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How to Make a Stubborn Donkey Move: Advice for Writers Under Dictatorship in the Internet Age

By Hamid IsmailovMay 20, 2017

How to Make a Stubborn Donkey Move: Advice for Writers Under Dictatorship in the Internet Age
THEY SAY THAT the worse a country’s dictatorship is, the stronger the public outcry against it, and therefore the better its literature. If only it were the other way around; then I’d be ready to give away my literary credentials. But it isn’t, and thus, throughout my life, I have written continuously and stubbornly.

When I brought a notebook of my poems to a local Tashkent newspaper in 1974, I was chastised by the editor for being too decadent, not Soviet at all. He said that I had missed my time and should have been born before the Bolshevik Revolution. However, he did publish three of my poems, under a title that was something like “Youth in Search of the Right Path.” Ever since, all of my works would experience similar difficulties, such that the lines from Joseph Brodsky — “The publisher’s dragging / his feet with my novel” — would always apply to me.

I’ll recollect some of those stories for you — not out of self-pity or to complain and vie for your tears, but rather to put forward some “techniques” for dealing with dictatorial censorship and nasty political regimes.


My first collection of “decadent” poems, entitled Sad (Garden) and published in Tashkent in 1987, was cushioned with a preface by an acclaimed but liberal writer who argued that even Soviet poetry needed some whispering voices alongside it, like the background cries heard in the bazaars. On top of that, my smart and cunning editor — like that first newspaper editor — affixed titles such as “To the Great Patriotic Widows,” though the poems had nothing to do with war or patriotism.

I do remember getting strong headaches when browsing “typically Soviet” books; it devastated me that I couldn’t write in the same manner even if I tried.

My second collection of poems, entitled Pustynya (Desert) and published at the very high point of perestroika, was much more sociopolitical in nature, but editors decided to cut it down to half its original length, discarding all the topical parts, and give it the label “Search for the Right Path by the Middle-Aged.”

My first book of prose — a prototype of The Railway, which I started in Uzbek — also has its own pitiful development story. When I showed a draft to one of the foremost Uzbek writers, who had spent 10 years of his life in Stalinist camps, he told me, “Son, you better stop it, because nobody would publish this here. If they do publish it, you’ll be arrested. Do you really need that? Perhaps try to publish in Russian, in Moscow.”

So, in 1984, that signal year for literature and totalitarianism, I moved to Moscow, where I stayed for eight years. But all I did, in order to dodge the “Central Literary Authorities,” was publish experimental books of visual poetry in small batches. They were quite subversive but didn’t catch the attention of the state because the print runs were so small and the style so unconventional. One of them, called PostFaustum, was produced in the same form as the Pravda newspaper and offered a modern version of Faust reflecting on the typical Soviet mentality: highly ideological, plain, eclectic, and superficial, with a presumptuous, predetermined truth (pravda in Russian). Another book, called The Hourglass, was made of various letters cut out of Soviet newspapers and collated on blank paper, as if liberated from their career of deception and given a chance to live new, more authentic lives.

Another widely popular way of “cheating” the Cerberus of Soviet censorship lay in translations from ancient and foreign languages. Translating Islamic classics into Russian and Western poetry into Uzbek was maybe the most gratifying and educational part of my Soviet literary life. I shared this “technique” with the likes of Joseph Brodsky and Semyon Lipkin, Bella Akhmadulina and Andrei Tarkovsky.

The Soviets preferred the upbeat, optimistic, heroic verse of Socialist Realism, but translating the likes of “decadent” Paul Verlaine allowed me to smuggle an otherwise unacceptable tristesse into Uzbek literature. You always could have argued that poor Verlaine or Rumi were unfortunately deprived of the enlightenment of Marxism-Leninism, having been born too early. Alas …


All of that took place during the Soviet era. So, has the situation become any better since the breakup of the Soviet Union? Not necessarily. As one of my Uzbek colleagues said, “The ceiling seems to descend ever lower.” I’d use another metaphor: if, in the USSR, we used to feel like we were living in the gulag archipelago, then independent Uzbekistan has brought our experience closer to that of a prison cell.

In 1992, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, I returned to Tashkent for several months but was forced to leave the country under imminent threat of arrest. According to a friend, I had a bounty on my head, so my family and I lived the life of Rushdie, hiding in different Moscow flats until we could flee to France. Despite this effective banishment, in 1995 my friend Sabit Madaliev, who was the chief editor of Zvezda Vostoka, a literary magazine, succeeded in publishing some parts of my novel The Railway, my first work of prose, under a pseudonym. When he prepared the core of the novel for publication in the next issue, the censors woke up and had the published run of the magazine shredded, and the whole editorial board rebuked and dispersed. The official explanation was that the author laughed at everything, including the holiest values of the newly independent state.

