“A beguiling tale of khans, commissars, spies and poet-queens…[who] feature in a rare English translation of modern Uzbek fiction.” This is how The Economist described The Devils’ Dance, the most recent work by prominent Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov. The book has garnered praise from literary critics for its intricate and virtuosic plot that combines contexts and characters, prose and poetry, modern and classical. Despite this complexity, critics note, the book remains utterly readable, bringing to life a literary Central Asia that values powerful women, fascinating poetry, and “a cosmopolitan and culturally diverse Islam rarely described in western literature.”
Hamid Ismailov is a prominent Uzbek writer and journalist. A native of Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan and a longtime resident of the UK, Hamid Ismailov has an impressive experience with the BBC, where he serves as Head of the BBC’s Central Asian service. In 2010, he was also appointed as Writer in Residence for the BBC World Service, a tenure which lasted 4,5 years. In 2006, Ismailov’s novel “The Railway” became the first of his works to be translated into English. Other novels available in English include “A Poet and Bin-Laden,” “Underground,” and “The Dead Lake,” among others. “The Devils’ Dance” is the latest of his novels to be translated.
Until very recently, Ismailov’s books were out of favor in Uzbekistan, hence his works were not known to the public. In 2016, there was a sign of change—the Uzbek publishing house Akademnashr made “The Devils’ Dance, or the Great Game” available to readers in Uzbekistan. Sadly, Ismailov was still prevented from entering Uzbekistan as part of the BBC delegation in March 2017. Despite the latest incident, there is hope that the authorities will review their decision in due course and not prevent Ismailov’s visits in the future.
What is your novel about? Can you provide a short synopsis? Who is “The Devil”?
In 1937, the famous Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy was going to write a novel that, in his words, would be so beautiful that his readers would stop reading his iconic novels “Bygone Days” and “Scorpion from the Altar.” The novel would have told the story of a certain maiden who became the wife of three khans—a kind of Uzbek Helen of Troy. He told everyone: “I will sit down this winter and finish this novel. I have done my preparatory work; all that is left is to write it. Then people will stop reading my previous books.” He did indeed begin writing this novel, but on December 31, 1937 he was arrested. All his manuscripts were confiscated and later burnt. Not a single word of the novel remained. On October 4, 1938, Qodiriy was executed by firing squad. He was killed along with Chulpan, Fitrat, and many other prominent figures of Uzbek culture…
My novel is about this particular period, when Qodiriy—an arrested writer—is imprisoned and becomes obsessed with his novel, which reflects both his prison life and his literature. My novel is about this unwritten novel that takes place in the writer’s mind. Qodiriy once said that when he was busy writing, nothing could distract him, as if his own work had possessed him.
My novel takes place in a prison environment. The people who are imprisoned alongside the writer are not only characters in but also co-authors of his novel. This Hellenic woman, Oyhon-poshsha—who was first forced to marry Kokand Khan Umarkhan (who wrote poetry under the pen name “Amiri” and was the husband of the poetess Nadira), then (after his sudden death) was made to re-marry to his son Madali, and was eventually captured by the Emir of Bukhara, Nasrullahan—becomes a symbol of Qodiriy’s own literature, beautiful and betrayed.
In a sense, I wrote a novel planned by Qodiriy. But my novel is also about the writer and his creative process.
The Devils’ Dance is the title of Qodiriy’s short story, which I used to characterize the epoch of Stalin’s purges and the era of the Uzbek khanates.
Can you tell us more about the main characters, including Oyxon? How fictional are they? How (and why) did Oyxon come up? Is this female character simultaneously powerful and weak? Does her character tell us anything about women of that era and our own?
Oyxon (in Uzbek pronounced “Oyhon”) is a real person, just as the majority of characters in the novel are. She is also known as Xon-poshsha, and she is famous because she was married to three Uzbek khans: Umarkhan, his son Madali-khan, and then the Emir of Bukhara, Nasrullakhan. There’s a historic book, Muntahab-ut-Tavorix (Abdulla Qodiriy was after it when he was planning the novel and couldn’t get hold of it), where one can find some details about her life. Ultimately, the novel is about those two characters, Abdulla Qodiriy and his heroine Oyxon, who are simultaneously the most beautiful and most tragic faces of Uzbek history, culture, and life.
From the Chapter:
Oyxon, a girl of indescribable beauty – words simply can’t capture her, tongues become numb, pens break. As the couplet says:
“The moment I see her, my eyes run with tears
As the stars only shine when the sun disappears.”
As for the female part of the novel, there’s a widespread misunderstanding of women’s role in Islam, in Central Asia, and in the Uzbek family. I think “The Devils’ Dance” tackles this misunderstanding. The role of women in maintaining and transmitting culture, traditions, and rituals is second to none. All we learn about our way and mode of life comes from our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters… There are many Uzbek sayings that encapsulate this role: “Men can rule the world, but women rule men,” “If man is a head, woman is a neck, which turns this head,” etc. Read Qodiriy’s novels or the work of his friend Cho’lpon, and you will see the same unshakeable role of women in the Uzbek family and beyond it, in Uzbek society.
