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

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.

Scariest word of the trip: Coffee House

By Rob Packer

Uzbek is a language in transition. Like most Central Asian languages, it’s been through a lot during its Soviet experience of the 20th century, especially in the political games played in the way it’s written. Like most languages in the region, it was written with the Arab-Persian script for centuries, and still is by Uzbeks in China, until the Soviet Union introduced a Latin alphabet in 1928 as part literacy drive, part forced distancing from the Islamic world. Within a few years in 1940, possibly due to fears of pan-Turkicism, the Latinization policy was replaced by a Cyrillicization drive. For a Russian speaker, the Uzbek Cyrillic alphabet has some of exotic letters, specially commissioned for the language like Ғ or Қ, although I personally feel that Kazakh wins in terms of weird and wonderful letters. Once independence came, however, Tashkent started to reorient itself away from Moscow and towards parts of the world that had been neglected for decades, such as fellow-Turkic Turkey and Europe beyond; this needed a rethink of language policy and a new Latin alphabet was decided on. The process of Latinization has been a gradual process and taken a decade, to now be considered reasonably complete, although there is still plenty of Cyrillic around. The result is a combination of rarely used letters in English, a lot of apostrophes and a strange liking for the letter O, ending up with words like Islom (Islam), homom (hammam), choy (tea), Qozog’iston (Kazakhstan) and O’zbekiston (Uzbekistan). But the scariest-looking word I saw was at the train station in Bukhara: the sign was orange, glowing and said QAHVAXONA.

And this is why a coffee house in Uzbekistan is scary.

Reflections on Uzbekistan

By Rob Packer

Uzbekistan has a reputation for corruption and totalitarianism. I have deliberately not referred to these issues in my posts on my trip to Uzbekistan for a number of reasons. I don’t aim to have a political view in my travel blogs and I have a long-standing personal curiosity to visit the country. The Uzbeks who I met were some of the most engaging people and were strangely worldly for a country that is so closed, yet they live in an environment of outstanding cultural, religious and architectural achievements. At the same time, perceptions of the way that country is governed come from experiencing and talking to people over time, unless you have a major brush against the political system of a country. I consider myself lucky not to have had many serious dealings with the Uzbek authorities during my trip; as soon as I got back to Kyrgyzstan, I started being told stories of problems at the border, confiscated cameras and the like that fill guidebooks to Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is undoubtedly a country with extreme levels of corruption. It consistently comes at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index: for 2009, it sits at 174 out of 180 countries and only comes higher than countries like Chad, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia. Whatever the criticisms of TI’s index and the difficulties of finding an absolute measure of corruption, the trend in the country is clear. Most people’s primary interaction with institutionalized corruption is with the police force. For all that people tell you about the police presence in Uzbekistan, nothing can prepare you for the sheer mass of police in the country: I’ve written before that I felt I saw around 200 policemen in a day in Tashkent, but the rest of the country is similar especially at all-too-common road blocks. The police also have keys to places, which is what happens at tourist sites where a guide might suggest going on the wall or climbing a minaret for an “extra fee”. It also means that a ‘friendly’ cop might try to offer to change money with you on the sly; this was a conversation I decided not to continue for long enough to find out whether this was a serious offer or entrapment. But for all their infamous reputation, the body language of the interaction between police and civilians didn’t seem to be a relationship of fear: people seemed to be engaged in friendly conversations or were having dinner together.

Uzbek police outside a mosque in Bukhara.

