An exile like the Uzbek literary icons he mentions in this interview, novelist and journalist Hamid Ismailov fled his native country under threat of arrest in 1992. He spent time in Moscow and Paris before settling in London, where he lives now. Since departing Uzbekistan, he has played an active role in drawing attention to its troubling political circumstances, largely through his work with the BBC. However, Ismailov says, “Uzbekistan is the last place people are likely to talk about me.”
Although his work remains banned in Uzbekistan, Ismailov has found audiences all over the world, and has published not only in Uzbek and Russian but also in English, French, German, Turkish, and other languages. The Railway, a masterful novel Ismailov composed before his forced emigration, is out this month from Restless Books.
In this latest installment of Restless Books' Authors Around the World interview series, Ismailov speaks with us about the habits of the itinerant writer, the “island mentality” of a landlocked nation, and the Uzbek roots of The Arabian Nights.
1. Describe your preferred writing spaces, whether that’s when you’re in London or when you lived in Uzbekistan or the places you lived in between.
My writing space moves with me. One part of me comes from a nomadic background when you mount on the horse whatever you need for your survival. So all I need is a square meter and a pen and paper (or any replacement for them, like a Blackberry). All my life I write not because of a certain circumstances, but despite them.
2. As a writer, what’s the most inspiring thing to you about Uzbekistan? About England?
In both cases the language and people, their literature and history, then the geography. Brits and Uzbeks (and also possibly Japanese) are strangely similar in their makeup. The British and Japanese “island mentality” is quite widely researched and described. Less known is the Uzbek “island” mentality in the very middle of the Eurasian continent. The country is locked from all sides either by impassable steppes or deserts or the steep walls of mountains. Those who have been to Uzbekistan might remember the main monument on the central square of the capital—a globe with one country on it. Guess which country?
So bringing everything together, maybe deciphering these mentalities is the most inspiring thing for me.
3. What aspect of living in Uzbekistan is most difficult to convey to people from elsewhere?
The fact that you are living not in real life, but rather in a Kafka novel, and yet you consider and sometime shout that you are living real life.
4. What’s the first book you would recommend to a visitor to Uzbekistan who wants to understand the place?
The Railway for the background and A Poet and Bin Laden for the latest. It’s not an advertisement for my own books, but rather practical and pragmatic advice. Unfortunately there are no translated books, unless you read Russian. But even so, I’d recommend the same books.
5. What is your favorite idiom in Uzbek or Russian?
Too many to mention. I’m not a monophiliac person, who can easily choose his favorite this and that. What I love is interaction between this and that, be it colors, words, idioms, nations, civilizations, etc. There’s a famous tongue-in-cheek saying in Uzbek: “What’s the point in the greatness of the world if you have narrow shoes?” So my take is the opposite: “What’s the point of putting on narrow shoes if the world is so great?” So both literally and figuratively I love to walk barefoot.
6. What’s the literary culture like in Uzbekistan? Who are its literary icons, past and present?
Not many people pay attention that the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights. Scheherazade and her listener King Shahriyor are situated in Samarkand, one of the cities of modern Uzbekistan. So that is the land glorified by the biggest of lived poets and storytellers.
The greatest poet of all time, Hafez, said in one of his iconic poems:
That beautiful Shirazi Turk, took control and my heart stole,
I'll give Samarkand and Bukhara, for her Hindu beauty mole.
Of the same city of Samarkand the great English playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote that Tamerlane's “shining turrets distressed heaven.”
There’s something our literary icons have in common, though. Nearly all of them—Alisher Navoi (fifteenth century), Mashrab (seventeenth century), Abdulla Qadyri, Chulpon, Usman Nasyr (all twentieth century)—were either exiled or executed during their lifetime. So acknowledgment comes in our culture mostly when you are dead. Not a very encouraging prospect for the living authors…
7. What do most Americans misunderstand about Uzbekistan? What do most Uzbeks misunderstand about America?
I guess that common people look at the geography and the size of the country and put this or that country accordingly in their mental charts. I’m sure that Uzbekistan is pretty low in those people’s tables. What they might not know, the fact that every nation and ethnicity in the world considers itself as the focal point of the universe. Mind also that the Uzbek and British ran empires much bigger by territory than the contemporary United States!
But that might be my—an Uzbek’s—misunderstanding about America.
8. What do you think the leader of Uzbekistan reads?
I know for a fact that he reads the briefings prepared for him by the National Security Service on what is said about him in the foreign press; he reads speeches prepared for him by his speechwriters, some of whom luckily are or were good writers. I guess he read some Russian novels when he was young, but I can’t imagine that he read, reads, or will be reading any Uzbek fiction.
9. What’s an apt metaphor for being a writer in Uzbekistan?
Die before your death, or even better: die before you were born, with a disclaimer, that it’s my take. Others might have different views, especially if they still live in Uzbekistan.
10. Tell us your favorite local joke.
Just to reinstate the point that I’m not a monophiliac I’ll give you this one:
Mulla Nasreddin found himself in between two arguing people who asked him to judge who was right. Mulla listened first to the first person and said, “You are right!” Then the other person brought his arguments and Nasreddin said to him, “You are right too!” Mulla’s wife listening to them, interfered, and said to her husband, “Look, stupid man, if one is right, the other must be wrong, or the other way around!” to which Mulla Nasreddin replied, “You know, you are right too!”