The winters in Central Asia are piercing and bleak, while the sweating, foetid summers bring cholera, dysentery and mosquitoes, but, in April, the air caresses like the touch of the inner skin of the thigh and the scent of all the flowering trees douses the city’s throat-catching whiff of cesspits.
Every city has its own internal logic. Imagine a city drawn in straightforward, geometric shapes with crayons from a child’s colouring box, in ochre, in white, in pale terracotta. Low, blonde terraces of houses seem to rise out of the whitish, pinkish earth as if born from it, not built out of it. There is a faint, gritty dust over everything, like the dust those pastel crayons leave on your fingers.
Against these bleached pallors, the iridescent crusts of ceramic tiles that cover the ancient mausoleums ensorcellate the eye. The throbbing blue of Islam transforms itself to green while you look at it. Beneath a bulbous dome alternately lapis lazuli and veridian, the bones of Tamburlaine, the scourge of Asia, lie in a jade tomb. We are visiting an authentically fabulous city. We are in Samarkand.
The Revolution promised the Uzbek peasant women clothes of silk and on this promise, at least, did not welch. They wear tunics of flimsy satin, pink and yellow, red and white, black and white, red, green and white, in blotched stripes of brilliant colours that dazzle like an optical illusion, and they bedeck themselves with much jewellery made of red glass.
They always seem to be frowning because they paint a thick, black line straight across their foreheads that takes their eyebrows from one side of the face to the other without a break. They rim their eyes with kohl. They look startling. They fasten their long hair in two or three dozen whirling plaits. Young girls wear little velvet caps embroidered with metallic thread and beadwork. Older women cover their heads with a couple of scarves of flower-printed wool, one bound tight over the forehead, the other hanging loosely on the shoulders. Nobody has worn a veil for sixty years.
They walk as purposefully as if they did not live in an imaginary city. They do not know that they themselves and their turbanned, sheepskin-jacketed, booted menfolk are creatures as extraordinary to the foreign eye as a unicorn. They exist, in all their glittering and innocent exoticism, in direct contradiction to history. They do not know what I know about them. They do not know that this city is not the entire world. All they know of the world is this city, beautiful as an illusion, where irises grow in the gutters. In the teahouse a green parrot nudges the bars of its wicker cage.
The market has a sharp, green smell. A girl with black-barred brows sprinkles water from a glass over radishes. In this early part of the year you can buy only last summer’s dried fruit — apricots, peaches, raisins — except for a few, precious, wrinkled pomegranates, stored in sawdust through the winter and now split open on the stall to show how a wet nest of garnets remains within. A local speciality of Samarkand is salted apricot kernels, more delicious, even, than pistachios.
An old woman sells arum lilies. This morning, she came from the mountains, where wild tulips have put out flowers like blown bubbles of blood, and the wheedling turtle-doves are nesting among the rocks. This old woman dips bread into a cup of buttermilk for her lunch and eats slowly. When she has sold her lilies, she will go back to the place where they are growing.
She scarcely seems to inhabit time. Or, it is as if she were waiting for Scheherazade to perceive a final dawn had come and, the last tale of all concluded, fall silent. Then, the lily-seller might vanish.
A goat is nibbling wild jasmine among the ruins of the mosque that was built by the beautiful wife of Tamburlaine.
Tamburlaine’s wife started to build this mosque for him as a surprise, while he was away at the wars, but when she got word of his imminent return, one arch still remained unfinished. She went directly to the architect and begged him to hurry but the architect told her that he would complete the work on time only if she gave him a kiss. One kiss, one single kiss.
Tamburlaine’s wife was not only very beautiful and very virtuous but also very clever. She went to the market, bought a basket of eggs, boiled them hard and stained them a dozen different colours. She called the architect to the palace, showed him the basket and told him to choose any egg he liked and eat it. He took a red egg. What does it taste like? Like an egg. Eat another.
He took a green egg.
What does that taste like? Like the red egg. Try again.
He ate a purple egg.
One eggs tastes just the same as any other egg, if they are fresh, he said.
There you are! she said. Each of these eggs looks different to the rest but they all taste the same. So you may kiss any one of my serving women that you like but you must leave me alone.
Very well, said the architect. But soon he came back to her and this time he was carrying a tray with three bowls on it, and you would have thought the bowls were all full of water.
Drink from each of these bowls, he said.
She took a drink from the first bowl, then from the second; but how she coughed and spluttered when she took a mouthful from the third bowl, because it contained, not water, but vodka.
This vodka and that water both look alike but each tastes quite different, he said. And it is the same with love.
Then Tamburlaine’s wife kissed the architect on the mouth. He went back to the mosque and finished the arch the same day that victorious Tamburlaine rode into Samarkand with his army and banners and his cages full of captive kings. But when Tamburlaine went to visit his wife, she turned away from him because no woman will return to the harem after she has tasted vodka. Tamburlaine beat her with a knout until she told him she had kissed the architect and then he sent his executioners hotfoot to the mosque.
The executioners saw the architect standing on top of the arch and ran up the stairs with their knives drawn but when he heard them coming he grew wings and flew away to Persia.
This is a story in simple, geometric shapes and the bold colours of a child’s box of crayons. This Tamburlaine’s wife of the story would have painted a black stripe laterally across her forehead and done up her hair in a dozen, dozen tiny plaits, like any other Uzbek woman. She would have bought red and white radishes from the market for her husband’s dinner. After she ran away from him perhaps she made her living in the market. Perhaps she sold lilies there.
Author: Angela Carter
Title: The Kiss
Published in: Black Venus (1985)