Hamid Ismailov

“We are a nomadic people. Today we pitch our yurts on one mountain pasture, tomorrow on another. Some people see their sense, their history, their fellow men as urban, and preserve all this in schools and madrasas, books and manuals. But we get on our horses and carry everything on our persons, and we have to keep it like this, on the move, in our minds and hearts.” — Hamid Ismailov, Manaschi

Sometime in between the first and the second volume of this Central Asian triptych, I travelled to Uzbekistan where Ismailov’s books cannot set foot because they are banned, and had a glimpse of the place that wrote the author.

Devil’s Dance is an intense initiation to Uzbek Literature. Of Strangers and Bees playfully meanders across the boundaries of time, literature, and geography. Manaschi is a geopolitically relevant finale that equals the force of Devil’s Dance.

But whether one speaks of the persecution of Uzbek writers throughout different regimes and implies that the writing process is akin to a dance with jinns;

the other of exile, elusive homelands, the value of community, man’s capacity for good and evil, or the search for truth and self through wanderers and bees;

and another of the trouble with imposed artificial borders, ethnic conflicts, the complexity of identity, or mystical bardic traditions;

all three uniquely celebrate the rich storytelling heritage of Central Asia — a heritage so crucial that a protagonist from the second volume boldly claims it to have shaped the shorelines of the great ocean that is Russian literature.

I love how this trilogy is a confluence of literary traditions rather than a defiance of the Western form. It manifests the power of stories, written, uttered, or observed; the power of stories when lived, as we become our stories and our stories become us; and the power of stories to take us beyond pathways of silk, even to places where only the rustle of words can go.

“It was a good thing the world had Uzbek literature.” — Hamid Ismailov, Of Strangers and Bees

Traveling Companions in Uzbekistan

Samarkand, June 2022

On the question of loneliness: “Isn’t that lonely, what you’re doing?”

(I have just returned from a solo trip to Uzbekistan.)

Well, these friends came along for the ride: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk, for the long Istanbul flight; The Captain’s Daughter by Alexander Pushkin that was fortunate enough to have a photo at the Pushkin Metro Station in Tashkent and was enjoyed under the shade of the trees of Amir Timur Square; Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, read during those days at the Halva Book Cafe whilst waiting for the Bukharan sun to soften; and A Carpet Ride to Khiva by Turkish-British Christopher Aslan Alexander, which accompanied me through Khiva’s storied alleys.

As there is currently so much more outside book covers to commit to paper, I release myself from the discipline of writing book reviews this month. “Regular programming” will resume in this blog in July. Haha 

But I have to mention that Pamuk, who sacrificed painting and architecture school so he could paint with words, taught me a Greek word through this book — “Ekphrasis”. Simply put, ekphrasis is, “To describe something, via words, for the benefit of those who have not seen it.” This inspired me to somehow practice ekphrasis in my little way as I traveled through Uzbekistan, and doing so has allowed me to savor experiences twice.

Pushkin, although political, was not as existentially heavy as Dostoevsky and not as heavy literally as Tolstoy — a purely delightful travel companion!

A Carpet Ride to Khiva seems to have left no stone unturned about Khivan society. It is written in simple prose, bursting at the seams with honest observations, this book is an entertaining overview of the country’s history and politics — which is, perhaps, one of the reasons why the author is banned in Uzbekistan, and why I only brought the e-book with me. I, too, have my own observations, but will keep them to myself for the time being. But it has to be noted that along with reading, traveling is a most comprehensive education on geopolitics, among other things, if one cares to engage and observe.

Solnit, with a title perfect for a trip, shared this Eskimo custom of offering an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system by going in a line across the landscape; “The point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.”

I, who had no anger to release, did mark the places that bore witness to the strength and length of… something else. I enjoy traveling solo. I would not keep doing it if I didn’t. It is almost like a sort of essential meditation for me and I always go home a better person. I do not feel sad with my own company. But I did mark those places, those experiences so ineffable I could think of only one person to share them with. I would prefer to call it love than loneliness. (But why is conquering anger about letting go and conquering something else the opposite? But I digress.)

As I reluctantly tuck in this unforgettable trip lovingly and a little bit pensively in the folds of memory, I am reminded that the Old Uzbek language had a hundred words for different kinds of crying. And I wonder, what about laughter? What about happiness? 

Hamid Ismailov: The Devils’ Dance

Old Uzbek language has one hundred words for different manners of crying, and special verbs for gestures like gazing imploringly into a lover’s face. 

Elif Batuman writes about this in The Possessed, and I reacted to this information as a reader would and thought, “How rich Uzbek literature must be!”

So here I am. Few things are more appealing to this reader than a scarcely-translated and relatively scarcely-read novel by an author whose works are banned in his own country.

It is intense in both intellectual and emotional degrees, and probably not too easy for those who are unacquainted with the Arabian Nights fashion of telling stories within stories within stories. This is one of those jealous novels that demand your full attention, but also one of the most masterful I have read for my Silk Route Reading Project.

The characters are real figures from Uzbek history. It chronicles the arrest of the nation’s prominent writer, Abdulla Qodiriy, by the Soviet secret police in the 1930s. His abduction interrupted the work on what he himself believed would be his greatest masterpiece, a novel about 19th-century poet-queen Oyxon. Abdulla Qodiriy’s manuscripts were subsequently burned and his last novel remained unwritten, but this is where Hamid Ismailov spins an imagined tale of Abdulla Qodiriy who, despite being in prison and enduring its horrors, continues to write the novel in his mind. 

In this book we have Hamid Ismailov telling a story about Abdulla Qodiriy who is telling a story about Queen Oyxon.

“Wasn’t the concoction of endless misfortunes that made up Oyxon’s life a reflection of the nation? …when and how had Oyxon’s tragic life-story turned into Abdulla’s own?” Concerning betrayals or intellectual persecution, perhaps Ismailov’s, too.

Yes, it is absolutely political, but how the Uzbek character is laid bare, their superstitions, their literary traditions, the exceptionally moving ending that had a cinematic quality which inspired a soundtrack in my mind, and most of all the tormenting pleasure of a writer’s thought process and how it is like a dance with jinns; these are the reasons why I think this is the perfect initiation to Uzbek literature — albeit complete with figurative hazing.

Expect no less from a people who has a hundred words for crying.