‘A sense of wonder enveloped my mother and me’: Mishal Husain on her eye-opening journey through Uzbekistan in search of an ancestor

<span>Mishal Husain, right, and her mother, Shama, outside the mausoleum of their ancestor, Amir Kulal, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, in March.</span><span>Photograph: Yam G-Jun/The Guardian</span>
Mishal Husain, right, and her mother, Shama, outside the mausoleum of their ancestor, Amir Kulal, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, in March.Photograph: Yam G-Jun/The Guardian

‘Can you read what it says?” It was 1992 and I was standing in Samarkand’s impressive Registan Square, looking up at Arabic inscriptions on 15th- and 17th-century buildings, when an Uzbek man approached me, speaking in Russian. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, but he had lived his life in a period when Cyrillic script had been dominant and Islamic learning discouraged. Now, seeing a stranger trying to decipher the words on the buildings of his city, he wanted to know if I could explain them to him.

Back then, I was on my gap year and living in Moscow teaching English at a specialist language school, where many of my pupils were the children of officials, diplomats and – almost certainly – KGB agents. It was a time of political transition and widespread hardship, including rising prices and struggles to access food, even through the black market. The six of us who had come from the UK were largely protected from that, as whatever we had from home was in sterling, precious hard currency, rather than roubles. When the school had a spring holiday that March, we decided to fly nearly 2,000 miles south-east and see something of Uzbekistan, then emerging from decades as one of the Soviet socialist republics.

For me, the journey came with a sense of personal connection to central Asia, as I was aware that the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara had been important in Islamic history and culture, and, more vaguely, that my mother’s family had links to the region, somewhere back in time. This was through her father, who knew he had a 14th-century ancestor who had lived in what is now Uzbekistan. As I was setting off from Moscow, he was in Pakistan, hoping that the post-Soviet opening up of the country would allow him to travel there himself for the first time.

It was not to be. He and my grandmother made plans to go from Islamabad to Tashkent in 1992, shortly after direct flights began, but as they waited on the runway for their plane to take off, the trip was abandoned. A sudden surge in fighting in Afghanistan made it too dangerous to fly through its airspace, and the plane turned back towards the terminal. He never made it; he died the following year.

As I researched the 20th-century history of my family for a book, I found myself thinking afresh about my grandfather’s frustrated voyage. It occurred to me that my mother and I could complete his quest, and perhaps even track down the tomb of the forefather. Today, we would have many more tools to access local and ancient history than he had, or indeed than I had on my previous trip, three decades ago.

* * *

My mother, Shama, and I don’t live far from each other in London, but I knew from previous weekend trips together that there is something completely different in the quality of the time we share when we are both away from the demands of our own environments. The phone is not ringing, there are no errands to run, emails are less pressing and – much as she loves my three teenage boys – it is time for the two of us, and she gets a more relaxed version of me. We have much in common, but she is sunnier and more sociable than I am, and the only aspect of previous trips that has made me eye-roll on occasion is her tendency to strike up conversation with strangers, whether on trains, planes, or in queues. But this is part of who she is, ever interested in other human beings, and absorbing some of it is probably what led me to journalism and interviewing. I think she will forgive me for including here that she is almost 80, and I did wonder about how demanding the trip would be, with lots of walking in and around monuments coming after a long journey to reach Uzbekistan, and train journeys within. But Ama, as I call her, was game, and so we made plans.

In preparation, I looked up my photographs of the 1992 trip, as well as the Uzbekistan part of the diary I kept that year. “The plane was absolutely packed,” I had written of the flight from Moscow to Tashkent. “Most people brought all their luggage on board, as Aeroflot has a bad reputation for pilfering from checked baggage.” We had been required to check in via Intourist, I recorded – the Soviet-era agency that dealt with foreigners’ travel – and that meant access to “a separate, much more comfortable waiting room, equipped with a hard-currency bar”. Memories of that year flooded back: how privileged we were, as our money from home went a long way in those inflationary times.

The 2024 trip, from London, had none of these issues but still involved some complexity. There are a few direct flights a week between the UK and Uzbekistan, but we wanted to fly into Urgench, in the west, and then travel between the key cities of Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent by train. That meant changing planes in Istanbul on our way in and out of the country, and friends recommended a Tashkent-based travel company, Advantour, to make the train and hotel bookings and help us with a detailed itinerary. They included a guide in each of our four destinations,

My mother has so much more knowledge relating to our heritage and faith than I do, and often I was tapping into that and asking her questions

and initially I was dubious: this was a mother-and-daughter trip, and I was reasonably confident that with modern travel infrastructure, guidebooks, maps and apps, plus bits of my school Russian coming back to me, we would get by on our own. But meeting the four women who introduced us to their cities turned out to be a memorable aspect of the trip, each one sharing not only their knowledge, but parts of their family stories, often revealing difficult aspects of how the Soviet Union and its disintegration affected lives in the 20th century.

