Checkers champ a winner to dwindling Uzbek Jews

SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan — 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 to '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 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.

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

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

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.''