& Company


by Matthew-Daniel Stremba


While her husband, family, fellow parishioners, friends and colleagues worried about her safety in Uzbekistan during the latest outbreak of violence, Barbara, just back in Baltimore a few days before Memorial Day 2005, said: "I'm really glad I was there. To get context. Rather than have to depend on friends there to say, maybe, things they didn't want to say, I saw what was reported and what wasn't."

Barbara was in Tashkent, a distance from the trouble to the east in the Ferghana Valley, which is cut off from the rest of the country by mountains. Additional comfort to friends at home was the knowledge that Hadicha, her dear friend and host, had good company during this national crisis.

"I'd just arrived Thursday morning, May 12th, and we listened to the BBC and there was news of the demonstrations in Andijon. Well organized. Men, women, children. Very peaceful. Everyone trying very hard to keep the whole thing peaceful. We were amazed that this was going on. Then the very next morning — my second day in Uzbekistan — the news of storming the Andijon prison."

Was the BBC her sole source of information? What kind of local news coverage?

"President Karimov actually gave two extensive press conferences on local TV. . . . Rather than just talk, which he did a lot of, he did actually respond to questions. All in Russian with some moments of Uzbek. . . . . ."

What was the reaction on Tashkent streets?

"Well, though there was widespread frustration, resentment, apprehension, and most of all distrust. . . . Tashkent was very calm. The only visible evidence in Tashkent of Andijon troubles was an increased number of police and military in and around the metro stations. But life goes on. Zhenya's getting married to Lena. Anisya's engrossed in a television serial imported from Russia. The soum was at 1,100 to the US dollar and falling. Uzbeks still make the best tomato and onion salad, and their patir non [i.e. round bread baked in a tandir oven] is out of this world. And Hadicha had several teeth filled and crowned by Doctor Viktoriya. And I sang in the Lutheran choir on Pentecost."


Now, one of the leading reasons for Barbara's scheduling her Tashkent trip mid-May was to participate in the traditional memorial meal honoring Hadicha's mother who passed away a year before, 21 May 2004. It was earlier that same month last year that Mama, though in discomfort from a failed kidney, took time to disclose to Barbara details of her life.

Introduced in 1998, we came to know Hadicha's mother as Apasya (accent on the –sya). Born in August 1922 in Bashkiria, she had been named Aklima. Officially — Soviet practice russifying her Tatar father's name, Haydar — she was Aklima Haydarovna. Her official birthdate, August 28, was the day we used to join the family to celebrate another year.

"She sometimes said she was actually three years older," Barbara recalls, "as some neighbor in her village in Bashkiria had a memory of her toddling around in 1920, but based on other biographical details, I think the neighbor must have confused her with her older sister."

As an adult, Aklima became, according to Turkic custom, Aklima-opa to all those younger than she.

"The Russian variant, Tyotya Asya," Barbara explains, "became, in that characteristic Russian-Uzbek hybrid, Asya-opa, which got jokingly and affectionately transposed into Opa-Asya, or Apasya."

Aklima was the youngest of her mother's first set of seven children. Her father died just before she was born. She was three, when her mother remarried. The stepfather not wanting her or her older sister, their grandmother took them in.

"Apasya seemed to have happy memories of that period. Aklima was eight when the grandmother died. From there she and her sister went to live with an uncle and his family, a less happy situation. In 1935, at the age of 12 or 13, she took a loaf of bread and six rubles and ran away from home to Ufa. This is the biographical detail," Barbara adds, "that convinces me Apasya was born in 1922 rather than 1919, because she told me she was still a flat-chested child when she left home in 1935."

Barbara continues the story. "The police picked her up, and she was locked up for several days, sharing a room and her food rations with an older Russian woman. Aklima at that time spoke no Russian, and the woman no Tatar, but they bonded through their tears. Aklima persuaded the militsiya guards to let her out to sweep the courtyard. She liked to work, she said. Somehow, after a few more days, she was put on a bus and sent to a Dyet-Dom [i.e. orphanage], where they gave her a real dress, and coat and shoes — better clothes than she'd ever seen in her life. She ate well there, and lived in a dormitory, and they sent her somewhere to study. In 1937 she went back to her home village for a visit. She didn't know her address, but knew the village, and managed to find her uncle. He gave her part of the bus fare to get back, but she had to sell her jacket to get the rest.

"In 1938 she came to Tashkent together with a friend, whose father was in Tashkent. On their way south, they saw grapevines for the first time, and marvelled at — candy growing on a plant!!! They wanted to try some, but had no money. Soon enough, though, she had her fill of grapes: immediately upon arrival in Tashkent, an Uzbek offered her seasonal work picking grapes in Kibray. She lived mostly with her friend's family, and did various work, from picking to drying to cleaning.

