Archives for January 2012

Death of a friend and colleague

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:38 UK time, Wednesday, 25 January 2012

I should have written this entry under the title 'Faces of Bush House'. It's long overdue.

But I'm late.

My friend and my colleague Ravil Bukharaev died of heart attack at the age of 60.

I have known Ravil for the last 30-odd years. I knew him from our youth when we were both young, hungry and ambitious non-Russian poets aspiring to conquer the endless territory of Soviet literature from Moscow.

He became a part of my life, much like furniture one has at home.

You rarely think what do you do to your furniture, right? You can step onto a chair, you can kick a table's leg when you're angry, you can take a tissue and tenderly wipe away dust from your cupboard - it's yours.

It was the same with him.

It's as if nothing stands out about the association, until you lose and understand that a part of your life is irreplaceably gone.

But he was a special - more than that - outstanding, rare man.

I was recently rearranging my home library and with some spiritual amazement and physical annoyance I rediscovered how many books he had written and had given to me.

I wanted to tell him off, jokingly, that he made me work hard that day, but alas...

The books he had written and given me were in Russian, in Tatar, in English, in Hungarian.

Not translated into those languages by others, but written by Ravil himself in the original.

And the range of writing he attained was wide: from the finest poetry to topical politology, from profound philosophy to brilliant prose.

He translated the best of Tatar classic poetry into English, he published a two-volume book 'Islam in Russia', he composed a crown of sonnets in four languages, he brought to London the first ever Tatar theatre, which performed a fantastic fairy-tale of his.

We worked for over 15 years in the same building, in Bush House, the headquarters of BBC World Service.

He used to work in the Russian Service producing and presenting the best of their output, such as the discussion programme 'Radius'.

He was one of the anchors of the service famous for many writers and poets who worked there. He was around whenever he was needed.

When a friend dies
a part of you dies
your sweet or bitter memories,
your common past,
conversations about books which you are writing, going to write, discussions with open ends, which never end, petty complaints, winging, laughing together, just drinking tea, exchanging views on anything insignificant, telephone calls out of blue, when you want share something and promises, plans, plans, plans...
all of that die...
When your friend dies
you die...

Our mutual friends -Alyona from Kazan, Ak from Stockholm, Rollan from Almaty, Rustem from Kiev, Jean-Pierre from Paris - all are devastated by this sad news, he has left such a big hole in this world.

He wrote a poem 'Bee', which was about him, a man who was so generous in giving himself to this world, to people, to his wife Lyda, to his family...

And without Ravil a sweetening taste of honey will be missed in our lives...


I am sitting here and writing with a ball-pen;
To the window-pane above I turn my eyes.
In the porch outside a hazel-tree is blooming.
Like a little yellow cloud upon the skies.

The pollen hangs so heavy on the branches,
A brook runs bubbling through the deep ravine;
A bee crawls over my blue sheet of paper,
A wild striped bee that haunts the forest green.

Outside the bee has gone from flower to flower;
I carefully examine it and see
How it has stained its wings and its proboscis
With pollen from the flowers on the tree.

Indeed it has been working very wisely,
Collecting every drop of nectar there.
I must return to my blue sheet of paper,
So I release the bee into the air.

Working in a lonely house takes patience;
How long we need to wait to have our wish
For lines of verse like clear, transparent honey
To shine and sparkle on an empty dish!

Our hearts go to Ravil's wife Lydya and his family.

Identity or Belonging?

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:53 UK time, Thursday, 19 January 2012

As the World Service Writer in Residence I run series of talks with other writers.

This week my guest was Elif Shafak - an acclaimed Turkish writer, the best-selling author of books like Flea Palace, Bastard of Istanbul, Forty Rules of Love' and many others.

What caught my attention was a point which Elif made about identities.

For her the word 'identity' itself is too rigid, too heavy, unshakeable.

She prefers the word 'belonging' which to her mind is more fluid, more flexible, more lively. The word is more about connections and bonds, rather than framing and being restricted by clichés and boundaries.

Commuting home on the train after the talk, I was browsing the Internet and looked at what was happening at the Australian Open.

I saw that Andy Murray is doing alright, so some sort of satisfaction flowed along my veins. Then I looked at women results.

Having noticed Maria Sharapova's win, I wondered whether Dinara Safina is back on the competitive court after her back problems. I couldn't find her in the list of results.

A kind of anguish made me type into the browser and - not finding anything there - to checked out her links at Facebook and Twitter.

Ultimately I established that she's not playing yet, but is considering a return to court.

I felt satisfied again.

Then I went to see how Ronnie O'Sullivan is doing in the Snooker Masters. I checked the news about Arsenal football club and - upon entering a long tunnel, where my Internet access was cut - I started to play 'genius' level Sudoku, a game of exactly 10 minutes.

So why am I telling you about that mundane and routine train journey?

Because all of that is about belongings.

For instance on Dinara Safina's Facebook page I noticed thousands of people 'Liked' her and I was one of that community.

If I hash-tag Ronnie O'Sullivan, I'm sure he'll receive many tweets back from the likes of me, and it's another community.

