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A monument to Rudaki, called the father of Persian poetry, in Rudaki Park in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in late 1991 left all the former republics scrambling. Self-rule was a surprise for many, certainly for the leadership in Central Asia.

Central Asian Literature: Wise Words For Both The Mighty And The Meek

"Few places on Earth have given literature the importance it has attained in Central Asia, where mighty and meek have for centuries composed, recited, listened to or read, and lived with the poetry which remained their constant companion."
-- Professor Edward Allworth, Columbia University

Allworth was one of the leading authorities on Central Asia and one of his great passions was Central Asian literature. So, when he penned the above quote in his book Central Asia: A Century Of Russian Rule (the 1967 edition, it's been updated a couple of times since then), his assessment carried significant weight.

His words still ring true, as the writers, poets, and bards of the region remain prominent today. In fact, anyone passing through any of the major cities and towns of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan would become familiar with the names of local literary greats, great and small.

During the time I was Allworth's student, I did not share his interest in Central Asian literature, which in hindsight I realize was a huge mistake.

The Central Eurasian Studies Society conference in Seattle in October 2017 featured a panel devoted to, and honoring, Allworth. Some of his former students presented papers.

I was one of them and, as a tribute to Allworth, I decided to do mine on Central Asia's writers and how they are remembered today. This piece essentially counts as my latest and/or last homework assignment for Allworth.

I make no claim to being an authority on this subject, and the few writers highlighted barely scratch the surface -- there are great number of worthy writers, poets, and bards. But it would be a mammoth work to compile information on even half of them.

I did have some fantastic help, though, and I acknowledge here those who were kind enough to share with me their extensive knowledge:

-- Begmyrat Bayryyev, MA in Media, Culture and Society from the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Philosophy and Sociology;

-- Amanmurat Agha Bugayev, a member of Turkmenistan's Union of Writers from 1982 to 2001;

-- Hamid Ismailov, currently writer in residence at the BBC and formerly head of the Central Asian services at the BBC;

-- Tyntykbek Tchoroev, a Kyrgyz historian currently teaching at Kyrgyzstan's Jusup Balasagyn University;

-- And, of course, my colleagues in the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services at RFE/RL.

-- Bruce Pannier

Among the many pressing matters in those days was establishing signs of sovereignty -- a flag, a national anthem, and so on.

They also needed a history; roots for building a new nation and national identity. No heroes had emerged from independence -- the U.S.S.R. simply fell apart and suddenly there were five countries in Central Asia.

Lacking contemporary heroes, the five governments searched the rich history of Central Asia, looking for known figures who could assume the role of founders of these new nations.

ALSO READ: The Lasting Legacy Of Central Asia's Writers: The Soviet Era

The respected writers of Central Asia's past were obvious choices.

The "founding father" for Tajikistan became Ismail Somoni, the late 9th-century conqueror whose Samanid Empire included what is now northern Iran, northern Afghanistan, and Central Asia south of the Syr-Darya River. His tomb is in Bukhara, in what is currently Uzbekistan.

Tajik authorities also claimed as native sons two of the best-known writers from the late, and post-Samanid, period -- Abu Abd Allah Jaar ibn Muhammad al-Rudaki, or Rudaki (858-941); and Abu Ali Ibn Sina, or Avicenna (980-1037).

The Father Of Persian Poetry

Rudaki is called the father of Persian poetry and is credited with making enormous contributions to modern Persian language. But he was also a prototype for Central Asian writers. Rudaki composed verse and he also played music.

In a time and place where illiteracy was high, music helped carry poetry throughout the region and would continue to be a main transmitter of Central Asian poetry for the better part of the next millennium.

Rudaki was also from Panjikent in what is now western Tajikistan. His tomb is there today, reinforcing Tajikistan's attachment to the poet.

Curiously, the mausoleum was originally built in 1958, by Soviet authorities (they dug up the body first to make sure he was really there). Such was the respect Rudaki commanded, and still commands.

After independence was gained in 1991, Lenin Avenue in Dushanbe became Rudaki Street. There is also a statue of Rudaki in Dushanbe's Rudaki Park, a Rudaki district in western Tajikistan, and another statue of Rudaki in Tajikistan's ancient northern city of Istaravshan.​

A Man Of Many Talents

​Avicenna was an amazing human being. Born in Bukhara, he is said to have memorized the Koran while still a child and was reading translations of Greek philosophy when he was a teenager.

He wrote his own works on philosophy, and also on medicine, mathematics, Islamic theology, science, astronomy, geography, and other subjects. And, of course, he was a poet, too.