‘The Devils’ Dance’ shows not just the tragedy of Oyxon, but also her inhumane strength to stand against the adversities of her life. A reader could find the same qualities and others in Nodira, Uvaysi and other female characters of the novel.
Your novel combines multiple worlds and multiple contexts… How do you see them echoing into the present?
“The Devils’ Dance” is a novel about the current era just as much as it is about history. It is no stretch of the reader’s imagination to find many “devils’ dances” happening around himself or herself on various levels, from politics to the individual. I can easily draw parallels between the events in the novel and what is happening today between writers and the authorities. Even today, writers face imprisonment or persecution for their work, even in our own country. Forced marriages and domestic violence are not just historical phenomena. My novel is about human nature, its ups and downs, the interplay between the divine and the devilish sides within, and about human nature being the most difficult thing to change. Even if the scenery of the novel is different, the play which is unfolding and is called a human life is the same as it used to be eighty or 180 years ago.
My novel is about human nature, its ups and downs, the interplay between the divine and the devilish sides within, and about human nature being the most difficult thing to change.
There is a never-ending fascination with Qodiriy, Fitrat and Cho’lpon. Do you think the current generation has good knowledge of these figures? Do they bring valuable lessons to today’s youth in Uzbekistan? If so, what lessons?
I don’t know to what extent they are aware of those figures, but I wish that they were interested in Jadids—reformers of religion, culture, and education—or in the way of our traditional life. In fact, those figures you mention were at the forefront of these reforms. Today I follow the social media debates and discussions that occupy the minds of our Uzbek intellectuals, including the young ones. Regretfully, I often see that they are knocking on the same doors again and again. These are the same doors that were already opened by the Jadids. They are facing the same challenges that were resolved by Jadids and stumbling upon the issues that Jadids overcame at the time.
We, as a nation, love to take pride in our wonderful forefathers, but rarely learn from and use their experiences. I’ll give you just one small example. Due to the nature of the Uzbek language, Uzbek poetry is traditionally written in phrases rather than in words. Cho’lpon was maybe the first Uzbek poet to write Uzbek poetry in words rather than using ready-made phrasal clichés. To this day, he remains perhaps unique in this approach; though it opened up new worlds of Uzbek prosody, almost no one explored them. Nevertheless, if you asked any Uzbek about Uzbek poetry, he or she would immediately raise the name of Cho’lpon as a national flag.
The city of Kokand was not only the capital of the Khanate, but also its literary center. Here flocked the most diverse talent, with various worldviews and abilities. Among them were many natives of Kokand, court poets, progressive poets, and even women poets. Among them were Akmal (the father of the poet Mahmud), Amiri (Kokand khan Umarkhan), Gulhaniy, Zavkiy, Makhmur, Mukimiy, Pisandiy, Furkat, Hamza Hakimzade Niyazi, and women Nodira, Uvaysi, Makhzuna and many other.
Why do you think a UK publisher chose to translate this novel into English? What will the English-speaking audience see in it?
I think this question is for the publishers themselves. It’s not my first or hopefully my last novel to be translated into English, so I can’t see anything specific about the choice as such.
What I could add, though, referring to the wonderful translator, Donald Rayfield (who learnt Uzbek in the process of translation), is that there are similarities between Uzbeks and English-speakers in terms of how they treat the past. As languages, both Uzbek and English have a number of past tenses, which probably shows their admiration of, attraction to, and adulation of the past and history. That is one explanation.
I’d go even further: the longer I live in Britain, the more I find similarities between the land-locked “island” of Uzbekistan and Britain as a proper island. The “island mentality,” with its peculiarities and particularities, might be another explanation of the cultural and aesthetic affinities between these two parts of the world and their cultures. This may, for instance, explain why the first writer to pen a play about “Tamburlaine the Great” was Christopher Marlowe.
Yet all of that is kind of speculation. To be brutally honest, I didn’t write this novel with English-speakers or any other international readers in mind. I wrote it in Uzbek, hence it was for Uzbeks, and any translation is just a bonus for me.
In your novel you use poetry. Why did you decide to try poetry in prose? What is your favorite verse in the book and why is it dear to you?
Since I wrote this novel for Uzbeks, I used Uzbek cultural patterns. You know that Uzbek literature is predominantly written in the form of poetry. Take Alisher Navoi’s “Khamsa”— 5 novels written as poems—or many other examples and you understand the role of poetry in Uzbek literature and in the Uzbek psyche. Look also at all our rituals: when a person is born, he or she is welcomed to this world by the poetry of women, be it a lullaby or just a verse. When the same person marries, all the rituals are conducted in poetic forms, whether through the “Yor-Yor” song, “Kelin salom,” or the festivity itself. When he or she dies, once again the farewell or laments are performed in poetry. So the poetry in our life is ubiquitous and omnipresent. How could I have escaped it in my ultimate Uzbek novel?
