Archives for December 2011

Time to check up our New Year resolutions

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 15:32 UK time, Thursday, 29 December 2011

First things first.

In last year's New Year blog post I publically promised to join a Scottish dance class.

I have to report back that last week I did it.

In Potters Bar Methodist Church Hall I danced not one, but four Scottish dances.

I can even name them: 'The Zoologist', 'Salmonfield Poacher', 'Rose of the North' and 'Tambourine'.

Scottish dancers dance in 'sets' - a number of dance couples that comprise your 'team'. The co-ordinated pattern of movement of the set is crucial to the beauty of the dance.

If you and your partner get out of step with the set, you effectively let down your team.

For those who don't know about the Scottish dances here's a glimpse of their patterns.
For instance the instructions for the dance 'Tambourine' start as follows:

The first pair goes down the middle (the second pair moves up), lead back up to 2nd place;
couples swap partners, pairs dance half reels of 3 to finish in the second place on the opposite side.

So, while joyfully jumping one has also remember where and how to jump, whose hand to hold, whose foot not to stamp on.

Now about my partners.

The eldest of them was 95 years old. Let's call her Lady D and then there was 94-year-old Mr T.

Both of them strongly believe that their love for Scottish dance keep them going so well.

Though I must say that on the basis of what I know about Lady D, that's just part of the story.

She has recently been to computing classes at our local college and since then communicates with us quite regularly via email.

The life of Mr T-y is also just as colourful as Lady D's.

He fought in the Second World War in Burma, has recently finished his memoirs and has sent them to a publisher.

Other dance partners were also of respectful ages and many stories to tell.

At some point in the evening, an idea of a story or a novel called 'Scottish dances' came to my mind.

But I immediately tried to suppress this poaching thought, because I was moving in the wrong direction and breaking up my set...

Happy New Year to everyone and please don't be too shy to share your resolution stories with me.

More non-Olympic games from Central Asia

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:20 UK time, Thursday, 22 December 2011

Our collection of non-Olympic games is growing. We have seen games played in childhoood and games played on the street.

Send me descriptions of games from your region.

For inspiration, here are two more traditional Kazakh games.

I recorded the first one with my colleagues Johannes Dell and Muhammad Norov on a recent trip to Kazakhstan.

The game is called 'Asyk' and is played with the bone-joints of sheep. Kazakhstan recently staged the first Asyk championship.

Another traditional game from Kazakhstan is eagle-hunting.

Our reporter Shodiyor Sayf sent me his contribution for my collection of non-Olympic games.

Tell me about the traditional games from your region.

Kazakhstan between the future and the past

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 15:13 UK time, Friday, 16 December 2011

Kazakhstan is just one of the countries celebrating 20 years' independence from Soviet rule this week.

I have just been to that country and along with my colleagues Johannes Dell and Sohrab Zia we took the following pictures which reflect the story of a modern Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan celebrates 20 years of independence with no expense spared. The triumphal monument in Shymkent leads to a huge memorial park, built in the space of six months and - typical for the new Kazakhstan - is financed by a public-private finance partnership.

The country's big cities such as Almaty boast plenty of modern - often futuristic architecture - reflecting the country's oil wealth as well as its ambitions to be visible on the global stage. Internationally-renowned architects such as Sir Norman Foster have had commissions built here.One such project is the country's first Metro in Almaty. It was opened in time for Kazakhstan's independence anniversary. It has been a long time coming. Construction began in 1988, but came to a halt as the Soviet Union broke up.

Kazakhstan's wealth is generated by its natural resources, wheat, metals, uranium, but most of all oil and gas. The Soviet-built refinery in Shymkent is jointly owned by Kazakh and Chinese state oil companies. Now oil flows to energy-hungry China.

Not everyone shares in the country's wealth. In slum areas like this on the outskirts of Shymkent, people have few prospects and are vulnerable to crime and even people trafficking. Kazakhstan attracts many migrant labourers from its Central Asian neighbours. But those who come to work illegally can be at risk of exploitation, modern day slaves with their passports taken away and no easy recourse to justice.

After the Soviet Union fell apart, Central Asians once again began to openly practice their Muslim faith. Local historians are rediscovering Islam in Kazakhstan as in the rest of Central Asia - new scriptures are being found and published. Recently, 50 new verses of Ahmed Yassawi, the 12th century Sufi mystic, have been unearthed here. For many the teachings of the Sufi mystic remains relevant today and a pragmatic brand of Islam is practiced in Kazakhstan.

Mosques like this one in the Southern city of Taraz are well attended, especially by young people . But the authorities are exerting greater control over religious activity, following an outbreak of extremist violence, including an attack in Taraz.

A huge new road link is being built in Kazakhstan which connects Europe with Western China as a kind of new Silk Road.

The project is a metaphor for Kazakhstan's strategy to look both East and West as it looks for new markets.

More non-Olympic games

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:50 UK time, Friday, 9 December 2011

Two weeks ago I announced a new initiative to collect descriptions of non-Olympic games as a part of the London-2012 season and the pre-Olympic celebrations.

