Through this timeless novel, Henry Biernacki carves images of the steppe (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan), an area often overlooked by travelers. Once Emperio changed his habitual routine, in Paris, of importing art, for one of exploration, he began to alter his life rather than accept destiny. Emperio's appreciative outlook to experiences, without definite outcomes, arises in the novel, and his passion shapes his future.
The descriptions become tangible, and the reader feels the sways of the train, touches of the wind, relishes each shared meal, and finally absorbs the steppe. Biernacki reveals the importance of the swiftly fading moments and those enduring lifetimes. "The essence of traveling is not so much discovering the newness of a culture; moreover, and far superior, the discovery becomes a deeper side of the individual, who takes the step to learn."
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By Henry Biernacki
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Henry Biernacki
All rights reserved.
He spent weekdays in his Paris studio, weeknights at the table celebrating art deals, and weekends reading from where the art came. As the son of art importers, Emperio sat calmly, along the Seine, reading the history of the steppe. As he sat alongside the river, he thought about his idle life, and what it must feel like to wander through cultures producing such art.
Emperio desired to travel, to arrive at a point where he stopped looking at where he had been, and begin looking at where he had not been, so he could remedy his naïve world. He sensed the modern world draping itself over his daily life. He needed to navigate streets of countries time seemed to overlook, where he lived lifetimes in days, centuries in seconds, hours halted, and time could parallel another time. Emperio's passion for travel would expose parts of himself he would grow to understand.
Passion, a deep source, can alter life's ultimate purpose, destiny. To deny passion, is to accept destiny.
The steppe extended farther, ascending, reaching remote, arid territories. Beyond the twenty-one-thousand-foot peaks of Central Asia, sprawled a creation of immensity. The sun looked closer, framing its redness against the grey morning fog, lifting, finally, giving way to the intense blue sky. The steppe existed past the Trans-Manchurian Railroad, along the northern plateau of Kazakhstan, crossing Siberia, meeting the Trans-Caspian Railroad from Krasnovodsk, Russia to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and, ultimately, engulfing the southeastern country of Tajikistan, settled against the Pamir Mountains.
Earlier, the parliaments of the Commonwealth of Independent States declared sovereignty. The Karakum Desert summers and frigid winters isolated Turkmenistan, known for hand-woven carpets, arriving from the sizeable region, which vendors sold in bazaars. The isolated Kyzyl Kum Desert extends to the west onto the drying, polluted Aral Sea. The other side of the mountains, with unforgiving weather conditions, lay the lavish, ancient religious cities in Uzbekistan. Turquoise tiles piece together not only mausoleums, but also, the steppe's history.
Emperio knew Central Asia's history well, which meshed like the delicate pieces of art; it identifies the Central Asian nomadic civilization. It would become part of Emperio.
In 330 BC, Alexander the Great, son of Phillip II, arrived in Central Asia, crushing defenders along the steppe in what is modern-day Kabul, Afghanistan, and Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The second-century silk merchants of Parthia and China began trading the Bombyx caterpillar, leading to the rise of the Silk Road. The eccentric web of the Central Asian culture wove together the western and eastern world, like fine Bombyx spinning silk for the Bukhara carpets.
In the Battle of Talas in 751, Arabs captured Chinese, affecting the Silk Road. The Arabs took the secrets of making high-quality Chinese silk. Europeans began buying silk from the Arabs, and then in 1219, Jenghiz Khan, the Mongolian warrior, began destroying the architecture in Samarkand, leaving only some to be seen. The Tilla-Kari Medressa in Registan Square shows the steppe's deep artistic vision. Finally, around 1250, Marco Polo set his eyes on the steppe, overwhelming his senses. He ventured toward the steppe where he met Kublai Khan, the grandson of Jenghiz.
Some history is not written, only woven in aqins, stories and poems told in the form of a song. The aqins have become some of the only history to the nomads of Central Asia.
Each week Emperio went to his father's office. As he waited, he read Le Monde. That particular day, the Parisian newspaper described Turkmenistan's Tolkuchka Bazaar.
Emperio Sabestyen's obsessive craving for the mysterious grew. The style the newspaper used to explain the steppe formed vividly dramatic scenes in his mind. An area covering 3.6 million square miles does not simply exist; it creates. The Siberian Forest, with fantastical bazaars, expands across the Karakum Desert. The forest rests at the foot of the Kopet Dag Mountains, along the Iran border, where winter temperatures drop well below freezing. Women squat at the markets, smiling with their bright gold teeth and loosely wrapped gypsy scarves, knotted around their long dark hair, darker than any moonless desert night. They sold material smoother than silk and softer than velvet, haggled over goods ranging from pistachios, to animals, and hundreds of red Bukhara carpets. Emperio wanted to step toward this area of the world, near the unknown, with a humble, hopeful energy. It cut poetic visions in his imagination.
Emperio thought about his unappeasable desire, traveling to parts of the world, remotely located, rather than stay in Paris, a city he emotionally knew.
