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The City and the Writer: In Bukhara, Uzbekistan with Hamid Ismailov

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Bukhara as you feel/see it?

Yet, she led, as I led the caravan, / Not a mother—but an age-old yearning, / and there on the domes of its tombs / scattered a handful of sand.

There are cities in this world where you can really feel the weight of thousands of years of civilization. It’s not so much due to the architecture, although architecture does play a certain role in creating that sense, but rather the way the light softly disperses through the air, the way the centuries-old trees spread their shadows on the polished well-trodden ground beneath them, the slow dignity of life’s flow, the old people sitting at the intersections of dusty streets and children freely playing their everlasting games. I had experienced that kind of feeling in Pakistan’s Lahore, in Benin’s Ouidah, in Afghanistan’s Balkh, in Germany’s Bamberg, and many other places, but most of all in Bukhara.

In Bukhara you can easily imagine yourself living in any century of the past. Enter the Perfumers’ Pit or the Magoki Attori mosque, and there, at once, you can imagine the flickering of Zoroastrian flames, because the earliest bricks of the mosque are from pre-Islamic times. Looking closely at its ornate interior decoration you can sense that at one time Bukharian Jews were praying here alongside Muslims before they were allowed to build their synagogues. Then walk to the nearby passage—Toki Sarrofon (the Exchange Dome)—and you find yourself in the middle of a medieval bazaar, where Indians sell spices and Uighurs offer Chinese silks; where wise men of Shiraz promote the latest manuscripts and shrewd mediators of Bukhara exchange rupees for dinars. Walk further—two quarters away—and find St. Michael’s Orthodox Church, a trace of the Russian colonization of Central Asia. As with many other historic buildings of Bukhara, which have outlived people and their ever-changing interests, at one time this building was a train station, then a storehouse, and now a fully functioning Russian church.

The same goes for the people of Bukhara, when you study their faces. The green-eyed gentleman with a Greek profile sitting at the teahouse next to the famous Labi Hauz pond, who seems to have been left behind by Alexander the Great’s army to oversee the rebellious cavalry of the descendants of the local Queen Tomyris. Among his companions are Ibn Qutaybah, who brought Islam here on the back of a hardy Arabian steed; and noble Chagatai, one of the sons of Genghis Khan, smiling through his thin mustache and wiping his narrow eyes with a piece of goat skin. The hairdresser around the corner is the disguised cook from Tamburlaine’s court, and the one-legged Russian veteran selling tickets to the local museum is a famous spy sent here during the Great Game.

Michelangelo Antonioni once said, “It’s in Bukhara that I’d film 1001 Nights.”


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

And in the heat, as if immersed in white fluff, withdrawing into their own wrinkles, the old people fall silent, like only trees can.

Bukhara is a city of long, endless memories. My memory of it is that of my great-great grandfather Mulla Tusmuhammad-Okhun (and Oyimcha, my grandmother, and Obid-Kori, my grandfather). I wrote about in my novel The Railway.

I told his story to my children, and now I’m telling it to my grandchildren because we are still blessed by this memory.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

And I think: this is life, just like Nasreddin Hodja on a donkey with his head leaning over Labi Hauz, yet failing to drink his fill.

There’s a famous joke about a qadi (local judge) drowning in Labi Hauz pond. People were extending their hands, shouting: Give me your hand! Give me . . . But the qadi was mumbling something, as he disappeared under water and then reappeared. Nasreddin Hodja, the local knave, was passing by and, upon witnessing the scene, rushed to the pond, gave his arm, and shouted, Take it! The qadi immediately clung onto his hand. He is a qadi and judges are not used to giving, they are only used to taking, Hodja explained to the crowd.

Unlike that qadi and Hodja Nasreddin, in whose honor they erected a monument near Labi Hauz, the people of Bukhara are givers rather than the takers.

It begins with language. Address any Bukharian in Uzbek, and the reply will be in Uzbek. Ask in Tajik, and the response will be in Tajik. Enquire in Russian, and you’ll receive the explanation in Russian. Once I saw a lost Japanese tourist speaking with a local lady selling sunflower seeds on the corner. She listened to him, then told to her son to get the neighbor who speaks Japanese. In Bukhara, people try to they make you feel local.


What writers from here should we read?

The whisper of salty lips like the rustle of sand, / In a drop of water, like in a seed, the river is looming . . . / There is a famous verse saying: / Samarqand sayqali ro’yi zamin ast, / Buxoro quvvati islomi din ast. / Samarkand is the beauty of the face of the Earth, / Bukhara is the might of Islamic faith.

The second most important book of Islam after the Holy Koran is the Collection of True (As-Sahih) Hadiths, or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, collected by Imam al-Bukhari, who was born here in 810. He lived to be sixty years old. Beginning at the age of eighteen, he processed over 600,000 sayings attributed to the Prophet, and ended up with 7,275 proven to be said by the Prophet Muhammad. It was an unbelievable undertaking—forty-two years, with leap years, is 15,340 days; 600,000 divided by that number means more than thirty-nine sayings to process per day. Not to mention that he traveled, had a family life, taught, and wrote other books.