I also wanted to make sure we were heading to the right place for my mother’s ancestor. All we had to go on was a name – Amir Kulal – who appears about halfway through a family tree which begins with the prophet Muhammad in the sixth century in Arabia, and continues through generations who moved to central Asia and then Afghanistan and India. “Amir” means prince, or leader, but Amir Kulal had not ruled: instead, as far as I could work out from research online, he had been called that as a mark of respect, on the basis of his knowledge of Islam and his standing in the community.

He lived in the time of Timur, the empire-builder known in the west as Tamerlane, who dominated the 14th century as he conquered lands far from his native region. My mother and I had initially thought that Amir Kulal’s tomb was located in Timur’s birthplace near Samarkand, but when we tried to confirm this before the trip, all the online references pointed instead to Bukhara. To travel all that way and end up in the wrong place was not a happy thought – we could not risk a wild goose chase. The family tree had no locations, nor even dates, but I went back to the travel company with more names from it, adding in “our” Amir Kulal’s father and his son. An answer came back promptly: the Bukhara guide could confirm that he was buried just outside her city and we would be able to reach the tomb easily by car.

We began though in Khiva, which had not been part of my 1992 trip, and where the atmospheric Itchan Kala – the inner city – provided the perfect start. We had opted to stay in a historic 19th-century madrasa within its walls, and, even though we arrived at night, the tiled, half-built minaret next to it was lit up and the blue-green colours shone out against the dark sky. I am sure there are more comfortable places to stay in Khiva, for these hotel rooms are the old students’ quarters set around a courtyard: narrow rooms, the only natural light coming from small windows above the doors. They set a tone, though, for the week ahead, where much of what we would see would underline the importance of education in Uzbekistan’s history.

Once we reached Samarkand, I could compare what I saw with my photographs from 1992. Back then, my diary entry recorded that we had arrived in the city late in the day, and reached Registan Square after the monuments had closed. A “friendly old caretaker allowed us in anyway, because we had come from so far away”, I had written – and I wondered if I might now be of the very age I had then classed as “old”. Here, the madrasas on three sides of the square were as I remembered, and I learned from our guide Valentina that we were fortunate in 1992: significant restoration work had already taken place through a major project that began in the early 1970s. She took us also to the extraordinary Shah-i-Zinda, a line of small and beautifully decorated tombs of figures connected to successive rulers, including sisters, a wet nurse and, legend has it, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Timur himself is buried in a stand-alone complex, the Gur-e-Amir, while another landmark of Samarkand, the Bibi-Khanym mosque, built by his wife, revealed to me how much reconstruction as well as restoration has taken place in Uzbekistan since I was last there. In 1992, Bibi-Khanym was largely a ruin, and I was not impressed. “The woman at the gate still charged us the entrance fee, to look around something that was little more than glorified rubble,” I had written petulantly in my diary. Today, that has changed, and the work shows the scale and ambition of what was first erected at the end of the 14th century.

* * *

We were on the move a lot over the week, but a sense of wonder enveloped my mother and me as we absorbed the beauty of the sights. She has so much more knowledge relating to our heritage and faith than I do, and often I was tapping into that and asking her questions: could she decipher a particular bit of calligraphy, or put what we were seeing into the context of Timur’s descendants, the Mughal emperors in south Asia? Or even – which came first, the central Asian samsa or our own samosa? (Answer: the samsa, an easily transportable snack for travellers, which thus arrived in India.)

We were conscious everywhere we went not only of the layers of history but also of the different communities who have been part of it.

In Samarkand, we went to see one of the two remaining synagogues, after Valentina arranged it with the rabbi: he came along on his bicycle and unlocked the wooden door in a sidestreet, showing us a domed building built in the local style at the end of the 19th century. It was bittersweet: the congregation is now very small because younger people started to move away when travel restrictions were lifted with the end of the Soviet Union. Rabbi Josef looked to be in his 70s, and said he was the youngest of the community; there are no more weddings or barmitzvahs to look after. And yet, from pictures of gatherings in New York I could see that traditions of central Asian dress continue on special occasions for those who can trace their roots here.

Uzbekistan is as yet unspoiled by mass tourism and much less discovered by visitors from the UK than by those from other European countries: we saw French and Italian groups, but no British ones. The food can feel somewhat monotonous, and the Uzbek rice dish plov is, to my mind, not as good as pullao, its south Asian equivalent. But the minced kebabs are tasty, especially in Tashkent’s Chorsu bazaar, where our guide Dilya took us to the area where women cook, serve and run the show, and there are some very good Uzbek red wines. A delicious tomato and herb salad – achichuk – is served everywhere, and I had forgotten how moreish chai slimonon is – Russian-style black tea flavoured with slices of lemon and copious amounts of sugar.

When I travelled between Samarkand and Bukhara in 1992, it had involved a long and dusty bus journey, through towns then called Lenin and Communism, but this time we were on a high-speed train, covering the distance in two hours and in comfort. At Bukhara station I was amazed to spot Amir Kulal’s name on a billboard, advertising a pilgrimage-style route around the tombs of the “Seven Saints of Bukhara”: the first suggestion that this ancestor had a modern-day influence and presence that we had not expected. The city itself retains an old-world charm I had found captivating on my first visit, and we stayed in a small hotel just off a square I realised I had photographed back then, capturing men in fur hats sitting around tables at an outdoor chai khana or tea house. This time, while the wooden tables and benches, teapots and bowl-shaped cups were as I remembered, the scene was more mixed – including women, children and family groups – and much less sleepy, with a number of nearby shops and souvenir stalls.

