Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Death of a Director

When the theater director Mark Weil was stabbed to death in Tashkent earlier this month, Uzbekistan lost more than a cultural icon. His murder extinguished a flame of human decency in one of the darkest dictatorships on earth.

The Ilkhom Theater, which Mark founded in the 1970s, was a typical Soviet-era, half-underground hot spot where people would gather to watch and participate in plays that made them think outside the box of an authoritarian society.

That Mark died under the blows of two murderers is both tragic and highly symbolic. When the Soviet Union imploded, Central Asia - like Mark Weil himself - enthusiastically took up the quest for freedom and a new world, only to be brutally cut down by a gang of ruthless thugs.

During the four years I worked in Tashkent for the Open Society Institute, I had the privilege to be involved in a series of projects with the Ilkhom Theater. The atmosphere among Mark's team was unique - full of joie de vivre, yet with a certain gravity.

The subtle political messages of their work, delivered with humor and a pinch of pepper, revealed an overwhelming passion for the theater, for the soul and for everything that would help people transcend the meanness and masquerade of everyday life.

Those evenings at the Ilkhom were such a breath of fresh air in the Uzbekistan suffering under President Islam Karimov that many local friends would tell me they would not try to emigrate as long as the regime would allow the theater to remain open.

I have been exposed from an early age to artistic performances in different cities in Europe, but when I moved to Uzbekistan, Mark Weil and the Ilkhom Theater taught me two lessons I had never learned before. First, Shakespeare's comedies played in Russian can still make the public - and me in particular - laugh for hours on end. Second, art is one of the finest forms of resistance to dictatorships.

I had probably accepted these two points intellectually, but they only became real for me when I lived in Tashkent, where, like so many others, I could take refuge in the performances at Ilkhom.

Mark's splendid direction of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" even drove a secret policeman sitting in front of me to loosen his tie and - after long, obvious efforts to control himself - let his laughter explode with the rest of the crowd he had obviously been sent to report on.

Neither Mark nor the Ilkhom ever pretended to be outright political, but the harshness of Karimov's regime made the theater one of the few places where a free spirit could still relax in the evening in Tashkent.

When Karimov's minister of culture tried to prevent Ilkhom from holding its annual festival of classical contemporary music - led by another Tashkent cultural giant, the composer Dima Yanov-Yanovski - I had a hard time understanding why such a regime would be at all concerned about a festival offering works that would attract only a limited crowd in Paris, London or New York.

In Tashkent, however, the public would flock to performances that musicians who had performed at Carnegie or Albert hall would characterize as difficult. Such is the thirst for cultural escape in a dictatorship.

On a snowy March evening in Moscow last year, after I had spent a whole day in meetings, a colleague was giving me a lift back home. Stopped at a red light on Chistyprudnyi Boulevard, I saw - by complete chance - Mark crossing the street in front of us. I jumped out and shouted, he turned around and we hugged each other in the middle of the street.

I had dozens of questions about Ilkhom, his new plans and what was going on back in Tashkent. He had as many about my new life in Brussels, my wife, my kids and my work at the International Crisis Group - whose very name he found so theatrical. The light turned green, and we suddenly looked foolish there in the middle of the boulevard.

Mark, I will let you rest in peace with this image of our last encounter sealed forever in my mind. What you have done for us and for Uzbekistan will long outlive you - and the dictator who continues to misrule that tortured country. May your team in Tashkent carry on with your mission.

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