Over a billion Muslims read or listen to those hadiths. Meanwhile, Hikmat-al Mashriqqiya (Oriental Philosophy), by another world-famous Islamic scholar—the mathematician Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, born near Bukhara—is considered to be lost. (Though it has been said from time to time that the manuscript has been rediscovered, in Hagia Sophia’s library or in the Topkapi collection.) In my novel Hay-ibn-Yakzan, named after one Avicenna’s philosophical parables, I try to recreate that lost manuscript through Avicenna’s life.

There are hundreds of books about Bukhara, from The History of Bukhara by Narshaki to the travelogues of Marco Polo and Armin Vamberi. Of the contemporary writers, I recommend Erkin A’zam’s Heirs to the Great Sinner Sheikh San’on, and the books of Timur Pulatov (though he writes in Russian). His book The Life Story of a Naughty Boy from Bukhara has been translated into English.


Is there a place here you return to often?

And so between heaven and earth / the choice of the way—is on a par with going off-road. / So why are you rushing about like an escaped prisoner, / Taken captive by the heat and the dust-filled darkness?/ Behold, with its immovable eye from above / seeing you off either to death row or the throne, / Time has set its knife blades hemming in the roads / from all four sides.

Hafez once famously said, Agar on Turki sherozi ba dast orad dili moro, / Ba xoli hinduyash bahsham Samarqandu Buxororo. (Should that Shirazi Turkish lady take my heart into her hand, I’d give up, for her Indian beauty spot alone, all of Samarkand and Bukhara.)

Samarkand and Bukhara. They always go hand in hand: the former as the center of power, the latter as the axis of knowledge.

When we say Bukhara, it’s not just the city we speak of but a much bigger kingdom. And all that is not Samarkand. And if we choose a place to return to time after time, it’s the village of Kasri Arifan, or the Castle of the Enlightened, which lies seven-and-a-half miles away from Bukhara city, where Bahauddin Naqshband, founder of the Naqshbandiya Sufi order, was buried. Sufis are people who seek perfection in this world; it’s an Islamic way of personalizing your faith. Central Asia is a place where many Sufi orders—like Yassaviya, Qubraviya, and Qadiriya— were born. Naqshbandiya is one of the most famous. It has followers all over the world. One of the main principles of that school is Dast ba kor, dil ba Yor (Hands to work; heart to the Beloved/God). That is the very essence of Bukharian spirit. Therefore all famous intellectuals, writers, and artists of Bukhara used to belong to the Naqshbandiya Sufi order. Going back to Kasri Arifon is like going back to your spiritual roots.

Closer to the center of Bukhara is the tomb of the Prophet Ayyub—or Job, as he is known in Judaism and Christianity—where you’ll meet pilgrims of many religions.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Roads / Leading in all four directions . . . / If you follow this one, / Then it, too, growing ever narrower, / will lead to the Guzar, where the poets lived, / where prunes and pears bloom, / where the barefoot boys are / painted on, attached to the skies with the threads of their kites,

and the roads / Leading in all four direction . . .

There’s a profound difference between cultures built out of stone and those built out of mud. If the former is about standing tall against the forces of nature, the latter is more about their acceptance and becoming part of it. I think that Avicenna’s lost manuscript Philosophy of Orientals was partly dedicated to this subject.

We can talk about fragmented, discrete, particulate iconic literary places, like the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow or Baker Street in London, but this doesn’t work in mud-built Bukhara. In Bukhara, any—or, in fact, every—ordinary house represents an iconic literary place. Bukhara itself is an iconic literary place.

Let’s enter into the house next to the Chor Minor mosque:

“Qobil-ota, Uncle Qobil!” I call.

Nobody replies inside the courtyard. I peep through the hole of the worn-out wooden gate. Here, courtyards are like a cattle pen, with bunches of hay, cut and discarded watermelon, fruit peels and cottonseeds. Suddenly an old man appears in front of the door. I greet him with profound respect due to his age.

He looks at me and says, “Take this bucket!” and leads me further into the yard. I carry the bucket full of cattle food until he motions to empty it in front of the desperately bleating sheep. Then he asks, “What?”

“I’m looking for old books.”

“Do you read the old Arabic script?”


“In Uzbek or Tajik?”


“Who told you that I have ancient books?”

“People in the teahouse. They said that any house with an old man has ancient manuscripts.”

“I used to have some, but not anymore.”

After a moment’s silence, he says, “Do you have money?”

“Yes, I have some . . .”

“Books are pricey. How much money do you have?”

I leave my entire monthly wage. But I not only purchase exquisite manuscripts, but also have one of the most enjoyable conversations of my life about our literature. Uncle Qobil quotes Hafez, Bedil, or Babur in order to validate his arguments, while also offering extensive and exhaustive comments on these verses:

Жамоли ёр надорад ниқобу парда, вале
Ғубори раҳ бинишон, то назар тавони кард. 

