Archive for the ‘barometz’ Tag

COTTON-EYED JOE AND THE VEGETABLE LAMB OF TARTARY   Leave a comment

 

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There is only one story (with two diametrically-opposed perspectives) to come out of and about Uzbekistan in September and early October – cotton. While the local press can literally re-publish last year’s or even last century’s paeans to the ennobling efforts of the Uzbek pakhtakor (cotton farmer) and the community spirit which sees the young and the old drop rattles and walking sticks and march patriotically-inebriated to the tune of the harvest-master’s bugle, Western human rights organisations retell an old gulag narrative with crypto-feudal barbarity represented by incumbent despot, the weak-chinned hard man Islam Karimov.

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Stalin Tractor

Cotton-Eyed Joe always at the forefront of Soviet cultivation efforts in Central Asia.

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The 2015 harvest gave us the by now sadly predictable reports of patriotic corvée with tragic absurdities. Farmers in the village of Shaharteppa were forced to glue the cotton back onto empty stalks for the visit of Uzbek Prime Minister  Shavkat Mirziyaev, who, like his president, expects to see (and be seen with) a blinding sea of white gold on his triumphant journey through the vibrantly blossoming land of his subjects. That the vizier’s cavalcade was two weeks late and the cotton already harvested would thus be no impediment. Nature, after all, is there to be bent to man’s will, and men and women to the great leader’s. But what is constructed fast and without foresight inevitably engenders consequences unpredictable and difficult to remedy. The building of the Great Fergana Canal in 1939 took forty-five days and over 160,000 volunteers with little mechanization to construct.  The photos and film of this exalted people’s project once provided a poignant propaganda; now they stand as a sad testament to the tragedy of despotic arrogance. Later, Stalin’s so called Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature which dared to further tame the steppe with canals and shelterbelts, to make fecund what once was barren, to inseminate the desert with Communist zeal, indeed contributed to Uzbekistan, on the very eve of Communism’s collapse, becoming the world’s largest exporter of cotton. Unfortunately, the syphoning of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers through a sieve-like canal network would make even the notion of sacrificing the Aral Sea for the well-being of man redundant. Last year, in the Olotsky and Karakulsky regions of Bukhara, women accused of prostitution were forcibly rounded up and sent to work the cotton fields to expiate their moral deficiencies. In the Alat district of Bukhara, women who weren’t accused of prostitution were told they would be if they didn’t get with the programme. In Gallaorol, the local headman ordered the arrest and two-day detention of Yusuf Esirgetov, chief doctor of the district hospital, for not fulfilling the cotton harvest quota assigned to the hospital. Dr. Esirgapov died of a heart attack several days after his release. That was his own fault of course. If the good doctor had applied more vigour in ordering his staff and patients (the fulfilment of national duty is an elixir stronger than antibiotics) to the fields, he would not have wound up in such an embarrassing pickle. That very logic is why ‘pass-the-persecution’ is a very Uzbek game. That is why school administrators threaten their staff with redundancy, why film studios threaten their actors with black-listing, professors threaten their students with bad grades, and ministers glower at their deputies with scowls pregnant with unspoken threats.

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As former Comrade No.1 Mr Karimov sealed his grip on the reins of power when the newly-independent and nominally democratic Republic of Uzbekistan morphed out of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, tales of forced labour and child exploitation in the Fergana Valley’s cotton fields came to provide a seasonal rebuke to Uzbek authorities in the western press and the halls of the International Labour Organization, whose conventions Uzbekistan has ratified with all the sincerity of a fox at a poultry convention. But propaganda is as much self-inebriating as truth-manipulating. There may even be a sterling kernel of truth to the one economic argument for official persecution which radiates beyond the cotton fantasia of Uzbek patriotism. When state representatives raise an o-so-faux, scrupulously-inclined eyebrow at hypocritical capitalist double standards, chime they may, with a nonchalance the world’s other great garmentocracies would blush to enunciate, that if you don’t like your very reasonably priced shirts and bloomers stitched by impoverished, calloused childish hands from clothe woven and dyed by famished, forgotten fingers, and spun from cotton picked and washed by those who do not have a choice, don’t buy them. Well bless my cotton socks!

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Perhaps there is no surprise that a country which was once pulled like a rabbit from a hat by a Politbiuro-initiated plan for the national demarcation of Central Asia’s borders and exogenously ‘indigenized’ should suffer from cognitive dissonance down the line.  State-building has always demanded an adept degree of myth management and archetype juggling. The socio-economic raison d’être not to mention the socio-mythic contents of the project called Uzbekistan, from its fey fairy-tale inception in 1929, has a long-standing, almost mystical relationship with the miracle plant whose usefulness inspired wonder and gave free rein to fantastic imaginings going right back to the Middle Ages.

