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Samanid Masusoleum, Bukhara. From Uzbekistan Travel Notes

Bukhara blues
Layers of history one on top of another

By Shahriar Zahedi
August 25, 1999
The Iranian

His name is Mahdi Ibodov. To us, he could be Mehdi Ebadzadeh, or Ebadpoor. Who knows what would have been?

His face, darkened and weathered by the intense rays of the steppe sun, is an amalgam of racial features; Turkman, Iranian, Hindu, Greek, Uzbek, Tajik, Maybe even the Arab has contributed to his make up. This is how people are in this part of the world. Layers of history are deposited one on top of another, each group dominating and at the same time embracing the one that came before it.

There are no fine lines separating the many peoples that roamed the steppe at one time or another. All those nomads, all those who settled, and all those who couldn't make up their minds, and still can't. They're all here, all present. At times, this can be an eerie place.

This is Bukhara, in Uzbekistan. It is an oasis in the middle of a valley of the ZarafshAn River, and on the old Silk Road. One of the two cities that Hafez so generously offered to give away in return for the affection of his beloved Turk. Yes. Bukhara. The birthplace of my mother tongue. The cradle of Iranian culture.

But where is everybody? Where is the sound of Farsi speech? Where have they all gone?

Mahdi is a singer, a performer who does gigs at weddings, or toi, as they call them. Mahdi claims Iranian descent and as such is a member of an underclass in Bukhara society. A second class citizen among the Uzbeks. He is a Mavrijikhon, literally, singer of Mavriji.

In the old days, the Turkman tribesmen regularly raided the travelling caravans inside Iran. They'd mostly attack the pilgrims-on their way to Mashhad - and steal their property. They'd also take hostages back to Turkman Sahra. Young girls and boys were specially sought after and they'd be the first ones to be taken.

Once the agile Turkmans departed with their loot, the families of the hostages would have had to go through a great deal of trouble arranging to pay ransom money through intermediaries to gain their release. For the unlucky few who were never claimed, the next destination would be the city of Marv.

Marv, in northeast Khorasan (of those days), was for a long time the cultural center of the region. It also boasted the most prosperous slave markets in the area. Slaves from all over were displayed at its markets. On a good day, you could find a fair Gorji girl, a strong African laborer, and everything in between, at reasonable prices.

The unclaimed Iranian hostages too, would end up in the Marv slave markets and be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Some would be bought by Uzbeks and find their way to Bukhara.

Over time, some of these Iranian slaves in Bukhara, lamenting for their lost homeland, started singing out about their misfortune. A singing style unique to these slaves was hence developed and was called gharibi. This would be the Central Asian equivalent of Soul music, or we can even call it the Bukhara Blues.

The Gharibi style, originating from Marv slave markets, is better known by the locals as Mavriji (Literally, from Mavr). Mavr being a corruption of Marv, which is hard for the Turkic speakers to pronounce. (The city has since been renamed Mary by Turkman officials.)

Mahdi is a Mavrijikhon. His songs are mostly in Farsi. He does throw in a few Turkish verses here and there to keep his customers happy but the language of his soul is still Farsi . His lyrics deal with the usual stuff of exile, of bondage, and of his utter lack of luck in the affairs of both the material and the emotional realms.

amAn, amAn, az in tAle'ee keh man dAram
Cho zar dast giram khAk gardad, amAn amAn

And so it goes.

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