Already living in the West by that time, I was practically separated from my readership for the next 12 years. I had plenty of time to reflect on what was so “abnormal” in my writing that I ended up a banned writer, and the answer turned out to be quite simple: I was reflecting the reality around me as honestly and sincerely as I could, and that reality was terrible. There is an Uzbek saying: “If your face is ugly, don’t blame the mirror.” What I was seeing unfold was just the ugly face’s reaction to my writing.

As Andrey Sinyavsky once famously said, “My differences with the Soviet Union were of an aesthetic nature.” Any artistic depiction of reality is a deconstruction of reality, and every process of deconstruction is perceived by the authorities as a seditious act. Therefore, although I hadn’t been writing any political pamphlets or rebellious manifestos, but rather fictional works showing the unfiltered, naked reality, I was seen by the authorities as highly subversive and dangerous.

Sometimes even I was stunned by the extent of their paranoia. At the end of the ’90s, I was working in London as a broadcaster, and out of a certain nostalgia I produced series of radio programs entitled “Songs That I Like.” These were simple programs: my thoughts and sentiments about the Uzbek songs I had loved throughout my youth. The audience back in Uzbekistan cherished the series, but one particular episode caused a stir in both governmental and religious circles. The episode was about the most popular traditional song, which on close textual analysis turned out to be a song of bachabozes, or pedophiles. I later found my name — whether due to that particular episode or something else, I don’t know — in the leaked list of one hundred personal enemies of the Uzbek president.

So, I discovered that it doesn’t matter so much which specific techniques you apply when dealing with authoritarian regimes, be they in fiction writing or journalism; in fact, those regimes and authorities will resist your endeavor as long as you are writing about what you consider to be the real state of things — or, in more ambitious words, “telling the truth.”


Here I should make clear an important idea that I had sensed for a long time and that my experience confirms: fiction is often more “truthful” than straight journalism.

In 2003, when Uzbekistan was politically closest to the United States and Europe under the pretext of the “War on Terror,” I was the first Western journalist allowed to report from inside Uzbekistan’s prisons, including the most notorious one in Jaslyk, Karakalpakstan. My stint was quite successful and I got some real scoops, talking to my arrested colleague Mamadali Mahmudov and interviewing leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and of Hizbut-Tahrir. Yet something was missing until I came back to the United Kingdom and wrote a novella called Googling for Soul. Finally I understood the meaning of the saying, “If journalists were to broadcast the death of Jesus Christ, they would have brilliantly covered the act of crucifixion, but completely missed the birth of Christianity.” I had the same feeling because, while reporting on the horrible life of the tortured inmates, I missed the fact that those living freely around the prison were in an even more miserable condition. The prisoners at least had a roof, a bed, and food provided by the state, whereas those outside had to struggle for all of that on their own. And this prison had once been called “hell on Earth” and “Barsa-Kelmes,” or “a place of no return.”


All of that happened mostly in the pre-internet era. With the advent of the internet, people like me became much less dependent on institutional publishing tools and mechanisms. Nowadays, Uzbek literature is published not just in Uzbekistan. Dissident writers and poets like Yusuf Juma and Jahongir Mamatov are based in the United States; Xoldor Vulqon and Ismat Khushev, in Canada. Xayrullo, Pahlavon, and Sirojiddin publish their works in Britain; Yodgor Obid, in Austria; Muhammad Solih and Maksud Bekjon, in Turkey. Yusuf Rasul lives and works in Sweden, and so on. Personal websites, Facebook, and other social media forums — all of this virtual wealth reaches Uzbek readers on desktops, iPads, Kindles, and mobile devices. And these developments have created an ongoing movement, with Uzbek literary websites starting to act much more freely, running articles and short stories that would never have been published in official magazines or newspapers.

Part of me wishes I could end my reflections on this happy note. But my dissident nature impels me to say that, even in the joyful age of the internet and free markets, there are obstacles still standing in the way of the writer who seeks his reader, and these obstacles do not always stem from oppressive regimes or ideological states.

