Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Mark of Mahmud

Polish composer, statesman and - according to Wikipedia - hermaphrodite shapeshifter Ignacy Jan Paderewski used to tell a joke that summed up European interbellum national characteristics. A representative group is asked to write a book about the elephant:

  • The Englishman spends a month in India and returns with "The Elephants I Bagged".
  • The German buries himself in the archives of Heidelberg University and produces "An Introduction to a Study of the Migratory Patterns of the African Elephant".
  • The Frenchman gets to know the keepers at the Paris Zoo and passes an agreeable afternoon in their company, pausing to pen "L'eléphant, et ses amours".
  • The Russian retires to his garret and drinks himself to death. In his stinking greatcoat is found the scrawled pamphlet "The Elephant - Does It Exist?".
  • The Pole sets out for the National Library in Warsaw and dashes off a fiery tract entitled "The Elephant - and the Polish Question".
All good clean fun, and an insight into the stereotypes of 1919. The perception of Englishman and Russian has changed since, and the punchline then was the Polish obsession with their Cause. But I find the French response more interesting, for out of it grew the entire discipline of cultural history.

I enjoy cultural history. From its brilliant origins in the French Annales school, it slouched into Britain as the latest form of our native snobbery. It now gives well-read types the chance to dismiss entire civilisations with a saloon-bar swagger.

Corduroyed scholars toil among decrepit records to raise squat outbuildings on foundations of footnotes and an abandoned social life. Their reward for "Curricular Changes in the St Petersburg Higher Women's Courses: 1896-1906" is tenure somewhere like Aston, if they're lucky.

Cultural historians leaf through some Penguin Classics Turgenev, gaze at silver birches from a taxi and chat to a lady violinist in a wagon-lit, then craft an illustrated treat called something arch like "Samovars & Saints". For this they get a CH4 series and a wardrobe allowance for jeans a size too small.

I am too idle to breathe properly most of the time, but if I ever had the energy O! a cultural historian I would be. As for my pet project, I'd trace the trajectory of the Mongol arrow as it pierced skull and social strata from Karakorum to Cracow, and the book (and TV series) would be called "Tamgha".

This refers to the livestock brand that the Mongols brought with them across the wolf-haunted steppe, and which provides the basis for both Ottoman imperial seals and the heraldic emblems of the Polish nobility.

In Baghdad, where Genghis Khan had given the Caliphs a lesson in applied atheism, I fancy it lived on in the sociopath and thwarted dynast Uday Hussein's alleged habit of branding his unwilling bedmates' buttocks with his mark - whether a curvaceous "ع" or a suggestive "U" is not recorded.

It endures in its more natural state among the herdsmen of eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, where Circassians in particular take pride in their ancestral mark.

One such Cherkess mountaineer, Mahmud, worked for a Turkish construction firm in Uzbekistan during my spell in that terrier-shaped tyranny. As a paddler in the brackish pools of Tashkent expat life, I admired his brisk, Atatürkian approach to lifting the dead hand of the Karimov régime from the exercise of his various appendages.

Mahmud soon discovered that this city of two million mutton-hawking drabs and underage drivers had no bars or clubs, apart from a nylon-draped nightmare filled with bugs of all kinds on the top floor of the Hotel Uzbekistan (imaginatively renamed from the Hotel Tashkent on the fall of Communism, if only to let travellers know they've arrived in the wrong country).

Uzbek law rivals that of Singapore and the Shulchan Aruch in banning all fun, and even tries to stop wealthy foreigners doing exactly what they like. The rest of us resorted to the ancient Soviet tradition of kitchen parties, but Mahmud decided to do something about it.

He found an emollient Uzbek businessman, offered him wads of cash and the chance to retain his danglers in roughly their current order, then encouraged him to open an establishment called "Mahmud's".

This involved taking a quaint, Russian-imperial town house of the sort that Uzbek ministries would use for press conferences with stunned United Nations nabobs, and turning it into a little corner of Stamboul.

It had the trappings of an Irish theme bar that wasn't trying too hard and served unmemorable Euro fizz, but was blissfully bereft of the usual blights of a Tashkent night out - lackadaisical but bossy prostitutes, the Billboard Chart of 1987 on a warped cassette tape, German engineers, and gawping, none-too-secret policemen (this was before the day of rogue British ambassador and histrionic lothario Craig Murray).

