Ricardo: My Second Story of Samarkand
By: Dr. Haideh Salehi-Esfahani
Ricardo called me at the main office of the economics department at Samarkand State University, in the morning of a beautiful day in May 1996. He is an Iranian-Armenian man who I was told had lived with his family in Samarkand for more than 35 years. Our mutual contact was an American Christian missionary-- among a small community of English speaking ex-patriates in that city--who via email, had helped me with information about the country and the city of Samarkand before I left the U.S. for Uzbekistan on a Fulbright teaching scholarship.
Ricardo spoke perfect Farsi, as if he had never left Iran. He sounded warm, kind, and very excited to meet me as I was contemplating renting a part of his house for the last six weeks of my stay in the country. He was on his way to pick me up and show me the separate apartment in his house. Half an hour later, as I stood on the sidewalk of the wide, tree lined boulevard by the institute, an old Russian car pulled up and Ricardo stepped out. A well-built man in his early or late fifties, he greeted me with much warmth and a few compliments right off at the start, and I noticed he had an "interested" look in his eyes. As I sat in his car, speaking to the first Iranian I had met in Samarkand, I had a mix of feelings, dominated by a sense of uneasiness about his general over zealous disposition towards me. Since Stewart, the conservative Christian missionary had sung his praise in my ears so often and had mentioned Ricardo as his good friend, I felt confused about making my mind up. Did I want to stay at this man's house? I knew I wanted to get out of the closely shared living quarters with my Russian host, Anna. She had resumed the role of a protective mother to me and staying with her felt a bit suffocating. I badly wanted a larger space and perhaps a separate part of a house to myself for the rest of my stay there. Stewart had mentioned that Ricardo's house had a separate unit with a separate door and all and I'd be on my own and comfortable there. On top of it all, having been in Samarkand for a couple of months already, I was accustomed to the behavior of some of the men--Russian or Uzbek. And for the first meeting, Ricardo's behavior, or the part of it that I termed the "sleaze factor", was no worse than the average of the small sample of men I had encountered.
It comforted me to see Marian, his wife-tall and graceful, with a gentle gaze. His son, daughter in-law, and their little daughter were there too; they all lived in the top floor of his house. I felt safe in their presence. The house was a lovely old style home with a shared yard on the other side of which another elderly Armenian couple--one of Ricardo's cousins and her husband-- lived. The bathrooms and the shower were yet located in another corner. There was a huge walnut tree near the entrance and a lovely pond with roses and geraniums planted around it. It reminded me of my old granny's house in Iran. My place to be was the ground floor of Ricardo's house, a space of three rooms, empty, spacious, and cool enough to enjoy in the heat of the upcoming summer.
I agreed to rent it--all the while feeling, in my guts, the uneasiness of being in close proximity to this overzealously friendly man. I told myself that I donāt have to see him or them too often as the door of my side of the house was right near the entrance and behind the walnut tree, out of the direct sight of the family. They would only know I was there when I went to the bathroom!
I moved in the next day and Ricardo received me at the door. As I entered the second and largest room of the apartment to leave my suitcase on the floor, I noticed a large hand painted and cut American eagle figure on the wall. Just as quickly Ricardo made the proud announcement that the eagle was his work. It had been there through all the years of socialism, cold war, and the police state of the former Soviet Union. If someone had seen and reported it to the authorities, Ricardo would been incarcerated. "I love America. I have loved it and its ideal of freedom for all the times that I have lived here", he said. He had hated the Soviet system, its sad, entangled, and repressive environment and had refused to become a party member, ever. So he was not given a job by the state and he made his living through private teaching of English in his house. As I put down my suitcase, I gathered he had quite a life story to tell, and, he was not going to give me a choice over when to hear it.
The next day afternoon, as I walked from the institute to the house and opened the main entrance of the house quietly--so he or his family would not hear me--Ricardo was already standing by and waiting for me to go over and say hello and eat with the family and hear his stories.
We sat on chairs next to the pond and the flowers. He spoke both Farsi and fairly good English. He said he had learned English in high school in Tehran, and, in a language class after school. No one else in his family spoke anything I could understand; they all spoke Russian and Armenian, but no English or Farsi. I was only able to communicate with Ricardo and he appointed himself as my official translator for the matters of communication around the house and the neighborhood.
His life story came rushing out. He was the younger son in a large extended family, all expelled from Armenia by Stalin's regime after Ricardo's father was arrested and detained for anti-revolutionary beliefs or activities in the late 1930s. As the father stayed behind in detention, the family was given refuge by the Iranian government in Tehran. They arrived there in 1939, when Ricardo was three years old. They joined the community of Armenians in Tehran and began building their lives there. Ricardo went to school and high school in Tehran and would then work for a while as a shoemaker. During this time, all the family could do for his dad was to worry and pray for him. They had no information about his whereabouts, or even if he was still alive.
In 1960, they were informed that their father was alive and free and was in Uzbekistan. They all left Iran that year for Samarkand. They reunited with a sick, much hurt old man. He told them the account of his hard, torturous life in a prison in Siberia, where many more dissidents of the Soviet regime had done time. Ricardo's father died three months after the reunion with his family, leaving them all with intense hatred for the regime. That was also the time when Ricardo met Marian, fell in love and decided to marry her and settle in Samarkand. His wife was a school teacher for many years. Now, she was retired and seemed to enjoy her freedom from work immensely, busing herself with much cooking and playing with her grand daughter in the yard.