One of them is the hegemony of the so-called “big” languages in world literature. It’s much easier to be noticed and appreciated (and thus translated into many languages) if you represent a large nation with a population in the hundreds of millions. Banned as a writer in Uzbekistan, I’m deprived of my natural readership — the mere 25 million or so people who read Uzbek, almost all of whom live in Uzbekistan. It means a great deal to me to have a publisher like Restless Books bring my work to an American audience. By releasing the English-language debut of my novel The Underground and reissuing The Railway, this publisher has opened up my horizons, giving me a chance to share with American readers the bittersweet, tragicomic experiences of Uzbek and Soviet life. Still, I know a dozen world-class writers who, like me, come from small nations and are practically unknown to readers across the wider world. Have you ever heard of, say, Otar Chiladze from Georgia, Erkin A’zam from Uzbekistan, Hrant Matevosyan from Armenia, or Tirkish Jumageldiev from Turkmenistan? They are no less powerful or skillful than, for instance, Mo Yan, Paulo Coelho, or Haruki Murakami.

Another issue is the over-commercialization of the creative industry, nurtured by a new breed of consumers who abhor effort in reading books, preferring to swallow them in pill form and absorb the wisdom. On the internet, all the “complicated” books are retold as one-pagers, and commercial concerns have replaced anxieties about the heavy-handed state. Now students pass literature exams having read at worst the blurbs and at best the opera libretti of the literary works in question. Sometimes I think that if James Joyce brought Ulysses to publishers today, they would reject it on the basis that nobody would read it.

I should put a full stop here, because when a fiction writer theorizes rather than tells stories, she reminds me of our folkloric hero Mullah Nasreddin’s donkey. The mullah used to move his stubborn donkey by sitting on him and dangling a stick with a bunch of hay in front of its mouth. The animal, wanting to eat the hay, would eagerly take a step forward, but the hay would also move forward … The fiction writer is more natural telling stories and creating a stereoscopic, rich view of life than chasing like the donkey after her weak, limited theory of the world. When she tries, she can become almost as misguided as those partisans who persecute her for reflecting reality in her art in the first place.


The Father, or Living Russian Literature 

This story, a portrait of the anti-literary reality of post–Soviet Russia and Uzbekistan, was censored not by the Uzbek authorities but by a liberal Uzbek website. They used to publish my apolitical literary stories (if such a thing can be said to exist) but refused to publish this one, calling it too harshly political. I cannot see anything political in it beyond its honest, factual depiction of reality. It seems that the censor who sits on the inside is the strongest and vilest one.

Just when Yalghuz-Ota married off his youngest son Kuvanch and thought to himself that he could now relax and put his feet up, the whole world turned upside down.

In the beginning they said Perestroika, and then they added Uskoreniye. This Reconstruction and Acceleration ruined all chances of a peaceful life. At the very end of the process came Mustakilik — or independence — which made everything even worse.

Yalghuz, given his Russified name in the orphanage after the war, had taught Russian for nearly 40 years in a village school. It was only once he had retired that he gifted the books of Pushkin and Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Bunin to the school and felt free from the burden of those great writings. At that time, he thought that he probably ought to share these monumental examples of literature with Uzbeks too and start writing his memoirs or something of that sort.

It was only then, while he had free time, that he stumbled upon a few Uzbek magazines. In one of these, he read a novel by someone called Chulpon. In another, he read a play by a playwright called Fitrat. Wow! These people knew not only about Pushkin but also even about Artsibashev’s works. Yalghuz-Ota didn’t much appreciate Fitrat, but the other, Chulpon, was from Andijan, Yalghuz’s own valley, and therefore he used every word sparingly. Yalghuz was awestruck.

Let’s put the books aside, and once again return to the life that was turned upside down. When he had wanted to put his feet up and lean back on his couch, his eldest daughter Shodiya fell ill with “lady troubles” and left two children orphaned and Yalghuz’s heart broken. Though those two orphans were adopted by his eldest son, the policeman Ofarin, both remained at the house of their grandfather. They were children with their own needs, and even for the relatively simple matter of school, one would need an attendance form while the other needed a schoolbag; this one needed a Pioneers tie and that one would need a protractor. They slowly shook all the money from the old man’s pension.

Did we mention that the eldest son was a policeman? When independence came, his younger brother Zafar, who used to be a sergeant under his wing, dropped his police duties for the sake of Islam. There was a Tora (a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) either in Margilan or in Yazyovon, and Zafar went to him in order to seek apprenticeship. To whom were the wife and children of Zafar left, you may wonder. To Yalghuz-Ota, with his semi-drained pension. Zafar’s older brother Ofarin drove all the way to either Margilan or Yazyovon with his sirens blaring to curse the bloody hell out of his brother, but this made no difference. That bastard said, “It’s better if you also start with your piety, brother, and read your prayers.”

