Hamid Ismailov and the “Reality Novel”

By Rob Packer

The new novel by Hamid Ismailov

The new novel by Hamid Ismailov

“A Reality Novel” is a bold subtitle for any novel: the very act of writing slices up reality in a particular way, creating lacunae and juxtapositions. It’s an especially bold claim with political subject matter or somewhere relatively unknown, such as Central Asia. In the three months I lived in Kyrgyzstan, it seemed that half the facts were half-false, all lies contained a grain of truth and reality, if it existed, was somewhere in between.

For English-speakers, one of the best people to make sense of the conflicting and interlocking narratives of Central Asia, it’s probably Hamid Ismailov, Uzbek journalist, poet-novelist, BBC World Service Writer in Residence and head of the Central Asia service. In September, Glagoslav—a new publisher of literature in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian—published his 2005 novel, A Poet and Bin-Laden.

Personally, the title feels a little sensationalist (the original Russian means ‘the road to death is greater than death’) and even misleading in a literary world where the Taliban write poetry.

The novel tells the story of Belgi, an internationally-renowned Uzbek poet with an American girlfriend, who leaves Uzbekistan after his brother is murdered by the police. He is delivered to and joins the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the mountains of Tajikistan; and he is later sent to the Taliban’s Afghanistan to make a (propaganda?) film about Uzbek refugees, where he does briefly encounter Bin-Laden, before being found by American troops in 2001.

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A Chilling Story from Uzbekistan

By Rob Packer

Only yesterday, I was telling some of my secondary school language teachers about how beautiful Samarkand and Bukhara are (see previous posts for photos). Today, I was reminded by the BBC’s Crossing Continents documentary (listen online or link to podcast here) of the absolute horror of everyday life in Uzbekistan.

The government of the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, is notoriously repressive and Craig Murray, a British ambassador there, was dismissed for exposing human rights abuses. In 2005, the regime killed hundreds or thousands—it’s unclear how many—of its citizens in the city of Andijon in 2005 (see here for background).

When I visited in 2009, the people I spoke to looked towards other (marginally) freer Central Asian countries with a mixture of envy and sadness. At the same time, some were also quite candid to me, a Russian-speaking foreigner, about their distaste for the government and their nostalgia for “our USSR”. It felt like they were trapped. When I passed through Andijon on my way back to Kyrgyzstan, the city was deserted under cold December drizzle. Maybe it was the weather. Could it have been fear? I don’t know (the now notorious city of Osh across the border in Kyrgyzstan, in comparison, was bustling with traffic and bazaar crowds).

This documentary looks into reports of a forced sterilization programme in Uzbekistan, in which women are subjected to hysterectomies or other procedures, sometimes without their knowledge. Natalia Antelava, the journalist, was deported on arrival in Tashkent Airport and conducted interviews with Uzbeks fleeing to Kazakhstan, making independent information hard to come by. According to one source, 80,000 women were sterilized over seven months in 2010; another talked about provinces with quotas to sterilize 1000 women a month; most people say that around 80% of Uzbek women give birth through caesarean section and a particularly disturbing story was of one woman had a hysterectomy without her knowledge after her first baby was born: her baby later died and she will never have children.

The reasons for this programme are opaque—the government describes it as “slander” and denies that it exists. A likely reason could be population control, but Uzbekistan has not had a census since the 1980’s. But more chilling was a suggestion from Human Rights Watch that the increase in caesareans and sterilizations is to somehow improve the country’s ranking in infant mortality rates. This seems both illogical and within the perverse logic that I’ve seen before in Central Asia.

When I think of Uzbek families, I think of grandmothers taking to the dance floor in restaurants to dance to Pitbull and taking sweaters from a worried mother to her daughter studying in Bishkek. But Uzbekistan is also a country that makes me feel unspeakably sad for its people from the ubiquitous green-uniformed police to widespread prison torture (it is estimated to have more political prisoners than all former Soviet states combined). It’s depressing to hear that the state is making its mark felt on families too.

Even more depressing is to replay the documentary in my mind and realize the amount that didn’t surprise me.

Tales from Uzbekistan

Review of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway

By Rob Packer

"The Railway" by Hamid Ismailov

“The Railway” by Hamid Ismailov

I first bought a copy of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway when I was freshly returned from my three-month stint in Central Asia at the end of 2009; but one thing led to another, the book was left at home when I headed to Colombia and Mexico and I didn’t read the novel until this week.

