A Poet and Bin-Laden by Hamid Ismailov

This book tells the true story of Belgi, an Uzbek poet who fled the brutal regime in Uzbekistan and ended up in an Islamic militant/terrorist/dissident organisation up in the mountains of Tajikistan, just at the end of the 90s: in other words, as part of the same broad cultural movement as the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, just before 9/11.

The value of the novel is that it provides a more intimate perspective on that movement. Not that Hamid Ismailov was part of it himself — it’s not an insider’s view — but he’s an Uzbek poet and novelist who fled the country and ended up working for the BBC World Service, writing about an Uzbek poet who fled the country and ended up fighting with Islamic militants. There’s a cultural empathy there which is quite different to reading a book written by, say, an American diplomat or academic.

It’s more nuanced, more human, messier. The militants are not a faceless mass, they are a group of individuals. The religious cause is the primary motivation for some; but others are mainly concerned with opposing a particular Uzbek regime, or with personal ambition. And those who got caught up by accident and know that they are likely to be shot if they try to leave.

Belgi is well suited to being the human face of islamism, because his poetry offers the most direct possible contradiction of the stereotype. Most of the chapters start with an extract of his poetry, and it is modern, elusive/allusive… it is not the poetry of zealotry or violence. For example, picking one essentially at random:

Has summer come?
In your life you’ll still write another
Twenty-five books in the little square
among the mass of stone, ugly memorials.
Some concrete piece, the existence of a memorial
left by the builders,
turns into the absurd
as though, yes, say as though, in as far as
even if the thought ends
the yearning to continue it
does not end.
Shall I go into the dining room
and soak my hardened
brains in tea
so as to pour into my thought?
Here no one needs you,
but this is just the width and the length
of the fact that you need no one.

The poetry is not contemporary with him being a militant, it’s a different phase of his life; but still, the two things seem strikingly at odds.

So there’s a lot which is interesting about the book. But I do have some issues, mainly to do with form rather than content. The publisher’s blurb refers to it as a ‘reality novel’ and says that ‘in this book Hamid Ismailov masterfully intertwines fiction with documentary’. I don’t have a principled objection to mixing fiction and non-fiction, but in practice I found it confusing: I just wanted to have some idea of what was definitely true, what might be true, and what, if anything, was pure invention. No doubt the people who tried to teach me literary theory at university would despair at my naivety, but there you go.

What I found particularly confusing was that the book is an odd mixture of what reads like fiction with documents reproduced verbatim: press releases, transcripts of radio interviews and so on. And I was reading it thinking, well, the ‘documentary’ stuff must be genuine because anyone inventing it as fiction would make it a bit livelier; but the ‘fictional’ bits include events where the author wasn’t present, told as though from direct experience.

I ended up trying to google Belgi to find out whether or not he even existed; and to add to my confusion, couldn’t initially find any trace of him (I did eventually, once I worked out what to search for).

It’s not until chapter 32, halfway through the book, that Ismailov writes:

I think the time has arrived for me to interrupt my story and put in at least a brief word of clarification. Everything that I have written so far is documentary, and not only in those sections where I cite documents or eyewitness accounts, but also – even more importantly – in the parts where I tell the story of Belgi-Yosir, or rather, where I reproduce reality as seen through his eyes.

This is the point at which I must say that I have not made anything up, and while I am open to the reproach that I have not seen it all with my own eyes, nonetheless I have made it a rule in every case to rely on the words of those who did see things for themselves. Many of these people will never admit what happened to them: for instance Alisher, or Umar, who told me himself how he and Belgi came to be in Hoit, now works in a foreign cultural delegation.

If that explanation had appeared in the first few chapters it would have saved me a lot of fretting.

In fact I personally would have liked a generally simpler narrative. Inevitably there are a lot of unfamiliar names to keep track of — people, places, organisations — but it seemed to be made harder than necessary by the way it kept shifting around; not only the stylistic shifts between the documentary, ‘fiction’, and Ismailov’s first-person accounts of his own experiences, but also it felt like it kept hopping around in time and place.

So in various ways I found the model of a ‘reality novel’ awkward; it felt like the two impulses were fighting each other a bit, and I would have preferred either one thing or the other: a novelistic narrative or straight non-fiction.

But it’s an interesting and valuable book, despite that.

[Just in the spirit of full disclosure: the publishers, Glagoslav, sent me a review copy because I previously wrote a review of Ismailov’s novel, The Railway. Which was a first. So thanks to them for that.]

The Sands of Oxus by Sadriddin Aini

The Sands of Oxus is my book from Tajikistan for the Read The World challenge. Which is a bit of a cheat, in fact. Aini’s Tajikistan credentials would seem to be impeccable: according to Wikipedia, he is ‘regarded as Tajikistan’s national poet’. He wrote the first Tajik novels and a Tajik dictionary. He was a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Tajik SSR, the president of the Writer’s Union of Tajikistan, and the president of the Tajikistan Academy of Sciences. However, rather annoyingly for my purposes, he didn’t actually live there. He was born, and spent his whole life, in what is now Uzbekistan. He was ethnically Tajik, but not geographically.