At this point, life started to look like And Quiet Flows the Don by Sholokhov. The two brothers parted ways and turned against each other. Ofarin started saying, “I’ll throw all of those scum in jail, they’re bloody Wahhabis,” and the Islamists started proclaiming through leaflets, “All policemen are infidels” and “There shall come a time when we’ll sit them all backward on donkeys and send them out of the valley.” Thus, Yalghuz-Ota was caught between his two feuding sons. He would tell Ofarin, “You, son, should imprison those who drink and shit all over the place, not those who are simply talking about God,” while telling that Tora, “You look like a learned man who has read his books. How can it be right according to Islam to throw away your wife and children just to enter the religion?” Yalghuz thought, “This Tora must be fake. He gave no answers and simply sipped his tea …” He even suggested that he’d take his son away himself, but the other snotty apprentices claimed his son was sowing seeds in the field. “This Tora must make them work like donkeys,” Yalghuz thought. “He’s even worse than the comrade kolkhozniks …”

Just as his eldest son’s sirens had no effect, Yalghuz’s interrogation was to no avail, and he returned empty-handed from the presence of this apparent holy man.

All right, it’s fine that Zafar, who had never touched a rake in his father’s little courtyard, was now working like a mule in his Tora’s vast fields. Good for this Tora, who managed to make this stupid lad work.

In a year’s time, the number of these stupid lads increased to the extent that they almost turned the valley into Islamabad, slaughtering policemen. Initially they beheaded just a single police chief in Namangan, but then the same started occurring in other places, and the lives of the policemen became much less peaceful. Ofarin lost his calm and muttered every now and then, “I’ll imprison your bastard son …”

“Why would you want to leave these children of yours as orphans?” Yalghuz would reply, but Ofarin would snap back, “That imbecile made orphans of them already.”

Yalghuz-Ota had no option left but to visit the Tora once again, and he took one of the poor children with him. Yalghuz had read Sholokhov, hadn’t he? Therefore he knew that even the hearts of hard soldiers would melt like butter when poor disheveled children were involved. Maybe this fucking Tora would also soften. Not a fucking chance! The Tora met Yalghuz and the child in front of his gates: “Unholy Russian books have turned you into a heretic beyond religion’s help.” Yalghuz chose to forget he was in the presence of the child, opting to curse and swear: “If we’re talking about those Russians, I heard your late mother was fucked by one herself! Fuck you!”

“If people like you are what Islam is, I’d far rather live my life as an infidel,” he said, before taking his grandchild and returning home.

At that point, they started to lock those stupid lads up in large groups. The police, including Ofarin, started to arrest them. Zafar found himself imprisoned among them. When it’s the seed shot from your own loins, your heart tightens more than you would expect. Yalghuz-Ota begged Ofarin, “Let me take those kids to my place, sell their land, and raise enough money. All you’d have to do is pay to get your brother out.” Ofarin resisted for a long time, but when he received the money from the sold land, he finally agreed. However, while passing the money on to the prosecutors from Andijan, he was caught by the security services and ended up facing prison himself.

One day, around 10 policemen brought Ofarin with his hands bound to Yalghuz-Ota’s courtyard. Oh, how they beat him in front of his father; oh, how they kicked him. They stomped on him, shouting, “Get all your hidden savings out, you bastard!” Seeing as Ofarin made no sound, they ended up going for Yalghuz-Ota himself. “We’ll imprison you too, you smelly old git. Your beard will rot in jail! Get the money out,” they shouted, stretching their necks out like geese as they gathered around him. Ofarin wanted to protect his father, but his hands were bound, and they kicked him, turning his nose and mouth to blood. One of them started to strangle the old man while another kicked him; had it not been for the noise of the little ones, they would have turned Yalghuz too into a bloody mess. They didn’t find shit. They dragged Ofarin, who by this point was crying blood, into a van and drove off. Yalghuz-Ota never saw him again. That’s how unfaithful this world is; that’s how temporary one’s position and thundering authority can be. Yalghuz-Ota was left heartbroken. He didn’t know whom to go to; none of Ofarin’s old friends recognized or remembered him.

“These bastards will want big money now,” said Kuvanch, his youngest son. He planned to go to Russia, where everyone else was already heading. Yalghuz-Ota attempted to reason with him: “Come on now, don’t go, or you’ll also end up imprisoned somewhere far away.” Yet who out of these youngsters would listen to their obsolete, aged father? So Kuvanch left his newborn baby and pregnant wife to his father and made his way to a town in Siberia called Yakutsk.