The Avicenna State Medical University is in Dushanbe. A statue of him is on Avicenna Square in the Tajik capital.

One of Dushanbe's districts is named for Avicenna, as is the second highest mountain peak in Tajikistan (7,134 meters). It had been Lenin Peak from 1928 to 2006.

Uzbek authorities chose Tamerlane to be the nation's founding father. His connection to the Barlas clan is certain, and the Barlas eventually became a dominant Uzbek clan.

The Uzbeks also claim writer Nizomiddin Mir Alisher, better known under his pen name Navoi (1441-1501), as a native son.

Navoi was born and spent most of his life in the area around Herat, in what is now western Afghanistan, though he did live in Samarkand for a time in the 1460s.

Breaking From Tradition

In Navoi's time the language of art and science was Persian, but Navoi broke from this tradition and composed his works in Chagatai, from which the modern Uzbek language comes.

Near the end of his life, Navoi completed The Comparison Of Two Languages (Muxokamat Allugatayn), in which he attempts to argue the superiority of Chagatai over Persian.

In 1958, when Uzbekistan was a Soviet republic, the city of Karmana (Kermine) was renamed Navoi, and it still bears that name today, as does the airport there.

In the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, there is a statue of Navoi, a main street, and a park named after him, as well as the Navoi National Library and the Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theater.

The Turkmen lay claim to the 18th-century writer and poet Magtumguly Pyragy, or simply Magtumguly (1724-ca. 1807).

A Soviet-era stamp dedicated to the writer Magtamguly Pyragy
A Soviet-era stamp dedicated to the writer Magtamguly Pyragy

Magtumguly is a different sort of figure to Rudaki, Avicenna, and Navoi. The latter three enjoyed royal patronage. Magtumguly's life was very different.

His father, Azady, was a famous poet who often wrote about morality. Azady also had a vision of the Turkmen tribes being united and one of his best-known works -- Sermon of Freedom (Wagzy-Azat) -- is a call for Turkmen tribes to band together and stop being dominated by groups around them.

Magtumguly at first wrote in Chagatai, but he eventually composed in Turkmen. Magtumguly is sometimes credited with being the first person to write in the Turkmen language, though this is not clear.

He certainly did make major contributions to the development of the language. His verse was spread by musicians called "bakhsy."

Turbulent Times

Magtumguly lived in turbulent times. He was taken captive at least once. Later in his life most of his manuscripts were lost when a raiding party attacked Magtumguly's village and loaded most of Magtumguly's possessions, including his written works, on a wagon that then tipped over in a river. Magtumguly had found a hiding place and watched as his work floated away.

Like his father, Magtumguly's work also emphasizes morality and urges Turkmen tribes to unite, but it is also, not surprisingly, somewhat bitter, and the poet often criticizes clerics and rulers for their hypocrisy and shortcomings.

Magtumguly's fame and his contributions to the Turkmen language qualify him to be considered a founding father, and it is unavoidable that he should be, but Turkmen authorities are concerned by the occasionally rebellious and critical tone of his works.

Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, alternated between praising Magtumguly and disparaging him; for example, as a Sufi who preached a hermit's life.

Niyazov's successor, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, also has mixed reactions to Magtumguly. Berdymukhammedov is credited with writing the introduction to Magtumguly: Poems From Turkmenistan (see page 4). But in June 2017 Berdymukhammedov ordered the statue of Magtumguly in Ashgabat moved to the hills outside the Turkmen capital, and the Elders' Council adopted a resolution in October 2017 that changed the May 18 holiday marking Magtumguly's birthday to June 27, and it will no longer be a day off work.

But there is a still a Magtumguly Street in Ashgabat and the Magtumguly Turkmen State University (formerly the Maksim Gorky University) and an "international" Magtumguly award for literature.

A monument to the Kazakh poet Abai in Almaty. (file photo)
A monument to the Kazakh poet Abai in Almaty. (file photo)

Ibrahim Qunanbayuli, or "Abai" (1845-1904), is perhaps Kazakhstan's great poet, but he made another immense contribution to Kazakh culture and, ultimately, to the Kazakh language by writing down his works. Previously Kazakhs' means of transmission of poetry was oral.

Abai not only wrote his own works, most notably his Book Of Words, but he also translated the works of authors such as Goethe, Pushkin, and Lermontov into Kazakh. Abai was also a musician and mothers in Kazakhstan today still sing their children to sleep with lullabies Abai wrote.

There is a village in Almaty Province named after Abai, and in Almaty the Abai State Theater of Opera and Ballet, Abai State University, and Abai Street. There is also the Abai oil field in Kazakhstan's sector of the Caspian Sea.

