On My Own (excerpts)
Going Home The Long Way Round
From Damascus, I drove to Amman, Jordan. But our time was short and I had a chance to meet only two or three government officials. They were greatly concerned with the problem of the Palestinian refugees who had moved out of Israeli territory during the warfare between Israel and the Arab states and had been put into camps in Jordan. I visited many of these camps during my trips and found them distressing beyond words.
I had seen various refugees camps in Europe . . . and had been impressed by the way the inmates kept their hopes alive and tried to make their temporary quarters into "homes" even under the most difficult conditions. I had been particularly impressed by the burning desire of many Jewish refugees to get to Israel. Now, in the Arab countries, I learned something of the grave problem of refugees from Israel.
The Arab refugee camps were the least hopeful I had ever seen. One of the principal reasons for this, I believe, was that nothing had been done to preserve the skills of the people. They seemed to have little or nothing to look forward to and nothing to do. Under such conditions of course the adults are likely to lose their skills and the children grow up uninstructed.
"Why," I asked my official guide, "are these people not given something to do? They might be making things to go on the market or helping to produce food. If they lose their skills they will be worthless citizens in any country they may finally settle down in."
The guide gave a kind of helpless shrug. "There is unemployment in most of the Arab countries," he replied, "and it is felt that we cannot permit these people in the camps to seek work that would put them in competition with the citizens of the country."
The standard of living in the camps we visited was low and the housing was inadequate. This was not a cold climate but there were times when rain and chill weather made it exceedingly uncomfortable even in a good house. Some of the refugees lived in solid houses in the towns but many of them were living under wretched conditions in tents out on the hillsides. I visited one tent where a woman showed me her small baby who was ill.
"The baby was bitten by a snake yesterday," the woman explained, as she put it back on the floor of the tent. Looking around, I could see that there was nothing to prevent snakes from entering and that babies lying on the floor would be easy prey for them.
The refugees were fed on a budget of three cents per day per person. That would seem to be a pitifully small sum even for countries with a low standard of living but, in fact, it represented more food than was available to some of the nomads living in the desert. The officials told us that it was difficult to persuade the refugees to leave the camps and find some place to settle permanently because they hoped to see Israel defeated and to return to their old homes. But some of them were gradually giving up this hope and permitting the authorities to resettle them in new areas. The nomad tribes nearby kept a close watch on the camps and, if a refugee family was moved out to a new home, their places were taken overnight by nomads who infiltrated the camps in order to be assured of three meals a day—poor as those meals might be....
In The Land Of The Soviets
Not long after visiting the state farm, we took the jet airliner for Tashkent, where I had a chance to visit a collective farm. Travel on Soviet airlines is casual. Our Intourist people checked our bags for us when we went to the Moscow airport early in the morning and we waited in a small room which, I believe, was reserved for special passengers. After a few minutes a young man came in and said:
"All who are going to Tashkent follow me."
So we followed him on a long walk to the airplane, a sleek and efficient-looking machine. Each of us had a seat number. There was a stewardess but she was not in uniform and nobody said anything about not smoking or about fastening your seat belts (which were there, but seldom used). There was an altimeter where we could see it on the front wall of the compartment and I noticed that we climbed very rapidly and flew very high. It was comfortable but I could see little or nothing on the countryside. After a while the stewardess served fruit and cookies and then, less than four hours after we left Moscow, we came down at Tashkent, some two thousand miles away.
There was more desert here than I had expected and the green areas were confined to the source of water or to irrigated sections. Part of Tashkent dates back to the twelfth century, and this old section was being slowly torn down, the streets were being widened and new, modern apartment houses were being built. We drove into the city over broad avenues with trolley cars and big cement homes and office buildings, but later we did have a chance to see some of the narrow streets that still remain in the old city. The contrast was very great, indeed.
The collective farm that we visited "Uzbekistan Farm" was owned by an organization of farmers. Out of the over-all income of the farm, 7 per cent goes to the government in taxes. Another 16 per cent goes for capital reserve, 1 per cent to amortization and the like. Thirteen per cent goes into the operation of services, of which there are many, and the remaining cash is divided among members of the collective. We were told that a man might get about eight thousand rubles a year in cash on this basis, plus shelter, services, food and so on, which means that he is fairly well off. If the crops fail, of course, he is in trouble.
Cotton was the main crop, but the farmers also raised cattle for meat and milk. There were 1,160 houses and 1,700 able workers, representing a dozen different nationalities brought together in this ancient area of Central Asia. Each farmer annually received about 30 pounds of meat, a considerable quantity of grain and 150 pounds of potatoes, in addition to which he might raise food for himself in his garden plot and keep a cow for which the collective provided food.
"The manager is chosen by a board of directors,"I was told. "He is like a chairman and serves for a year, after which he must report on the work done. If it is satisfactory, he may continue another year at the discretion of the board, which, in turn, is responsible to the members of the collective."
We walked around part of the farm. Not all the houses were new but some of the old ones had been made to look better by stuccoing the outside—although no changes seemed to have been made inside. There was no running water in any of the houses but they all had electricity, and inside I frequently saw a one-burner electric plate on top of an old wood range. Toilet and bathing facilities were old-fashioned—usually a privy and a bathhouse. One woman showed me her home with great pride because she had made or collected innumerable quilts, which seemed to be a mark of wealth in that part of the world.
In the middle of the central area was a recreation house where there were shower rooms and nearby a large pond with greenish water, which I was told was used for bathing. The recreation house was surrounded by a garden with benches were the workers could rest at noon time.