So who was left with Yalghuz next? He was left with his daughter Hayot, who had seen her husband off to Kazakhstan for work. Yalghuz-Ota turned into the only rooster among all these hens and chicks. If you thought he’d had difficulties, you only needed to look at these so-called chicks to see that their life was more difficult than his: fighting daily over each other’s shoes, they were stepping into a new, hungry, and naked life.

“When I grow up, I’ll also go to Russia and bring a huge car home!” said a snotty kid. “Please teach them Russian!” begged their widowed mothers. So Yalghuz decided that he would teach his nearly forgotten Russian to those learning the word of God, the Holy Qur’an, in the local mosque. He removed Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6” from their previous place as wrapping for his nasvay (chewing tobacco), and started reading them syllable by syllable with his grandchildren. He hadn’t read them for five or six years, and by making his grandchildren read aloud, it was as if he rediscovered a forgotten world. The poor old man started to compare his broken life to the stories. Was it all a waste?

They survived that winter with great difficulty: there was no coal, and twice a day they would have to burn cotton stems covered with dried manure. They wrapped themselves with layers and layers of duvets and blankets. All they ate was stale bread, with weak and colorless tea made with reused bags. Just when they could eat vegetables again in the spring, Yalghuz-Ota found himself in the hospital with a strong cough. The kids were left to Hayot. Taking one under her wing, she made him plough the earth, while another was made to bake bread with the widows, selling them afterward in the bazaar. She was the person who visited her father in hospital and her brothers in prison. “It’s the end of my days, and I can’t even stand on my own two feet,” Yalghuz thought to himself, and lay in the hospital for two months. It was a Ward No. 6. You could say it was the medicine, but there was no medicine to credit. He wanted to die but grew bored waiting, and when his cough improved a little, he came back home in the middle of spring.

When he returned, he realized with sadness that his family could survive without him, even if they were still in poverty. The little devils even managed to learn Russian without him, reading to each other the odd bit from the pages intended for wrapping the nasvay. One of them, boasting to his granddad, recited Sura Ya Sin, the heart of the Qur’an, while another proudly read the Russian Narodnoe Slovo newspaper without any hesitation. Yalghuz felt a slight ache in his heart. Even these youngsters had no need for him anymore.

While he was aching, summer and autumn passed, and closer to wintertime Yalghuz-Ota received an unexpected telephone call from Yakutsk. Kuvanch announced over the phone, “I lost 35 thousand dollars over at the casino. I need to repay it or else they’ll cut my throat.” Hadn’t the hapless Yalghuz-Ota read the very same in Dostoyevsky’s books? Alas! Hadn’t his middle son Zafar told him that these Russian books brought a bad omen? He felt like his old head was experiencing book after book, story after story.

He did all he could, but he only had one option for getting the money. He moved Ofarin’s family to his own place and sold their luxurious estate for 40 thousand dollars. He tied 35 thousand dollars to his inner waistline for Kuvanch, reserved two thousand dollars for the journey, and left the rest with Hayot before heading off to Yakutsk.

I won’t tell you about all his hardships. He ended up having to beg for help from one guy, hitch a ride with another in exchange for a few dollars, and pray to a third as an old man. After all of this, he flew to Novosibirsk, where he managed to seduce the local Russians with his knowledge of their literature, bagging a flight to Krasnoyarsk, and from there he managed to get to Yakutsk. In the tumultuous journey, the cough returned to his chest. Nearly dead, legs and back aching, he finally reached the flat rented by Kuvanch, his hand frozen solid like a plank of wood, holding the little piece of paper in the dark.

He wanted to knock on the door, but there was no knocker. He took the chust knife from his waist and knocked on the door with the bottom of its handle a couple of times. The door squeaked and opened a fraction, with the face of a Russian lady staring out from behind it. Seeing the man wielding a knife at her door, she burst into hysterical screaming and slammed the door shut in his face, the bitch. He wanted to say, “Hey, I won’t harm you,” but instead he said in clumsy Russian, “Huy, tebya ne trogayu!” (Dickhead, I won’t touch you!), and the noise from inside increased. All the neighbors came outside. Four or five of them, acting as one, twisted the old man’s knife-wielding hand and brought him down to the ground, making him kneel. At this moment, this Russian bitch appeared at the door with Kuvanch in a wife-beater. Yalghuz-Ota looked at his son and saw he sported a beard longer than his own. Had he turned into a mullah among them? “Hey! Don’t harm him, he’s my dad!” said Kuvanch, saving him from the fists and feet of the bloody Russian alcoholics. “Let’s drink to it instead, and wash down what just happened with some vodka,” he added, leading the horde of alcoholics into his apartment ahead of his father.

