The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

It's good to know Farsi and travel around Central Asia. People in a large belt of countries extending all the way to Afghanistan speak variants of the language, and if one can't get by with Farsi, why, Russian always helps. Our man Daniel Metcalfe is a traveller with a purpose and with the requisite skills, and it's no wonder that his book Out of Steppe has the makings of an excellent account of little-known people.

Little-known to the West, of course. The people in these lands are all quite aware of each other, having traded and intermarried amongst themselves for centuries. They share not only language but also culture. But the six nations that Metcalfe wants to seek out are islands of separateness even in this world. All of them find life a struggle in every way.

Metcalfe meets the Karakalpaks who live near the decimated Aral Sea. Once famous fishermen, they have been reduced to diseased subsistence by the utter environmental disaster that has befallen their land. They see no future for themselves. The Germans of Kazakhstan, forcibly settled there by Stalin, are the remnants of a proud people who had settled in Russia under the favour of Catherine the Great. They now find themselves isolated amongst the drug and alcohol-riven communities that surround them, neither fish nor fowl, neither true Germans nor yet Russians. Bukharan Jews are next on Metcalfe's agenda. Here another sort of disaster is going on - as the local Jews die out, the diaspora comes in touristily, and find that all the gems of Jewish architecture are slowly rotting away, and the Uzbeks who own the properties now are more interested in presenting a Disneyfied concoction to the visitors, thereby exacerbating the cultural vandalism. The few Jews that dwell in Bukhara are insular, and it's only by pretending to be Jewish himself that he manages to insinuate himself into their lives.

The remaining three cultures are somewhat of an afterthought, I felt. The Sogdians of Turkmenistan and the Hazaras of Bamiyan are dealt with in pedestrian fashion, and the Kalashas of the Hindu Kush are probably treated better in other books (such as Alice Albinia's Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River). Metcalfe can be commended for his zeal here, but the early parts of the book are much better.

Overall, an uneven tome with both high and low points.


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