him with the hospitality so characteristic to Uzbek people.

In mythology, the world is divided into two parts: the visible and spiritual worlds. Hyzr is believed to exist in both worlds. According to legend, he lives on the islands, flies in the air, travels around the world, makes hajjes, and says his prayers in the mosques of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem on Fridays.

The name of Hyzr is not mentioned in the Koran, but Muslim scholars identify Hyzr with "the Servant of Allah", the personage of the Koranic parable of Moses’ travels (Surah 18, The Cave 60-82). That Surah states that Moses and Hyzr met at the junction of two seas, and they set out together. During the trip, Hyzr did some strange and inexplicable things that angered Moses. They boarded a ship and Hyzr made a hole in it; he restored a decrepit wall in the village where they were denied hospitality.

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Inner dome of mosque. Image courtesy Sonya and Travis
Very soon it appeared that each of his acts was well-intentioned. Only he who is gifted with the ability of prophecy, can take the liberty of doing so. Thanks to Hyzr’s acts, the boat was not confiscated and remained in the hands of its owners. Hyzr knew that there was treasure underneath the wall and that over time, the wall would collapse again. When that happened the children of the righteous family would be mature enough to take the treasure and save themselves from death.

Like discourse and acts of most of the Biblical and Koranic personages, those of Hyzr claim no understanding but absolute faith.

People’s belief that Hyzr keeps working miracles is still alive. For example, it is now widely acknowledged that Hyzr saved the lives of 35 bus passengers in Turkey in 1968. The saint detained the bus, because he knew that the driver would die of a heart attack after a few minutes. A good many similar stories have been told. As a rule, their plots unfold in the presence of a great number of people. That is why Hyzr  is often spoken about.

The holy Hyzr is sometimes compared with St. George the Victorious, Elijah, Gilgamesh and Ahasuerus. The connection with the first three personages is based on their general aspiration to attain immortality.

An affinity between Ahasuerus and Hyzr stems from their predestination to be the eternal wanderer. However, there is an essential distinction between them: Ahasuerus was punished for his callousness and denial of giving water to Jesus Christ on the way to his Crucifixion.

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Pastel minaret, Image courtesy Sonya and Travis
Hyzr is endowed with wonderful strength and great power. He is capable of finding the fountain of the Water of Life to share it with people. He is allowed to present “loaves and fishes” to persons he meets. Hyzr is believed to have discovered the fountain of the Water of Life for Kussam-ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad, who is buried in Samarkand's necropolis Shah-i-Zindar.

The Muslim interpretation of Hyzr presents a striking example of how the Islamic culture managed not only to preserve ancient mythological characters but also to recast them.

In the Muslim tradition, the personage accumulates the traits of various mythological heroes, both of pre-Islamic Middle East and Slavic paganism. Some Turkic nations blended the names of two saints - Hyzr and Ilyas. That is how the spring festival Khidirles appeared.

The name of Hyzr is also connected with the vegetable world. He is interpreted as a deity of rivers and wells in some countries; in others, he personifies the plant life bestowed by water.
In Muslim countries there are shrines to Hyzr which incorporate vestiges of pre-Islamic worship of fertility deities.

According to legend, grass appears at every place where Hyzr sits or steps. The shrines of Hyzr are integral to oriental civilization. Many people believe Hyzr accompanied the Twelfth Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi to Jamkaran, in Iran. In Samandag, Turkey, you can see a sacred stone erected on the site of the meeting of Hyzr and Moses. Hyzr mazars can be found in Sri-Lanka, Kuwait, Syria, and Jerusalem.

After visiting Turkey in 1929, F.W. Hasluck, a British scholar, described Hidirlik Hill in his book Christianity and Islam under Sultans. The hill was named after Hyzr.  Husluck also mentioned many domed structures constructed at the sites where the saint appeared to human eyes.

I hope this article inspires you to visit the mosque of Hyzr in Samarkand. If you visit the mosque regularly and if you do good deeds, your hope to meet the saint may come true one day.

Be kind to strangers, stop and show attention to them, treat them with respect as your dearest friends. Your action will make the world better, and if you are lucky and your stranger turns out to be the saint, your trip will be easy and successful, and your life will be filled with meaning and joy.

Suzanna's article first appeared in the winter 2014 Uzbek Airways inflight magazine. Suzanna and Uzbek Journeys gratefully appreciate its permission to republish the article on this website.

