Tag Archives: Central Asia

The death of an Italian archaeologist who knew so many 20th century secrets

Maurizio Tosi, highly-regarded archaeologist

My shoulder in 1991 - pulverised in two places

Uncovering the past: my shoulder was pulverised in two places

In 1995 I wrote the autobiography of comedian Malcolm Hardee.

‘Ghosted’ seems such a strange word to use.

In 1997/1998 I almost wrote the autobiography of someone else: an Italian archaeologist.

His opinion was that archaeology and biography were very similar: both involved uncovering the past from fragments and sometimes having to simply guess what had really happened. Sometimes, he suggested, it is even the same with autobiographies.

Yesterday morning, I woke up with a pain in my lower back and hips and upper legs. I was hit by a truck in 1991. One long-term effect it has had on me is that the bottom of my spine is slightly damaged. The bones occasionally go slightly ‘out of alignment. What usually happens is that I get a pain on one or other side of my hips and, as it mends, the pain moves round my waist and ends up at the bottom of the spine – where the real trouble lies – and then it goes away.

Initially, the problem is perceived to be somewhere it is not. Normally it takes about three nights of sleeping on the floor for the pain to go away.

This morning, at around 02.30am, I was lying on my bedroom floor unable to get to sleep because I could find no position to lie in that did not give me an awkward nerve-end-tingling pain.

For no particular reason at all – except that it came into my head – I decided to Google the phrase Maurizio Tosi death and this came up

The obituary of Maurizio Tosi which I Googled

The obituary of Maurizio Tosi which I stumbled on

MAURIZIO TOSI (1944-2017) 

February 26th, 2017 

“A leading figure in Italian archaeology and Co-Director of the Italy Oman international research program studying the beginnings of navigation and long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean died at the age of 72 yesterday in Ravenna, Italy. The cremation ceremony will take place at Ravenna on this next Monday at 3.30 pm. Friend and colleagues are organizing a commemoration in Ravenna on March 5th at 3 pm.”

I had not thought about him for years. Today is Wednesday. It would seem he died on Saturday with his funeral two days ago and I haven’t thought about him for years. Strange that I looked him up.

We were both fascinated by Shelley’s poem Ozymandias which ends:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I never wrote Maurizio Tosi’s autobiography.

I had met him by accident at Ashgabat airport when we were both leaving Turkmenistan in 1995.

In 1997, in London and in Rome, we discussed the background to his autobiography.

In 1998, I travelled to Italy again to chat to him in Rome, Sienna, Bologna, Ravenna, Milan and on the island of Pantelleria.

Eventually, the project fell through because he tried to financially screw a friend of mine. His attitude to honesty was as variable as the wind in the deserts he often professionally frequented. He was a highly troubled man but also highly intelligent. Or, at least, well-read.

A younger Maurizio Tosi in one of the deserts he frequented

A younger Maurizio Tosi in one of the deserts he frequented

There were nine drafts of the book, some in the first person; some in the third; some in a mixture of both.

The book’s title was to have been Traveller.

When we had first discussed the idea of the book, he had e-mailed me:

“In archaeology, in history and in politics, the mistake that’s often made is looking at effects, not at primary causes. If you want to know why something developed, you have to look back in time before it existed: at what caused it to exist and develop in the way it did. It is the same with people and the same with me.”

Since childhood, he told me, the mind inside his skull had always felt it was in a darkened cave, looking out – frightened – at a world it did not understand.

When I had first suggested the title Traveller for his autobiography, he had reacted in a characteristically OTT way.

“Yes! yes!” he had cried dramatically (in an e-mail). “Traveller! It has so much meaning! I travel through time. I travel through different lands. I travel to escape from reality. I travel because the day-to-day details of everyday life are a problem for me. They always have been. It is all the little things that drive me to distraction – bills, banks, mortgages, paperwork, bureaucracy. I can’t live alone, but I can’t stay faithful to any woman with whom I live. I want stability, but I get bored by it when I have it. Traveller is the ideal title! It is so symbolic!”