“Their way of life is different,” said Kuvanch, and they all toasted a drink to death, while the old man was left by himself in the corner with his head on a pillow. When he woke up, they were all lying passed out on top of each other, with that Russian bitch among them.

Was it the cold that had reached his bones? He shivered as much as his body allowed, more even than he had ever read about in any of his books. Closer to morning prayer, he shook his son Kuvanch awake and mumbled in his ear, “What are we going to do about this money?” “What money?” “The money you wanted! Your 35 thousand dollars,” Yalghuz-Ota explained. “So you brought it?” “Of course!” “Give it to me,” Kuvanch quickly responded.

Yalghuz-Ota untied the waistband on his chapan and then another waistband inside that fastened his white shirt. He unraveled it, laid it out on the table, and said, “Here is exactly 35 thousand dollars.” Kuvanch’s slit eyes suddenly opened wide, “Give it here,” he demanded, taking it without even counting it. “I’ll go and pay off the debt while your daughter-in-law looks after you.” He left his father with the noisy whore and went out into the street.

The days here apparently never brightened during winter. For a long time, Yalghuz-Ota waited for daybreak to appear in the windows. Maybe due to the sins of these alcoholics, the night never ended. The old man turned from one side to another, and his body ached. Finally, the day broke in the window, which was covered with condensation from this alcoholic lot, and a bluish sky appeared. Which book told of this feeling? Was it Notes from the House of the Dead by Dostoyevsky? It struck Yalghuz-Ota that he had lived his whole life living the feelings of others. “I may have aged, but I haven’t gotten wiser,” he thought to himself. “I’ve spent my whole life measuring everything with these books. What now?” His thoughts carried on, lost as ever. He couldn’t find any consoling thought, and wasn’t comforted by the waking of the drunken lot. His heart was broken, and his gut was aching; he searched and searched, yet consolation was nowhere to be found.

Suddenly, Kuvanch — cleanly shaven, without a single hair on his face — excitedly returned. “Father,” he exclaimed with his swollen lips. “While this lot haven’t yet woken up, we have to leave. I’ll explain everything on the way. A car is waiting for us downstairs.” He took Yalghuz-Ota from where he lay, not even allowing him to wash his face, led him to the car, and drove off along icy roads. “I told you, we have to leave as quickly as we can,” he said, and explained that they were going to the airport. He bought two tickets with a small part of the recently discovered dollars. Once they were on the plane, he explained that they were going to nowhere other than Moscow …

Yalghuz looked around on the plane and saw his own people: Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz folk. Was he taking Yakuts for Kyrgyz people? It seemed not: they were saying “Ayabay turames” (really wrong) in Kyrgyz. What was wrong, he wondered. Maybe they had the same problems as his son Kuvanch, thought the old man.

They were flying above the taiga. After a small meal was served and Yalghuz-Ota had gotten drowsy, the people who had been saying ayabay turames started to make lots of noise and called the pilot. When the pilot looked out of the window, he saw plumes of black smoke swirling from under the bottom of the plane. Panic spread. “Everybody fasten your seatbelts!” ordered the first pilot. The women who had been serving the food said, “Everyone put your head in your arms,” and made all the Kyrgyz-Tajik-Uzbeks fold themselves over in half. Those who knew it, started to utter the lohavla prayer, whereas the atheists started to weep in Russian.

“Well, I lived a Russian way of life, and so it seems I’ll die on Russian soil,” thought Yalghuz-Ota bitterly. What he had wanted to pass on to others had returned to haunt him. The person panicking more than anyone else, however, was Kuvanch.

“Father,” he said, “pardon me!” “Father,” he said, “pray faster for me!” “Father,” he said, “I ran away without paying my debts!” “Father,” he said, “forgive me my sins!” “Father,” he said, “give me your pillow!” “Father,” he said, “let me stay alive, I’m still young! You’ve eaten all that you’ll eat, and lived all that you’ll live!” “Father,” he said, “if you have some money left with you, give it to me!” “Father,” he said, “I’m afraid, swap places with that woman!” He exchanged his father for the stewardess sitting opposite them.