It all came down to good door policy. No one got in who didn't know Mahmud, and the twin golems in dinner jackets who guarded the portal were rather like Arthur C Clarke's monoliths - large, dark, and capable of immense but silent violence.

I and a few colleagues passed most Friday nights there, enjoying a respite from both Karimov's efforts to turn the country into a Pinochet theme park and the piping tedium of expatriates in kilts.

The regulars were the sort of people who know how to have a good time - arms dealers, oil prospectors, Tajik warlords, Turks, the IMF man and sundry spooks. Mahmud would turn up at about eleven, lean over the back of a chair and recount tales of seedy glory between draughts of rakı and Marlboro Red.

He punctuated my life like a happy apostrophe. The Grand Turk once turned up on a flight to Ashkhabad, bribed the stewardess to disable the fire alarm, and retired to the bathroom to smoke away the 90-minute journey. He paused only to speculate at full volume on Turkmen political leaders, wolves and the fun that could be had by trying to mate them - to the horror of the crosslegged crew.

A dashing entry promises little, as many a lady can testify, but a stylish exit is the true mark of a man, as Mahmud knew well. One evening he gave us a demonstration.

We drones, relaxing down Mahmud's as usual, were surprised to see two sultry, unchaperoned young ladies glide in. They were Tashkent Tartars, the ethnic group on whose cheekbones Uzbekistan's intellectual and erotic life depended, and dressed like dedicated followers of Thai kickboxing films.

"Whores," said Big Time O'Farrell. "Big Time O'Farrell," I imagined them muttering to themselves.

"No way they'd get past the doormen," said Jenny. "Perhaps they're independent businesswomen clinching a contract?"

The word "clinch" did for me, frankly, as I'd been imagining that they were very attached to one another. The two ladies chatted and sipped coffee at the bar without even glancing at anyone else.

Eleven o'clock came, and in bowled Mahmud. He did the rounds of the tables and eventually settled at ours, chair akimbo as usual. A bottle of Altınbaş appeared alongside the car hub that served as his ashtray, and the stereo switched from Tupac to the tambur.

"I sold hotel to Jew. You have seen?" We weren't sure whether he meant the hostelry or the Hebrew, and shook our heads. This spells assent to the Turk, as we recalled too late, and Mahmud launched into what he thought was a shared rhapsodic reminiscence of the state he'd left the building and Mr Berkowitz in after celebrating the deal.

The hours rolled by in a fug of fumes and fretwork before Mahmud gracefully bade us good night. "Tomorrow Bukhara. All men are gays," he remarked as we shook hands. I wasn't sure whether the second phrase was meant to stand alone, and decided not to enquire further.

He lumbered over to the door, patting backs and exchanging nods as he went. Just as he shrugged on his coat, Mahmud stretched out an arm towards the bar and snapped his fingers. Both Tartar beauties sprang from their seats and skipped eagerly after him.

Mahmud had left his mark.


xerxes said...

The Brits have gone from elephant-shooting to a curious mix of embarrassment and self-righteousness. Except for Craig Murray who should play James Bond. Sorry, is James Bond. Obviously.

Gadjo Dilo said...

In Denmark they extend it with a Dane writing a book called 50 Ways To Cook an Elephant, the Swede writing one called The Rights of the Elephant and the Norwegian saying "We have no word in Norwegian for 'elephant'". (No, it wasn't very funny when told in Scandinavia either).

Mahmud sounds like one of those Turks who is very excellent company, as long as you're not working for his company.

No Good Boyo said...

True, Inky. Where once beasts quaked at the Englishman's approach, now they sigh at the prospect of a winking camera with an Attenborough hunched behind.

Murray is a James Bond of the entitlement era - self-righteous and self-indulgent by turns. The mandarin who sent him to Tashkent must have had a wry sense of humour.

Surely, Gadjo, the Norwegians have two words for elephant - "elefant" in Bokmål and something like "Landwale" in Nynorsk?