It was like listening to someone impersonate an Italian.

“And you are also a fellow traveller,” I said.

One key point in his life had been in 1967.

Le Monde 2013 - Maurizio Tosi, archaeologist and ex-spy Advisor to the Sultan of Oman, the Italian palaeoethnologist was also an intelligence officer of the Soviet bloc.

2013 Le Monde article on “Maurizio Tosi, the archaeologist & ex-spy”

He was in communist East Germany when the Cold War between the Soviets and the West was at its height. Most of the people he had worked with in his Soviet-backed Network had already been caught – they had ‘disappeared’ – some had been captured by the West, some had been disposed of by the East. He was the last one left of those he knew.

He told me he had been in West Berlin and had been asked to deliver an envelope to a town in East Germany. He knew the envelope contained microfilm, because he had made the same delivery before. He had no overnight visa for East Germany, so he had to get a train back to East Berlin by 11.00pm and return through the Friedrichstrasse security checkpoint into West Berlin before midnight, otherwise he was in trouble.

He told me: “East German Security was separate from the police. Everything was separate. Everything was chaotic. There were so many different agencies all working separately from each other – sometimes in competition with each other. I didn’t have full coverage. It wasn’t as if I was officially working for the East German secret service. I was working for the Network but the complete implications of that were uncertain. I knew my network was handled by part of a section of East Germany’s security system and was linked to the Soviet Union, but things had changed. Everything had changed that year.

Erich Apel

The East German politician Erich Apel ‘committed suicide’

“When the East German ‘Planning Minister’ Erich Apel ‘committed suicide’ in 1965… when Apel was made to die in 1965… it sent a signal to all marginal people like me. Apel had been one of the masterminds and controllers of our subversion operation and when it was said he ‘shot himself due to depression’ it was clear something was changing very fundamentally.

“Our entire project of undermining and fighting American power in the Third World – and ultimately in Europe – was falling apart. Ché Guevara had already – and very clearly – been abandoned in Bolivia.”

Maurizio Tosi had been part of a network run by the East Germans for the Soviet Union. He had been trained partly in Europe, partly in Cuba, partly in South America. His job as an archaeologist meant that he could legitimately be in ‘fringe’ areas – Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. He was in Afghanistan when the Soviet tanks rolled in.

When we talked, it was mostly on tape.

“I dislike lies,” I warned him, early on.

“But ambiguity?” he had asked.

“Ah,” I replied slowly. “I’m fascinated by ambiguity. And by…..”

“Me too,” he had interrupted.

“…..and by amoral characters,” I had completed.

Maurizio Tosi in his office in 1998

Maurizio Tosi in his 1998 office was “fascinated by ambiguity”

During one of our chats he told me, as we sat in his book-lined room in Rome: “One of the most famous legends of Central Asia tells of a horseman. The horseman is the standard-bearer of the great Khan. As the Khan’s army are entering a city after a glorious victory, the standard-bearer sees a dark lady looking at him. The dark lady has fearsome eyes, as if she is looking right inside him. He becomes scared that this woman is a witch and she has put the Evil Eye on him, so he goes to the great Khan and tells him his fears and says he wants to go to another city.

Of course! says the great Khan. Give him the finest horse we have! Let him escape!

“So the standard-bearer takes the fastest horse in the Great Khan’s army, rides off across the desert and, in record time, arrives at the other city. Then he sees the dark lady standing by the city gates, waiting for him. She looks at him, smiles and says:

I was so worried. I knew I was due to meet you here today but, when I saw you in that other city so very far away, I was worried that you would not reach here in time for our appointment.

“And the standard-bearer realises that the dark lady with the eyes that look right inside him is Death. I always feel I am running like the standard bearer,  that there is never enough time and I know I will never complete what I should do.”