But Ricardo would tell me again and again, in our many talks by the pond, that the best part of his life was living in Iran. His fond memories of the neighborhood they lived in, and the country that had accepted him poured out every time he reminisced about his youth. And, each time he declared he liked me so much because I represented his two beloved countries: Iran and America! Then he usually would proceed to put his arms around my shoulder, hold me and pronounce that he loved me like a daughter he never had. Everyone in the house knew that the "daughter" pronouncements were just a ploy! His wife--whom I felt for and kept trying to communicate with--was or seemed quiet and good-natured about these scenes. I would normally free myself from his grip and would go back to my own apartment and wonder how to best respond to the situation. It was a difficult situation as my general approach was to not alienate or dishonor anyone there-including Ricardo. My simple responses such as removing his arm, or, letting him know that I did not need his company for going to the bazaar (he usually offered to come along) were apparently not strong enough to get him to stop. My earlier upbringing in Iran had not prepared me well to deal with too much kindness of the wrong type! During the times that I grew up there, personal spaces of women and men did not exist or were easily violated. It seemed to be part of the culture. My experience in the U.S. also did not help me deal adequately with the situation I was in with my host. In fact, the basic respect for individual space of one's friends did not bring up circumstances like this one in the U.S. and I had begun to forget what a dual condition of protection and control feels like.
There was a bit of culture clash going on, too. This was especially true as it pertained to behavior towards foreign women in that part of the world. The two women Peace Corps volunteers I met in Samarkand were always complaining about how the men of their host families tried to violate their personal space all the time. One would even come by occasionally at night, knock on the door and ask if he could have sex with the woman staying in his house!
My best response to the complexity of this situation was to simply say no to any unwanted advances and I seemed to have to deal with the same situation anew again the next time. It felt exhausting. I would normally just comfort myself by remembering that I was there only for a few more weeks, and part of the time I was scheduled to travel out of Samarkand, so I would think it would all be over peacefully soon.
My days following the first were spent dodging Ricardo rather unsuccessfully. At times I asserted that I had work to do and wanted to stay in my own place by myself. A few minutes later, I would hear myself promising to go over for a tea with the family later on. He was relentless in his pursuit of my company. To keep him from making me feel totally uncomfortable, I would keep the subject of our conversations on benign, non-personal issues, certainly away from Iranian-Americans, or anything that brought him back to how much he loved me, though like a daughter!
One weekend morning, Ricardo came by my apartment in his usual friendly but forceful style and insisted that he would take me to the Russian Quarters of the city, on the opposite side of the railroad. I had rejected his previous offers to accompany me to the various colorful bazaars of Samarkand, but this one, he declared, I could not go alone. It was too far and in unfamiliar territory for me. I tried to get other family members to join us but no one was interested. Once on the street, I removed his arm from my shoulder and told him I did not need his protection for crossing the street, as he claimed.
The railway station was a modern, well-kept place with high walls and interesting architecture, in line with the Soviet style of public buildings. Right on the other side of the railway station, the Russian Quarter, where most of the Russian expatriates lived--presented a grim contrast to the railway building. The houses and the narrow alleyways were drab looking and many of its inhabitants had put out their clothes, shoes, furniture, etc. for sale in the hope of making ends meet. There were a couple of kiosks that sold vodka and other drinks and at nine o'clock in the morning, there were a few drunken men walking by in a hopeless mode of existence. The neighborhood and its Russian minority-now looked upon with disfavor by the independent Uzbek government-had been left out of any development or job creation program altogether. Except for a few among them, no one could afford meat or even vegetables sold in the market. The economic transition in Uzbekistan had certainly left this neighborhood behind.
That day, we returned with a large piece of fresh cooked ham, which I offered to the family and ended up sharing it with them for breakfast.
The low point of my experience in Ricardo's house came on his birthday, a couple of days before I left Samarkand. It was his sixtieth birthday and there was going to be a large party of all the extended family, many of whom I had met earlier in the house. He said he would be my translator, as usual, and for this reason, he would sit right next to me during his birthday party. Knowing well that if he got drunk (which he sometimes did), I had to fight off his physical advances in front of everyone, I assured him that I didn't need a translator at all as I had no intention of speaking to anyone since there was going to be more drinking than talking! Ricardo would not budge.
As the evening arrived with guests and food and drinks, I started dodging the now half-drunk birthday boy who kept following me around, trying to be my translator. In his state of half consciousness, he did declare --and thank god it was in English so only I understood-- that he really did not love me like a daughter! He said he loved me in some other way! Getting increasingly uncomfortable, I pretended not to hear him since there was much noise of music and dancing going on. I walked off and sat right next to his wife and tried to speak to her in international language, using my hands and facial expressions. Sitting right next to Marian was an effective method to get him off my back and I used it often, though he would immediately resume the role of the translator in our communication! After a few minutes as I got up to go to the bathroom, Ricardo suddenly held me tight and tried to kiss me. This scene transformed the whole party into a quiet, stunned crowd with all eyes on the two of us. I was shocked, embarrassed, and there were a whole host of other unidentifiable but definitely negative emotions in my guts. On a reflex, I disentangled myself from his embrace and walked off to my apartment. I had had enough.
The next day, I called Ziba, my Uzbek friend, and told her that I wanted to leave Samarkand, tomorrow. She was surprised, "But you have another 10 days here. Donāt you want to stay and explore areas around Samarkand?" I told her I could stay a few extra days in Tashkent, prior to my departure to the U.S.
On the morning of my departure from the house, the bright moment came as I held Marian for a long, warm hug. I felt that we both understood each other. I was then, and am now, grateful for the state of grace she displayed and the deeper meaning that grace held for me for the first time.