Daria Rose


June, 2022
Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Allah, if you exist, don’t let them see the trunk. (A box of kitchen utensils, another with sheets and pillows, a duffel full of clothes.) You don’t exactly lug your pots and pans on a business trip. They won’t let me cross. My father asked a former colleague in Tashkent to state in writing that I was the only lawyer qualified to mediate his property dispute. (During my four years as a labor attorney in Kazan I only defended injured contract workers.) The border agent points his flashlight at the letter. His glasses reflect the glare like needles of lightning.

The guard squints, “So, you’re driving for four days, from Kazan to Samarkand, to settle an argument about some guy’s car?” 

I see myself reflected in his lenses: a man in his late twenties with two-day stubble, who drove his Toyota Yaris to Yaysan, the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, three weeks after the conscription call. I know that he knows, and I don’t want to make him feel like a fool for implying that I know more than him. Neither can name the truth hanging around us. It would violate the conventions of this theater: his life as a Russian military guard, my life as an able-bodied young man fleeing the country waging a war. I look at him and implore, with my eyes only. He’s a border agent for the Russian state, the last guy in the world to feel empathy for me. What I’m asking of him, he either couldn’t accomplish himself or believes should result in imprisonment. My only possible gambit is to play the meek man with a smaller dick. Look, I’m so weak that you wouldn’t trust me with an AK-47 anyway. The name on his badge is Sergeant Rostov, and my name (he reads it on my external passport) is Rustam Naibetov. That alone gives him power—he is Russian, and I am Tatar. To him I’m a piece of grub rotting in the corner, too repulsive to touch, too small to bother to clean. 

“Naibetov, do you have a family?”

I unlock my phone to show him my screensaver photo, “Yes, Sergeant, my wife and I have a six-month-old. That’s why I want to settle this case quickly and return to Kazan.” 

The lieutenant flips my internal passport to the marriage page, and reads out loud, “Married to Gulnara Ruslan-kyzym on June 29, 2020. Drive fast, Naibetov, don’t miss your anniversary.” 

I nod until my stiff neck aches, “I certainly won’t, Sergeant, thank you so much.” 

He grips my documents for a moment too long before letting me take them from his hand, and I’m out of there.

I can’t believe it. I text Gulnara, “passed the border.” I won’t express in writing the fucking relief of driving through the empty steppes of Kazakhstan. Too risky. It’s midnight in Kazan, so I don’t expect her to respond. My phone lights up in ten seconds. “Allahu Akbar,” says my wife who never believed in anything.

The last three months will make you believe anything. Crisp moonlight licks the tongue of the road. No other lights, no cars. Telegram groups warned of multi-hour lines at the border. For four weeks I refused to leave Gulnara and baby Kareem, so I must have missed the mass male migration. And it’s three on a Wednesday morning in a tiny border town. I started driving before dawn. I should stop at a hostel soon. My hands jitter like I just drank three cups of coffee. Crossing the border turned from a scare into a thrill. I’ll keep driving while I can.

I turn on airplane mode so they can’t track my location. Fuck, how will I navigate? Google Maps still instructs me to turn right at 146 kilometers. Gulnara. My wife must have downloaded offline Google Maps on my phone. I cry while Broken Social Club chimes on my Spotify downloads. Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me


On Friday I pull up to Hotel Ruhina in Gagarin, five kilometers away from the Kazakh-Uzbek border. Crossing into Uzbekistan was uneventful. The guard stamped my passport without lifting his eyes at me. Once you exit Russia, they don’t care what brings you to the steppes. 

The first thing I see is dust. The streets are clad with dust, the building stones are hardened dust, the dusted-up signs are unintelligible. Dust blankets the inside of my eyes so I can barely keep them open. Four other cars with Russian plates are parked on the same block. I check in and pay for a night. The room is three times more expensive than the price quoted in Telegram groups three weeks ago but still dirt cheap. Russian men in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Georgia, and Turkey stick out like a dollop of sour cream in borscht. Migrants must make easy targets: they lack a support network, carry loads of cash, and cram their life’s belongings into their car trunk—pots and pans, clothes and sheets. At least as a Tatar man I blend in on the streets. It’s about time we have some advantage over the Russians.

