In the customs line at Tashkent International Airport, a digital screen positioned above the X-ray machine informs visitors to Uzbekistan of items that are prohibited in the interest of peace and security. Narcotics are first, followed by materials encouraging religious extremism, fundamentalism, or separatism. When I recently visited the Central Asian nation, memorably referred to by pizza magnate and former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain as “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” I was carrying none of the above.
I was, however, slightly concerned that my profession itself might not be on the list of state-approved activities—as suggested, perhaps, by the fact that said state plays host to the world’s two longest imprisoned journalists.
Fortunately, not being Uzbek myself meant I’d be spared the rehabilitative services the government reserves for its in-house opposition. Even among torture-states, Uzbekistan has achieved some impressive levels of brutality. Treatments have ranged from having suspected dissidents boiled to death to freezing them in icy cells to simple “asphyxiation with a gas mask,” as the U.S. State Department noted in 2001, shortly before it appointed Uzbekistan one of its key BFFs in the War on Terror.
But I wasn’t in Uzbekistan for journalistic purposes; I would not be investigating its various unbecoming practices, such as the forced labor in its cotton fields or its forced sterilization of women. Nor, curious as I may have been, did I intend to look into the story of permanent president Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, a Harvard University alumna whose career as a diplomat-cum-pop diva-cum-fashion designer-cum-racketeer has for the moment ended in house arrest.
Instead, my itinerary centered around viewing pretty monuments and drinking cheap vodka, and I didn’t want this disrupted by any official misreading of my intentions. For that reason I had exercised borderline paranoia when applying for my letter of invitation (LOI) from the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in August—a document that would supposedly facilitate my acquisition of an Uzbek visa. Required to provide a letter from my employer as part of the LOI application process, I tasked my mother with fabricating a temporary identity for me as a client services and marketing liaison in the innocuous business of rental property management in Spain. (Having failed to adequately rehearse this exotic new title, I subsequently went with the deer-in-headlights option whenever any Uzbek asked what my job was.) READ MORE AT CURRENT AFFAIRS.