In Russian Turkestan, by Annette Meakim

As a woman traveling in Central Asia in the late 19th century, Meakim was able to access the world of women, which was largely inaccessible to the predominantly male travelers of the time.

Of course, the biases of her times are evident, i.e. in her extended discussion and generalizations regarding the beauty or lack thereof possessed by Central Asian women. Meakim’s book is not, nor is it intended to be, an authoritative or comprehensive description of Central Asia, but it does represent sights and ideas that a European traveler would have encountered in the region and thus serves a purpose for those interested in the area.

Meakim recorded some enlightening observations about women’s education. She writes:

Many Russians living in Turkestan had assured me that such a thing as a girls’ school did not exist, … so that I was surprised to find, on inquiry among the Sart ladies of the higher class, that each had been to school in her time, and that some had even kept up their studies, such as they were, after marriage (87).

One man, whom Meakim identified as the chief judge of Samarkand, reported that his wife, by reading whenever she was sad, had read more than two thousand books (poor lady)! Meakim visited a school run by the woman’s mother, at which both boys and girls studied (p. 87-88). At another school in Khokand, the proprietress informed Meakim that the entire course of study was five years. Some girls left at age nine to get married, and some boys continued on at a boys’ school. Both of the instructors whom Meakim interviewed were paid in gifts from the parents rather than currency (pp. 90-91).

Meakim also reported a fair amount of economic activity among women, such as farming silk worms, embroidering caps, and copying books. One young wife, at the age of fourteen, was the mother of a two-month-old child and “had earned a considerable sum of money in her short life” (p. 103). The one activity that most non-nomadic women, aside from the most impoverished, did not pursue was agriculture, this being considered improper. Those who did venture into the cotton fields had to be constantly on the watch in order to cover themselves at the approach of an unrelated male (p. 105).

Meakim’s ethnic classifications are a little mysterious, i.e., when she identifies Tajiks as an amalgam of Aral, Persian, Turkoman, and every other nationality represented in the area, excepting Uzbeks. She offers an interesting discussion of the term Sart, similar to those I have encountered everywhere, always with a slightly different slant but usually concluding that the term is principally demographic, rather than ethnic, and refers to the settled population in contrast to the nomadic (p. 18). It was interesting to note this account she reports from the lips of a Central Asian, “a learned Sart in Margelan”:

The earliest inhabitants of Fergana were fire-worshippers, people called “Tojeliks,” because their king wore a crown and was known as “Tajik.” [“Taj” means “crown.”] He also asserted that the word “Sart” meant “stout and round,” and that the term had been first used by the Kirgiz to distinguish the sedentary population from themselves (p. 34).

I have never run across the term Sart during my own travels in Central Asia nor in any of my contemporary reading about the area and am not aware of its continued use, but it is widespread in writings by European travelers of the 19th century.

Most of the book (the first twenty-three chapters) is organized topically, making it easy to access information on specific subjects, such as trees, animals and insects, representatives of “foreign” nations (i.e. Afghans and Indians), and “native industries” (such as the making of carpets, knives, hats, and brass and copper items). For the most part, I passed over the descriptions of her personal travels, comprising the last six chapters of the book, finding them relevant for my purposes, although she does include a few useful details there as well.

Among the more intimate details of Central Asian life, Meakim includes informative descriptions of the interior of typical Central Asian homes (sparsely furnished, brilliantly painted walls and ceilings, wall niches for storing household items, separate courtyards for men and women), types of vessels for eating and drinking, food storage methods, common foods, water sources, veiling, bathing practices, laundering practices, hairstyles, cosmetics, and jewelry (chapter 12, “Sart Women”).

In her discussion of common ailments, Meakim identifies goiter, malaria, leprosy, and a skin parasite known as rishte. She reports that women were beginning to trust Russian women doctors, assisted by Tatar nurses, and keeping them quite busy. She concludes this chapter with a report of burial rites and mourning practices (chapter 16, “Common Ailments”).

Meakim devotes another chapter to the Jews of Central Asia. Some of this reads like hearsay, such as her report of a conversation with a Russian who averred that “Sarts” had a great deal of Jewish blood in their veins. The veracity of other accounts is less clear. It is easy to believe her assertion that life was hard for Jews under the Central Asian emirs. She claims that Russians evinced a regard for Central Asian Jews that they did not extend to Polish and Lithuanian Jews, imputing to the former a reputation for honesty. Accounts I have read elsewhere support her assertion that Jews were primarily employed in the dying of silk. She includes a description of a synagogue, as well as brief accounts of Jewish marriage customs in Central Asia (chapter 17, “Israel in Central Asia”).

Here are few other interesting tidbits I picked up:

Boots seem to have been the footwear of choice. Everyone wore a sort of “leather stockings” that ascended to the knee and were covered by overshoes, or “goloshes,” upon leaving the house (p. 130). Meakim includes an extended description of the embellishments adorning more expensive boots (that is, the “stockings”) and the process by which they were achieved (pp. 134-136).

Wealthy women of Bukhara often wore jewelry “brought direct from Paris” or coral imported from China by way of Kashgar (p. 132).

Nose rings were worn by Jewish women and girls, but never by women of other nationalities (p. 133).

A description of an evening entertainment provided in a bath house (for men only, of course) included dancing boys, a ballad delivered by a singer with “guitar,” and a sort of Punch and Judy puppet show (p. 159-164).

Some of Meakim’s accounts concurred with my own observations in Central Asia more than a hundred years later, such as the use of an herb called usma to darken the eyebrows, often connecting them over the bridge of the nose (p. 124). Other habits were unfamiliar to me, such as (according to Meakim) the use of sour milk to wash one’s hair once a week (rinsing it out, in the case of the rich, or not, in the case of the poor) (p. 122).

In reading travel literature, one always has to wonder whether the author’s experiences and observations are representative or merely the experience of one time and place. Meakim acknowledges the risk of generalization. She notes: “In describing the dress and personal appearance of Sart women, I should give an erroneous impression were I to speak of any one habit or custom as if it were a hard and fast rule. There is as much variety in their indoor dress as in our own” (p. 120).

Recent paperback reprints are available for as little as $18; the full text is also available online from the Internet Archive’s American Libraries: In Russian Turkestan.

Edition consulted: In Russian Turkestan, by Annette M.B. Meakim, London: George Allen, 1903.

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