As Yalghuz-Ota sat facing them, he remembered all his children one by one. His Ofarin was in prison now. His Zafar was also there. His Shodiya had died. Poor kids, left orphaned — Shadiya, Ofarin, Kuvanch, and Zafar. Now his youngest son was betraying him. Only his daughter Hayot had been good to him. When compared to the others, she was the meekest, quietest, least noticeable of them all. Trying to remember, Yalghuz realized he hadn’t noticed her even as she grew up among his other children, got married, and had children of her own. Now he understood that she was the support that stood behind him like a mountain: his Hayot …

After he remembered his daughter, his heart relaxed a little. But at this moment, the plane shook, tumbled, and started to drop out of the sky. “Oh god!” everyone cried, and, as they say, a dog couldn’t have recognized his owner at that point. Bags and suitcases started to drop from the overhead storage, and suddenly the whole world, the entirety of mankind, and Yalghuz himself hung motionless. “This is my day of judgment,” thought the old man, and before death, muttered the shahada. At least his Hayot is alive in this world.

Either there are many layers in the sky, or the weeping of those Muslims reached God, who sent His angels, but the plane shook like a boy jumping on a spring mattress, hit the clouds with its wings, and unexpectedly leveled itself.

Then they landed not in Moscow, but in a place called Surgut …

The blue-colored airport looked so, so beautiful. Maybe the city was actually no less beautiful than Moscow. All of the passengers were taken like the dearest of guests to a four-story airport hotel, where for two days they were served three meals a day. On the third day, they were told, “All of you shall go to Moscow; your plane is now ready.” Then Yalghuz-Ota went mad: “Fuck your air-fucking-plane. I’d rather die than get back on one of your planes.” “Put me on a train and send me back to my Hayot,” he said to Kuvanch. “There are no trains from here to our place. I’ll get you onto a train in Moscow,” Kuvanch replied. The old man didn’t agree.

“In that case, you stay in this hotel, I’ll finish my business in Moscow and come back in two days time, and both of us shall go home,” said Kuvanch. He left his father with five hundred dollars and departed for Moscow with all these Tajik-Uzbek-Kyrgyzs.

Yalghuz-Ota gullibly believed him. On the third day he was kicked out of the hotel, as they told him that his payment had run dry. He went into the open street, keeping all his possessions wrapped in a shawl and the two hundred dollars he had kept hidden strapped to his chest. Having walked round and round the cold city he found himself at the banks of the Ob River. There, he noticed a Turkish-style mosque and decided to go to it.

That mosque was certainly a warm one. After two rakaats of prayer, Yalghuz leaned on a nearby wall, stretched his legs, and started to drift in and out of sleep. That night after evening prayers, he tucked himself away from sight in one of the corners of the mosque, and slept the night away. At dawn, the mosque guard woke him and started to tell him off: “This isn’t a hostel for you,” he grumbled, clearly wanting to chase him out. Responding to the commotion, a well-dressed imam appeared from within the mosque. Yalghuz-Ota looked at him and silently thanked God; this imam was clearly a Tatar. When he told him his story — that he had been waiting for his son Kuvanch in Surgut — the imam walked him away from the guard, whom he ordered to leave Yalghuz be, and gave Yalghuz a place to stay in the guard’s quarters. The week passed, and his Kuvanch failed to return. Ten days went by, and still no news came from his youngest son. Every day, an old man would travel from the mosque to the airport hotel. Initially, the clerks would tell him with a touch of sincerity and politeness that his son hadn’t arrived, yet as time passed they would mutter to their guard, “Don’t let him in again. That old man’s starting to smell.” Now that it was warmer, Yalghuz-Ota would sit outside the hotel glancing at every person who entered, hoping to spot his son.

However, the days passed by and the dollars he had changed for rubles with this Tatar imam were gradually dwindling, and not a shadow of his son Kuvanch appeared.

The old man ate the rushing passengers’ leftovers in the airport canteens. At the same airport toilet he would use a plastic cup to perform his ablutions, but, as he hadn’t changed his clothes in months, he felt shame for the smell lingering around him. He didn’t know what he had left to do aside from shuttling between the mosque and the hotel.

“It’s bad when a person has nowhere to go”: Yalghuz remembered this line from Dostoyevsky as he got cross with himself for letting the bad omens of those people fall onto his head. Why hadn’t he left for his own home on the first day? He should have taken a train, whether to Tyumen or to Novosibirsk, then gotten home some way or other from there. How could he have believed his youngest little shit, being so old himself?

