Scariest word of the trip: Coffee House

By Rob Packer

Uzbek is a language in transition. Like most Central Asian languages, it’s been through a lot during its Soviet experience of the 20th century, especially in the political games played in the way it’s written. Like most languages in the region, it was written with the Arab-Persian script for centuries, and still is by Uzbeks in China, until the Soviet Union introduced a Latin alphabet in 1928 as part literacy drive, part forced distancing from the Islamic world. Within a few years in 1940, possibly due to fears of pan-Turkicism, the Latinization policy was replaced by a Cyrillicization drive. For a Russian speaker, the Uzbek Cyrillic alphabet has some of exotic letters, specially commissioned for the language like Ғ or Қ, although I personally feel that Kazakh wins in terms of weird and wonderful letters. Once independence came, however, Tashkent started to reorient itself away from Moscow and towards parts of the world that had been neglected for decades, such as fellow-Turkic Turkey and Europe beyond; this needed a rethink of language policy and a new Latin alphabet was decided on. The process of Latinization has been a gradual process and taken a decade, to now be considered reasonably complete, although there is still plenty of Cyrillic around. The result is a combination of rarely used letters in English, a lot of apostrophes and a strange liking for the letter O, ending up with words like Islom (Islam), homom (hammam), choy (tea), Qozog’iston (Kazakhstan) and O’zbekiston (Uzbekistan). But the scariest-looking word I saw was at the train station in Bukhara: the sign was orange, glowing and said QAHVAXONA.

And this is why a coffee house in Uzbekistan is scary.

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