In my local gym, a bunch of men regularly sneer at Tottenham's successes, strongly believing that 'we' - Arsenal - shall ultimately prevail!

I took a less controversial sphere of human 'belongings' - sport, but you can easily extend the list into any realm: politics, race, religion, etc...

A couple of points to make.

Ten years ago, I didn't know anything about the 'belongings' mentioned above.

In ten years' time they may hardly matter to me. Judd Trump coud overtake Ronnie the Rocket, Andy Murray could turn into another retired and tamed 'Tiger', and so on.

But today, these small things - someone's win, someone's loss, someone's success or failure, shape my mood, my relationship, myself.

I am in fact all those belongings, attachments, connections, bonds.

But if - let's say - the same Elif Shafak goes sphere by sphere and lists all her small preferences in sport, in entertainment, in books, in all walks of life, I'm not sure that you can guess that she is 'a Turkish female writer of Muslim-Sufi background' as she is often described.

Also this week, I have listened to another talk - this time on new management theory.
The talk was full of metaphors, relating the management to extreme sports, to sailing, to crossing a river, to freezing the products.

Ten or twenty years ago it all was about hard and rigid management set by objectives.

For me it is a sign that our human consciousness is softening.

More and more we are returning to our human nature, which is fluid and unpredictable, agile and flexible, sometimes intangible and sometimes evasive, but lively and rich in colour and nuance.

Poetry and spirituality

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 10:36 UK time, Thursday, 12 January 2012

My recent trip to Kazakhstan made me think about the role that poetry plays in different societies.

Here are examples from the 'field' that I've witnessed.

In Iran, I used to see ordinary people taking a book of verse by their greatest poet Hafez and opening it to a random page to forecast what would happen in their lives.

In Afghanistan I met a boy who knew off by heart any poems I quoted.

In Russia I used to know a group of people who had memorised Pushkin's poetic novel Eugene Onegin.

In France I was introduced to many famous poets who couldn't quote any poems in full , not even their own.

In Kyrgyzstan I met oral storytellers who knew the longest poem in the world called Manas. It consists of 2 million verses and is considered a reservoir of all Kyrgyz knowledge about the world.

In Britain... I better stop here and say that in different countries, poetry plays a different role. I tend to think that in more traditional societies, the role of poetry role is much more profound.

There's a theory in psychology which explores the relationship between emotions and information. In a nutshell it states: the more information you have, the fewer emotions bubble up. Conversely, the less you are informed, the more emotional you get.

This theory pretty much explains the more important role poetry plays in informationally less developed, traditional societies, where poetry replaces newspapers, entertainment and sometimes also liturgy.

In the 1960s, when hardly any news was circulated in the Soviet Union, poetry used to fill stadiums.

In Moscow nowadays you can hardly find more than 20 people gathering for a poetry reading.

The way poetry develops in closed societies is also very interesting.

In the Islamic word poets were the first adaptors and distributors of the new faith, especially outside the Middle East.

Thus the role of Ahmad Yassavi (an 11th Century poet for the Turkic-speaking world) and Mavlyana Rumi (a 12th Century Persian poet) in spreading out the Islamic
knowledge is so far-reaching, that both poetic books are called 'Quran' in their respective languages Turki and Pahlavi.

In order to transport a new faith to masses of people in their own language, the message has to be simple and clear, crisp and succinct. These poets were the great pioneers in doing just that.

But as the famous Hafez said in one of his poems:

'Love seemed to be so easy in the beginning,
but later all the problems descended',

As one starts to adapt one's own language and the respective mentality to spirituality, expressed in different language for a different mentality, the deeper one goes along this route, the more profound the problems he faces become.

It reminds me of the mystical poem by Fariduddin Attar (13th Century poet) 'Conference of Birds' which tells the story of 30 birds flying towards the King-Bird - Simurgh. On their journey they faced all kinds of difficulties and then discovered that they themselves were Si Murgh - 30 birds.

Dante's Divine Comedy or Milton's Lost Paradise are also examples of a certain language and mentality struggling with imported beliefs, trying to own them.

The more poetry fights this battle, the more complicated it becomes, and it turns into a highly coded language trying to replace sacred knowledge.

I have been re-reading Bedil - a famous Indian poet of Turkic origin, who wrote in Farsi and lived in the 17th Century.

His poetry is so dense and so well-packed, that there's a famous anecdote that one Bukharian scholar found 42 meanings in just one of his verses.

But then, another scholar from Kazan joined the discussion and found
another 40 additional meanings for the same verse.

Just to give you a glimpse of his poetry here's several verses, where
Bedil uses the image of a mirror.

Those who are looking with eyes of surprise, don't bother about eyelashes,
The room of the mirror is shut, no doors and windows there...


The mystery of joy can't dismiss our sadness,
The breath can't become the air in the room of the mirror...

I leave it to you to interpret the meanings of those verses.

One could say that if before Bedil classical Muslim poetry was about the relationship between 'I' and 'He/she', between man and God, Bedil turned this relationship into 'I' - 'I', ie into autocommunication.