The Embodiment Of Kyrgyz History

The names of Kyrgyz writers from hundreds of years ago are, at best, little known today, but the Kyrgyz have what is perhaps the greatest indigenous legend -- Manas the warrior. There is a special group of people --the manaschis -- who have passed the legend of Manas down for more than 1,000 years.

In many ways Manas embodies the history of the Kyrgyz people, since some versions of his story seem to begin during the time of the nomadic Hsungnu some 2,000 years ago, whereas other versions might include events that seem drawn from the Arab invasion of Central Asia in the 8th century and there are even tales of battles Manas fought against with the Manchus of the 18th century.

A monument to Manas, which was unveiled in Bishkek in 2011 to mark 20 years of Kyrgyz independence. (file photo)
A monument to Manas, which was unveiled in Bishkek in 2011 to mark 20 years of Kyrgyz independence. (file photo)

Manas is a true "jigit": a horseman, brave and capable with a fierce loyalty to his people, the Kyrgyz people. His 40 "choro," or companions, reinforce the need for unity among the various clans of the Kyrgyz people.

Manas and his choro, though not always the full 40, are now a common feature at outdoor political rallies during Kyrgyzstan's election campaigning. Someone dressed in ancient or medieval armor almost always rides out at some point during these rallies and no one present at these events need to be told who this person is.

Among the many objects named after Manas are a main street in Bishkek, the international airport outside Bishkek, and statues of Manas can be seen throughout the country.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)

December 4 marked one year since Shavkat Mirziyoev was elected Uzbekistan's second president.

He had been Uzbekistan's prime minister since 2003, but when Islam Karimov -- Uzbekistan's first and only president since it gained independence in 1991 -- was pronounced dead on September 2, 2016, Mirziyoev moved into the country's top post despite a constitutional prohibition against the prime minister becoming acting president.

In 15 months, Mirziyoev's actions and statements have raised hopes, inside and outside Uzbekistan that the country would emerge from semi-isolationism and become an active partner in regional and international issues.

It is true that Uzbekistan has made progress since Mirziyoev came to power, but it could also be said he inherited a stagnant country. Any movement would be considered progress.

What has Mirziyoev really accomplished as president? And is there a plan for the future, or is he merely practicing damage control?

Mirziyoev laid out five priorities in Uzbekistan's plan for development from 2017 to 2021 on February 8.

-- Improving state and public construction
-- Ensuring the rule of law and reforming the judicial-legal system
-- Developing and liberalizing the economy
-- Developing the social sphere and ensuring security, interethnic harmony and religious tolerance
-- Implementing a balanced, mutually beneficial and constructive foreign policy.

Notably absent is any mention of strengthening the public's role in the political process, which until now has been almost nothing. So there won't be any genuine political opposition parties or independent candidates registered until at least after 2021. There are also no words about greater respect for human rights or any hint of independent media being allowed.

Under Mirziyoev there have been positive changes, especially in Uzbekistan's foreign policy, and that has generated, at times, overly enthusiastic optimism from some quarters.

Forced Labor

Domestically, there are some things that do not seem to have changed since Mirziyoev took over.

Uzbekistan's use of forced labor in the cotton fields, adding up to some 1 million people annually, has drawn international criticism for many years.

President Mirziyoev and other officials have called for a stop to this practice and some have even urged citizens to report attempts to force them into the cotton fields. But the conscription of citizens into the fields continued in 2017 around the country.

Up to 1 million people, including minors, are estimated to be forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan every year. (file photo)
Up to 1 million people, including minors, are estimated to be forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan every year. (file photo)

The Germany-based Uzbek-German Forum and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, tracked Uzbekistan's 2017 cotton campaign, including Samarkand Province Governor Turobjon Juraev ordering business chiefs to find pickers; Angren Mayor Hokimjon Abdulazizov demanding the heads of state enterprises provide photographic proof of the employees harvesting cotton; and workers being bused to fields, where they lived and worked for weeks with minimal opportunities to even bathe.

The Norway-based religious rights group Forum 18 reported raids on Protestant gatherings, seizures of Korans and Bibles, fines and even short jail terms against Baptists, Protestants, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

There was also the mysterious deaths in prison of Rahmon Norboev in February, and the death that same month of Zokir Kurbanov while in police custody. Information finally emerged in mid-June that rights defender Nuriddin Jumaniyazov had died in prison, officially, from tuberculosis on December 31, 2016.