I carry my duffel bag to the room. I turn the key five times until I realize the room is unlocked. The boxes should remain in the trunk until I reach Samarkand. I rinse my face in the metal sink. I come back downstairs to find a table at the restaurant. The PVC tablecloth is stamped with squares of pink roses. The old owner notices me, nods, and yells something in Uzbek. I smile stupidly, and she limps back to the kitchen. I don’t see a menu, at least not one I could read. The Telegram groups claimed that everyone in Uzbekistan speaks Russian, but that must exclude tiny villages. I’ve been subsisting on fried ochpochmaks and cigarettes for the past four days. I’ll eat anything. A young guy with a bushy beard brings black tea in a porcelain cup missing a handle, along with three cubes of brown sugar on a saucer. A sparrow swims in the sunny patch of dust outside the open window. 

I light up a Winston. Holy shit. I’m in Uzbekistan. Alone. I don’t know a single person in this country. Or in any of the five -stans around me. Gulnara and Kareem are asleep on our bed three thousand kilometers away. Akhmet, who sent me the legal invitation, made plain to my father that he won’t help me, can’t hide me, don’t show up at his house. He lives five hours across the steppe anyway. How the fuck did I end up here? I told my clients I left to tend to family matters in K. and referred them to my biggest competitor. Our parents will support Gulnara while I’m away. My mother is probably still in tears. I hope it doesn’t stall her cancer recovery. I have to survive for all of them. All I want is to watch Breaking Bad while Gulnara nods off in my arms on our yellow couch peppered with purple hortensias. I’d let Kareem cry all he wants, I’d even soothe him myself, let Gulnara say she’s too tired to make love. I would rather that, a thousand times over, than this table with a red checkered linoleum cover and a white plastic chair burned with cigarette butts.

The woman limps over with two plates of food. A bowl of golden plov with minced lamb steams like a battleship. Carrots and raisins bathe in yogurt. Looks exactly like my mother’s cooking before the cancer. The saucer overflows with kurt and sliced tomatoes. I gesture to my room key to request, “Put it on my bill.” The woman waves me off. Unclear if we understood each other. After I finish three plates of food, I retreat to the room and sleep for fourteen hours straight.


I check into Bibikhanum Hotel in Samarkand on Saturday. The receptionist asks about the duration of my stay. The stye in her eye twitches. I shrug. She doesn’t press further, must be used to it. Maybe the draft will end in two weeks, and I’ll really make it back for our anniversary. It’s the hope that kills you.

What am I supposed to do in Samarkand? I can’t defend injured workers remotely. It would be silly to search for local work. Uzbeks are all poor. The hotel costs less than my lunch at home, and the savings I brought must make me the richest man on the block. I walk two blocks south to exchange some rubles for a million sums at some guy’s office. Taxidermied hawks perch on his desk. I found him through the Telegram group Russian Exodus. Strolling around feels like walking on the surface of the sun. Street vendors sell dark watermelons with wavy stretch marks and honeydews larger than my six-month-old. A sharp pang stabs my chest. I miss my family.

How don’t women melt under their head-to-toe garbs in this heat? Men slurp tea at low tables, eyeing passersby. Women sell obi non on side streets. Lanky Russian guys scan their surroundings like schizophrenics, just as bleary-eyed and restless as me. I point to a baby honeydew and slice the air with my palm to ask the woman to cut it. She tells me the price in flawless Russian. Maybe I don’t blend in as well as I think. The yellow half-moon tastes like sunlight. I buy a new SIM card at a rusty kiosk and text my wife “I miss you so much.” Gulnara and I agreed that I shouldn’t use my Russian number, so the organy can’t track my location.

