Poetry and Intrigue in Uzbekistan: On Hamid Ismailov’s ‘The Devil’s Dance’

August 8, 2018 | 1 book mentioned 6 min read

In Hamid Ismailov’s book The Devil’s Dance, one Uzbek prisoner says to another, “It’s time for afternoon prayers, I think. Are you a believer, or one of the moderns?”—a familiar and false dichotomy that intellectuals in Muslim countries have had to contend with for a very long time. From the very start of the The Devil’s Dance, Ismailov’s fictionalized version of the late Abdulla Qodiriy, a celebrated Uzbek writer, lives in defiance of this dichotomy, shown to be doing his daily prayers in the cell where time seems punctuated only by prayers. There is, however, one concession given to the conventional wisdom that secular people guard culture against the believing masses: Qodiriy remembers how an Uzbek janitor beat him when he attempted to join in the Christmas celebrations in his Russian school and how his Russian literature teacher saved him. Still, Qodiriy remains a believer and one of the modern ones. His and Ismailov’s modernism, above all else, is in the way they engage with history, by bringing different strands of it together to create more of a myth than a “real version of events.”

The Devil’s Dance is set in Tashkent, where Qodiriy has just been taken to prison for the second time in his life, for an offense yet to be revealed by the secret policemen who question him. The book has a third-person narration with Qodiriy as a very strong focalizer, and we watch him contemplate his life, pray, talk to other prisoners, and work—in his head—on a historical novel about the courts of Bukhara and Kokand. For the uninitiated, the ‘Translator’s Afterwords” explain that Qodiriy spent most of 1938 in an NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) prison during Stalin’s Great Terror, and that the title of Ismailov’s novel comes from one of his short stories.

The Devil’s Dance, as the translator Donald Rayfield says, is Ismailov trying to imagine Qodiriy composing Emir Umar’s Slave Girl, the drafts of which were destroyed by the police. As you can imagine, Ismailov imagining Qodiriy writing the novel in his head soon turns into a metaphor for Ismailov’s own writing process, and the book sometimes gets too meta for its own good.

Ismailov’s book has a stellar cast. While Qodiriy gets to know his cellmates and awaits his fate, we take trips with him to the emirates of Bukhara and Kokand of the 19th century, where there is much warring and woe going on, accompanied always by poetry. There are scenes of poetry-offs in the Kokand court in particular, where Nadira, Emir Umar’s first wife, and Oyxon, the 18-year-old beauty he has just married, drop bars, as it were, about the conditions in the court—calling to my mind a particular scene from the 1960 Indian film Mughal-e-Azam, set in the court of Jahangir, who himself was the descendant of a dynasty that ruled Uzbekistan. In fact, Mughal-e-Azam becomes my go-to when Ismailov describes particularly opulent settings. In attendance are princes and princesses aplenty, who vie for power in these emirates that have not yet succumbed to Russian influence.

Qodiriy composes his work by checking in often with both himself and the reader as to what ought to be in an Uzbek historical novel. He concludes that he cannot fail to include the Great Game and parades all the usual suspects before us. Alexander Burnes, Charles Stoddart, Arthur Conolly, and lesser-known characters such as Jan Prosper Witkiewicz all get a look and take on dramatic importance in the little vignettes he composes around them. Apart from these diversions, the reader struggles to hold on to the reins of the three main theaters of action in the novel: Tashkent prison, Kokand and Bukhara courts. Ismailov keeps second-guessing the reader’s efforts throughout his novel and makes Qodiriy muse about his narrative exertions: “Alas, had it all now merged into a meaningless mass? If he could set it down to paper he would never confuse Umar’s Kokand palace with Nasrullo’s fortress in Bukhara.” The book is saved from merging into the feared meaningless mass by Ismailov’s storytelling gusto and Donald Rayfield’s translation, even at points where the narrative’s back is bent with too much history and too many characters. The metatextuality of the novel straddles that line between witty and exasperating.

One thing that kept me engaged as I tried not to lose the plot was the mystery of the translation itself: “As an academic, primarily qualified in Russian and Georgian, I should explain why, with little Turkish and less Farsi, I have translated this novel from its original Uzbek,” says Rayfield in the afterword. I wonder: Why does he apologize for not knowing Turkish, and not for not knowing Uzbek? Is he using the two words interchangeably? He adds that he has studied the Russian version of the novel:

Fortunately, the resources available to me—the Akobirov Uzbek-Russian Dictionary, the internet corpus of  Uzbek, Redhouse’s Ottoman and Steingass’s Persian dictionaries, but above all the patience of Hamid Ismailov … have I hope, been sufficient to mitigate the arrogance of my translating the novel from an initial position of deplorable incompetence.