There were also the deaths of rights lawyer Polina Braunerg in May and former political prisoner Murad Juraev in December. Both suffered from serious health problems but could not obtain exit visas to seek treatment abroad.*

On September 21, President Mirziyoev invited "all compatriots abroad who wish to contribute to the development of the country" to return to Uzbekistan. The statement was widely interpreted to mean former opposition figures could come home without fear of repercussions.

Uzbek dissident writer Nurullo Otakhonov (aka Nurullo Muhammad Raufkhon).
Uzbek dissident writer Nurullo Otakhonov (aka Nurullo Muhammad Raufkhon).

On September 27, Uzbek writer and dissident Nurullo Otakhonov (aka Nurullo Muhammad Raufkhon) left Turkey and returned to Tashkent where he was detained at the airport upon his arrival. He was released after a week but still faces charges.

Independent journalist Bobomurad Abdullaev, who allegedly wrote critical articles about the Uzbek government for an opposition website, was taken into custody by the National Security Service on September 27. Abdullaev faces charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order of Uzbekistan. He has reportedly been able to see a lawyer only one time.

Dissidents Released

However, since Mirziyoev came to power more than a dozen dissidents have been released from prison, among them journalist Muhammad Bekjon (Bekjonov), political activist Rustam Usmanov, UN employee and former Defense Ministry official Erkin Musaev, journalist Solijon Abdurakhmanov, and rights defender Azam Farmonov.

While these releases are encouraging signs, international rights organizations point out that all these people were convicted under dubious circumstances, and most have served prison terms of 10 to 20 years and are now in their 60s and 70s.

Uzbek authorities also took thousands of people off the so-called blacklist of suspect Muslims in August. The government also instituted counseling programs in which officials and clerics liaise with people previously convicted of being involved with alleged extremist religious groups.

While there is still no independent media operating inside Uzbekistan, there are a few media outlets that are experimenting with critical coverage of administration policies. Uzbek television has alluded to mistakes made by former President Karimov's government, particularly fruitless policies toward neighboring states.

There are limits as was seen in August when Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov appeared on the live television program International Press Club and took offense at some of the comments made during the show.

President Mirziyoev has tried to address problems of the rural population. Mirziyoev studied agriculture in university. During a January trip to Uzbekistan's poverty-stricken Karakalpak region, Mirziyoev decided the state should provide low-income families with chickens. The idea was the chickens would lay enough eggs to not only help feed families but extra eggs could be sold for additional needed income. Mirziyoev later called for low-income families to have lemon trees, and not long afterward he recommended that rural inhabitants keep goats.

The chicken and lemon projects failed and by November Uzbekistan's banks received orders to no longer loan money for these endeavors. But Mirziyoev's consideration of the plight of underprivileged families is notable. He still has plans to increase mechanized farming (his specialty in university studies) and substitute cotton with capers and saffron.

Other important changes have yet to be realized. In January, Mirziyoev proposed scrapping Soviet-era exit visas, but in August he announced that this would have to wait until the start of 2019.

Two days after being elected president, Mirziyoev said Uzbekistan would ease visa restrictions for foreign tourists from 27 states, many of them Western countries. But on January 9, Mirziyoev announced that this would have to wait until 2021.

Former Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov (file photo)
Former Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov (file photo)

Some believe the delays that follow these announcements are the result of government infighting. Mirziyoev has worked to bring his own people into his government and dismiss holdovers from Karimov's administration. This latter group includes former Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, once seen as a potential successor to Karimov, who was finally removed from government in June.

The former include some people who were ousted, and in cases jailed, under Karimov. Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov, for example, was removed from his position as head of information systems and telecommunications in 2012, as international investigations into the illegal business dealings of President Karimov's eldest daughter Gulnara started. Swedish prosecutors investigating TeliaSonera, one of the companies in which Gulnara allegedly had financial interests, said Aripov's signature was on some of the documents.

Reasons For Optimism

Changes in Uzbekistan's economic and regional policies are the reasons for optimism.

Uzbekistan's economy was in a decrepit state when Karimov died despite the fact that the country has abundant agricultural and hydrocarbon resources. Heavy government centralization of the economy and rampant corruption mitigated all the natural advantages Uzbekistan should have.

In late November 2016, state media started reporting that a new policy on hard currency and convertibility would be coming in 2017. It would be a bold move since for years certain parties in Uzbekistan had raked in profits from the black market where the rate was substantially higher, sometimes twice as much, as the official rate for Uzbekistan's currency – the som.

The Central Bank started lowering the value of the som in early 2017, from 3,309 for $1 to 4,247 soms for $1 by early September. On September 5, the Central Bank implemented a controlled devaluation, dropping the rate to a bit more than 8,000 soms for $1.