"When the war broke out, she learned to operate a steam locomotive, and worked driving a train to and from Chirchik. And in 1943 their crew, including a young Uzbek man, Hakim Muratbekov, whom she couldn't stand, was transferred to Andijon to work on major construction projects there."

In that time working alongside her, Muratbekov took a fancy to this girl locomotive operator, but she felt an attraction for someone else. Well, Muratbekov was not going to suffer a "no" losing her to some other guy. And friends promoted him to her as being a good man. What was she to do?

"It was not a happy courtship," Barbara recalls Apasya's story, "but right after the war ended they got married."

Once married, Apasya told Barbara, things changed: the unpleasant things ceased, he never raised his voice. "He was a good husband," she told Barbara, "like Matto [Matthew]."

In 1946 her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage.

"At her husband's insistence, she quit her job as a locomotive operator, and got lighter work. When she became pregnant again, he worried her about going outside the home fearing she'd have another miscarriage."

Anisya was their first, born in 1948. Then two sons: first, Anvar; later, Agzam.

"Agzam was just a baby, " Barbara says, "when the family moved in 1954 from Andijon to Tashkent to be near Muratbekov's family. Apasya did not want to move. Things in Andijon had been pretty good, decent work, a decent place to live, plenty of food. In Tashkent, they lived in terrible conditions — rats, scorpions. To make a living Hakim bought lumber and sawed it into pieces for Aklima to sell on the street. She caught a terrible cold, had to have over 60 injections to treat it.

"Treating every ailment with shots, it seems," Barbara remarks, "continues to be one of the holdovers from Soviet medicine even today. As she was recalling her past for me, poor Apasya's backside was still sore from all the injections of painkillers and antibiotics she'd had over the previous weeks.

"To recover her health back in the 1950s, she took the kids up to her home village in Bashkiria, where her mother, who had since raised her second batch of seven kids, nursed her back to health. " Barbara recalls, "I tried to pry out of her some sense of what it was like to go back home to her mother 20 years after she'd run away, but was unsuccessful. On this my last visit to Tashkent, I asked Hadicha the same question. Hadicha said that Apasya, upon returning to the village, had gathered all the women together, including her mother, and told them her story. Many wept. But Apasya was reconciled to her mother."

The apartment where we used to visit Apasya is where she had lived almost 50 years, a new building on the outskirts of Tashkent when in December 1956 she and Hakim and the three children moved in, finally improving their circumstances. Then, however, it had no stove and no plumbing. Further, it was a communal apartment, meaning their family of five (soon six) had two rooms while another woman lived with her son in one room. Over the next couple of years they installed stove and running water themselves, both families sharing kitchen facilities.

"Apasya thought it had all been in place by the time Hadicha was born, at the neighboring polyclinic, in January 1958.

Apasya strolling in her neighborhood 2 weeks before her death

[The photo above shows Apasya out for a stroll in her neighborhood, grapevines reaching over the lane, just two weeks before she died following surgery.]

"Apasya's last visit home to Bashkiria was in 1966, the summer after the Tashkent Earthquake, with her younger son, Agzam, who was suffering from hyperactivity and head-banging. Apasya's mother healed him of his most severe symptoms."

Apasya worked until retirement at a shop not far from their new home, and Hakim in a factory just at the top of the street. Hakim Muratbekov died in November 1997. The memorial meal honoring him a year after his death was the first Barbara sat down to in Tashkent. There were more memorial meals to follow: Agzam died in tragic circumstances in 2000; Anisya's husband, Sayid, was murdered by thieves in 2001.


From 1998 to 2004, one or both of us often sat at Apasya's table. On holidays Barbara even got up from the table to join Apasya and Hadicha and Anisya in dance. My Bride likes to remember this as Mama dancing with all three of her daughters. Apasya sure did embrace us Americans as family.

Apasya & her daughters dancing January 13, 2001

Despite cataracts that prevented her from reading and watching television, she could always recognize Barbara and me. She could always detect when my bowl was empty — the small one for tea, the larger one for soup — and was quick about refilling them. She loved to make blinchiki or olady (a pancake more resembling ours) and press a stack of them on us to take home. The day before she died, I went to visit her in the hospital fully expecting (along with everyone else) a normal recovery. She sat up in bed and, from behind, I rubbed her hunched shoulders. She expressed concern that she was to soon be discharged and there was no food at home to cook up for guests. How would she ever get to the bozor in time? I promised her I'd go to the market. She listed the things I should buy. Last item on the shopping list was red carrots. I thought: "RED carrots?" She repeated: "Krasny morkov'."

There was food, red carrots too, at the series of memorial meals served to family, neighbors, friends, in shifts in her home over the days following the burial, one room for women, one for men. Fatima-opa, a female mullah whose strong voice belies her advancing years, chanted prayers for one of those women's gatherings. The same kind of meal Barbara sat down to a year afterwards.

And life does go on.

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