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The Lasting Legacy Of Central Asia's Writers: The Founding Fathers (Part 1)


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.

"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.

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. Content will draw 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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