RIP Maurizio Tosi (1944-2017)

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Goat dragging and mounted girl chasing near climax at the World Nomad Games

Buzkashi_Game (Photo by Gideon Tsang via Wikipedia)

Buzkashi as played in Afghanistan (goat carcass on the right)  (Photograph by Gideon Tsang via Wikipedia)

In my blog yesterday, I mentioned that my friend Lynn had drawn to my attention that the first World Nomad Games are currently taking place in Kyrgyzstan – in fact, on the shores of Issyk-Kul, in Cholpon-Ata City.

Information on this event is, alas, a bit thin on the ground and I seem to have missed a BBC TV report from the Games. They started on Tuesday and climax tomorrow with the finals of the traditional Central Asian sport of Kok-Boru (goat dragging – also known as Buzkashi and Kokpar).

Unfortunately, this blog has no contacts in Kyrgyzstan (though I am open to offers), so I am reliant heavily on the BBC who were told by nomad storyteller Doolotbek Sidikov:

“We inherited Kok-Boru from our ancestors. Courageous and brave men were picked up to look after the horses and sheep and often wolves would attack them. When a pack of wolves would attack them, they would surround them in a circle and then grab the wolves with their bare hands to throw them away, sometimes tearing them apart. People then started using a dead goat as game to practise.”

It sounds similar to how football in Scotland developed from regular Saturday night drinking bouts in Glasgow.

A Kyrgyz stamp featuring horse wrestling

A Kyrgyz stamp featuring horse wrestling

But the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan is far more that goat-dragging. It is a multi-sport event which also includes Oodarysh (wrestling on a horse), Tyin Emmei (picking up a coin while riding a horse at full speed) and the not-fully-explained Toguz Korkool. As far as I can figure out, this is something akin to a ‘board game’ played in a field of pits with 90 goat droppings.

Over-all,  400 athletes from 20 countries are taking part including competitors from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia (Altai, Bashkiria, Buryatia, Yakutia etc), Tajikistan, Turkey,  Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The organising committee point out that the “sports are in no way inferior in staginess and popularity of the modern Olympics. Games give powerful impetus to rebirth of original national sports, spiritual self-awareness.”

The Kyrgyzstan embassy also points out that “the near-absence of chemical fertilisers gives Kyrgyz beans an environmental purity that beans from other countries can’t match.”

Perhaps one of the nomad sports least likely to make a transition to the Olympic Games is Kyz-Kuumai – Chasing Girls On Horseback.

Dzangil Dairbekova whips boys

Dzangil Dairbekova told the BBC why she likes whipping boys

One of the sport’s female participants – Dzangil Dairbekova –  explains:

“I have competed in girl chasing for over four years now. Girl chasing is trying to avoid getting captured by a boy. If he catches her, he is allowed to kiss her three times but, if the girl escapes, then she can whip him three times. I have whipped boys many times. I love it and it makes me feel very much like a nomad.”

The BBC report on the World Nomad Games is on YouTube.

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One night in Tashkent, I did not sleep with a Nazi

I am knackered by lack of sleep and cannot think of anything to blog about, so I am reduced to remembering what happened on Friday 3rd May 1985 in Bukhara and Tashkent, in what was then Soviet Central Asia.

I was on a 37 day group tour of the Soviet Union, Mongolia and China. We started in what was then Leningrad (later re-named St Petersburg after the collapse of Communism) and ended in Hong Kong (which was, at that time, still a British colony and not part of China).

In our group, there were Americans, Australians, Canadians, English, Germans and Scots. This is an extract from my diary:

_____

Friday 3rd May, 1985

Our group leader, Jimmy, is a dour and wizened Glaswegian in his mid-fifties who, when not taking large groups of strangers to exotic locations, works as a barman in London. He says he has been coming to the Soviet Union for 23 years and has never been invited into an ordinary Soviet citizen’s home. He has been visiting China for 4 years and has been invited to ordinary people’s homes several times.

“Russians are so completely paranoid,” he explains, “They don’t even trust their neighbours in case they report them for something.”