One could extend the joke. The Finns would always see two elephants, and pink ones at that, the Icelanders would claim the elephant first roamed its lava fields before the Danes stole it, the Greenlanders would marry the elephant in a quaint ceremony, and the Faroese would haul it up onto a beach and teach their kids how to hack it to pieces with an axe.

As for Mahmud, you're close to the truth. Some of his workers once went on strike, but not for long.

Sir Watkin said...

"The Pole sets out for the National Library in Warsaw and dashes off a fiery tract entitled "The Elephant - and the Polish Question"."

The Welshman immured himself in Aberystwyth for several years writing "On Wales and the Welsh" ... but never finished it.

No Good Boyo said...

Welcome, Sir Watkin. A Dolgellau bookseller called Williams-Jones buried himself in an upstairs room to compose a comparative grammar of Welsh and Persian in 1980.

He set off on his linguistic odessey after I'd pointed out that the "banu" element in "shahbanu" (queen) might be cognate with the Welsh "Benyw" (female).

He died in the effort, leaving a whiff of St Bruno and a brace of equally off relatives, whom I count among my closest friends.

No one in Wales would consider that a life wasted.

Sir Watkin said...

Robert Roberts (Y Sgolor Mawr) would have been proud of him.

Gareth Williams said...

Interesting writing you're producing at the moment, Boyo. I'd describe it as the bastard progeny of an Evelyn Waugh, Hunter S Thompson and Anthony Burgess clusterfuck (which, by the way, I take as a good thing). Ever thought of rustling up a plot which would extend these ruminative anecdotes somewhat?

David All said...

Okay, since this is Saint Patrick's Day, am going to substitute the Irish for the Poles, circa 1900.

The Irishman goes to his favorite pub and over a night of heavy drinking produces a phamplet entitled: "The role of the Elephant in the struggle for Irish Freedom".

No Good Boyo said...

Sir Watkin, Robertx2 would have suited my friend, a keen Churchman, down to the ground.

Gaw, that's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me that includes the word "clusterfuck", and I'm not forgetting that friendly Georgian border guard either I'll consider writing a third unfinished novel.

David All, Slainte mhaith and iechyd da! I'll also suggest "The Flight of gthe Wild Pachiderms: Gaelic Ireland's Lost Bestiary, 1691".

Gareth Williams said...

Why not start at the end this time?

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No Good Boyo said...

Not a bad idea, Gaw, rather like the Bible.

Good luck, Andriy, a blog of articles about Ukraine in Portuguese is a joy to behold. I bumped into some of your compatriots in a fish restaurant in Silves some years ago. It was a convivial afternoon.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

I was going to compare your writing to Anthony Burgess too - in the sense that I had to stop every two lines to look up a word in the dictionary - but Gaw got there first.

I have been in two postings where Craig Murray was before Tashkent, and he has certainly not been forgotten, although not always in a nice way. However, after listening to "Murder in Samarkand", David Hare's radio play on Radio 4, which exposes the aspect of his protests they wouldn't allow him to reveal at the time, I have a grudging respect for him. And deep sympathy for his English former wife.

Ian Plenderleith said...

In my country the book would be called 'How Scotland Invented the Elephant'

No Good Boyo said...

'How Scotland Invented the Elephant and Then the London Media Kept Saying the Inventor was Britain Until the Elephant Ran Amok, Then The Inventor Suddenly Became Scotland Again', to give its full title.

I love Burgess's memoirs but find his novels only good in parts. I enjoy his style, though - it's everything you're told not to do.

My favourite Burgess story has Graham Greene telling some crony in Nice "I turned on the television, and there was Burgess being interviewed - in French!" You can feel the shudder.

I can't share your sympathy for Craig Murray, Daphne. Rather like the ex-head of MI5 who recently said she didn't know the Americans were rendering people in an extraordinary manner, I find it hard to believe that a British diplomat turned up in one of the most notoriously vicious states in Asia and was like all "Omigod they're totally killing people!"

He keeps very poor company these days and wears a kilt in public Pass.

Judith said...

He may even be a troofer.

Re style, I think you're Eric Ambler in disguise. I believe all of it.

Anonymous said...

No one in Wales would consider that a life wasted.