The beauty of beloved has neither a niqab, nor a veil,
Mind the dust of the road, so that it could be seen . . .

He asks me, “You know, what Hafez is saying here?” And tells me that God is not hiding behind the curtains or veils. What hinders us from seeing Him is the dust of the road, the dust that we raise up in the air. Then he tells me, “Don’t go anywhere, just sit down. My wife will bring us a pot of tea and tonight we’ll have several friends for Bedilxonlik (a reading of Bedil).”

I don’t raise any further dust. I stay with Qobil-ota that night. In my novel about Bukhara, The Devils’ Dance, I use the accounts of what I witness that night.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Standing in solitude, in the open steppe, / without walls, without people, and without God / there are closed gates. / As if carrying his burden, / The gloomy guardian called Time passed by / and closed them . . .

Bukhara, like any truly cosmopolitan city, is blessed with Jews and Romani, who have lived here for centuries or even millennia. They’ve adopted the local language and culture and it’s very difficult to distinguish them from the local Uzbeks or Tajiks. Yet over those centuries they have kept their identity. Bukharian Jews used to live in three neighborhoods, or mahallyas—Mahallayi Kohna (the Old Neighborhood), Mahallai Nav (the New Neighbourhood), and Amirabad. Historically, they were traders, merchants, dyers, musicians, and dancers at the court. Once upon a time there were thirteen synagogues in Bukhara, of which only two are left, tucked away in the Old Jewish quarter. The majority of Bukharian Jews left at the end of the twentieth century for Israel and the US. But what’s interesting is that in Tel-Aviv or Queens, NY, they preserve their Bukharian identity in their weddings, gatherings, and parties with Shashmaqam music and classic Persian and Turkic poetry. It’s as if they have taken the spirit of Bukhara with them.

Romani—or Lyulies, as they are called in Bukhara—haven’t left in great numbers, though some, like many Uzbeks or Tajiks, temporarily go to Russia or Kazakhstan to earn some money. Their quarters are in the outskirts of the city.


Where does passion live here?

Only the heartbeat had thumped loudly there, / As she waited, and everything around her was silent, / Just like eternity would wait for its beginning / Upon a strand of hair, on the edge of the sword, or on the bridge . . .

Historically Bukhara is known as Buxoroi Sharif—the Holy Bukhara. Islam is a religion of the Word. The Holy Koran is the Word of Allah and hadiths are the words of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, the passion in the holy city of Bukhara lives in and through the words.


What is the title of one of your works about Bukhara and what inspired it exactly?

Those who travel in the wilderness of night, / whose feet disturb the watery star reflections, / And whose sighs are more telling and scroll-like than the barking of dogs, / those who are reaching out to touch, yet will fail to encounter another, as their hands grab the emptiness of the ash-filled air, / and souls—like bats—flittering past; / those pilgrims, dervishes, tramps, / travelers, wanderers, fugitives, / those strangers, foreigners, and aliens, / whose faces, like the moon’s shadow—seen right through, / those, disappearing in the depths to never return, / Into the thirstily heaving desert dunes. / My thoughts, / where is your refuge, the eternal city, and where is your source spring?

That was the first poem I wrote about Bukhara. I was in my twenties. Now you can guess that all of the epigraphs to each of my responses are from the same cycle of poems, entitled simply “Bukhara.” Bukhara is not just an eternal city, not just a nostalgic place, or a beautiful word—Bukhara is a mode of life.

In most of my books, there is something about Bukhara or its people. Pochamir in The Railway, Nazar in The Underground, and the gold-toothed Sarts in The Dead Lake are all Bukharians. And in Dance of the Devils, Bukhara is one of the main features. That novel is about an unwritten novel by one of the most iconic Uzbek writers, Abdulla Qadyri (1893–1938). He was arrested while writing it, and the KGB burned his manuscripts. During his imprisonment, he thought obsessively about that novel, and found himself talking to the great Bukharian thinker Fitrat (1886–1938).


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Bukhara does an outside exist?”

And their eternal watchman—deserted time / is buried in constellations along with the Beagle and the Hounds . . .

We can’t escape the everlasting, intertwined connection Bukhara has with Samarkand. There is a famous poem by Zebunissa, one of our many great female poets, that perfectly develops Levi’s maxim. Though it’s a poem about Bukhara, it’s known by the colloquial name of “Samarqand Ushshog’I,” or “Lovers of Samarkand.” In my novel A Poet and Bin-Laden, I wrote about how this poem was created.


Hamid Ismailov was born into a deeply religious Uzbek family of Mullahs and Khodjas living in Kyrgyzstan, many of whom had lost their lives during the Stalin era persecution. Yet he received an exemplary Soviet education, graduating with distinction from both his secondary school and military college, as well as attaining university degrees in a number of disciplines. Though he could have become a high-flying Soviet or post-Soviet apparatchik, fate led him instead to become a dissident writer and poet residing in the West. He was the BBC World Service’s first writer-in-residence. Critics have compared his books to the best of the Russian classics, Sufi parables, and works of Western postmodernism. 

Published Dec 5, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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