I return home. (I mean the hotel.) I had left the windows open to lure in the breeze, but the afternoon sun turned the room into a hot cage. I open WhatsApp, tap on my wife’s face, and she picks up in an instant. She is breastfeeding Kareem on our bed. When my face loads she bursts into tears. A lump in my throat almost blocks my breath. I must stay strong.

Gulnara fights to keep her eyes open, “How was the drive? Did you encounter any issues?” 

I briefly recap the past four days but skip the miniature disasters. Gulnara wipes the tears and forces cheerfulness into her voice. Allah, if I were there I’d hug my wife so tightly that neither of us could move. Kareem would crawl around us, tug my hair, yell, or cry. Instead, all I have is their sluggish thumb-sized image, animating every other second. 

Since Gulnara’s pregnancy we’ve had trouble making love. They say men are attracted to expectant women, but my pendulum swung in the opposite direction. I couldn’t do it. I feared that once my son arrived she would relegate me to a secondary character. The concern left me preemptively hurt. As her belly grew, less space remained for me. We’re a progressive couple, don’t get me wrong. She worked as an office manager and had her own friends. Still, when we started dating in our first year at Kazan State, I knew that if we married she would dedicate herself to our family.

With other girls I always competed for attention: with another guy, their scholarly ambitions, career aspirations, neuroses, family dramas. There was always something. When Diana ran off to America I waited for years like an idiot. With Gulnara I kept bracing for obstacles, and none appeared. She boasted no tradeoffs, just a blank canvas to fill. We spent nights together when my schedule allowed. She joined me and my friends every weekend. When I established my law practice in Kazan after school, she supported the idea. I wanted to visit K. every August, and she traveled with me for the full month. She even hung out with Nina and Kirill without me. When I expressed my desire for a child, she happily obliged.

In Samarkand not a single soul cares about me. Kareem’s cries pull me back to the phone call. I catch the last bit of Gulnara’s words, “…cries a lot more. He misses you. Or knows that I’m missing you. But he keeps me busy. I wish you were here. I know it’s best that you’re away. I just hope you can return quickly.” 

I can’t crumble now. I mumble, “Me too, baby.” Can’t let myself whine like a six-year-old without his mommy. We talk about nothing for twenty more minutes before I let both of them fall asleep. 

After we hang up it hits me: I’m on a trip without my wife and child. Wonder if I could hook up with someone. What a stupid thought. The only Russian women here must be wives of runaway husbands. Zero prospects, any one of them could be the FSB. I haven’t slept with anyone else since we got married, and it took the war and a cross-border escape to consider the possibility. How similar is Uzbek to Tatar, could I charm someone if I learned a phrase or two? Though speaking Uzbek in Samarkand marks you an illiterate boor. It is Russian only. Gulnara and I only use Tatar with our parents. Tatar feels old-fashioned, silly. Kareem will learn our language, of course; my parents already speak to him in Tatar. But he’ll grow up in a different world, and by the looks of it, his world will reign more Russian than ever. 

Could I pay for sex? I look up “escort Samarkand” in an incognito window. The ads blur their photos. Discreet and clean. Never mind, don’t want to sleep with a possibly-trafficked Muslim woman.

What the fuck am I doing? I just told Gulnara how much I missed her. What I want the most in the world is to lie asleep beside her and Kareem. But if I’m stuck in a yellow-walled hotel room in Uzbekistan, why not make the best of the cards we’ve been dealt? Seven weeks have passed since we last had sex. Before that, ten more weeks. A man wants his desires met, right? Maybe I’ll distract myself. I watch some YouTube clips, sort through my starred porn videos. Don’t have the energy to search for anything new. I jerk off and fall asleep.