At the airport in Bukhara, a woman border guard sniffs and wants to confiscate a plastic bottle of water carried by American platinum blonde Carla. Having got through Customs, we are told we cannot sit on any seats in the Departure Lounge because “the Departure Room seats are not for sitting on”. We are taken to wait on the tarmac, separated by several yards from the locals already patiently waiting there, in case we contaminate them or vice versa.

As usual, the locals have to wait while we are first to board the smallish prop plane with its wing above the fuselage. The locals look at us forlornly with something between hatred and resignation. They are seated separately from us and are collected by different airport buses when we land at Tashkent.

In the afternoon, we are taken to a collective farm. Someone asks what happens in years when the crops fail. “We never have crop failures,” comes back the immediate reply. Seeing us laugh, the Party member pauses, taken aback, then adds: “ Once we had a crop failure… Once.”

At each stop, the singles in our group have to share with different members of the group – this is Jimmy’s wise idea to avoid people being paired permanently with people they hate.

Tonight, I have to share a room with one of our Germans – Alex – a boorish old man in his sixties who keeps geese and who, at every stop in Russia, blithely told the Inturist people that he had been in their country once before – during the War. This went down particularly badly at Leningrad.

He leches after any women under 30, sometimes clenching his fist and raising his forearm behind their back: a sort of retired Nazi Benny Hill.

His animal-like snoring is so loud that the walls virtually vibrate and, during the night, it continually wakes me up. I find I can temporarily stop the snoring by clapping my hands, but it soon re-starts. I progress to turning the radio quickly on and off, banging my headboard, throwing headache tablets at him then finally putting the light on above his bed head. All to no avail.

It is like sleeping in a room with a Panzer tank revving up its engines.

I try not to think about what he might have done when he was in the Soviet Union during the War.

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A death in Scotland yesterday, Albert Einstein and the legend of the horsemen of Central Asia

Yesterday morning, the morning of Christmas Eve, my mother’s cousin died at home in Scotland.

Here is the closing passage from a book I almost wrote: the biography of an Italian archaeologist. There were personality problems. It may still get written…

***

“One of the most famous legends of Central Asia tells of a horseman,” he told me as we sat in his book-lined room in Rome. “The horseman is the standard-bearer of the great Khan. As the Khan’s army are entering a city after a glorious victory, the standard-bearer sees a dark lady looking at him. The dark lady has fearsome eyes, as if she is looking right inside him. He becomes scared that this woman is a witch and she has put the Evil Eye on him, so he goes to the great Khan and tells him his fears and says he wants to go to another city.

Of course! says the great Khan. Give him the finest horse we have! Let him escape!

“So the standard-bearer takes the fastest horse in the Great Khan’s army, rides off across the desert and, in record time, arrives at the other city. Then he sees the dark lady standing by the city gates, waiting for him. She looks at him, smiles and says:

I was so worried. I knew I was due to meet you here today but, when I saw you in that other city so very far away, I was worried that you would not reach here in time for our appointment.

“And the standard-bearer realises that the dark lady with the eyes that look right inside him is Death. I always feel I am running like the standard bearer,  that there is never enough time and I know I will never complete what I should do.

“Another Central Asian legend tells of a horseman who rides alone across the desert but, when he looks at the shadow he casts, he sees that Death is riding behind him. The shadow of her long scythe is touching his shadow as she swings it backwards and forwards. At any time, she may strike the final fatal blow but, until then, he only sees the shadow.

“Since Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, we know that time and space cannot be separated: if you travel across physical space, you are travelling through time as well. When I was given that bouquet of flowers in Iran, the past caught up with me. I had been running, turned round and saw a shadow. I realised I had managed to destroy my life piece by piece. I destroyed almost everything. Lovers, career, options, the potential for wealth, peace of mind, success.  I somehow managed to throw away all the possibilities. My failure at the Burnt City was too great to recover from. When I saw the site for the first time, remember I shit in my pants? When I sat in that tent and saw the sunlight coming through the flap and saw the desert, boundless and bare, stretching beyond. I couldn’t deal with it. I could feel the ground starting to go down and down in a spiral under my feet. I could see and feel Time sucking me in. But the irony is that, as an archaeologist, I don’t feel I’m dealing in dead and destroyed things. I feel the continuity and the importance of what has survived, lasted and developed. Archaeologists don’t uncover dead civilizations. They uncover the interplay between events and people.

