An aerial view of the Uzbek Quarter in occupied Jerusalem. Image Credit: Rafique Gangat

The old city of Jerusalem is a treasure trove of spiritual history hidden in the labyrinth of swarms of people strolling over ancient cobblestones, festive colours, enchanting smells and interesting faces that walk past you and disappear forever through the alleys of time.

On Via Dolorosa Road near Al Ghawanmeh gate, lives the Bukhari family. They migrated from Uzbekistan three hundred years ago and can even trace their ancestral roots to the famed Imam Al Bukhari who wrote the hadith collection known as Sahih Al Bukhari, which is regarded by Sunni Muslims as one of the most authentic hadith collections.

At the entrance to the building, I am met by a young man dressed in modern attire, Izadeni Abdul Aziz Moosa Bukhari, who then leads me to an inner courtyard, which suddenly drowns out the earlier perpetual noise and replaces it with a feeling of calm. I imbibe the quiet for a while and then Bukhari leads me to a room filled with family treasures of historical artefacts collected over generations, old books and pictures of the Bukhari clan.

“The Naqshabandi Sufi building was built in the 14th century, also called the Uzbek Zawiya. My family moved from Bukhara in Uzbekistan to Jerusalem in 1616, to teach Sufism. This place hosted people from all nationalities — it served as an embassy to the Holy Land, it was a place where pilgrims stayed for meditation, food was provided and the whole experience was generally community based,” says Bukhari.

Bukhari is the sixth-generation and only remaining male in the family. He returned from Oregon, USA, where he was living when his father, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari passed away not long ago, to take care of his mother and the Uzbek Zawiya.

As the ‘last-man standing’ he seems to be very passionate. “By being present here, understanding the tradition and the role we played, I am able to infuse and blend it with life today,” he says.

“The Uzbek community has mostly intermarried and fused into Palestinian society as well as spread out to Gaza, Jaffa and West bank. I consider myself as a Palestinian. In the old city, its only my family left and 80 per cent of our property has been taken over by the Islamic Waqf. In the past, the Islamic Court rented part of our property — my great-grandfather was a judge and since the family was part of the Waqf, the property went that way.”

Recalling the old days, he says, “My father told us every Thursday was meditation night and we fed hundreds of pilgrims, ‘boolaf’ which is an Uzbek rice, meat and carrot dish. And reading from my grandfather’s books, I learned that funds were provided by the Turks during Ottoman rule for the purchase of ingredients. This all came to a halt when Israel occupied the old city in 1967 and imposed high property taxes.”

“Also interest in Sufism dwindled, although the Turks honoured it during their rule of Jerusalem. When Jordan ruled, they did not consider Sufism as part of Islam, rather an innovation, so slowly it all stopped. Today, the interest in Sufism has shifted to the West. Here at the Uzbek Zawiya, meditation does not take place anymore, but people still do come to visit to learn about the history”

“I do talks and lead meditation sessions away from here, in Ramallah with a young generation of 20s and 30s as the interest in Sufism is about spirituality, the Uzbek tradition is still alive, the spirit is still there.”

Getting back to the Uzbek Zawiya and its decline, Bukhari explains, “During my father’s time, this place served as the Uzbek Cultural Centre, from 2000 to 2010. We did many exhibitions about our roots in Jerusalem, the Uzbek culture and the richness of Islamic history in Uzbekistan and that is how father connected with the government of Uzbekistan. He served as a UN observer during their elections, but somehow did not obtain any assistance from them, although the Turks who are more interested in Sufism, helped out with renovations to our house.”

“Also, my father was very involved in peace [efforts] with organisations and religious leaders, like Jerusalem Peacemakers and Abrahamic Reunion, as our family served as a bridge that brought people together through Sufism. During my father’s time, at least 20 persons converted to Islam here.”

What is Bukhari’s vision and how is he going to keep the age-old Uzbek Sufi tradition alive?

“My true passion is cooking and I have combined heritage and spirituality. I am working on a project called, sacred cuisine, which combines reiki and chakra guides to focus on creating recipes to balance chakra, for example, root vegetables to balance root chakra. We eat right and then mediate — feeding the body and soul. This has taken two years of research. We started a month ago and the interest is growing steadily.”

Meanwhile, Bukhari’s lone struggle to hold on to the family’s valuable property in the old city continues, “Recently we had a break-in and although money and many items were stolen we still have in our possession 179 preserved titles of handwritten books contained in 169 volumes. In addition, eight handwritten copies of the Holy Quran. They cover the fields of Quranic science, Islamic law, Sufism, Arabic language, logic and others. This collection is very valuable and many are after it. My task is to make sure it is not lost, and I shall therefore protect it with my life.”

“The Uzbek Zawiya has survived through many periods of occupation of the old city, many wars and it defiantly stands nowadays against the danger of greed.”

Adapting to changing times and tough circumstances in the old city, which as the most valuable real estate in the world is being sought out by many, young Bukhari nevertheless shows a steely determination to keep the Uzbek tradition of Sufism alive and with such famed roots I believe he shall stay the course.

He walks me out into the alleyways of the old city, where everything once more seems crowded and ephemeral, but hovering above people and their voices are stories like Bukhari’s that need to be heard.

Rafique Gangat, author of “Ye Shall Bowl on Grass”, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.