Walking past one of the cowsheds, which had no sides, I noticed a cot standing in the middle of the shed. I mentioned it to our guide, who said: oh somebody sleeps there every night."
"With the cows?"I asked. "Why?"
"Just in case something happened,"he replied. "a cow might be calving or any kind of emergency might occur."
Every inch of land seemed to be in use. Even where small fruit trees had been planted there were growing crops. The farm had a maternity hospital and a baby clinic but in case of serious illness the farm people go to hospitals in Tashkent. There was a nursery, a kindergarten and a school. Children were taken care of at these institutions while their parents worked in the fields, but nursing mothers could leave their work and go to the nursery at stated hours when feedings were given.
The manager of the farm said that there had been a steady increase in production in recent years, but this collective also had increased in size and it was difficult to know whether it was operating more efficiently and getting a greater yield from the land or had just acquired more acreage. Later, in Moscow, I talked about farm production with Senator Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana, who was making his third visit to Russia. He was very much interested in Russian agriculture and had been to the new area in Soviet Asia where a large region was being plowed up for the first time. The Senator felt that there was a serious danger that the new land might turn into a dust bowl as happened in parts of our Southwest after the protective grass had been stripped from the plains. He said he had written a letter to Mr. Khrushchev warning him of this danger, but that the Communist party chief had not seemed to pay any attention. Later, talking to a Deputy Minister of Agriculture, I asked him about this problem, but he said that a thorough investigation had been made before the land was plowed up and that the top soil was found to be more than three feet deep. So he was not worried either.
The Russians, incidentally, had imported some of the famous Santa Gertrudis beef cattle from the King Ranch in Texas for breeding purposes. They had been shipped to Russia several years earlier and I was told that they had "disappeared."I was curious about them and eventually inquired at the Ministry of Agriculture about what had happened to them.
"Oh, they are the special pets of the Minister,"I was told. "they were shipped to the southern part of the Ukraine and they are still there and thriving. They have also had plenty of little ones!"
In visiting the Russian farmers, I realized that the officials were probably showing me agricultural projects that were better than the average. Agriculture is perhaps of greater importance in the Soviet Union than in most countries because there are so many people to be fed. The Communist rulers have had some of their greatest difficulties with the farmers and doubtless some farm communities have suffered greater hardships from political dictatorship than any other part of the population. Even with months of investigation, it would be difficult to know just how successful the government has been in its agricultural program. But the mere fact that the two farms I visited exist and are operating successfully means that more and more will be developed along the same lines or have been developed long since.
In Tashkent, it was arranged for the city architect to drive us around the newly constructed sections. I had noticed that the women working in the fields wore drab shirts and pants or one-piece cotton dresses, while in the city we often saw holiday crowds dressed in native costumes. The women wore brightly colored hats or caps on the back of their heads and dresses made of a kind of silk that is stiff and almost glazed when new but which becomes softer after it has been washed. Their dresses usually have a red base, shot with dark green, black and blue. The men, too, dressed up on Sundays or holidays and wore little black hats with white embroidery.
Our guide, the architect, insisted on showing us only the new buildings, mostly of cement, on the broad new avenues. Dr. Gurewitsch asked our driver to stop on a street where there were new buildings on one side but the houses of the old city on the other side. He got out and began taking photographs of the old houses, which bewildered and incensed our guide.
"Why do you snap all that old stuff?"he demanded. "Most of these houses are empty anyway. The people have moved out."
He could not see why we were interested in the old culture. At one point he had the driver stop in front of a large building.
"This is the College of Music,"he said. "Don't you want to go in?"
I must say that I was doubtful, but we did go and were much interested. We discovered that there were actually nineteen musical colleges of one kind or another in the Republic of Uzbekistan, which is about twice the size of New York State, and that they have made strenuous efforts to preserve the old stringed instruments and songs of the people of the area.
The College of Music and similar institutions illustrate how the Communists operate. Forty years ago there were no music schools in the area and the songs fo rhte region were handed down from generation to generation. Then Moscow decided that it was important to preserve the culture of each of its republics and this was an example of how they were doing it. The college in Tashkent has 350 students and 150 teachers, who constantly watch for gifted young people so that they can become teachers or enter on a musical career anywhere in the Soviet Union. The state provides six million rubles a year to operate the college, which also had sponsored some thirty theaters for students of drama in the Uzbek Republic.
On Sundays, Tashkent was alive with music. There were little squares where singers gathered on platforms to entertain whoever happened to stroll by. there were dancers and musicians, too, and the crowds wandered about from one place to another, listening to the music...
We made a quick trip by air to Samarkand, and were met by two women who were local officials and a historian, who told us much about this capital city of Tamerlane. The government has spent heavily to restore some of the old buildings in the "blue city"and there are wonderful old tombs with colored inlays on their facades, including the tomb of the first wife of the Mongol conqueror and the tomb of Mohammed's cousin. Earthquakes have destroyed many of the buildings but there were still two domes of an extraordinary blue color. There is also a large hospital here for bone tuberculosis, which we visited and where I was impressed by the docility of the children.
One of the wonderful things about Samarkand and Tashkent, too, was the quality of the melons grown in that area. At almost every meal we had three or four different kinds of melon and all of them were excellent. Some were small watermelons, some Persian melons and others were white melons with faintly yellow meat.
We left Samarkand after a strenuous visit with the feeling that Tamerlane was a real person and not just a vague figure from the remote past...