In this context the image of the mirror is the best tool to employ. But this kind of poetry does not sustain itself. Like heavy metal elements that turn radioactive and get depleted under the weight of their own mass, the same happens to poetry.

A new poet comes and starts everything afresh, as if nothing had existed before him. So then the whole poetic tradition is de-sacralised, not to say de-spiritualised, and the cycle begins anew...

Memories of Bush House

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 09:51 UK time, Monday, 9 January 2012

This year the BBC World Service is leaving Bush House - a building which has been our headquarters for the last 70 years.

John Tusa is one of Bush House's legends.

He managed the World Service in the late 1980s and early '90s. For the two-part documentary Goodbye to Bush House , he interviewed journalists about their memories of working in Bush House. But here's some fragements of it.

Najiba Kasraee (worked in the Afghan Service, now works for the College of Journalism):

Najiba : I started my work in May '92 in BBC.

John Tusa: Yes.

Najiba: And I couldn't speak English. I remember coming for my first day. Brian Bull was the deputy of the Pashto Persian service then and he spoke Russian. So the best way for me to communicate with him was in Russian. And then they said to me, we can use you as a presenter for reading letters.

My job was to select these letters from Afghanistan and then read them. There was one letter and I still remember that from a woman in Kabul who said, could the United Nations 'blue hat' soldiers come to Kabul and I thought it's a civil war, not an international one - and I thought that's such a nice letter.

I soon realized that this was just a joke for everyone else. That the request from Afghanistan for international troops was not something that was taken seriously - and then history changed so much over several years.

John: Yes indeed. Tell me about your broadcast for Afghan children.

Najiba: When I joined the BBC there was programme called the World of Youth. It was a 12 minute programme - translating packages about new discoveries, and interviewing some Afghans either inside Afghanistan or outside. And I proposed to my editor a programme for children - I think I thought that it was something that was lacking, something for a five year old, for a six year old. I think that was something we had never had.

Then a colleague from outside the Pashto service said to me, well, why don't you use the special effects machine and create a character? And I said how, so he showed me. I changed my voice and my voice become like a cartoon character. I created this character, it was rabbit. He would sit with me and I love her, I still love that rabbit.

John: And you talk the rabbit?

Najiba: And I would talk to the rabbit and I will say how are you? And then, she'd say, I'm fine, then I would begin to read the story and then she'd interrupt me, asking all sorts of silly questions. All the questions children will ask and I remember my daughter was five at that time and I'd read the story to her. And I'd try to put the questions that my daughter was putting to me into rabbit's mouth because I thought that's how the children will ask you.

Raymond Lee - Editor of Chinese Service

John: The BBC does great feel of local shortwave and FM rebroadcasting. Is there any likelihood of the BBC being rebroadcasted through arrangements on FM in major urban areas?

Raymond: Actually, we were successful doing that in the 1990s and even in the '80s, but it is now no longer as popular as it was before. The Chinese authorities are imposing more restrictions on local radio stations in taking content from foreign media - organizations like us.

Secondly, it is very difficult to get radio partners to promote BBC content on air, so in a way the impact of having your programmes on the Chinese local radio stations can be limited. And sometimes they even can't guarantee a fixed time slot for your programmes. So that's why, a few years back, we started working with online partners in China. So which means we started syndicating of online content with the websites in China. Partnerships which have proved to be quite a successful in many ways.

Nowadays, we've got nearly 30 websites in China taking our content. But of course, as you can imagine, given the particular situation in China, the content we are able to syndicate to our partners there is non-news, non-political content. So it's very much about English learning, study in the UK or British life, that kind of thing.

It's not perfect, but then I think it's the best we can do, to raise a profile, to raise awareness or maybe understand the audience in China's attitude towards BBC content.

Sam Younger, former BBC World Service Managing Director.

Sam succeeded John Tusa as the BBC World Service Managing Director in 1994.

John: You and I have after all both walked out of the Bush House portals. Supposing you were doing it again in six months' time. Walking out permanently? What images would flood your mind? Would you be thinking, this is the end of Bush House - the end of World Service broadcasting at Bush House?

Sam: Well, I suppose, portal is a good phrase to use because it conjures up something as rather imposing and something almost sort of intimidating in its seriousness. I think the building exuded that always. And I think that was actually part of the strength and part of the image of the World Service.

I suppose the image that comes back to me every time I do walk through, the thing I always think of is the extraordinarily talented and eclectic bunch of people that made up the community at Bush House with - in my day - 45 different language services.

It always stays in my mind that one evening, in my early days as managing director, I was around in the evening and it's about 8'o clock in the evening. I went wandering around the studios. The Greek Service were broadcasting.

In once studio one of Greece's leading song writers was working and in another one was Greece's leading poet. I discovered later these were the kind of people who found their way into Bush House, not as guests, but working at the desks. They found their way to the BBC often for awful reasons, for reasons none of us would want. There were such an extraordinarily, talented varied bunch of people and I think I have never come across an environment where there are a more interesting people per square inch than in Bush House.

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