"Turkmenistan," he told a friend, "recently opened the borders. The extreme weather along the Afghan-Turkmen-Iran border does not give the senses a break. The Aral Sea once irrigated cotton fields, now too contaminated to be used." He gathered his thoughts of what life might be like in such isolation, and the attractive mystique of the distant steppe. "Now," he continued, "ships lean on desert sand of what used to be the shores of the Aral Sea."
Mountains extend to rivers, running through forgotten villages filled with a faith; there is existence beyond the villages shadowed against mountain peaks and miles of plateaus. The nomads recognized their insignificance next to the nature of the steppe. It created the impression only echoes of their horses could be heard against shrieking winds and whispers of their aqins, told under orange-red sunsets matching the surrounding campfire.
Several years earlier, Emperio and his father traveled to Cairo. The city pulsed new impressions through his body, and philosophies in his mind. He processed this newness as a young man, and the muezzin, announced the call to prayer in the distance.
As his father purchased Egyptian art, Emperio Sabestyen walked around, taking in the frenzied pace of the city. He could not understand why, in such heat, women wore scarves to cover their sensual beauty and warm tanned skin. The vibrant veils sheltered women and their eyes, outlining their thick eyebrows, embodying beauty. Their eyes fascinated him. He began seeing so much beauty for someone his age. He met people guiding him to areas of Cairo, unlike anywhere, including the City of the Dead, an Islamic cemetery housing two million Cairenes.
As he walked in the Islamic section of Cairo, along El Gaysh Street, in front of the Ez Zaher Bibrs Mosque, three men robbed and beat him. Even after being robbed, Emperio learned to relate to people. Losing most of his belongings made him focus on the people, rather than his objects.
In the Greek- and Jewish-owned clothing shops, along Kasr El Nil Street, behind the signs and placards written in different languages, Emperio stood motionless, in close observation of this new world. He began to appreciate the slightest gestures, the varying ways people greeted one another. Emperio realized he could understand the Cairenes by watching, even without speaking the language. His mind took notes, layering these experiences through his thoughts like ink smearing across a writer's hand.
Emperio met a boy who took him around Ataba Square. This young boy knew everyone, and the familiarity between them helped Emperio trust his new guide. The boy spoke to the rich and the poor, using the languages of the different classes of Egypt. The boy's mother tongue was not Arabic. Although Emperio surrounded himself with people, he began understanding how the external world allowed him to peek into knowing himself. While traveling, he adored the pleasures of his own isolation, but situated himself around people who could help.
Emperio and the boy wove their way through the leather shops in Khan al-Khalili. Emperio stopped. Someone seized his attention. The boy kept running before turning to see Emperio still, gazing at a girl. Together, she and Emperio remained speechless, studying one another. Her simple expression overtook anything he could say, and a calm silence resulted. He could not hear the horns of Suzuki trucks, the creaky donkey-pulled carts, or anyone walking next to him. The humming exchange of money silenced. The hawkers and buyers did not seem to exist anymore.
Her eyes invoked an infinite memory. Emperio saw a birthmark below her right collarbone, like a delicate burn mark. As she turned to leave, he caught a glimpse of a small dark mark at the nape of her neck. Someday, he knew he would see her again.
Captivated, she made Emperio recall a story he once heard about a river in Siberia.
After Emperio's father finished business in Cairo, they departed for the Sahara Desert, to travel with what Emperio came to call North African Bushmen. He wanted Emperio to learn the fables of the desert, told by the Bushmen.
"Cities," his father told him, "remain too inflexible to catch the impression of a country. To truly understand the country you must explore outside the cities just as you need to exit the comfort zone to understand more about yourself. You will never quite be clean, never quite dry, and, certainly, never quite anything except lost along the way, but believe in your path."
Cairo vanished behind them. The sounds of the muezzins dissolved in the air and the vast desert emerged, replacing the slender city alleys. The images of Emperio's friends vanished behind the last hill. The desert, open like a stage for spectators to view, changed scenes from the hot blowing afternoon air to the frigid night. Now, he only dreamt about Egypt. Emperio saw Africa's history by the ageless art ancient Bushmen may have painted thousands of years ago. The Sahara's paintings engraved more marks on Emperio than on the rocks themselves.
Night fell. Emperio and his father huddled next to the Bushmen, sharing dinner from a communal bowl of food. The moonlight blanketed the night, feeding life to the sky as they spoke their fables and took hot tea when the night became chilled. One Bushman told the fable, while Emperio watched another make and pour the tea. The man tasted it first to make sure the sugar fit the fine flavor. Then he poured the tea for the entire group.
Each day, Emperio and his father tied their clothes tightly to their camels, disappearing farther into the desert with the Bushmen, crossing Northern Africa. Emperio wrapped his head firmly in a turban before the sandstorms began, or before the shower of bugs whipped across his face as they trekked through the land of red earth, endless skies, and the fiery blushing sun.
