Bissell, Tom*: Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia (2004)
* RPCV Uzbekistan (1996-1997)
Our discussion took place: March 2011
Review: © Google: In 1960, the Aral Sea was the size of Lake Michigan: a huge body of water in the deserts of Central Asia. By 1996, when Tom Bissell arrived in Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer, disastrous Soviet irrigation policies had shrunk the sea to a third its size. Bissell lasted only a few months before complications forced him to return home, but he had already become obsessed with this beautiful, brutal land. Five years later, Bissell convinces a magazine to send him to Central Asia to investigate the Aral Sea’s destruction. There, he joins forces with a high-spirited young Uzbek named Rustam, and together they make their often wild way through the ancient cities (Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara) of this fascinating but often misunderstood part of the world. Slipping more than once through the clutches of the Uzbek police, who suspect them of crimes ranging from Christian evangelism to heroin smuggling, the two young men develop an unlikely friendship as they journey to the shores of the devastated sea. Along the way, Bissell provides a history of the Uzbeks, recounting their region’s long, violent subjugation by despots such as Jenghiz Khan and Joseph Stalin. He conjures the people of Uzbekistan with depth and empathy, and he captures their contemporary struggles to cope with Islamist terrorism, the legacy of totalitarianism, and the profound environmental and human damage wrought by the sea’s disappearance. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes powerfully sobering, Chasing the Sea is a gripping portrait of an unfamiliar land and the debut of a gifted young writer.