Many people liked the idea and told me so via Facebook or through emails. Some of them sent me descriptions of the games they used to play as a child. Here's one from Nitasha Kaul:
"Brilliant... these Uzbek games... there was one I know from India where you had take turns to hit a cairn of stones with a ball with the aim of toppling it...

"And another - for girls - where two girls loop a very large elastic band around the ankles and stand a few paces apart. The persons playing have to then hop over the stretched elastic in the middle, as the height of the band is progressively raised with every step... I think a video would make it clear for the fun that it was... :)"

My colleague Thirumalai Manivannan wrote:

"Your description of "Chiliyak" is interesting - it is an almost exact version of the Tamil street game Kitt-Pullu, which we all played when we were young and which is now, slowly dying out thanks to computer games.

"Kitt-Pullu, which is sometimes described as the forerunner of cricket (!) is played not only in Tamil Nadu but also in many other Indian states. The game also has been played in Iran and Cambodia.
Click on this link to see a description of the Tamil version.

"Ah, those good old days!!!!"

Another colleague, Suman Kharel, added: "Kitt-Pullu is called Dandi Biyo in Nepal and is played in exactly the same way. 'Dandi' is the long stick and 'Biyo' is the short sharpened stick. Many of us have been hurt by the Biyo. It's very painful if it falls on your face when you can't catch it."

Markus Hill from London sent in 'Parkour'...

I've recently come back from Kazakhstan, and I had the opportunity to record another game. It is the Kazakh version of wrestling called 'Kures'. The difference between this and the rest of the world is that in Kazakhstan the wrestlers begin by holding the each other's arms in the starting position.

As we see, after time spent wrestling ruthlessly these two boys are united again, this time by Manchester United...

Please send me more of your games.

From the Centre of Central Asia

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 09:01 UK time, Thursday, 1 December 2011

I'm now in Turkestan, an ancient town right at the centre of Central Asia.

This town is known for its magnificent mausoleum built by Amir Temur or Tamberlaine the Great and devoted to Hodja Ahmad Yassavi - a great Sufi, poet and saint.

Snow covers Ahmad Yassavi's mausoleum

The mausoleum was built in the 15th century, well after the time of the Great Master of Sufism Ahmad Yassavi who lived in the 12th century.

Little is known about his life, and all that remains is his Book of Wisdom written in verse, and a lot of legends.

According to one of them, after Ahmad Yassavi converted the nomadic population of the steppes to Islam, he decided to devote the rest of his life to God. He secluded himself in a dugout under the ground, where meditated until his death.

They say that he followed the motto: 'Die before your death'.

The followers of his mystical Sufi school of thought - Yassaviya - have been become extremely popular in Central Asia.

Other schools of Central Asian Sufism - adopters of mystical love both to God and men, like Naqshbandiya, Qubraviya, Qadyriya, Mevleviya - all have their roots in the ideas of Hodja Ahmad Yassavi.

The Ahmad Yassavi mausoleum competes architecturally with the legendary palaces and mosques of Samarqand and Bukhara. After Tamberlaine the Great built it, it became a place of pilgrimage for Muslims from all over the Central Asia. People came in their thousands to pray, to meditate, to cure themselves.

It's widely believed that three pilgrimages to the tomb of Ahmad Yassavi are equal to one pilgrimage to Mecca.

During Soviet times, Ahmad Yassavi was pronounced a reactionary religious figure and the Mausoleum was used as stables for the military unit stationed next to it.

My maternal great grandmother came from the same town as Ahmad Yassavi and considered herself as a distant decendent of him. She used to recite the Book of Wisdom.

In mid-1970s, I decided to write a novel about Yassavi. I knew that it wouldn't be published, however the power of his poetry that transcended the centuries, the legends that I had heard about him and his place in folk religion, made me begin the novel.

In the end, I never wrote this work, but it inspired a completely different book: The Railway.

Now when I am in Turkestan to make my programmes about the past, present and future of Central Asia, I see that the pilgrimage season is dead.

The snow and freezing cold of the steppes have emptied the place, so we had the the site officials to ourselves.

I saw the tomb and we were allowed to go through the twisted and dark stairs to the roof of the mausoleum. Then we made our way down and came to an underground mosque which was founded during the life of the Great Master.

There the warden - a young lady - showed us something that looked like a well, covered with a wooden lid, in the corner of the room.

She said: "Here Ahmad Yassavi secluded himself underground for the rest of his life and devoted himself only God". She added: "This is a replica of his dugout. It's four metres deep". The lid was locked, but I asked her: "Could I go in there?"

"No" she said, "Nobody is allowed to go there". I insisted, I told her that I'd be ready to talk to her bosses, knowing that nobody would be around on this wintery day. I told her the story of my great grandmother... And all of a sudden, she opened the bar and allowed me in.

People fly into space, go to the poles, do all kinds of extreme journeys. I felt as those adventurers must feel, when I entered this hole filled with the prayers of the Holy Shaykh, Grand Master, Great Teacher.

There's a picture of me coming out of that hole which could tell the story better than my words.

But what I know for sure - I was at the very centre of Central Asia not just geographically, but spiritually too, not just spacewise, but also timewise...

Hamid in Ahmad Yassavi's hermit hole


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