Literary Hooliganism: Q&A with Hamid Ismailov

Uzbek stamps depicting Abdulla Qodyri & Queen Oyxon 

Uzbek stamps depicting Abdulla Qodyri & Queen Oyxon 

I have completely forgotten what the initial impulse that made me write The Devils’ Dance actually was. I hope it wasn’t an instance of some sort of literary hooliganism because in my youth I used to ‘recreate’ lost or obliterated works of Uzbekistan’s classic poets and writers, and rather succeeded in reproducing their writing styles, manners and ways of thinking. Perhaps I thought then, why not write the novel, which our ultimate literary icon Abdulla Qodiriy was planning to write himself, meant to surpass all his previous novels? But as we know, Qodiriy was arrested and shot dead during the Stalinian purges.

Luckily, as I looked over my original manuscripts for the novel, I discovered it wasn’t a case of literary hooliganism. At the time, I was plotting to write something about the Great Game*. I don’t remember where this idea came from, but it may well be that I wished to pay tribute to the UK, where I have been living for the past twenty-five years (I have never lived in any other place for such a length of time). I started to gather material about the English officers Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly, who ended up tragically losing their lives in Bukhara. I collected all possible documents from the British Library and other archives, including government ones. At the same time, I recalled Abdulla Qodiriy's plan to write a novel about the Great Game, though he approached it from a completely different angle – by addressing the fate of the famous Queen Oyxon, who had been wife to three different Kings during that period.

Also, throughout the last twenty-five or so years, Uzbekistan has lived through the totalitarian regime of President Islam Karimov, one of the fiercest and utterly corrupt dictatorships in the world. This was the backdrop to my writing The Devils’ Dance. As another famous Russian poet Nikolay Nekrasov once said about the Russia of his time: ‘A heart, which has grown tired of hating, will never learn how to love’. At first sight, it is a seemingly simple statement. However, if you think about it, it is double-edged. On the one hand, it means that if you hate your country to the point of having grown tired of loathing it, you will no longer be able to love it. On the other hand, you won’t be able to love your country, should you grow tired of hating it, or in other words you should never tire of hating it in order to be able to love it. Thinking about the dire state my country has been left in, I felt that perhaps people needed some light, some positive heroes like Abdulla Qodiriy and his heroine Oyxon, who stood strong in the face of all the upheavals and adversities in their lives.

When I say that Qodyri’s tragic heroine, Queen Oyxon, was someone I wanted to depict as a positive figure, I am bringing to the fore my long-standing feminist beliefs. I was brought up by women, because the men in my family were killed off either during the Stalinian purges or in the Second World War. I know exactly what women did for my upbringing, how they kept and transmitted our culture, traditions, and way of life; how strong and positive they were not just in my life, but in the lives of my people. I knew and know to this day that many great changes throughout our history were brought about by women, often in a way so gentle or sly; therefore, this book also serves as my tribute, not just to famous historical Uzbek women like Nodira, Uvaysiy or Zebunissa, but also to my grannies, aunties, mother, wife and daughter.

So as all of these elements came and clicked together, I then began writing this novel.

*The battle for supremacy over Turkestan between the Russian and British empires during the nineteenth century.



Why is translation valuable?

One can find the answer to this question by examining translation from both aspects: the point of view of a reader, who reads in order to discover different cultures, voices, traditions and worlds distinct from his or her own, and, on the other hand, from the point of view of a writer like myself. Even if we don’t mention the effects of the global village or multiculturalism, and building bridges, not walls, some writers are doomed to be silenced in their home countries for various reasons. In such cases, as a writer, you need to look elsewhere to gain some kind of readership, if not in your own language, then at least in other languages, because you want to be heard.

There’s a quatrain penned by a late Russian poet Yuri Kuznetsov, which I’m using as an epigraph to a novel I am currently writing. He says:

                                    One day, the fading Sun

                                    Flashing its last spark will be forever gone.

                                    Yet in our hearts… In our hearts, an un-uttered lament remains,

And Man is still looking for another man

As for the reason why this particular book – which has been translated from Uzbek for the first time – is valuable as a translation, I will try to explain it using an example, which still resonates within my soul. Several years ago, a French journalist – apparently fed up with the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to, in his eyes, seemingly unworthy writers – wrote mockingly that the following year we should expect the prize to be awarded to some obscure Uzbek. There was a great deal of sarcasm in his words, and I was rather offended by them, not so much personally, but on behalf of Uzbek literature in general, because if you ask me, there are a handful of living Uzbek writers and poets who are truly worthy of being nominated for this very prize, since Uzbek literature, just like any other world-class literature, comes from a wonderful tradition, boasting classics of Dante’s, Shakespeare’s or Goethe’s calibre.



One shouldn’t forget that Uzbek literature is part of the wider canon of Central Asian literature and the latter, as I often say, represents one of the biggest and richest traditions of storytelling. Central Asian epics like Manas or Alpomysh are some of the longest heroic epics in the world. On the other hand, one ought to remember that the famous A Thousand and One Nights were told to the ruler of Samarkand.

I hope my forthcoming novel, entitled The Devils’ Dance, will give the reader a glimpse of that literary wealth and reflect that rich tradition of storytelling in English.


Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek journalist and writer who was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1992 due to what the state dubbed ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’. He came to the United Kingdom, where he took a job with the BBC World Service. His works are banned in Uzbekistan. Several of his Russian-original novels have been published in English translation, including The RailwayThe Dead Lake, which was long listed for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and The UndergroundThe Devils’ Dance will be the first of his Uzbek novels to appear in English. Follow him @ismailov_writer on Twitter.