He might be considered the most famous Uzbek in the former Soviet Union, but comedian Obid Asomov has been made virtually invisible in his native Uzbekistan.
Despite his success on a popular Russian serial viewed throughout the former Soviet states, including Uzbekistan, Asomov's jokes have not been heard on Uzbek television channels for more than a year. Older television programs featuring Asomov -- including children's cartoons and animations with Asomov voiceovers -- are no longer aired. Asomov says he no longer receives invitations to perform in shows in Uzbekistan and says the media there ignores him altogether.
Asomov says no reason has been given for his apparent ban but that it has been made clear to him that an order has been handed down.
"I have contacted the media, including tabloids here, a hundred times," Asomov says. "I begged them to give me a chance to tell everybody, 'Obid is alive and well. He wasn't arrested. He hasn't died.' But they tell me, 'It's not allowed; it's not allowed to mention your name.' So for over a year, I have not appeared on any Uzbek television channel. I am not allowed to talk on the radio and even newspapers can't mention my name."
The way Asomov found out is like life imitating comedy.
'I Must Have Done Something Wrong'
After his favorite pet, an exotic parrot, disappeared, he attempted to place advertisements in local newspapers to help him find the bird. One after another, the newspapers turned him down. He was told in confidence that they had "instructions" not to publish anything about Asomov -- not even a classified ad about his missing parrot.
Asomov can only surmise that his blacklisting has something to do with his role in the popular Russian satire "Krivoe Zerkalo" (Distorted Mirror).
"I must have done something wrong," Asomov says, "something like not attending some high-ranking official's wedding."
The pint-sized actor has won many admirers through his depictions of a range of comedic characters, including an Uzbek illegal migrant with a distinct Central Asian accent, a musician with an outrageous voice, and a misleading Russian-speaking tour guide in Venice who has no knowledge of the city.
Asomov suspects his portrayal of Uzbek migrant laborers in Russia and their plight is not the type of image Uzbek officials would want to see broadcast to foreign audiences.
"In our country, people don't explain such reasons," Asomov says. "I must have done something wrong, something like not attending some high-ranking official's wedding. I don't know. Or perhaps someone here didn't like my performance in Russia. Our former culture minister, Anvar Jabborov, once told me, 'You should stop performing on Russian television.' I was bemused. He told me to give him a written pledge. I refused and told him it wasn't up to me anymore. I told him even if I stopped performing, Russian television would continue to broadcast previously recorded shows."
Asomov says the most popular shows -- comical or otherwise -- are usually those which reflect real life and real people with everyday issues and problems.
Widespread unemployment and poverty in Uzbekistan is not something that can be ignored -- it has forced an estimated 8 million people to leave the country for seasonal jobs abroad. Most go to Russia, where they can find low-paid jobs as laborers at private construction sites but live with hardship and without social protections.
This is not a popular topic for Uzbek television channels or the state media, which largely portray Uzbekistan as a prosperous and successful nation.
Not The Only Persona Non Grata
Asomov is far from alone when it comes to performers being banned from Uzbek television for reasons known only to the authorities.
Yulduz Usmanova, arguably the most famous Uzbek singer, reportedly fell out of favor for touring Turkmenistan without prior approval. In 2008, she left the country to live in Turkey, citing political persecution in Uzbekistan.
Prominent folk singer Sherali Juraev has long been barred from state television and radio amid rumors that authorities questioned his loyalty to the government.
Ferghana.ru, a regional news website, last year quoted an unnamed Uzbek singer as saying authorities demand that at least 30 percent of performers' repertoire consist of patriotic songs.
As for Asomov, he insists he is not interested in politics and doesn't publicly make political comments.
The 47-year-old comedian, who began his acting career in Uzbekistan in the 1980s, still lives in his native Tashkent, along with his wife and their four children.
He frequently visits Russia to record for "Krivoe Zerkalo" and also travels abroad to perform before Russian-speaking audiences in Germany and Israel, among other places. In Uzbekistan, however, his career is limited to performing at weddings far from the capital.