Two months passed, and there was still no sign of Kuvanch. Even the rent for the dingy little place became an issue for the imam, who said to him, “I’ve struck an agreement with the Russian church, which is ready to take you in. They’ll even throw in a free soup.” With these words, he loaded the old man and his belongings into the mosque’s van and drove him to a Christian hostel on the fringes of town. Apparently it was a hostel for homeless old men and women. “Your clothes smell awful and are lice-infested,” they said. They made him change into a second-hand European suit, tied his old clothes into his shawl, and threw them into a fire right in front of him. “You’re burning in hellfire, Yalghuz,” the old man muttered to himself, becoming one of these Russian babushkas and dedushkas.

Starting that day, Yalghuz-Ota turned into Yalguzka. There was a roof over his head and a meal on the table for him. In the evenings, there was noisy Russian entertainment on the television. A bright Russian life had started. They were not allowed to go to the streets, so he didn’t know whether his youngest son had ever returned. Every afternoon after lunch, kids from the local schools would visit to read Pushkin or Gogol, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, Chekhov or Bunin out loud. At these times the old man would remember his childhood years at the orphanage; it was as if the sky had spun around and settled once again at the very same place. Though he had given in to his fate, the heart of Yalghuz-Ota still ached. He would remember his distant Hayot and worry for her; these worries were justified, as there had been ethnic violence and clashes in Osh that very summer, where he knew she was living. His heart ached bitterly at the thought of this, and he pleaded with all of the people around him, “Let me go. Even if I have to resort to begging, I need to return, and I really must go.” But nobody listened to him. “Everyone’s running away from there, and yet you’re trying to go back?” asked one of them, laughing in pity. If he had wanted to immolate himself, the Muslim faith hadn’t burnt out in his heart yet. If he wanted to set all the elderly residents on fire, he would be sent to a worse prison than the one he was already in.

Finally, he could suffer no longer and ran away from this Russian Ward No. 6. It took him the whole night to travel from one edge of the city to the other. He entered the airport hotel at the break of dawn. “Did my son ever come back?” he asked the sleepy guards and clerks, but nobody had any recollection of his son Kuvanch.

That day Yalghuz-Ota went to Surgut’s train station and begged for money. The local police chased him away, while the other beggars cursed him. All he managed to get was some small change worth a slice of bread and a small cup of tea. As it was summer, he thought that it would be worth trying to find a job, and with his mindset he spent the next few days searching. He entered shops asking whether they need a loader, but they all laughed, reminding him, “If you die, we would have the burden of burying you.”

One needs to keep his blood warm, and as he didn’t even have the time to scrape leftovers during the day in search of a job, he was forced to rummage through bins overnight, dipping stale bread in cold water and sleeping on benches with tree cover.

He gave his blood, sweat, and tears, but nothing came of it. Having no options left, within a month he was the same smelly and lice-infested Yalguzka that had needed the Russian hostel, so he returned.

I met him in that care home. The British oil company BP was traveling to Surgut and had hired me as their translator. After the business negotiations ended, Surgutneft’s officials decided to show off their charity work, taking us to one of the care homes they sponsored. After much convincing, I managed to persuade the hostel administration to allow him to come to my hotel room, where I spent the whole night listening to his story. I used to consider myself an expert in Russian literature, and even a successor. Yet sitting before me was a person who had lived out this literature as their actual life.

The next day, while taking Yalghuz-Ota back to his care home, I gave him enough money to return to his real home, but whether he reached his Hayot or is still waiting for his infidel son Kuvanch, I don’t know …

As Yalghuz-Ota himself told me, “Is it even possible to know another person’s life? All we’re allowed to know is Russian literature …”


Born in an ancient city in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek novelist and poet who was forced to leave his home in Tashkent when his writing brought him to the attention of government officials.

LARB Contributor

Born in an ancient city in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek novelist and poet who was forced to leave his home in Tashkent when his writing brought him to the attention of government officials. Under threat of arrest, he moved to London and joined the BBC World Service, where he was the first-ever Writer in Residence and is now Head of the Central Asian Service. In addition to journalism, Ismailov is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his books have been published in Uzbek, Russian, French, German, Turkish, English, and other languages. (His work is still banned in Uzbekistan.) He is the author of many novels, including Le Vagabond Flamboyant (1993), The Railway (2006), Hostage to Celestial Turks (2003), Googling for Soul (2004), A Poet and Bin-Laden (2012), The Dead Lake (2014), and The Underground (2015); poetry collections, including Sad (Garden) (1987) and Pustynya (Desert) (1988); and books of visual poetry, including Post Faustum (1990) and Kniga Otsutstvi (1992). He has translated Russian and Western classics into Uzbek, and Uzbek and Persian classics into Russian and several Western languages.


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