While Uzbekistan’s monuments hit the visitor with grandeur and colour, they also reward those prepared to look for subtler messages in the decoration

From here we walked past bazaars and more madrasas – including one built by a grandson of Timur, who also endowed an extraordinary observatory and mapped the stars from Samarkand – towards Bukhara’s central square. Here the Po-i-Kalyan minaret is all that was spared by Genghis Khan when he took Bukhara in 1220. “In between the clusters of old buildings there is only waste ground,” I had written in my diary, but now there was more activity and more commercial life. Bukhara also has a great diversity of architectural styles within a relatively small geographical area, from the fine brickwork of the 10th-century mausoleum of the Samanid dynasty to a modern memorial to Imam Bukhari, the scholar who sifted through the reported sayings of the prophet and preserved only those he considered to be from trustworthy sources – a factchecking approach of which I could approve.

And so to Amir Kulal, my forefather, who would have known the streets of Bukhara as they were more than 600 years ago – and could not have imagined that later generations of his family would live far to the south, thanks to Timur’s descendant Babur venturing into India. It was on our last morning in Bukhara that our guide Makhsuma took us to the tomb, on a site which has been developed as part of a 25-year effort to rediscover and honour seven Sufi Muslim saints who lived in this area. These were Bukhara’s Masters of Wisdom, men who lived between the 10th and 16th centuries, each one passing devotional knowledge and learning on to their pupils. Amir Kulal himself came from a clan known for their work as potters, who had come from Arabia and settled to the north of Bukhara in the 12th century, where it seems their lineage back to early Islam meant they were held in high esteem. He himself rose to be head of the clan, but continued to be embedded in the family craft and worked with his hands.

This made me feel connected in a new way to the beauty of the tilework we had seen throughout our days in Uzbekistan, but Amir Kulal himself did not have a notable mausoleum after his death. Makhsuma explained that what is now a walled compound to the east of Bukhara, with a mosque and carefully laid-out garden alongside a blue-domed tomb, used to be a simple graveyard. Local people knew that Amir Kulal was buried there, and, as Uzbekistan began looking afresh at its heritage, the area around the grave became established as part of a network of seven shrines.

We arrived on a bright spring morning, walking along a path lined with small trees and stone plaques inscribed with Amir Kulal’s sayings. “Allah will not open the secrets of tariqah [a spiritual path] to the one who does not put attaining perfection as his main aim,” read one, and I felt rather unworthy when Makhsuma generously said it was her privilege to bring “the family of Amir Kulal” to his shrine. Either side of the tomb were open verandas, with benches for seating and wooden pillars carved in the traditional style we had seen many times by then. As we approached, a few families were listening to an imam reciting prayers, and we sat with them before entering the tomb itself and paying our respects in the traditional Muslim way at a grave, with the opening lines of the Qur’an.

* * *

The quest over, I was certain of two things: that my grandfather would have been very happy to think of us reaching Amir Kulal, and that it would have been impossible for him to do so, even if his plane had made it to Uzbekistan in 1992. In that turbulent period, he would have been lucky to find people with enough knowledge of the Sufi masters’ history in the region to guide him, and to pinpoint the grave in the old cemetery then on the site. Uzbekistan was still emerging from a time of uneasy coexistence between communism and Islam, which is why I had been so struck by the sight of a madrasa in operation in Bukhara that year. “It really does seem that time has stood still in this place,” I wrote in my diary after peering into the courtyard and spotting small boys sitting cross-legged, reading. On this trip, too, there were moments when the same sentiment washed over me, even in the most-visited sites.

While Uzbekistan’s monuments first hit the visitor with grandeur and colour, they also reward those prepared to linger and to look for subtler messages in the decoration and carving. These are places where walls and doors are almost talking to you, if you are able to stop and decipher the messages and inscriptions, as the man in Samarkand wanted me to do for him all those years ago. As I passed through the door of one Bukhara madrasa, carved with the prophet’s words on how the pursuit of knowledge is a duty on every Muslim male and female, I wished Afghanistan’s Taliban could see it, or at least think about it.

Throughout, I was grateful for the guides who brought the richness of these cities to life for us. My mother and I were on a journey back into our family history, but we became conscious of what the families of those we met had lived through, from forced relocation and purges under Stalin, to acute hardship and going without food in the post-Soviet economic transition. In this centuries-old setting, the disruption and pain of the last one is yet another layer of history. A journey in search of a forefather turned into a week-long experience of female companionship and it rewarded us in more ways than we expected. At the very least, my mother can use a new line of authority on her grandchildren, with a decent claim to have some saintly blood.

• Mishal Husain is taking part in a livestreamed Guardian Live event at 8pm BST on Thursday 6 June. Tickets available here.