Historically, life in Uzbekistan has always revolved around the mahalla. The rough equivalent of a neighborhood in the traditional western sense, the mahalla is in the east, near east, new east, and middle east, an important aspect of everyday community life.
In Uzbekistan, mahalla were historically built around family connections, weddings, funerals, neighborhood and family conflict resolution, administration activities, and community celebrations. A council of mahalla elders served as the community leadership.
The establishment of the Soviet Union brought with it state intervention into the mahalla concept. Under state control the mahalla served as local extensions of the Soviet government, acting as the eyes and ears of the state. Government appointed village elders replaced those who historically filled those roles in a more traditional sense.
This proved good and bad for mahalla residents. State control of traditional mahalla life made it easier for the pervasive surveillance state to infiltrate deep into Uzbek society. It also meant that the relationship based organization of the mahalla allowed elders to serve as a buffer between the community and the state.
After the collapse of the USSR, Uzbek mahalla were able to resume their former role fulfilling basic administrative functions, acting as a kind of neighborhood watch, town council, and homeowners association combined. The mahalla still maintains its status as the smallest territorial subdivision, with a local mahalla office officiating in matters of dispute resolution, family celebrations, neighborhood maintenance, appearance, and upkeep.
Each mahalla maintains a office. Some even have elaborate gates with ornate archways marking the entrance to the community. Our mahalla has its own memorial with names of those who lost their lives in the Great Patriotic War.
The character of each mahalla is unique. While they all have a chaihanna, or teahouse, not every mahalla has its own mosque. Some mahalla are mostly single family dwellings, while some are made up of apartment buildings, or a mix of both. Increasingly, however, the traditional picture of the Uzbek mahalla is changing.
Many traditional single story dwellings are being replaced by large mansions as the economy improves and those with money want to live in quiet neighborhoods closer to the center. More and more homes are being bought out and replaced by expensive european style apartments. The sense of family and close ties with neighbors is giving way to more isolated individual family lifestyles. The scene in many fast changing mahalla in Uzbekistan is beginning to mirror the typical American subdivision where residents rarely see or speak to their neighbors.
Our mahalla is a mixture. Many older homes which were already abandoned are being replaced by big mansions. Some neighbors are friendly, others not so much. The elders still greet each other and have meetings at the chiahanna, but the sound of constant new home construction and renovation is now more common than community celebrations.
While the character of the traditional Uzbek mahalla may be changing in some places, in others it remains strong. Outside of the more desirable locations closer to the center, this historic aspect of Uzbek culture, and community organization at its most basic level continues to maintain an important societal role. As Tashkent continues its transformation into a modern, cosmopolitan city, the mahalla remains an integral part of life in Uzbekistan.