The book is one of those rarities you sometimes stumble across in a bookshop, or in the literature section of the Lonely Planet to an obscure destination, a post-Soviet novel by a dissident Uzbek émigré living in London and writing in Russian. Rather than a novel, it’s really a collection of fables set around Gilas, a fictional railway town in Uzbekistan and each chapter is the story of a family or individual from the village. The book covers so many parts of Central Asian life during the Soviet Union that I recognized from living there: the patchwork of ethnic groups (Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs), the internal exiles brought by Stalin from other parts of the Soviet Union (Koreans with their kimchi, Germans or members of groups from Siberia), and the universality of Bollywood films that everyone watches but no-one understands—and which are now being copied on very low budgets by Uzbekistan’s post-independence film industry. But when it comes down to it, as much as I wanted to enjoy the book, it never grabbed me and I kept feeling that there was something missing.

The book is full of fantastical elements, which reminded me of an essay by Declan Kiberd on Irish Literature and Irish History I recently read where he makes the link between the inner world of fantasy of several Irish writers and the “fabulistic techniques” of post-colonial literature in Latin America and India. And the post-Soviet fantastical mind makes compelling stories for a handful of the hundred or so characters—all of which have hyphenated nicknames. I enjoyed the story of Mullah-Ulmas-Greeneyes, an Uzbek who spends his life being mistaken for Jewish both by the German army in the Second World War and by the Brezhnev regime who lets him emigrate to Brighton Beach. A high point of fantastical storytelling is reached in the story of Mahmud-Hodja’s journeys across Central Asia to Mecca and back with Maike, a Kyrgyz hungry enough to eat half a flock of sheep and thirsty enough to drink rivers nearly dry. Meanwhile, the story of Oppok-Lovely, who becomes the local passport officer and can be bribed to change all kinds of details in internal passports, is a sad example of the corruption that plagued the Soviet Union. But a lot of the characters fell flat and seemed no more than ciphers for bawdy humour, like the drunkard village intellectual whose drinking partner urinates on his hair; outsized physical attributes, such as a penis mistaken for a battering ram; unexplained mass movements, like a self-mutilating religious cult; or the theme of violence and rape that seems to build throughout the course of the book.

I think my fundamental problem with novels of this type is that they start out with the premise of a novel but the substance of a collection of stories. A novel doesn’t necessarily need a central plot, so much as a central framing device, like the group of storytellers of the Decameron or a continual physical presence such as Ivo Andrić’s bridge on the Drina; the only thing that comes close are the recurring fragments of the story of an unnamed boy. But at the same time, I don’t really feel that the chapters—there are exceptions—stand up as individual short stories. This is a shame: the book had a lot of potential but fell short of my expectations and its Central Asian subject matter is fascinating, especially given the epic storytelling that flows deep in the region. For an introduction to the region, I’d still stick with Colin Thubron’s Lost Heart of Asia or the perfection of Chingiz Aimatov’s incredible Jamilia.

Hamid Ismailov, The Railway, Vintage 2006

No nostalgia

By Rob Packer

You know something is badly wrong when a country that most people I speak to have never heard of spends most of the day at the top of the BBC news website. Today the country with this dubious honour was Kyrgyzstan, a country I spent nearly three months living in at the end of 2009.

The front page of the BBC News website today.

As news slowly trickled out of Kyrgyzstan over the day here in Colombia, which I’m guessing has a lot to do with the restricted access to the internet that most news organizations have mentioned, I found myself recognising parts of central Bishkek in a completely different context: I’d last seen Ala-Too Square (Bishkek’s main square) decked out with a New Year’s tree and families taking photos and it came as a shock to recognise the buildings around it as a backdrop to protesters with machine guns or seeing photos of bloodstained police and protesters on Chuy, one of Bishkek’s main roads.

The events are scarily similar to a fast-forwarded version of the Tulip Revolution five years ago where protests began in a provincial city where demonstrators occupied government buildings and spread to the capital, except that it has taken a day rather than four for protests to spread to the capital, and that the violence has been far, far worse with at least 40 dead and at least 400 wounded: statistics that a blogger at NewEurasia.net calls “remarkably low” in view of the “explosive violence”.

When I left Kyrgyzstan in December, the rises in utility prices had recently been announced that would increase the price of heating, water and electricity by up to five times. Utility prices in Kyrgyzstan were already expensive at what colleagues said was around US$50 a month: given the poverty that I saw while I was working there with Kiva, I couldn’t see how a lot of people would be able to make ends meet, and there was a lot of resentment of this. Meanwhile, the president—who had campaigned to fight corruption—was busy installing members of his family in positions of power, most notoriously his son Maksim who became the head of the development agency in late 2009 and was widely considered as being groomed as the president’s crown prince, following in the footsteps of Azerbaijan—and similar to what some are saying about post-Karimov Uzbekistan. At the same time, he was widely considered to have rigged the presidential elections of 2009 running against a seemingly invisible opposition, and journalists were turning up dead with an unsettling frequency.

