There is no category for Uzbek-Americans on the US Census but roughly 20,000 Uzbeks are estimated to live here. The most visible communities live in the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens or the nearby city of Fair Lawn, New Jersey. The first large wave arrived after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Due to the presence of a few Uzbek restaurants in Los Angeles, I’d assume that there are some Uzbeks living here too.
INTRODUCTION TO UZBEKISTAN
Uzbekistan is a country in Central Asia, neighbored by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — all of which are also landlocked. Its capital
and largest city is Tashkent, home to about 2,309,300 people. 81% of Uzbekistan’s residents are ethnically Uzbek, 5% Russian, 4% Tajik, 3% Kazakh, 2.5% Karakalpak, and 1.5% Tatar. The country’s economy is based primarily on the production of commodities including cotton, gold, natural gas, and uranium.
Modern humans arrived on the Eurasian Steppe between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. Around 4500 BCE, small settlements of people were engaged in farming and herding. The domestication allowed for the rise of pastoral nomadism as the dominant way of life. The arid grasslands were home to Huns, Mongols, Persians, Scythians, Tocharians, and others. In 327 BCE, the Persian Empire‘s provinces of Sogdiana and Bactria, today parts of Uzbekistan, were conquered by Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great. For centuries after, the land was part of several Persian, Hephthalite, and Gokturk people.
The cities of Bukhara and Samarkand arose as important centers along the Silk Road. Timur was born around 1330 CE in the city of Kesh (now Shakhrisabz). In 1370 founded the Chagatai Khanate, marking the beginning of the Timurid Empire. Timur hoped to restore the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan and did succeed in conquering a large region. On his way to a battle, Timur died of an illness in 1405 and shortly afterward his empire crumbled.
The nomadic Uzbeks entered the picture in 1501, arriving from the north to invade the Transoxiana region. The Uzbeks soon conquered all of modern-day Uzbekistan, creating their own Khanates, including the Khanate of Bukhara, and the Khanate of Khiva, and the Khanate of Kokand. Continuous warfare, the rise of oceanic trade and fall of overland trade, and the invention of firearms led to Central Asia’s reduced importance and isolation. For centuries, Kazakhs, Mongols, Persians — and later Chinese and Russians — weilded their their power over the region. Between 1868 and 1876, Uzbek khanates were incorporated into the Russian Empire.
Russian immigration into Uzbekistan increased with the arrival of rail and continued during World War II, when many fled European Russia for more distant corners of the Soviet state. Stalin also forcibly deported non-Russian Soviet people including Soviet Chechens, Ingush, Kabardians, Kalmyks, Koreans, and Tatars, under the pretense that they were colluding with the Nazis.
Uzbekistan regained its independence when the USSR collapsed in 1991. A period of violent turmoil and instability followed although authoritarian Islam Abdugʻaniyevich Karimov has regularly and brutally squashed dissidence since coming to power in 1989. [UPDATE: Karivmov died 2 September 2016]. According to observers, Uzbekistan has never had free or fair elections and has next to no press freedom. In the name of the “war on terror,” nearly 10,000 political dissidents have been imprisoned and in many cases executed. Foreign observers documented widespread corruption, kidnapping, rape, and torture at the hands of authorities before they, along with most journalists, were expelled in 2005 — the same year Uzbek troops opened fire on demonstrators in Andijan, killing an estimated 200–1,500 people.
The Uzbek president has some ties to the US. His youngest daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, has lived in Los Angeles County for at least a few years, it seems. In 2013 it was reported that she put her $100,000 per month Beverly Park rental back on the market after paying $47 million of a Beverly Hills mansion known as “Le Palais,” built by developer Mohamed Hadid.
Another recognized Uzbek-Angeleno is Milana Aleksandrovna Vayntrub, an actress born in Tashkent in 1987, when Uzbekistan was part of the USSR. When three, she moved with her parents to West Hollywood. She dropped out from Beverly Hills High School and later trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Vayntrub is Jewish. Jewish traders were mentioned by Marco Polo in his chronicles of Central Asia and some writers suggest that Jews were present in Central Asia around the 10th century, BCE. In the Middle Ages, Bukhara was still home to a large Jewish population, known as Bukharan (or Bukhari) Jews.
Uzbek cuisine is largely a fusion of Chinese, Persian, and Turkish elements, adapted to local tastes — including the taste for lamb. Uzbekistan’s national dish is palov, an entree made with rice, meat, carrots, and onions. The national beverage is green tea. Other dishes include shurpa, lagman, manti, chuchvara, somsa, dimlama, and kebabs. Likely the first Uzbek restaurant in Los Angeles was the one simply known as Uzbekistan, located in Hollywood, which operated from roughly 2006 until 2008.
In 2013, as part of the LAPL Central Library‘s free lectures given by Culinary Historians of Southern California, Charles Perry presented a talk called Eating My Way Across Uzbekistan. Today there are three establishments selling (or planning to sell) Uzbek food including EuroAsia Restaurant (in Encino) and Tashkent Produce (in Valley Village). Samarkand Cafe is currently moving toward an opening Downtown‘s Historic Core and, although not yet open, somehow already has eight Google reviews.
The first time I heard Uzbek music was in the Napster age, when out of curiosity I typed the word “Uzbekistan” into the search bar and found a song titled, “Motherland Uzbekistan.” I don’t have it anymore nor do I remember the artist but it began with someone saying in English, “Welcome to enchanting pop music of Uzbekistan.” I’m not sure how representative it is of Uzbek pop but to my untrained ears it sounded like Middle Eastern pop. Rock and heavy metal also enjoy some popularity in Uzbekistan, as does rap, although a special government body exists purely to censor it.
Uzbek’s great indigenous musical tradition is Shashmaqam, believed to have arisen in the 1500s. It’s sound and form are closely related to Persian music. Traditional Uzbek music was banned by the Soviets for many decades but after independence, returned to the airwaves. The most popular modern practitioner of Shashmaqam was Turgun Alimatov, a virtuoso tanbur, dutar, and sato player who died in 2008. In 2010 Smithsonian Folkways released a series of excellent volumes of music title Music of Central Asia. Volume 2 (Invisible Face of the Beloved: Classical Music of the Tajiks and Uzbeks), Volume 4 (Bardic Divas: Women’s Voices in Central Asia) and Volume 7 (In the Shrine of the Heart: Popular Classics from Bukhara and Beyond) all feature Uzbek performers and are, like the entire set, very much worth tracking down.
Film production began in Uzbekistan under the Soviets. The first film shot in Uzbekistan was Клыч (Klych, 1935). Prominent filmmakers born in the Uzbek SSR include Ali Hamroyev, Georgi Yungvald-Khilkevich, Melis Abzalov, Shuhrat Abbosov, and Yoʻldosh Aʼzamov. Important films produced since independence include Abdullajon (1991), Osmondagi bolalar (2002), Erkak (2005), and the Uzbek-Korean co-production, Hanaan (2011). In 2010, Angelenos Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev made the acclaimed documentary, The Desert of Forbidden Art, about the creation of a museum of forbidden art in Uzbekistan.