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Central Asia’s Jews Uzbek Jew a Community Leader — and He’s Also a Checkers Champion

March 3, 2003
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Over a feast of lamb kabobs, minced-meat dumplings, pickled tomatoes and Uzbek vodka, Markiel “Marik” Fazilov explains the evolution of his ancient but dwindling community of Bukharan Jews.

Then the Samarkand representative for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee turns personal for a beat — and that’s when the Russian translation seems to hiccup.

“Marik is director of a school for chess and checkers,” says Zhenya, the interpreter.

“Checkers? You mean chess?”

“No, Marik is a checkers grandmaster. You don’t know checkers?”

“Checkers? The game with the red and black pieces, the board with the squares?”

Zhenya consults with Fazilov.

“Yes, checkers! Marik won the world championship in 1998 in Brazil.”

Indeed, the board game that is mostly the domain of the young in North America has for decades been competitive sport across the former Soviet Union.

And Fazilov, 48, has left his mark in the record books: He was the three-time junior checkers champion in the Soviet Union, and he’s now won two of the seven world championships in which he’s competed for Uzbekistan, the ex-Soviet republic.

Yet Fazilov, with dark rings around the eyes and his ubiquitous English driving cap — Bukharans are traditional; men typically cover their heads with caps, while women often opt for scarves — is modest about his achievements.

As he’s peppered with more questions about checkers, he interrupts the interview to ask: “You won’t be focusing on this, will you? I’m more interested in you writing about our community.”

Fazilov is indeed passionate about the Bukharans. Some suggest they arrived in Central Asia as caravan merchants some 2,000 years ago, descended from one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, or as transplants from Persia in the fifth century.

As the last of six siblings left here, Fazilov knows better than most how poverty and immigration have decimated the Bukharan presence in Uzbekistan, even as Jewish life rebounds after 75 years of repressive Soviet rule.

Via the JDC, Fazilov has become a virtual lifeline to some 170 elderly Jews living in Samarkand, providing them with vital medicine and food relief.

But as the community shrinks, Fazilov is documenting the Jewish experience in this erstwhile hub of the old Silk Road, as both amateur historian and lead restorer of the Bukharan cemetery.

His protestations notwithstanding, Fazilov’s checkers career is an irresistible topic, offering a lens on one aspect of Jewish life over the past half-century.

During the height of Stalin’s purges, from 1936-38, the Soviet tyrant simultaneously sought to popularize chess and checkers among the masses, Fazilov says.

The purpose: “to occupy people who could think” — especially Jews, Fazilov suggests — “to give them something intellectual to be busy with, just to keep them from getting their noses into politics.”

Fazilov was introduced to these board games at the age of 7.

He grew up in Samarkand’s machalla, the warren of unpaved, rutted alleyways of the old Jewish quarter. Just across the way from his home was the local Jewish club.

An older friend of the family would take him to the club’s chaikhanna — or tea house, a common feature in Central Asia — where Jewish men of all ages would wile away the day, sipping tea, gossiping and playing chess, checkers or backgammon.

More recently, Fazilov won the 64-square checkers crown in 1998, and claimed the 64-square speed checkers championship in 2000.

That year, Fazilov was one of 28 honorable mentions for Uzbekistan’s Athlete of the Year award.

Meanwhile, he has served for 10 years as principal of Samarkand’s School for Chess and Checkers, a public, state-funded school with some 500 students, ages 6 to 18.

Having attained such status, Fazilov did not embrace immigration, though his mother, three sisters and a brother live in Queens, N.Y. A fourth sister is in Israel.

If anything, Fazilov’s status seems to have grown as the JDC’s point man.

While showing around a foreign visitor, Fazilov is glad-handed as a VIP, whether at the Jewish communal headquarters, the ornate main synagogue in Samarkand, or the restaurants to whom he brings much-needed business.

Fazilov seems an especially welcome sight to beneficiaries of the JDC’s-sponsored cafeteria, a modest, unheated room where the elderly gather for lunch and take home leftovers.

But this is only part of Fazilov’s Jewish activism.

Fazilov’s first two books covered prominent communal figures from the past and present; with his third, he says, he is probing Bukharan history.

Fazilov expresses particular pride in displaying the two-century-old Bukharan cemetery, where some 30 of his relatives are buried. His wife, Dina, is descended from a well-known Bukharan family, the Kalantarovs, and some 100 relatives lie in the cemetery.

Crunching through heavy, wet snow this winter, Fazilov also draws a visitor’s attention to the huge granite World War II memorial, with a wall of names engraved.

Though the Nazis never made it into Central Asia, some 400 Jewish soldiers from Samarkand died on the Soviet front.

Fazilov’s involvement in Jewish affairs has become so consuming — and having reached the pinnacle of competitive checkers, twice — he is now leaving the sport behind.

He recently resigned his post at the school, and now limits his competing to the world championships, to which he is invited yearly as a past champion.

As for how long he will remain in Uzbekistan, Fazilov is noncommittal.

His eldest daughter, Karmit, is 22, married and living in Israel; his second daughter, Albina, is 17 and set to depart for Tel Aviv University, and his son, Aron, is 13 and living at home in Samarkand.

“I don’t want to talk about or think about what may happen in half a year or a year,” Fazilov says. “If we leave, there won’t be any Jewish community left. Everyone tries to justify the reasons for their decisions or mistakes. I’ll go when I want to go.”

The preceding is the third of a series of special articles on Jewish life in Central Asia. This special series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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