Today I’ll make the most of it. I wake up at dawn and smoke a Winston by the open window. The apricot sun melts into rooftop tiles. Colorful chicks trail behind their mother across the street. The cock sits atop the fence and monitors the scene. I walk downstairs and chug a glass of black coffee, viscous like honey blended with dirt.

At the vegetable stand, only the seller’s belly rivals the size of the gourds. I turn a corner, and a mosque, perfect like a Ramadan postcard, springs from the dust. The clouds hover low in the heat. Didn’t Samarkand lie on the Silk Road? This is what remains of the centuries when Muslims ruled the world. Crumbled walls streaked with dirt.

Walking down the red-hot street I remember: Alexander the Great. Didn’t he conquer Samarkand and assimilate Greek culture? Our history class barely covered Alexander or the Greeks, but I once watched a documentary on the History Channel with a horrible voiceover. Maybe I could visit some Greek artifacts while I’m here. As a kid, I loved pitting my toy Roman soldiers with their shiny plastic-steel shields against one another. Where is all that crap now? What kind of toys will Kareem play with? A set of Wagner mercenaries?

Google Maps informs me that the ruins of the ancient city Afrasiyab are fifteen minutes away. I buy a half-melted plastic bottle of water. I haven’t felt hunger (or much else in my body) since leaving home, but I should eat at some point. At the entrance to the city-museum, a half-disintegrated rock resembles a fat electricity pole with angry Swiss-knife incisions. It could be the scars inscribed by two thousand years in the sun, dust, and the wind, or simply the lack of budget to keep ancient relics alive. Especially those predating Islam.

The Afrasiyab Museum stands at the edge of the settlement. The beige tile building is etched with marble imams who look more Soviet than ancient. I enter and point my index finger in the air for one ticket. The old cashier nods but doesn’t say the price, so I tentatively hand her one banknote. She returns a stamped piece of paper. Either I paid the exact fare, or she doesn’t care. 

I’m the only person inside. It’s not a gallery, just a single room with glass displays along every wall, covered with thick black curtains. The window opens into a courtyard where a man brushes a goat. No AC, but a slight breeze whispers through the room. Maybe the silver and gold absorb the heat. Greek coins with Alexander, Mongol coins with Genghis Khan, Sogdian coins with Turgar, Karakhanid coins with Ibrahim Tamgach Khan. Empires are so fickle. The information poster in Uzbek, Russian, and English paints Samarkand as the main transit hub of the world. 

Behind me a woman says in Russian, “Care to buy some badges?” When nobody responds, I realize the voice is addressing me. Except for Skyping with Gulnara I haven’t spoken to anyone since the border guard five days ago. I turn around to a shelf stocked with postcards and plastic-wrapped paraphernalia. A small young woman sits next to the shelf. “I thought you must be one of the newly arrived.”

“Yeah, I just drove in from Kazan yesterday. How did you know?” 

Her voice rises ever higher, “You’re joking!” She addresses me in Tatar, “You’re Tatar? My mother is too, from Almetyevsk, a few hours away from Kazan. My father is Uzbek, from here.” 

What are the chances, the first person I meet is Tatar? Geographically it seems reasonable, Tatars relate closer to Uzbeks than Russians. Right? I take four steps in to make out her face. She wears a green cotton dress that barely touches her knees. A long black braid snakes down her back. In Kazan she could pass for a Tatar girl. But so can any Uzbek. She can’t be older than twenty-four. Her high-pitched voice reminds me of my high school girlfriend Sveta.

I smile slightly, “We have cousins in Almetyevsk. I’m from a small town nearby, K.” 

Her already large eyes widen, “I’ve been to K. as a kid. Our great-grandmother lived there. The main boulevard is so pretty. Where are you staying?”

I couldn’t recall the hotel’s name, “It’s by the small red-brick mosque, not far from here. With the fruit stand and a restaurant downstairs?” 

She catches a buzzing fly with her hands and laughs, “That’s every block in Samarkand. By the way, I’m Zulfia.” 


