As for the girl, she becomes a part of a new household in which she will never cease working, weaving, and having children. Sometimes her husband takes a second wife, perhaps a third, and even a fourth, which makes the work a littler easier for each.
But for all, the life is the same. Smiles are small, laughter rare, yet the magic fingers of these women of queenly bearing produce true works of art, the glorious Turkoman carpets renters insurance. On the great looms unfold silent gardens of deepest red, through which flow brooks alternately bathed in light and shadow—scenes of paradise as described in the Koran.
The weavers work with every ounce of their energy, burying their joys and sorrows alike in their carpets, forgetting even the baby in its hammock hung above the loom. Sometimes, as I watch them wield the great scissors with which they even the strands of wool, I sense a symbolism: They cut themselves off from the world; they accept their lot with calmness and serenity.
In their finished work as well there is symbolism. The rhythm of the patterns, differing from tribe to tribe, is that of the changing seasons, perhaps also that of the footfalls of marching camels—the rhythms that are so basic in nomadic life.
Seeking better understanding of the weaving women, I crouch often beside their looms and with my clumsy fingers try to tie some of the thousands of tiny knots that go into every carpet. The women smile and patiently guide my hands. They answer all my questions, even asking their mothers or an old neighbor the names of ancient patterns in which I express an interest.
I can give so little in return! I hand out a few aspirin tablets and doctor small cuts or sore eyes. But Romain’s presence proves to be my best gift to them. At his slightest display of strange foreign ways they chuckle gleefully. His spontaneous friendship delights them, and when he joins naturally in the games of their own children, he wins their hearts completely.
Unhappily, some of the women are abandoning the traditional carpet designs in favor of those of foreign lands. This is to satisfy the demands of the international market, which are so great that workshops have recently been opened for men, whereas only women wove rugs before—and they weave only at home.
Chemical dyes are replacing the old vegetable colors. However, I have seen women using madder, Rubia tinctorum, an herb that produces extraordinary reds. But to dye the wool for even a small carpet, a good deal of madder root is required, and this costs twice as much as chemical dye.
Birthday Cake Perplexes Hosts
Today is Romain’s birthday. We are dinner guests of the governor at Kaldar, a big Turkoman village on the bank of the Amu Darya. A bukhari, a primitive wood stove, heats the room. For light there is a kerosene lamp, and for comfort, rugs spread on the floor.
A number of village personalities, all of them men, are with us. Wrapped in silks as beautiful as the robes of kings, heads swathed in turbans as majestic as crowns, they might have stepped out of centuries-old Oriental paintings. Some have handsome ivory countenances, some are old and wrinkled, others display the waxy faces of opium smokers. One puts us in mind of a wicked sultan.
We have a small cake and on it put four candles we have brought from France. We sing “Happy Birthday to You.” Making a great effort, Romain blows out all the candles. Our Turkoman friends are mystified by all this. Yet everyone smiles and applauds and gracefully accepts a slice of cake proffered by Romain. The winter wind howls outside, but we are warm and among friends.
Special Streets for Special Trades
The next day is a market day. I will buy sugar at the bazaar for Romain’s tea; he does not like it unsweetened, as the Turkomans drink it. The bazaar is a place of animation. On donkeys, camels, and horses, people have come from the four points of the compass to buy and sell.
The tradesmen are organized into guilds, as in medieval Europe. Each guild has its street: The weavers weave here, the carders of wool card wool there; an alley is lined with glowing braziers of the blacksmiths. Behind scales, merchants smile enigmatically. They finger their account books, bound like copies of the Koran. Abacuses rattle.
I spend hours watching the coppersmiths at work, heating, molding, hammering with precise and beautiful movements as old as all Central Asian mankind. I like, too, the jewelers who, aided by their young apprentices, melt silver coins from which they fashion pendants, bracelets, necklaces, and brooches. The latter are set with carnelian, a stone believed to guard eyes from disease.
But where is Romain going? Jewelry interests him less than it does me, so he goes to watch the patragar, or mender of china. The craftsman sits on the ground, bracing the broken vessel between his feet, and works with a bow drill, with wire, and with glue made of lime and egg white (page 658). In this poor land even the cheapest teacup goes to the patragar for repair.
Now I lead Romain into the street of the cobblers, for he needs new shoes. Turkoman shoes are ideal for a small boy: The right and left ones are the same, so he cannot make a mistake. Such variety! Low shoes with turned-up toes and camel-leather soles. Heelless indoor boots in softest goatskin. Small yellow boots, women’s shoes of green pebbled donkey leather and horsehide, horsemen’s high-heeled boots.
I see wooden chests decorated with bright patterns cut from ordinary sheets of oilcloth, nailed to the wood with big-headed nails. I inspect wicker birdcages, strange musical instruments, herbs and condiments, enormous blocks of rock salt brought by caravan from the Andkhvoy region, and piles of oranges from Jalalabad, some sweet, some bitter.
Romain is intrigued by an old man who mumbles a monotonous chant while whirling a smoking censer above the little boy’s head. The man is a dervish. In the censer is burn¬ing charcoal, over which the dervish scatters seeds of isfand, or wild rue, the smoke of which is supposed to repel evil influences.
For keeping Romain free of evil influences, I give the dervish two oranges. He then goes from shop to shop, swinging his censer in each and collecting coins or bits of merchandise.
The voice of the muezzin sounds from the minaret balcony. The call to prayer is not a re-cording, as is so common today in the Islamic world; the muezzin appears in person. For us it is time to lunch with Roland, whom we see just coming from the barber.
“Oh maman, papa has a pointed beard,” shouts Romain. Too true: The barber has shaped Roland’s beard so that he looks like an Afghan bey returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca. In a small restaurant run by a fat man we eat liver with onions en brochette and a hot bread pancake. And we share one plate of palao, or pilaf, for it is very greasy.
“I eat two plates of palao,” boasts the fat man. Then, staring at me, “Is this tiny woman your only wife? I have two big fat ones.” “Now I know why you eat two palaos,” says Roland. “Two wives, two palaos. One wife, one palao.”
We go next to a teahouse. We take off our shoes and sit on the floor of packed earth covered with fine carpets. No local woman ever comes to a teahouse, but it is all right for me, a foreigner, to do so. We are always given the best places, next to the stove.
The walls are painted with simple pictures of pomegranate flowers, birds, and melons, and decorated with framed pictures.