This seems rather typical of Central Asia; my book from Uzbekistan, The Railway, was written by someone who was actually born in Kyrgyzstan. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is my book from Kyrgyzstan, but it’s set in Kazakhstan. I guess it’s partially because the Silk Road historically created a mixed, mobile population; and more recently because it was all part of the Soviet Union, and people moved from one SSR to another for all kinds of reasons, sometimes by choice and sometimes under duress.

If I come across a book which is a more perfect fit for Tajikistan, I might read that as well, I suppose. But The Sands of Oxus will do for now. It is the first volume of Aini’s autobiography; it covers his childhood in rural Uzbekistan — in what was then (1878-90) the Emirate of Bukhara. The book ends with him leaving to study at a madrasa at the age of twelve.

It’s a straightforward chronological autobiography told, at least in this translation, in fairly plain prose, but I found it very interesting; mainly for what you might call historical/ethnological reasons. It’s a vivid portrayal of life in a small village in Central Asia in the 1880s; the farming, the food, the customs. It’s occasionally a bit didactic — there are a few incidents which carry a suspiciously neat message — but not annoyingly so. The broadly political stuff, about venal magistrates, ignorant village mullahs, ruthless tax collectors and the arrogant aristocracy, might I suppose be influenced by his revolutionary politics as an adult and indeed the fact he was writing in Stalin’s USSR. Not that any of it is inherently implausible.

Reading it, it seems like an incredibly timeless world: the cycle of planting and harvest, Ramadan, a summer festival, circumcisions, marriages, funerals. There is no mention of any modern technology at all, not even the telegraph or the steam engine. It must have already seemed ancient by the time this book was written in 1949.

Here’s a fairly random sample:

Each year when the mulberries began to ripen, my father used to move us from Mahallayi Bolo to Soktaré. The year that the Shofirkom canal was choked with sand and Mahallayi Bolo was left without water, we moved to Soktaré early, even before the mulberries began to fruit.

In Soktaré my brother and Sayid-Akbar Khoka began to study with the village khatib, and I played in the many streams and canals with other boys my age. My father decided not to move back to Mahallayi Bolo that winter, since drinking water was scarce there and had to be drawn from a village well and carried to the house. Accordingly, he demolished our tumbledown living quarters and built a new house of mud brick, with a storeroom, a kitchen porch, a cattle stall and a barn for hay. Usto Khoja assisted him with the construction, and Ikrom Khoja and Muhyiddin helped as far as they could in mixing the mud; but despite his father’s pestering, Sayid-Akbar refused to help, claiming that he wanted to be a calligrapher and if he soiled his hands with mud and bricks they would be spoiled for the pen.

That year I and my playmates Haid Khoja, the nephew of Ibrohim Khoja, and the daughters of Usto Khoja, spent most of our spare time with Tūto-posho, who would tell us strange and wonderful tales. She knew by heart the stories of Rustam, Isfandiyar, Siyavush, and Abu Muslim, and would repeat them for us endlessly. We would each bring her bread, mulberry raisins, or some other delicacy to entice her to talk. She would lie back with pillows under her head and legs, and tell us stories.

Certainly worth a read.

» The images are two sides of a 5000 tenga note from Bukhara in 1920. So the period isn’t quite right, but I like the pictures, so why not. From the British Museum.

The Railway by Hamid Ismailov

Having set myself the modest enough goal for 2010 of reading a few more books for the Read The World challenge than I did in 2009… I’m already behind schedule. We’re into March and I’ve only just finished my first. Ho-hum.

The Railway (translated by Robert Chandler) is my book from Uzbekistan. I was slightly peeved when I received the book to read in the author bio that Hamid Ismailov was actually born in Kirghizstan, but his Uzbek credentials appear to be otherwise impeccable. His parents were just working in Kirghizstan when he was born, at a time of course when both countries were part of the USSR anyway. In some ways it’s quite fitting for this novel, because it is a book full of a patchwork of different nationalities and ethnicities, and full of people moving from place to place, for traditional reasons like pilgrimage and trade; or as part of the army or civil service; or sent to labour camps; or forcibly relocated en masse by the government, like the ethnic Koreans from the far east of the USSR who were moved to Central Asia for some paranoid reason that presumably made sense to Stalin.

One of the reviews quoted on the cover says ‘imagine Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude on the empty plains of Central Asia’, and although it’s perhaps not quite so overtly magical as 100YoS, it is certainly of that ilk, full of strange happenings and grotesquerie. It also has many many characters, all with long Uzbek names — there’s an eight-page list at the back to help you keep track of them, although I can’t say it helped me much — and it shifts around in time and place in a way which, to be honest, just meant I was usually a bit confused. It almost would have been better if I’d read it as a book of short stories, I think, because it would have saved me that sense of being permanently unsure what was going on. I have a relatively high tolerance for non-linear narratives and that sort of thing, but I found it hard going. I didn’t help myself by the way I read it; rather too many long gaps between picking it up.

On the positive side, the world it conjures up is an interesting one: a traditional Central Asian culture rubbing up against Russia and the Soviet bureaucracy, an Islamic culture in a sometimes aggressively secular state, petty local politics in the middle of it. It was one of those books where I kind of thought that maybe, if I had read it in a different place or a different mood I might have really enjoyed it, because it certainly had interesting stuff going on and I can’t put my finger on why I didn’t enjoy it… but there you go.

» Le pain rond ouzbek is © Mon Œil and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

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