“I know I was close to death in Kurdistan when the young boy shot me in the arm; I still bear the physical scar.

“I know I was closer to death when I was in Haiti and faced the Tonton Macoutes. That was really very close.

“But the effect of imminent physical death was much less on me than the effect of those events way back in my childhood. Those scars stay with you through time and they never heal. The first five years of your life are what is important because you are so receptive and the scale of importance given to each event is so gigantic. When I was about three, my father came and told me that, if I didn’t do some little unimportant thing he was going to beat me. I was three years old, looking up at this overwhelmingly strong adult who was looking down at me with a very serious face. I felt so helpless and in such immediate danger. But my father was just joking. Joking! The result was that all the insecurities started to take hold of my mind and, later in life, I wanted to either control my insecurities or run away from them or both. I never wanted to feel that helpless again. My father doesn’t even remember it happening. But I remember it vividly 51 years later. The scars have travelled through time like the bullet wound on my arm.

“Maybe you are even affected before you are born. The foetus is receptive to light and sound and voices and pressures and pains and chemical variations in the body of your mother…..and your individual mind – your unique neural map – is formed at the same time your brain is formed. By the time you are five years old, maybe 80%, 90% of your future is already within you?

“People tell me I have a good memory for dates, but even I am still surprised how vivid something that happened 51 years ago can be in my mind. Things that happened 10 years ago are as vivid as the present. I remember my days with Wendy the Wessex Bird so vividly. The feeling of her body; the first time I penetrated her. Just a week ago, I saw Ingrid crossing a street in Rome to avoid meeting me. She is now 48 and still looks lovely; I could vividly remember her coming through a door thirty years ago. As vivid as yesterday. The past is not the past; it is still living today, travelling with you in your memory.

“If I find a ruined building, I need to know what happened inside the building: the forces that co-operated to make it what it was. The energy and social inter-action. About 5,000 years ago, the Arabian civilization was created. But it is not a distant planet. Those ‘dead’ things and ‘dead’ people’s actions are alive because of the long-term effects of their existence and their actions. That is the psychology of archaeology. It is like a giant meteor falling on Earth; it creates all kinds of changes and has all kinds of after-effects. When you watch a stone thrown into a pool, the effects ripple out and eventually disappear but, with events in history everything is linked. In order to understand the Arabian civilization of 3,000 BC, you have to go back to what was happening between 5,000 BC and 4,000 BC. Ruins don’t talk; what talks is the actions of people and you can only judge people by their actions.

“At the end of the Don Juan story, as I remember it, he is having dinner with Doña Aminta who is a depressed, boring, unhappy woman. But he has also invited the Stone Guest to dinner – the ghost of Don Gonzalo, whom he killed. While Doña Aminta is praying, the hellish Stone Guest invites Don Juan to follow him to Hell. He is not dragged or kidnapped…he has a free choice between life with a depressive, unhappy woman and the road to Hell. And Don Juan chooses to go to Hell. That’s my choice too. I want to be engulfed in the flames.

“I don’t want any name on my grave, because I have never had a name of my own,” he told me. “I only want those two lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.”

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

“Do you remember the four lines before that quote?” I asked.

“I forget,” he said unconvincingly.

“The full quote is better,” I suggested.

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

But, when he died at the very start of the 21st century, it was suddenly and violently and there was no tombstone because there was no body. He had gone to talk to an acquauintance in the New World. The acquaintance’s office was high atop a tower which looked down on the rest of the world as if from heaven. I checked which side of the building the office was on. He must have have stood high up in the financial district of New York early on that bright, clear September morning and seen the plane coming straight at the building. He was consumed in the flames when that first airliner hit the World Trade Center on Tuesday 11th September 2001.

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