…the novel’s formal and stylistic adventurousness has deep roots, with poetry rather than prose forming the backbone of Uzbek literary tradition
– Financial Times
As for my favorite poem—I’m not a monophilic person who easily answers that his favorite color is green, his favorite vowel is “u,” and his favorite musical note is “D.” No way! I might love a short story in the morning and hate it by that evening. The same is true of poetry. I should tell you all the poems I included in the novel and those that I wanted to include but kept for myself. But just for the sake of the Uzbek poetry represented by Cho’lpon, here’s one of them:
Little balconies, houses big and small,
Roofs of red, of blue and green,
And above, clouds, billowing and flowing
Gathering in masses across the skies.
The sun sinks and scatters as it falls
Trampled tulips over the cloudy screen.
But soon the fevered hues are fading
And from the east the darkness flies.
A quivering echo hangs in the air
As the muezzin cries the evening prayer.
Then comes the rain – briefly it seems –
But the winding street’s awash with streams.
To seek their fortune, young and old
Spread into the world far and wide
But now they’re coming back to the fold –
A sluggish, weary incoming tide.
And in the village, the children call
As they play together before bed,
But darkness soon embraces all
With its heavy wings outspread.
Lamps flicker, flicker listlessly,
Dull and sad as the eyes of a djinn –
And the rainwater spills on aimlessly
Over the ground like a silvery skin.
Let’s talk about Uzbek literature today. The Financial Times noted in a review of your book that “Ideally, The Devils’ Dance will encourage more English translations of literature written by Uzbeks and other Central Asians.” Would you agree? Which books would you recommend for translation?
I hope that the Financial Times’ prophecy will come true, and that not just Uzbek works, but also other Central Asian novels, will be translated into many languages. There are indeed many extremely talented Uzbek writers and poets. I don’t want to be the supreme judge, recommending some of them in particular to be translated or to be read in the original. I’d rather say which books I have been reading and enjoying for many years. Luckily, some classics of Jadid literature, which we discussed earlier, have been translated into several European languages in recent years. I know about English translations of Abdulla Qodiriy’s Bygone Days and Cho’lpon’s Night and Day. The latter was also translated into French. A friend of mine, Erkin A’zam, who is one of Uzbekistan’s leading modern writers, wrote a book, The Heirs to the Great Sinner Sheikh San’an, that was published in English last year. I am also aware that a collection of short stories by different Uzbek writers is going to be published by a university in the United States. And several Uzbek authors have been published by Turkish publishing houses.
What I also enjoy reading in Uzbek are books like A Tulip Land by Murod Muhammad Dost, The Heart is Pure by Xayriddin Sultanov, dastan-novellas by the late Tog’ay Murod, and short stories by the late Shukur Xolmirzaev. All of these were written in the 1980s. Muhammad Solih is not just a wonderful poet like Usman Azim or Xurshid Davron, but is also a virtuoso pamphletist. As for the most recent works, I love reading Muhammad Sharif, Salomat Vafo, and many others. In addition, there are plenty of other writers and poets loved by others.
The Devils’ Dance defies description. It is, at one level, prison literature reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn … The Arabian Nights-like world that Abdulla conjures up for his novel is, on the other hand, veiled and exotic. It is a world of shimmering light and malevolent shadows, filled in equal parts with beauty, erudition, brutality and duplicity.
– Asian Book Review
Can you tell us about classics that particularly inspired you and why?
I could tell you one thousand and one stories about my grannies telling me fairytales; about my school years, when instead of the books on the curriculum we were reading “adult” books; about my student years, when I read all the classics “from A to Z;” and so on and so forth—but then I’d have to write down my entire biography. Too many beloved books, too many romances with them… Since we are talking mostly about “The Devils’ Dance” and its main hero Abdulla Qodiriy, I’ll let the reader of this interview know about one of the books by Qodiriy which I could read endlessly.
It’s not one of his famous novels, it’s not the short story called “The Devils’ Dance”—though all of them are great. I’m talking about a series of stories Qodiriy wrote about Mulla Kalvak Mahdum in the 1920s for the satirical magazine Mushtum (Fist). The English reader or spectator might remember that many years ago, the late Mark Veil’s famous “Ilkhom” theatre brought a play called “White White White Black Stork” to London’s Barbican. It was based on those short stories, though they are much richer, funnier, and more prescient than the play. If there’s a single “Uzbek narrative,” for me it’s Kalvak Mahdum.
From your experience, please tell us how it feels to be an Uzbek in a multicultural city like London.
I have told myself that the longer I live here, the more I feel at home. I have never lived for so long in one place. London gave me the opportunity to write a number of my Uzbek- and Russian-language novels without any interference in my work. I feel indebted to the tolerance and open-mindedness of this city, and as a tribute to it, I have decided to write several novels in English. I have just finished one and will announce it soon. As our great medieval poet Navoi said in one of his poems: “Not finding the place in our own refuge, we find a refuge in strangers’ places.”