bukhara, uzbekistan | Driving through this dusty desert city, dotted with ornate and ancient mosques, Shirin Yakubov recalls the ruthlessness of her country’s recently deceased president.
“He killed all of them, every last one,” she said of Islam Karimov’s role in the 2005 police massacre of hundreds of suspected Islamists in the eastern city of Andijan following unrest.
“Our president acted exactly right,” she added, smiling.
A no-nonsense businesswoman and a doting Jewish mother of three, Yakubov belongs to the urban elite of this Central Asian country of 32 million, which shares a border with Afghanistan.
Karimov was the nation’s president for 25 years, from its break from the Soviet Union in 1991 until his death two weeks ago, on Sept. 2, from a stroke at age 78.
Like many from her social class, Yakubov credits the absence of radical Islam from public life to Karimov’s oppressive rule. Under his leadership, the all-powerful SNB security service was responsible for the torture and “disappearance” of countless dissidents in a country with no free press and a no-entry policy for foreign journalists.
With the passing of Karimov, an isolationist who strived to stay on good terms with but independent of Russia and the United States, Yakubov and other relatively affluent Uzbekistanis — including the country’s 13,000 remaining Jews — look to an uncertain future.
Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev was appointed Sept. 8 to succeed Karimov as an interim president, auguring changes that hold risks but also the promise of greater political, individual and commercial freedom and trade opportunities.
Foreign diplomats here blame Karimov not only for systemic violations of human rights, but also for holding back mineral-rich Uzbekistan from realizing its full economic potential. Under Karimov, the country’s restrictive policies included an obstructive visa regime for outsiders and an official exchange rate that is half the actual black-market value of its local currency (the sum) against the dollar.
But many Uzbekistanis and all Jewish community leaders, it appears, say they are grateful to the late leader for the stability achieved under his rule and the growth that did occur. The provincial city of Tashkent grew into a clean and safe metropolis of 3 million residents with an efficient subway system, shining conference halls and stadiums, hygienic marketplaces and peaceful parks where magpies and Indian starlings bathe in fountains amid hedges of purple basil plants.
As for Yakubov, she credits Karimov’s policies for her ability as a woman to drive a car despite the resistance it raises in a deeply traditional society where many women are not expected to go out of the house much, let alone sit behind the wheel of an automobile.
In 2005, amid the unrest that exploded in Andijan, someone threw a large brick into her car twice, smashing the windshield, she said. The intimidation stopped immediately after police questioned some neighbors — a standard procedure in some countries, but which in Uzbekistan is perceived as a last warning before the dispensation of swift and perhaps extrajudicial steps.
Indeed, anyone who lashes out at Jews, or others, faces a threat of retribution from an authoritarian government.
“No one is going to call me a ‘dirty Jew’ here,” said Yakubov’s husband, Arsen, as he walked to one of Bukhara’s two synagogues for services on Friday evening. At a time when synagogues in Western Europe and even Russia are patrolled by armed police or military, Jewish institutions in this predominantly Sunni nation are unguarded.
That goes a long way toward explaining why special prayers for Karimov’s soul were recited in Uzbekistan’s five synagogues following his passing.
Jews here are also safe because they are widely accepted as a native ethnicity, just like ethnic Tajiks and Russians. They have, after all, maintained a documented presence here for 1,000 years, which some historians believe actually goes as far back as 1000 BCE.
In Bukhara, where anywhere between 40 to 150 Jews live — depending on the definition one applies — some are greeted with “Shalom” by their Muslim neighbors as they gather for evening and morning prayers. Kosher meat, produced by a local rabbi and ritual slaughterer, is sold here in some shops run by Muslims.
At the local Jewish school, a predominantly Muslim student body is taught to sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, reflecting the desirability of the school and a Jewish population that shrunk after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some 75,000 Jews left this former Soviet republic after its fall.
“We are brothers, the Muslims and the Jews, and we live like it, too,” said Yossif Tilayev, the makeshift rabbi of a Jewish population of 200 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s second city, and caretaker of its turquoise-domed, 19th-century synagogue, which is among Central Asia’s prettiest.
Still, the atmosphere in Bukhara is no longer the same as a decade ago, Shirin Yakubov says.
“I can’t go to the swimming pool like I used to 10 years ago because they stare at my bathing suit,” she said. “I don’t want my daughter wearing shorts because it’s beginning to attract too much attention. I no longer feel comfortable here.”
Her parents and three siblings already live in Israel, as do most of her husband’s siblings. Yakubov and her husband stay in Bukhara because her in-laws won’t leave, she said.
“But we will leave soon, and quickly, if anything bad happens after Karimov,” she said.
Many locals Jews believe that extremism is never too far below a surface that is kept calm only thanks to strict enforcement. Arkady Isasscharov, president of the Bukharian Jewish community of Tashkent, partially concurs.
“You always have to be careful,” he said. “One rabbi was already killed here.”
In 2006, Jewish leader Avraam Yagudaev died under suspicious circumstances. His autopsy said he died in an automobile accident, but some believe he was murdered.
Tour guide Vadim Levin, an ethnic Russian of Jewish descent from Tashkent, said that the suppression of liberties under Karimov was worth it for the stability it brought.
“Of course, I pay with certain liberties for my country’s stability, I am aware of that,” Levin said. “But it’s a trade-off I hope to be able to continue making under Karimov’s successor.”