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The vegetable lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

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Gossypium, as the cotton plant is known to botanists, has played a significant role in world trade since the industrial revolution and may even provide evidence of pre-Columbine trans-continental migrations which preceded trade routes. Its usefulness is attested by its manifold applications: it can and has been found in some shape or form in the textile, food, automobile and paper industries as well as proving a vital component in many military and medical applications.  Related to hibiscus, okra and mallow, it was used by the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and North and South Americans. It has been lauded as the pillar of economies by farm managers and politicians and lamented as a tool of enslavement by the millions of workers which this labour and land-intensive crop traditionally demanded.

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Cotton’s influence on human history is evident in the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic evocations that this plant has inspired. James Hammond, a South Carolina Democratic senator, in his infamous defence of slavery as ‘the very mud-sill of society and of political government,’ gave pre-eminence to cotton as the life-blood of the American South, ‘the well-spring of wealth, stability and security, in short – King Cotton’. In medieval Europe, when cotton, even more than silk, was a coveted luxury, travellers such as Sir John Mandeville brought back tales from the east of the mysterious Lycopodium barometz, half-animal and half-cotton. Said to be a ‘plant whose shape is that of a lamb bearing a golden fleece’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote of it as the ‘vegetable Lamb of Tartary’. So vital  was its role in local economies that Marco Polo, in describing the provinces and kingdoms of Central Asia, frequently uses cotton as an indicator of assessing the ‘means of life’.

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The Uzbek SSR’s flag, anthem, slogans, propaganda, politics and pageantry revolved like a centrifugal cotton ball at the reactor core of Soviet semiotics. It’s impossible to read any literature about the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, that jewel of the Jaxtartes, without having to consume an earnest encomium to this noble plant and the Marxian midwives of her fecundity in the once-parched lands east of the now-parched Aral Sea. In 1991, incumbent Uzbek leader Islam Karimov merely replaced one inscrutable state despotic symbol with another. Lenin might have had to cede his plinth to rape-and-pillage merchant Tamerlane but the cotton show continued to flourish, both as Uzbekistan’s chief economic export and, conveniently for the independent nation’s new president, a ready-made system of political docility and economic enslavement. Small farmers receive credits for cotton cultivation which they must pay back with their harvest. The state has the power to set the cotton price it buys at, which, naturally, results in the indebtedness of the farmer. Lenin may even now be boiling in his embalming fluids at this profoundly un-Soviet exploitation of the peasants.

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In Uzbekistan, the cotton harvest is still touted as an annual ur-festival of community and camaraderie, as pure and fresh as a Komsomol picnic. Its flamboyant supernatural position within the state propaganda has ensured that it became the principle cypher for all that is excessive and unnatural about Uzbekistan outside the state.  (Imagine the US State of Wisconsin forced its citizens to fulfil their cheese destiny.) Of all the many injustices of ‘democratic’ Uzbekistan, from torture, terror, and arbitrary state theft, deciphering and demystifying the sorcery of cotton propaganda fills more column inches than any other.

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When September rolls around again the same old stories of forced labour and child abuse will doubtlessly appear in the international and opposition press. And so too shall Uzbekistan’s government-controlled media emit jolly refrains about that all is joyous and ennobling in the cotton fields. How quaint, how community-spirited, how Soviet! In effect, the official position has not changed since 1929, though the barometer of state violence may read stormy or fair. I will leave the final word to a 1976 issue of the old Soviet newspaper covering all things industrial and true, Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya (whose banner reproduces an appeal from the Central Committee of the Communist Party to workers to ‘tirelessly struggle to increase productivity of labour, efficiency in production, and quality of labour in the name of the further growth of the socialist economy – being the building blocks of the Motherland’s greatness and the steady rise in the people’s prosperity.’) Amid predictable reports about miraculous growth in the Soviet economy and spiralling downturns in the doomed enterprises of the western capitalist states, the sports section presents an up-date on the USSR cycling championship, which was at that moment hurtling its way through Central Asia.

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“All along the race route the cyclists encounter slogans in Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Russian: “Everyone to the cotton harvest!” The harvest season for ‘white gold’ is in full swing. During their rest day the race participants have decided to add their own efforts to the harvest work.

With large sacks in their hands, the riders, judges, and accredited journalists spread out through the field of Andizhan’s “Kommuna” collective farm. Many are carrying hard cotton boxes in their arms for the first time. Naturally, victory in this additional ‘cotton stage’ of the tour by a significant margin was clinched by a member of the Uzbek team, master of sport A. Yudin.

Rest day over, and once again the busy task of the long-distance race gets under way. The trainers and team managers make their notes and work out their strategies for the second half of the race…”

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What is a myth but a tale, a concoction, a lie told so often it becomes a liturgy. The wheels turn, recycling threadbare notions of false grandeur, pedalling an imaginary bicycle off a very real cliff. Plus ça change…

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