Uzbekistan is unique. Along with Lichtenstein, it is one of only two, double-landlocked countries in the world. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, the republic is Central Asia’s largest supplier of electricity through its significant hydroelectric and solar energy investment. Since 2016, with a change in its leadership, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has embarked on an ambitious policy, termed ‘A Quiet Revolution,’ with the objective of a transition to a market economy, and appears to be making significant progress.
With a population of 32.5 million, and 93% Muslim, Uzbekistan has the largest Islamic population in Central Asia, however it could in no way be seen as a closed society, as many versions and degrees of Islam are practiced by a mainly Sunni population. This is almost certainly a consequence of the divide between reform and tradition, and the diverse effects of secularization, or disagreement in the role of Islam in the continued development of the country.
“When it comes to Ramadhan,” said Baha, an expat from Uzbekistan, “it is not extremely strict, and observing Ramadhan fasting is very much a personal choice. Even within families there may be different attitudes to the fast. It is acceptable to eat in public, and most restaurants remain open, though patrons who are dining will probably be obscured from passersby, out of respect for those who are fasting. Also, unlike in Oman, the hours of work are not adjusted or shortened.”
Friends and families, in normal times, take turns at hosting each other during Ramadhan, for the Iftar, which is usually a big meal with three or four courses set on a low table called a dastarkhan. Traditionally, an Uzbek feast is eaten by hand and consists of starters of sweets like Kunzhutli Engok, Peanuts with sesame and fruits, then vegetables and salads, followed by soups such as a light savory Shurpa, or a much thicker, broth type, Mastava. The main course will usually be of Sashlyk, barbequed meat on skewers, Plov, a biryani type rice dish, the always popular Beshbarmak, horsemeat and noodles, Manti, meat dumplings, and for something different, Naryn a spicy meat and noodle favorite. After the meal, kids in a typical Uzbek neighborhood go from door to door singing Ramadhan songs. They are given money and sweets, a bit like Halloween’s trick or treating.
“Currently, there is a quarantine nationwide, and almost everything is closed,” continued Baha. “People are only allowed to go out to buy groceries. There is no singing of songs and inviting friends and family members for Iftar, enjoying their fellowship, and company, as people are strongly advised to stay home. It is also now being advised that people should not fast if people have any of the symptoms of COVID-19, so Ramadhan in Uzbekistan will be a subdued occasion this year.”
Of course, as has been identified in other countries this year, COVID-19 offers greater opportunities for religious and personal reflection, renewal of commitments to the faith and society, and a reminder of the charitable needs of the less fortunate.