In a country with a people who seem to regard it as free—very much a relative term in Central Asia—the scenes in Bishkek today seemed anything but that. It reminded me most of Karimov’s signature massacre at Andijon in Uzbekistan where the death toll estimates lie over an absurdly wide range between 200 and 1,500 people. It remains to see what will happen in Kyrgyzstan, now that the president appears to have fled to the mostly quiet south or to have let the country. I hope for the sake of Kyrgyzstan, that this means a freer and more democratic country; unfortunately it remains to be seen how a poor, mountainous republic surrounded by larger, more totalitarian states can hold on to that democracy.

Wrapping up Central Asia

By Rob Packer

My time in Kyrgyzstan has come to an end. I’m sitting on a plane to Colombia flying over Venezuela’s Andes Mountains, so there feels like there’s no better moment of closure to my Central Asian experiences than this. This is my second blog about my Central Asian experiences: the first was about my experiences with Kiva, this is more about my personal experiences.

Central Bishkek. It really is pretty in some places.

Legenda, a convenience store on a backstreet of Bishkek. The name means Legend.

People Search

At first I found being in Bishkek to be a very sobering experience: I usually don’t find it that difficult to meet people, but I ended up doing a whole lot of reading in my first few weeks in Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek in winter is a dark and forbidding city with few streetlamps and drainage ditches ready to be fallen into. There are few options apart from being the weird guy in the bar who starts conversations: a hit-and-miss strategy that can lead to a night of vodka drinking with cycle tourists or to just meeting duds. A chance introduction to a friend of a friend was the more sure-fire option; when that happened after about a month, my progress through War and Peace slowed to a crawl. Although I didn’t leave Bishkek with a large group of friends, I felt that in my last week I was getting tantalizingly close to having an active social life. You know who you are: thank you!

How I Learnt To Love The Marshrutka

Between marshrutkas, deserted dark streets, sometimes dangerous taxis from the street and the fear of having to book one over the phone in Russian, getting around Bishkek is not that easy.

The marshrutka is a staple of Central Asian transport, but also one of the hardest to use. These are second-hand Mercedes minivans with half the seats ripped out that ply the streets of cities in Central Asia packed to the rafters. Each one runs a set route with a board at the front with the landmarks it passes. The problem is that the board is so small that you can’t read it until the marshrutka’s at point-blank range; even then some of the landmarks can be pretty obscure to an out-of-towner who knows street names, but not where the Government Registry is. There’s a lot of asking passers-by and trial-and-error. But once you’ve got used to the fact that you might pick the only marshrutka not going to Osh Bazaar, it’s strangely addictive. It turns out there’s something special about it being so crowded that you have your face buried in someone’s coat and the only way to stay in one place is to wedge your head against the ceiling.

Philharmonia Square in Bishkek. Important: when a marshrutka goes past here, it does not say Ploshchad (Square) - that's somewhere else.

Relearning Russian

I spent the seven years between my Russian diploma at Cambridge and arriving in Kyrgyzstan mostly neglecting the language. Before I headed off to Kyrgyzstan I had a look through a Russian textbook and thought I remembered it; when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I could barely speak and understand even less, and spent two weeks feeling like a fraud before it came back. For all my struggles, it’s an incredibly rich and nuanced language, and every time a full, comprehensible sentence comes out, it feels like a mini triumph. By the end of the trip I was training people in Russian, telling anecdotes with colleagues after lunch, and then a shopkeeper in Bukhara asked if I’d been born in the Soviet Union. I enjoyed getting it back, but now the struggle’s going to be not losing it again.

For all its usefulness in Central Asia, however, Russian is definitely on the decline after eighteen years of independence and a resurgence in national languages. Bishkek is still resolutely Russian-speaking, but the story is different in rural Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where more than one person bemoaned the declining standard of Russian among the younger generation. It’s hard for me not to sympathize with that view, but for more than the egotistical reason that I speak Russian. None of the Central Asian republics are particularly ethnically homogeneous (Turkmenistan is the most where the Turkmen population is around 80%); Russian provides and has provided a useful lingua franca between ethnic groups and between countries. At the same time, I feel that Central Asia will only be a strong region without the in-fighting that includes shutting off gas and electricity to neighbours and a visa regime in most countries that seems to actively discourage the tourism most countries are trying to promote. Could its loss alienate part of the population and make the region weaker as much as nation-build?

Bishkek's Opera House. The only time I went was to see Rigoletto. In Russian.

Coming Back?

