Perhaps it was foolish of me to buy six ornamental Uzbek knives as gifts on the Osh bazaar. But the price—even the foreigner’s price—of $4-5 was right for a traditional knife with a bone or glass-beaded handle, fashioned on a blacksmith’s forge, and a sheath. I wrapped them in socks and packed them in the bag I was checking, along with other sharp objects—a pair of scissors and a corkscrew. Surely, there would not be a problem at customs at Almaty airport.
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Of course, there was. I was ordered to open the bulky suitcase where I had packed my gifts, and tied up with rope. One official paged through three computer catalogs to make sure that IBM was not peddling porno. Another carelessly unwrapped small ceramic figures I’d bought at the student art store in Osh (for about $2 each), suspecting I was smuggling archaeological artifacts. I was asked to produce an export license for a small oil painting of a moonlit Issyk Kul lake—a gift from a colleague at the US embassy. At a bookstore in Bishkek, I had bought three Soviet-era laminated schoolroom maps, including one of the US, which highlighted the locations of major episodes of labor action and revolution—Haymarket, Homestead, the 1913 Colorado miners’ strike. “It is forbidden to export historical maps,” one officer announced. I doubted that even a post-Soviet bureaucracy that liked to invent lots of regulations had one that specifically applied to school maps. “Show me the rule,” I demanded. I unfolded the US map. “What do you think I’m going to do? Invade the United States?” That appeared to settle the issue. I thought later that confiscating old maps was hardly the message newly democratic Kazakhstan wanted to send to the rest of the world. Someone in authority eventually decided that old Soviet maps, ceramic rabbits and amateur oil paintings did not endanger the body politic. I was allowed to repack my bag. The knives were not returned.
With the end of the Cold War and the rise of new democratic regimes in Asia and Africa, the list of potential destinations for would-be plane hijackers armed with Uzbek ornamental knives had been shrinking. The plane would not have enough fuel to reach Havana. There were still a few options in Africa—Mogadishu (assuming the airport was not under attack) or Kinshasa in the Not-So-Democratic Republic of Congo where the fabulously corrupt and autocratic Mobutu Sese Soko was still in charge. But from where I was in Asia, the only thing I could have said was, “Take this plane to Pyongyang. Please?” To which the pilot would probably have replied: “Are you sure you don’t want to fly to Bangkok or Jakarta instead? It’s a lot warmer there, and I can recommend some good restaurants.” I kept protesting my good intentions, but pointed out that if I had really wanted to hijack the Lufthansa jet, I needed only two knives, not half a dozen.
Eventually a young plain clothes officer who spoke English took possession of the knives, examined my passport and said he would see me after check-in. He met me in the departure lounge, and invited me upstairs to a back room where we drank tea. He introduced me to two girlfriends who giggled a lot. He said he had been in Los Angeles for a month. What did I think of Southern California? How did I like Central Asia? My flight was now boarding, and I fidgeted, not wanting to alarm him but worrying about missing the flight.
He gave me his email address, and asked me to write. Perhaps I could get visas for his girlfriends? He smiled and returned the knives. “Safe travels,” he said. I ran for the plane, clutching the knives. At Frankfurt, a customs officer put them in a sealed box, and checked them.