As they traveled, drums, at night, beat, a sign of each full moon. They only stopped to sleep and take food. Emperio gazed at the sky, counting the last star before the glimmer of the full moon took over the total sky.
The following morning, Emperio and his father left their camels, to travel on foot, until they reached the Atlas Mountains. Their rucksacks knotted closely to their backs as sandstorms erupted, powdering the air. Moments before, everything was flawless. Sand began to wound their skin like the sting of numerous scorpions.
At dawn, they stood before the Atlas, the Saghro, and the Bani Mountains. Emperio and his father bathed in the Draa River. Emperio observed the Sunni Moslems pray to Allah, five times a day. After evening prayer, they would take their dinner and tea. The silks and spices arrived from villages the Bushmen never saw.
One Bushman said, "A man brought silk and spices. He spoke about villages he visited, countries he traveled, and rivers he did not cross, but only sat next to. We sat and took dinner each night as he spoke with a quiet tone. He finished his dinners by stating, 'The rest is for the gods.'" The Bushman spoke with such peace as he told the story of this man. He continued with a nature that gave meaning to his reflections of the past, and a solid appearance to his face, intensifying with each word. The Bushman continued, "I had never seen such a man before. He sold the silk and spices he carried on his horse. After the man sold the spices, he sat," the Bushman said as he pointed, "at the Draa River. He sat there," he emphasized with force, raising his hand again, pointing exactly- "there. He sat, almost as if he listened and spoke to the river. I was amazed how still a man could sit. Then the man would get up to leave. He looked over at me, and vanished in the desert. I have not seen him in sometime, but he shall return. He comes back when he has silk and spices. He carried little with him. He spoke of stories from the regions he visited." The man stopped speaking, smiling as he repeated what the wandering man once said, "'Carry little, my soul becomes far richer with less objects cluttering my mind. Experiences become my possessions.'"
Emperio asked, "Do you ever dream about seeing these villages?"
"Oh no. My destiny is not to explore. I accept my destiny. I fear things far away. To explore means to live alone, journey alone. That is the aqin." The Bushman stopped, looking deeply into Emperio's eyes. "You have a destiny I have not seen in some years. You will be guided and will wander. Be open to that. You will know your way when you feel this peace, as the man in the story I told you." The Bushman finished by saying, "Never forget," he paused to make sure Emperio was listening, "we can choose to accept destiny, or we can change it."
Emperio replied, "Then it is not destiny."
The Bushman stated, "Life is a series of events, creating our destiny, but the gods tolerate us to make choices. If we do not make a choice, and simply permit the occurrences to take shape, destiny takes its form. If we choose a path, we create our outcome. We can move destiny if we have enough passion in life to not accept what is mapped before us."
Emperio began learning his passion would be to see the world. This journey already transformed his life. The Bushman, hidden in the desert, offered Emperio no better clues; his life was twisted with destiny or one of choice.
Emperio and his father returned home. Peace streamed through his soul, although he had no idea what his soul was, or who he was. Nothing could stop him from discovering the world. Directly opposite to Emperio's feelings, were those of his parents.
After that trip, Emperio did not travel with his father again.
Years later, Emperio woke up like the day before. He went to the Seine before going to his studio. Emperio sat, listened to the water, and decided living an experience is far greater than dreaming of it. Afterward, he saw the usual people, spoke to the usual clients, and knew it was an unusual morning. That day, he heard his soul speak to him.
He left the studio, walked along Avenue Montaigne, and boarded the Metro. He could not stop thinking about the river. That night, he did not show up for dinner at his parents' flat in the 6e arrondissement, along Rue d'Assas, next to Le Jardin du Luxembourg. Instead, he went to the 10e arrondissement to take dinner, where crowds of Parisians bought ingredients from Arab, African, and Indian merchants. He journeyed through the similar frenzied world he walked through while traveling with his father. Supermarkets and restaurants arranged themselves in the same disordered manner he saw in Cairo. Emperio did not finish his dinner. Instead, he went to sit by the Seine. He sat quietly, seemingly listening to the flow of water.
Emperio could not return to the studio in the forthcoming days. His weekend would not be filled with books, thoughts about far-off countries, and their people.
It was as if he had just finished one of his favorite novels, and his mind kept reading. He did not fear being alone. Strangely, he reflectively dreamt of the wandering around he did as a young man in Egypt, where that isolation forced him to learn from others, and helped him make decisions. Solitude became peaceful for him as he sat by the Seine.
Something materializes in a man when he permits himself to feel solitude. He desired to leave Paris, understanding he would learn from the world, and care more for an experienced life, rather than possessions.
He craved that now. Emperio realized, as he packed his rucksack, he had a choice: clinch his passion to create his own path, or stay idle to accept destiny. He would carry little.
Excerpted from The Steppe by Henry Biernacki. Copyright © 2016 Henry Biernacki. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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