Is she still laughing at me? “Let me know if you want to buy something. Badges with Alexander the Great are fifty percent off.” 

I mumble a thanks and wait thirty more seconds. When she looks up again and chuckles I turn on my heels and shuffle back to the coin stand. After enough time passes to have read all the labels, I stroll to the shelf with the merch again. Zulfia scrolls through TikTok, where girls her age dance in crop tops. Are they Russian? American? Uzbek? On the Internet everybody looks the same. I pretend to be interested in the coin-shaped fridge magnets. She looks up and vaguely smiles. I stroke the beard of the stuffed Genghis Khan and ask in Russian, “Do you know any food spots around here?” Tatar is too familiar, the language you speak to your parents as a child. I don’t want to look like a child in front of her.

She thinks for a few seconds as her thumb still scrolls, “There’s a good guzlama stand nearby. My shift ends in ten minutes. I could take you.” 

Bingo. I wave off another fly, “That sounds good,” and step outside before she changes her mind. I light up a Winston by the kiosk that sells entry tickets. How can this place employ two full-time workers—a ticket vendor and a souvenir cashier—when the only customer in the last hour (myself) paid less than the cost of a cup of tea? Hope they sell a lot of those badges with Timur. A ruffled black dog sleeps on a gray rock. A fat white dog approaches from behind and licks the sleeping dog’s ass.


Zulfia usually comes by the hotel after her shift at the museum. We talk, smoke, or she watches TikToks while I scroll through the news on the TV. I think she hangs out with me because the hotel is quieter than her home. Her three younger siblings, two dogs, a cat, six chickens, and her mother never leave the house. The museum is a temporary job before she starts her massage training in August. If she passes the tests, Sabrina Premium Luxury Hotel will hire her as a masseuse. Her parents wouldn’t approve of the courses if they knew. They want her help around the house. I ask where her parents think she is now.

She combs her curls with her fingers, “At Amina’s house. They don’t check on me. I can go wherever I want.” 

I don’t want to spook her by doing something stupid. I just like having another human to talk to. I started calling my wife in the mornings because I “walk around the city in the afternoons.” I tip the waiter to put my manty into a plastic container so we don’t have to eat at the restaurant downstairs. The owner lady knows I checked in alone. I don’t want Zulfia to get in trouble.

She told me of her childhood in Almetyevsk. When they packed up their house, her father painted Samarkand as a magical place with genies, flying carpets, and infinite pakhlava. She missed her friend Olya and all the Russian snow. Most of the time she lies across the bed, and I sit in the chair by the TV or smoke out the window. Our hangouts are slow and aimless, like in college when you still have a few years to kill before real life starts. 


Tuesday morning I walk to the mosque outside the hotel. I need something to do while Zulfia is at work. Otherwise I’d lie prostrate on the twin starch-sheeted bed and squeeze lotion and tissues in my left hand. I can’t remember much about Uzbekistan from my history classes, only that the Mongols occupied the area until the Russians liberated it some centuries later. Our history teacher adored me, but the diameter of knowledge imparted by my school didn’t extend beyond Moscow. After five years of coursework in Eurasian geopolitics at Kazan State, I can’t recall how Uzbeks relate to Mongols or Tatars, if at all. 

An old man fiddles his misbaha by the entrance. I place my shoes on the rack and peel open the black linen curtain. The stillness soaks me like a gulp of cold water in the desert. The last time I attended a service was to introduce our newborn to the imam at Qolsharif at our parents’ request. Four gray-bearded men crouch on the carpet in the corner. Kazan’s mosques are steel blue, so the red and white tiles make for a temple of a different religion. Three boys perch on the sajjada in the front. The imam drones on like a faulty refrigerator, probably something about providing for the family, observing sharia, respecting the elders. My dad forced me to attend our mosque’s madrasa as a kid, and I hated every second of it. I didn’t believe in and don’t remember a single line they taught us, but I fulfilled the teachings, right? A wife, a law practice, a son who will speak Tatar. What else could they demand from me? Now I’m saving my ass from running with a rifle across a country that isn’t ours. We used to think of Ukraine as a place where they speak with a funny accent, not where our dictator tries to murder the entire population—both theirs and ours. They already took Ruslan. They took Bashir. They took Nurlat. How many more will they take?