Authorities also made it easier for businesses to access hard currency and for citizens to exchange hard currency for the national currency, which, according to authorities, resulted in Uzbekistan's banks taking in hundreds of millions of dollars.

International financial organizations started taking a new look at Uzbekistan.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for example, sent a delegation to Uzbekistan in February; the first such visit in some 10 years, and on November 8 opened an office in Tashkent.

Eduards Stiprais, the head of EU delegation in Uzbekistan. (file photo)
Eduards Stiprais, the head of EU delegation in Uzbekistan. (file photo)

European Union Ambassador Eduards Stiprais** led a delegation to Uzbekistan in early May. He said the EU welcomed Uzbekistan "opening to the world," and called for boosting EU-Uzbek trade.

EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini met several times with Uzbek officials in Brussels during 2017, including visiting Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov in July. On November 10-11, Mogherini addressed an international security conference in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

But it was Russia that made the greatest progress boosting ties with Uzbekistan in 2017.

Under Karimov, Russian-Uzbek relations were only good when there was a security problem in Central Asia.

But Russia offered immediate remedies to many of Uzbekistan's economic problems.

Uzbek fruits and vegetables replaced EU products that the Kremlin banned in retaliation for Western sanctions on Russia for its role in the conflict in Ukraine.

Gas And Oil Investment

Russian companies LUKoil and Gazprom pledged to continue investing several billion dollars into Uzbekistan's gas and oil sector. On November 3, LUKoil launched the first stage of the long-awaited Kandym gas-processing plant in Uzbekistan's Bukhara Province, a $3.3-billion project that eventually aims to produce some 8 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually.

LUKoil and Gazpromneft, the oil wing of Gazprom, are also part of a deal to eventually ship up to 10 million tons of Russian oil to Uzbekistan via the Omsk-Pavlodar-Shymkent oil pipeline.

Uzbekistan is currently facing a deficit of gasoline. Prices at filling stations went up in November by more than 30 percent and the government allocated $250 million to the country's three refineries to secure new supplies of oil for processing.

Uzbekistan possesses some 600 million barrels of proven oil reserves, but production has dropped to nearly half what it was a decade ago, leaving the country's three refineries (in Bukhara, Alty-Arik, and Ferghana) operating far under capacity.

That makes Russian oil imports vital to Uzbekistan for the foreseeable future. And Russia is importing some 5 bcm of Uzbek gas, about half the gas Uzbekistan exports.

Regional Detente

While Uzbekistan worked at improving its relations with many countries, the most important change was in Uzbekistan's regional policy, which is also, to date, the biggest victory of President Mirziyoev's new government.

Uzbek officials have noted for years Uzbekistan is a double-landlocked country, meaning there are at least two countries between Uzbekistan and the nearest access to the sea.

That being the case, good relations with immediate neighbors would seem to be a prerequisite to foreign trade, but that is not how former President Karimov saw it.

Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016) didn't enjoy optimum relations with his neighbors. (file photo)
Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016) didn't enjoy optimum relations with his neighbors. (file photo)

Karimov cut back ties with Central Asian neighbors to a minimum, with the possible exception of Turkmenistan, itself an isolationist state.

Mirziyoev's first priority was to reset relations with all of Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors, including Afghanistan. Mirziyoev's first visits as Uzbekistan's elected president were to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan in March. He has been back to both countries twice since then and those visits also helped Uzbekistan obtain more fuel for its refineries and markets for Uzbekistan's products.

Mirziyoev's visit to Kyrgyzstan in early September turned into a celebration along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border after new agreements were signed opening crossing points along the common frontier. The situation along all of Uzbekistan's borders is easing, a vital development since Uzbekistan is the core of the region, the only country bordering all the other Central Asian states and Afghanistan.

Already new connections are opening and more will be coming, such as the improved road connecting Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. Turkmenistan is able to export electricity to Tajikistan through Uzbekistan's territory and there is talk of recreating a unified energy grid based on a Soviet-era energy grid that Uzbekistan unilaterally withdrew from at the end of 2009.

Looking ahead, Uzbekistan's economic situation is almost certain to improve. Opening up the country as a natural regional transit corridor will help Uzbekistan, and the government's active promotion of trade with foreign partners old and new should further cement economic progress.

There is little indication that any domestic social or political reforms are coming anytime soon, but an improved standard of living after years of stagnation will probably be sufficient for Mirziyoev to firmly entrench himself in power in Uzbekistan.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
*Juraev was finally given permission in October by which point his health had deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer travel
**Stiprais was named the EU ambassador to Uzbekistan on September 19
CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to Hokimjon Abdulazizov as the mayor of Andijan.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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