Golden Hands

Traditional smithing in Uzbekistan

Shokir Kamalov and his two sons, Shavqiddin and Zavqiddin, are the fifth and sixth generations in the family blacksmith enterprise.  You’ll find them in Bukhara, near one of the three old trading domes. The actual address is Hakikat Street # 12 and it’s a prime location. There is probably not a single Bukhara tourist that does not pass by, en route to the twelfth-century Kalyan minaret from Bukhara’s central gathering spot, the Lyabi Hauz, a rectangular pool surrounded by shops and elegantly tiled madrasahs.

Blacksmithing in Bukhara used to be a more pedestrian, perhaps equestrian, occupation and the Kamalov family made practical things like horseshoes, hoes, knives, nails and scythes.  When, in 1986, Robert Almaeev, Director of the Bukhara Museum of Archeology, was in charge of revitalizing the ancient heritage of Bukhara, he persuaded Shokir to move to the old center and be part of it.  He was asked to develop a museum of blacksmithing, a living museum with real-life metal work.  Now, because of the influx of tourists, Shokir’s production is best known for fanciful, but eminently utilitarian scissors.  His daughter, Guliandum, uses them in her craft; the lavish raised gold embroidery of Bukhara.  Fast and free hand, she cuts intricate underlying cardboard forms with her father’s sharp scissors – which she will later cover in dense gold stitches.

The museum is interesting enough with its varied exhibits, a soldier’s chain mail from the sixteenth century, tools from the twentieth century, and various metal statues and art pieces, clippings and awards.  Shokir has received many honors and prizes in Europe and America for his work. But it’s the unique forge that attracts attention.  Made of bricks and built in the shape of a jug, the chimney stretches twenty feet or more toward the workshop’s inner domed ceiling.  Belled at the bottom and thinning as it rises, graced with jug handles on both sides and a forged iron necklace decorating its chest, the forge is a work of art in itself. 

He calls it his pot of gold.  He designed and built it himself to symbolize his philosophy of life and work.  A pot of gold is something that a rich man might bestow upon his son, he explained, but real riches are not in gifts and gold.  Real wealth lies in your hands, and in your skills.  When you have skills, then you have ”golden hands.”   The years he spent as a boy working alongside his father, Master Sharif Kamalov, were his father’s gift, skills that never forsake you.  Shokir’s pot of gold is literally in his hands and, in homage to them, he imprinted wet bricks on either side of his doorway with his own handprints. 

He and his brother are educated men, as are his sons. During Soviet times his brother was an engineer and Shokir was a teacher of Russian at the city university. As times changed, Shokir saw more promise in metalwork and more satisfaction in the work of his hands.  It will be interesting to see if his sons continue the family heritage with the same dedication.  In traditional Uzbek families a son should not stand in front of his father, and the younger Kamalovs stood respectfully aside as their father demonstrated hot metal hammer work.  In later conversation, after the ring of metal on metal died down, he explained his belief in the rewards and joys of hard work.  Joy is certainly part of it for Shokir.  His conversation is as lively as his step and his sparkling eyes.   It’s plain that he has found the elusive pot of gold reputed to lie at the end of the rainbow; it’s right there in his hands.

Clare Smith traveled to Uzbekistan for HAND/EYE in May 2010, her first visit there since her time as President of Aid to Artisans, when a successful four-year Central Asian artisan development program introduced her to the region. She can be reached at clarebsmith@gmail.com.

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