Two Books on Uzbekistan

✍️ 🕑 Late 2021, Early 2022 authoritarianismsoviet literaturecolonialismUzbekistanbook reviews

I’m sure that my readers are on the edge of their seats, desperately awaiting a review of the book I was reading while waiting for a tire patch at the Les Schwab in Salem, Oregon.

Well, it took me a month to get around to hitting the “publish” button, so I hope it was worth the wait! As bonus, I am also including in a review of the book I was reading before that one too.

Both these books came out in 2019, and both are about Uzbekistan. The two present very different views from the same(-ish) “country” roughly a hundred years apart. They are both fascinating reads that I would highly recommend to anyone who is interested.

The first, Bagila Bukharbayeva’s The Vanishing Generation is a take on religious persecution under the Islam Karimov-led government. I became aware of it through a glowing review on Eurasianet, and added it to my reading list.

The second, Night and Day by Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon is a turn of the century Uzbek novel, recently translated into English by Christopher Frost. I became aware of it as it was the second in series on “Central Asian Literatures in Translation”. I had adored the first book in the series, which led me to be quite intrigued as to the second.

Full thoughts follow.

The Vanishing Generation

Uzbekistan is a Muslim-majority country, one that was formerly occupied by the Russian Empire and part of the Soviet Union. And yet, its government represses many expressions of religiosity, often justified within the framework of the U.S. “War on Terror.”

This came to a head most famously in 2005, when security forces fired upon protestors in the city of Andijan. The catalyst for the event was the arrest of religious businessmen. In the aftershock, the United States withdrew from Uzbekistan where they had been staging troops for the war in Afghanistan.

There is no shortage of books that cover these events, at least at a surface level.

David Lewis’s Temptations of Tyranny in Central Asia (2008) is an excellent academic overview of foreign policy in the early days of Bush’s War on Terror and its impact on Central Asia. Former British Ambassador Craig Murray’s Murder in Samarkand (2006) (U.S. Title: Dirty Diplomacy), meanwhile, is a somewhat bawdy memoir that culminates with his account of the aftermath of the Andijan massacre, as well as the author’s outrage at the UK government’s use of information given by tortured prisoners, and his consequent expulsion from the British Foreign Service.

Baglia Bukharbayeva’s more recent The Vanishing Generation (2019), however, offers a much needed difference in perspective. focuses on Uzbek religiousity and religious persecution more broadly, initially centered on deceased former president Islam Karimov, and continuing to the current government’s unchanged attitudes after his death. (Refrains of needing to be authoritarian due to lack of development and danger reign.) Bukharbayeva grew up in Uzbekistan, and her take is very personal, drawing on interviews with prisoners and the experiences of childhood neighbors alike.

Baglia Bukharbayeva is a journalist, of Kyrgyz-Uzbek origin. She grew up in Tashkent and combines journalistic skill with her background lived experience to produce a unique and unflinching account of the Uzbekistan government’s crackdowns on expressions of religiosity. It goes without saying that this is not an easy book to read. I put it down for long stretches of time because I could not bear to continue.

Throughout, she maintains a nuanced perspective, treating victims with dignity while occasionally taking a skeptical view of some of the religious groups involved. Her work is invaluable for sharing their stories with a wider audience, and it is accessible to anyone without requiring extensive background reading.

It stands out from prior works by through its breadth of groups and years spanned, and its depth of humanization. It is a fantastic achievement, and I hope that it makes an impact.

Night and Day

Night and Day has a few things in common with The Vanishing Generation: they are both books that take place in Uzbekistan, and they are both, ultimately, rather depressing.

However, Night and Day is a work of fiction, originally published in Soviet Uzbekistan in 1934. It actually contains the novella, Night, which was intended to be the first part of a duology left unfinished when Soviet authorities executed its author, Abdulhamid Sulaymon.

Night and Day focuses on two intertwined stories with an ensemble of characters, and some not-too-subtle political commentary.

In story A, our hero Miryoqub does his best to cover for the mistakes of Akbarali Mingboshi, a foolish and impulsive local ruler loosely backed by the Russian colonial authorities. Along the way, however, he is enraptured by both ideas of local reformation and the looks of a young Russian woman in trouble.

Story B follows Zebi, a young girl who has recently come of age. She does her best to escape from her strict household and demanding, conservative father by visiting some friends in the countryside. There, she becomes smitten with a carriage driver, but unfortunately makes the mistake of letting her singing voice be heard. When word of this fresh young maiden’s talents spreads, Miryoqub decides that a fourth wife would be the perfect thing to cheer up childless Mingboshi.

Thus, wheels are set in motion that cannot be stopped by anyone…

Though tragic, this book is laugh out loud funny at many a time (as the other people waiting in the purgatory of a Les Schwab Tire Dealer could perhaps attest.)

The political commentary is mainly in support of Jadid reformers, who were looking to combine Western-style modernization with local Islamic sentiment. Generally, they were opposed to ‘backwards’ local customs, and the ruling class’s inability to ward off Russian colonialism.

Miryoqub’s journey is one in which he gradually discovers the rightness of Jadidism. Initially, his goal is just to keep mingboshi from pissing off the Jadids too much. (He is, of course, not so successful…)

“What’s a jadid? What does that mean?”
“I told you when you closed the school.”
“So I should remember it?”
“Jadid must mean ‘new.’ They supposedly bring new things to us. A new way of reading, new schools, new customs, new dress, everything new…”
“Were old things bad?”
“I can’t say. In a word, the goal of the jadids is to bring new things.”
“Like a new mingboshi and new judges?”
“Well of course they would like a more favorable mingboshi.” (Page 147)

But, as the novella continues, Miryoqub becomes convinced that Jadism will be the way forwards when the Russian Empire falters and loses its hold on society.

It’s as if I’ve been asleep all this time. As if all of us have been crushed by ignorance. There is this thing called the “nation”; it’s what we call “the masses.” (Page 239)

(Of course, only after intellectuals can help explain to him what ‘empire’ and ‘nation’ are, as he’s initially rather dumbstruck by the concept.)

Our misfortune is precisely in our stupidity. If the nation awakens, opens its eyes, studies, gains knowledge, enters into the group of cultured nations, then it can build its own state and find its own happiness. (Page 241)

The second dimension of political commentary is definitely quasi-feminist in nature. Obviously, the female characters are treated very badly, but I do believe that this does politically point towards an understanding that… well, maybe a little more agency would go a long way. This is occasionally voiced in the text.

A woman in such a denigrating environment becomes a master of deception. The merchant that puts handcuffs on his wife and locks the door behind him never understands that he is the biggest fool. (Page 287)

It is, however, frustrating that it is unfinished. It left me wanting more, wondering whether the situation could improve for our heroes?

Unfortunately, the realistic answer is “no,” particularly given that things did not improve for our heroes’ author.

For me, reading this was very much a glimpse into a very different time and place than I’m used to, and different political discourses, with a lot of commonalities with contemporaneous movements in the Russian-occupied Caucasus and elsewhere.

From a political perspective, this is a cool book. From a literary perspective, it’s quite worthwhile as well. It’s not the smoothest read, and I would love for it to be finished, but it did produce some belly laughs and smiles along the way.

Thanks for reading!

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