I’ve been drawn to Central Asia for a long time. Shortly after Central Asian independence, when I obsessed about visiting Samarkand and Bukhara, I was always fascinated by the intricate shapes of the countries. Central Asia has some of the world’s most bizarre borders, especially around the Fergana Valley, where Tajikistan surges up to grab the mouth of the valley, meanwhile Uzbekistan floods over the mountains from into the valley’s lowlands, and Kyrgyzstan stays in the mountains around the edges. The situation is complicated even more by two teardrops of Uzbekistan and one of Tajikistan lie completely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. It’s said that this cartographer’s dream comes from an almost slavish adherence to ethnic boundaries by Stalin when the boundaries of the Soviet Socialist Republics were being drawn up. Even then the results didn’t please everyone: the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were historically Tajik-speaking, but I’ve heard that Tajiks had to register as Uzbeks on their Soviet-era passports or be sent to live in Tajikistan. And there are still people in Tajikistan who want Samarkand “returned” to them.

The roads and railways complicate things even more, because in such a mountainous region these must follow topographical realities rather than whims: the main road to Batken, a Kyrgyz provincial capital, actually bisects two Uzbek enclaves. Meanwhile, countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were left with fragmented rail networks that dip in and out of those countries without joining up: a theoretical train journey from Bishkek in northern Kyrgyzstan to Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan would take in five border crossings and four countries, so it’s no wonder people prefer to fly or drive over the mountain passes.

Central Asia continues to fascinate me: far from being a homogeneous region, it is surprisingly diverse ethnically, geographically and culturally. Although autumn and winter are not the best seasons to enjoy Central Asia, it hasn’t been all that cold. During my time there, I’ve had some amazing cold weather days: snow in Chong Kemin and Samarkand, and the cold of Bukhara. I have a long list of things to do next time, such as yurt stays, a trip to Almaty, hiking and visiting Tajikistan. As I wrote it another blog, if you love Central Asia in the winter, it’s true love and I’m sure I’ll be back.

The road from Osh to Bishkek.

A more snowy part of the Osh-Bishkek road.

Hola, Kiva en Colombia! Do svidaniya, Kiva v Kyrgyzstane!

By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

This is a repost from the Kiva Fellows’ Blog.

My fellowship in Kyrgyzstan has come to an end and now I’m writing this in London before starting as one of pair of Kiva Fellows in Colombia: a first for Kiva. During training, I heard on the Kiva rumour mill that Kiva would be starting in Colombia a few months after training and thought it would be an amazing placement. Three months later with flights booked for Colombia in the New Year, I can feel the excitement building up as years of Colombia Dreaming finally come true.

Even though Kyrgyzstan is not a country I chose and Central Asia is not a region I chose, I’m already missing the marshrutkas (minibuses) and mountain views of Bishkek. The reason I ended up in Kyrgyzstan is because I speak Russian; Kiva looks for “Language proficiency in […] Russian” and speaking Russian is a sure-fire way to be offered a Russian-speaking placement. I decided that the post-Soviet stories would be fodder for dinner parties for years and that I’d have a large selection of Central Asian hats. Rather than the detachment of funny stories and the materialism of hats (although I have both), I have come to love the region. And if you can love Central Asia in the winter without yurt stays, much horse-riding or hiking and no beach life on Issyk-Kul, it must be true love. (more…)

Mol Bulak staff at my (semi) surprise send-off.

Online in Kyrgyzstan

By Rob Packer

Simply put, it’s different in Kyrgyzstan.

I was told I’d have internet in my apartment. When I arrived I found an Ethernet cable, and once I’d worked out that didn’t work I followed the cable to the modem to see what I could do there. Instead of going to a modem, the cable went through the wall and then out the window to the roof. The engineer came to fix it and still I wasn’t shown any modems and could only imagine the mess of cables on the roof. I could get online so I just put it down to another difference of life in Kyrgyzstan.

Getting online in Kyrgyzstan. First, plug in the Ethernet cable.

Out the window. Follow the cable. Where it stops, nobody knows.

And then to the roof.

And then my internet password suddenly stopped working. When I asked at work they told me I’d probably run out of money. Suddenly I realized that I was on pay-as-you-go internet, and I think no-one had explained it to me because they’d assumed that was the way it always is. I was taken down to the supermarket to something that looked like an ATM where I could load up cash onto my account (or do the same with my phone or gas bill), so I was now unstoppable. I’d naively assumed that I was on a time-based package, but actually my charges were entirely volume-based. When you’ve got used to limitless internet, this is a real adjustment: does anyone really know how many megabytes you get through? I started to cut down on Skype video calls and YouTube, but in two months in Kyrgyzstan, I could never work out how to tell how much credit I had left. The warning you’re running out of credit is that it just stops working, so I lived in fear of the midnight stroll.

Top up at the Tochka. This photo is slightly unfair because a lot are in a lot more salubrious places than this underpass in central Bishkek.

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