I feel an almost Persian sense of decorum seep into Rayfield’s English. This confession does nothing to clarify whether he can actually read Uzbek but is very good at giving you a panorama of the cultural and linguistic realm we are in: Uzbek, Russian, Persian, Ottoman. In a novel about the writing and rewriting of history, the language hoops that the text had to jump through before it reached me becomes even more crucial. What’s more, The Devil’s Dance is a text that actually makes constant references to the different languages and dialects spoken both in the Tashkent prison and the Turkic courts.

The Uzbek language certainly is odd. You can hide yourself as a pronoun at the end, but that’s also where the emphasis lies: It is marked. But if we look at the language of Navoi or Babur, which was influenced by Farsi, we find pronoun and predicate changing places, all much earlier than the Russian influence. Abdulla’s thoughts reverted to Professor Zasypkin’s narrative or, to evoke one committed sacrilege, to Zasypkin’s narrative reverted the thoughts of Abdulla.

Between me and the English translation of this Uzbek text are, moreover, the ghosts words and sayings that I recognize, that I translate back to Turkish in my head. The book is rendered into beautiful English, and I particularly appreciated Rayfield’s efforts with the long sections of poetry that Ismailov has thrown in, to give us a sense of the kind of discourse used in the courts. In fact, one of the most palpable linguistic ghosts for me was the refrain of one of the poems that Cho’lpon (another Uzbek poet in prison, and with whose poetry the book opens) shows to Qodiriy: the work of Oyxon. “What did I do to you?” sounds a bit awkward in English as a refrain, but my mind promptly translates it into Turkish, and I realize it is one of the very common supplications in Turkish folk songs.

Language both as barrier and bridge is there in all the strands of the story. Ismailov imagines Conolly, the British envoy/spy sent to Bukhara in 1841 to secure the release of Stoddart (who himself had been sent there on an intelligence mission), and Oyxon flirting, enabled by the fact that the emir did not consider European men as men at all. Conolly, while still a respected guest at the court, offers Oyxon a couplet in English, but realizing she doesn’t understand the language, he puts it into Ottoman Turkish. “Then they all tried to work out the original couplet,” the narrator says, tongue firmly in cheek. Throughout the novel, characters shift their discourse as circumstance demands it. When Abdulla encounters Conolly in a dream, their exchange happens in similar linguistic humor:

“I am a lover of my nation,” Abdullah put it in Farsi. The sinewy Englishman raised his eyebrows again.

“I’m a nationalist,” Abdullah said, in Turkish this time.

The directness of Turkish and the poetry of Persian—and Uzbek, somewhere in between—is alluded to all the time.

Both Oyxon and Conolly, and indeed Stoddart, through their own stories of incarceration, are imagined as fellow prisoners in Qodiriy’s cell. As he is writing his novel in his head—no paper and pen allowed in Stalin’s prisons—Qodiriy laments time and again that he cannot access Oyxon’s writing, but he imagines what her poetry must have been like all the same, quoting stanza after stanza. He imagines Conolly might have recorded some of them in his memoirs and that these lost gems might be waiting for his discovery at the British Library among his diaries. “Here he was in prison in Tashkent, contemplating a trip to London; worrying about a lost manuscript,” he says, and I chuckle, knowing one or two academics who’ve had bad luck getting visas to look for lost manuscripts in Tashkent.

Although at times it feels as if Qodiriy’s Russian teacher hangs over the whole venture, telling both him and Ismailov to “show their work,” the novel manages to transport you to all the settings that have been recreated in great detail. It made me check Wikipedia at several points to understand the Byzantine goings on at the various Uzbek courts, and it also made me realize that there is scope for a dozen more historical novels to be written about the characters that make an appearance in Ismailov’s. As another modern once said, “human kind / cannot bear very much reality,” and it is this dictum that Ismailov seems to be coming to terms with in this epic rendition of Uzbekistan’s literary history.

is a lecturer and reviewer who lives in Istanbul, where she teaches graduate courses on literature and writes reviews for the Turkish monthly magazine Lacivert. She also occasionally contributes English pieces to Daily Sabah.

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