Neither is Uzbekistan known for its political freedoms, and is best known for the Andijon Incident of 2005 where between 200 and 1,500 civilians were shot in a square while protesting poor living conditions, in an incident with shades of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City or the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The history of Andijon means that of the few tourists I met, most said that people in Uzbekistan were wary about political conversation. Some people I met seemed to open up to me after asking about Kyrgyz politics, which is probably due to my position as a partial insider and Kyrgyzstan’s reputation as the most politically liberal Central Asian republic. For all that I repeated a standard Bishkek expat view that things are not getting freer in Kyrgyzstan, the general reaction was that some kind of choice is better than none. And as this blog from NewEurasia.net shows, some in Uzbekistan seem indifferent to the elections taking place in the country on 27 December and don’t seem afraid to say it anonymously in public. Alongside the dejected pessimism that I saw on one side, I also heard optimism for the future and approval for Karimov’s, mainly economic, policies: some praised the fact that Uzbekistan is still a rich and more developed republic, while others thought that existing controls on credit had saved Uzbekistan from the credit crunch that they see happening in Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan seems a temporal paradox: a dazzling ancient civilization and an incredible country to visit, but with modern difficulties that put it near the bottom of most league tables of freedom or corruption. In a week’s visit, I don’t pretend to understand the country or the issues that I briefly looked at in this post. Corruption is often said to be a hindrance to business, which is something I didn’t properly understand until I started to wonder about two new Uzbek friends are new businesses that they’re starting: how many backhanders will they have to pay? The lack of political freedom may have been temporarily resolved by a Beijing-style palm-greasing on a national scale, where the political class gives economic growth but withholds the freedom of choice, but it remains to be seen how that holds with Uzbekistan’s historic resistance to foreign investment.

Either way, Uzbekistan’s reputation in Kyrgyzstan seems to be at rock bottom: after I came back from Osh, I was talking to someone from Osh about the roads in the south and we started talking about Batken, the most remote of Kyrgyzstan’s provincial capitals, which lies 200km and 7 hours beyond Osh. The most direct road passes through two Uzbek and one Tajik enclaves although it’s possible to use bad roads and stay in Kyrgyzstan: the message was clear that this southerner would rather drive off-road than go “through their territory”.

The Central Asian Tea Line

By Rob Packer

I’ve had a strange hot drink experience in Central Asia. It’s been the first time in almost ten years that I’ve gone more than one or two days without coffee: I now have been coffee-free for eleven weeks, apart from one afternoon cup of Nescafe in Balykchy that ended in a sleepless night. The reason is that good coffee is hard to find and normally means instant, and by the time I worked out that there was coffee in the kitchen at work, I’d gone so far that any of the acute headaches I normally got from not having coffee had been lost in a fog of jetlag. It could also have been the tea.

This is a land of tea and in each republic it makes a strong case for being the national drink. If only because, it’s really the only drink; apart from the blunder with a cup of coffee and a small bottle of the water at the beginning of the week, it was the only liquid I drank. There was one day at work when all the tea had been used up and there was no bread (another Central Asian necessity): I thought we were about to see a fight or a tantrum. The tea addiction in Central Asia is so strong that in Samarkand, a Bangladeshi tourist and I started to wonder if people didn’t end up with liver or kidney problems from not drinking water.

Central Asia is also split by a food dividing line, like the point where grits become acceptable in the US or the Röstigraben of Switzerland. In Central Asia, the general rule is that on the north of the Tian Shan people drink black tea, to the south tea is green. The divide is surprisingly strong and I’ve seen people in Bishkek refuse green tea and someone in Balykchy order a pot of green tea like it was contraband. I’m much less loyal in my tea habits and will drink black or green depending on my mood, hunger levels and the weather. In Uzbekistan, where the Tea Line runs between Tashkent and Samarkand, my fickle ways were considered so strange in Samarkand that, although I was asked “green or black?” each time I was offered a pot at the excellent Antica near Guri Emir Mausoleum, I was given green without fail: my first pot had been green, so I was a green tea drinker. Why complain when the cultural experience is much more interesting?

I’m probably taking some Central Asian tea habits away with me. I love how tea in Central Asia is served in a small bowl, and I’ve already written about how I’m a big fan of adding jam to any kind of tea (apricot and raspberry are favourites). One habit I’m not sure that people in Europe will react all that well to is the reuse of teabags. I think this is related to samovar culture where strong tea from a pot is mixed with warm water from the samovar and the way that teabags are dipped into hot water, rather than hot water being poured onto the teabag. It was a shock to walk into the kitchen at work the first time and see a plate of used teabags in the middle, but the simple answer is that it’s just not used up after one dip.

Although I’ve fully embraced Central Asian tea culture, despite my fickle ways, I’m not sure how my Central Asian habits will work out in Colombia: famous for its coffee, less for its tea.

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