I lug the groceries up to the room. Chips, apricots, peanuts, and a six-pack of Sarbast. Zulfia has already returned from her shift. She sprawls on the bed and scrolls on her phone. The mini fridge only fits the beer. I pop a can open to quiet my thoughts. Too much news about new rounds of conscription back home. Zulfia sets her phone down, “Can I have one too?” 

“Yeah, sure.” At twenty-two, she’s allowed to drink, but I’m still surprised she’d choose to have beer at two on a Wednesday. She flicks the can open and catches my bewildered gaze.

She laughs, “I’ve never tried beer. Wanted to see what it tastes like. But come on, we have soda here. There’s probably no place in the world that doesn’t have Coca Cola.” She’s right, why am I so scandalized by a girl who can open a can? My wife complains that beer tastes like urine. She used to drink wine at family holidays, but after we started trying for a child she had to cut out alcohol. Gulnara. Wish I lay on her bed right now. On our bed. It feels like months ago, lifetimes.

After a few sips, Zulfia’s eyes sparkle with a sly twinkle. The cherry in her cheeks flushes her face with gentleness. In the last three weeks she’s never gone to visit her friend Amina. She hasn’t mentioned other friends. She told me of her brothers who can’t find jobs, their father who is never home, and when he is, it’s only to look for reasons to yell while rubbing his round belly at the first person who enters the room, and then to leave as quickly as he came. He delivers mutton and venison carcasses to local businesses in a Hino tractor. I saw a truck like that pull up to the restaurant downstairs this morning, but I don’t know what her father looks like.

Zulfia rises from the couch and walks toward the window. I pull out a cigarette and stretch my hand, anticipating her next request. Instead of grabbing the cigarette she pauses and pulls on my hand to push herself close to me.

She kisses me on the lips. It’s the fresh water spring in Zaitovo, the one I used to drive to with my mother to fill the canisters with liquid gold that cured any disease. It tastes like apples, malt, honey, seawater. It hurts like electricity. I’m too—anything—to respond. I sit there and don’t move, like an idiot, and hope she doesn’t stop. Hope it’s not me but definitely her who wanted it. Sweet pride fills my body. I didn’t act first. That feels redemptive enough. I don’t want to question it. I want it to pour its saccharine nectar down my throat.


The next time I look up, the moonlight beams into the open window. Zulfia sighs in peaceful slumber, like an adolescent bird. Her breath spreads across the sheets, deep and slow, like subterranean plates in motion. I was worried, but she said her parents think she’s spending the night at Amina’s. “Premeditated,” I exhale the cigarette. 

The moon is round and warm, a gold coin, ripe for the taking by the emperor of the day. It could be 11 p.m. or 3 a.m. or 4:27 a.m., all at once. How long will I stay in Samarkand? Will I move again? Can Gulnara and Kareem join me? Would my parents live long enough for me to see them? Surely, the war will cease next week, and I’ll end this involuntary vacation. I’m just making the best of a terrible situation. It might help us in the long run; I won’t have to ask so much from Gulnara, who can’t give me what I need. This is our best available option. She wouldn’t want me to hide in a dugout with grenades exploding a few feet away. Or to die. It really happens. It’s really happening right now. When you wake up, Gulnara, and read my message, and cry, just remember, it will be daytime there, guys like me, late twenties, with young kids, dying. When you read this, someone your age, your gender, is out there, dying. When time is of no point, death is of no point, life is of no point, is there space for petty dramas of our lives?


Daria Rose is a writer based in Brooklyn and a refugee.