Contact Suzanna via email:              

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Related posts:  Samarkand's Magic Carpets
Strolling Through Samarkand in 1930
Samarkand's Musical Traditions
The Ancient Site of Afrosiab, Samarkand
Living Shrines of Uyghur China 

Hazrat Hyzr  mosque by night. Image: Suzanna Fatyan



Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Uzbek Jazz is Alive and Well in Tashkent

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Jazzirama performs at the Ilkhom Theatre
Tashkent's month-long International Jazz Festival wraps up on 8 May. This article provides a brief overview of the festival followed by information about how Uzbek musicians are fusing traditional music with jazz to create their own unique sound.

Festival Overview

In 2011 UNESCO designated 30 April as International Jazz Day to highlight the role jazz plays in uniting people all over the world. International Jazz Day brings together communities, schools, artists, historians, academics, and music fans all over the world to celebrate and learn about jazz.

Supported by the US, French, Latvian and Indian embassies, as well as Tashkent's Ilkhom Theatre and UNESCO,  the festival included concerts by Uzbek and international musicians, master classes and jam sessions.

New York's Ari Roland Jazz Quartet is inspired by jazz from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. The quartet visited Uzbekistan in 2009. This year the quartet held master classes and collaborative creative sessions at the State Conservatory of Uzbekistan as well as the Tashkent Pop and Circus College.

India's Sitar Fusion group is led by Pandit Prateek Chaudhuri, considered one of the most outstanding sitar players in India today. The group's performance blended classical Indian tradition on sitar plus percussion drums and keyboard.

Pierre de Bethmann is a professor at the Paris Conservatory and laureate and winner of many musical prizes and awards such as Victoire du Jazz 2008 - French instrumental album of the year and the Django Reinhardt Prize 2004. His program included a solo performance, a joint concert with the State Conservatory of Uzbekistan and master classes.

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Poster for master class with Pierre de Bethmann
Latvian group Xylem TRIO combined piano, saxophone and marimba/ percussion in a wide-ranging, exciting program.

The festival provided outstanding collaborative opportunities for Uzbek and foreign musicians. And for fans, free entry to many of the concerts, provided an opportunity to hear great jazz.

Uzbek Jazz


According to an article Jazz with a Touch of Pilaf by Dengiz Uralov, "The seeds of jazz were planted in Uzbekistan in the 1950s and 1960s via American radio and vinyl records. They continued to grow despite Soviet-era bans and persecution, the emigration of musicians during perestroika, and a widespread ignorance of the form in contemporary Uzbekistan".

Uzbekistan's State Jazz Orchestra was formed in 1995 - all the musicians are graduates of the Uzbek State Conservatory of Music. It's a "big band" sound: the repertoire includes jazz pieces by composers such as George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, as well as works of popular Uzbek composers such as Ikram Akbarov, and Dilorom Omonullaeva.

Jazzirama is one of the most exciting groups in Tashkent today.  Founded in 2011 by pianist Sanjar Nafikov and saxophonist Saidmurat Muratov,  the idea unifying the young musicians was the promotion of Uzbek folk music, its fusion with jazz, progressive rock and other modern styles.

Jazzirama took the Central Asian music scene by storm at their debut in the international jazz festival "Jazz Bishkek Spring" in 2011. The group was awarded the Grand Prix for the best performance in the ethno-jazz category.

German composer Moritz Gagern noted "The colors of Uzbek traditional music, instruments, and singing uniquely melts into this language just as the architecture of an old mosque melts into a busy intersection with cars, Soviet-style buildings, and unfinished skyscrapers somewhere in Tashkent. And the level of musicianship is very high..."

Listen to Jazzirama's unique sound.

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Choyxana jam with the Ari Roland Jazz Quartet
Another dynamic band is Choyxnoa Jazz, headed up by saxophonist Igor Ten. Still students at the Conseravotium of Music these young guys play to sell-out concerts in venues such as Tashkent's Ilkhom Theatre.

As well as guitar, saxophone, drums and keyboard, band members play traditional instruments such as duduk, oud and sato. Choyxona Jazz sessions were also highlights of the festival.

Where to Hear Jazz in Tashkent?

The Ilkhom Theatre hosts a monthly Jazz Club - tickets sell fast. For details about those concerts as well as jazz at the State Conseravotium of Music please refer the post "What's On in Tashkent". And music lovers all over the country hope that the festival will become a regular event in Tashkent's calendar.

Related posts: Duke Ellington's Kabul Gig 1963
Samarkand Sharq Taronalari Music Festival 25 - 30 August 2011
Samarkand's Musical Traditions
Uzbek Divas: Capturing the Poetic Traditions of Central Asia 
Kazakhstan's Beatlemania