Archives for August 2012

Once Upon a Deadline

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:12 UK time, Thursday, 30 August 2012

Last week I was in Gdansk, Poland to take part in a literary project called 'Once upon a deadline'. Five British writers including me were taken to five different city locations in turn. Those five places were the Academy of Music, the local cathedral, the city library, the shipyard where the Solidarność movement started and a playground.

While were in those locations we were writing short stories, so by that evening we were able to deliver them to an audience. Overnight five short stories were translated into Polish and there was another reading for a wider public. Here's my contribution to this exciting project.

A Study in A-moll: Red Brick

Poland was always a magnetic country for him... Or has he just understood it now, coming for the first time to the Polish city of Gdansk?

It started in his Uzbek childhood - he used to live in Tashkent on Adam Mitzkevich Street. Down this street there were ruins of a strange, non-Uzbek red-brick building which the locals called 'kostyol', an unfamiliar word to him.


Ruins seen across the water

Boys in Tashkent used to play in red-brick ruins like these ones

Going for a swim under the unbearable sun in the muddy Salar River next to this 'kostyol', children loved to explore the ruins, while trying to guess what this word 'kostyol' might mean. Some would say: it's to do with the Russian word 'kostyor', fire, and, to justify this, they would reminisce about the fires they made to bake potatoes in hot ashes, and draw attention to the very shape of the building with its red columns, arches and walls, but no roof. Others would disagree and argue that this word was similar to 'kosti', bones, and must refer either to the skeleton of the building or to the real bones scattered among stones and dust.

But once, when they were playing their usual game of 'World War II', for which this mysterious red-brick building was ideal, they were caught by a blond man who spoke a strange broken Russian.

They were dead scared of being reported, if not to the police then at least to their school and parents, but that strange man in a long black coat gathered them in the middle of the ruins of that red-brick building with glassless ogival windows and asked:

'Do you know what this place is?'
'Kostyol' - said one of the boys.
'Do you know what 'kostyol' means?'
Nobody replied.
The man with the long blond locks said:
'It's a Polish church.' And then added, 'My family is buried here.'
They all went silent.
That mysterious man must have told them the story of his family, but what that story was about, nobody remembered.
Though maybe the story was too frightening, for they never went to that 'kostyol' again - ever.

He recalled that man again later, while serving in the Soviet Army (he nearly thought 'Red Army'). His regiment was based in Bagrationovsk, a town in former Prussia, on the border with Poland. Looking from the attic of their Prussian red-brick building to the other side of the border, to 'the West', he used to see blond Polish farmers in their fields, and every woman, be it a farmer's wife or a daughter bringing him his lunch or water, looked like a fairy, like Barbara Brylska or Pola Raksa, Polish cinema stars from Andrzej Wajda's films which they clandestinely watched on Polish TV when their commanders were asleep...

Later, when he married, the Polish theme of his life continued. His wife was a student of Tashkent Conservatory and for hours and hours she used to play her favourite Chopin études. But most of all he loved Ogińsky's polonaise, Farewell to the Motherland - again, unable to put this wonderfully powerful music into any context.

It was the same with the musicology books his wife had. He never know why, but sometimes, going to the loo he used to take down from his wife's bookshelves two volumes of Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński. Maybe just because of his majestic and strange name...

And again, he can't remember what those two red-brick volumes were about.

By that time the kostyol, refurbished and renovated, was given to the Conservatory as their concert hall, which had the only organ in Tashkent. There were no professional organists in Tashkent, and his wife as a leading pianist was asked to play something from her piano repertoire, something she could easily adapt for the organ.

He was invited to a rehearsal, where his wife decided to play the same polonaise, Farewell to the Motherland, and though the Conservatory party secretary said to her, 'You played the piece for three minutes - could you do the same, but for a minute and a half?', much to everyone's laughter, the music turned out to be truly prophetic. The same year they left Uzbekistan, their motherland, for good.

So that 'kostyol', that music is still aching and reverberating inside of him...

Poland has always been a magnetic and strange place in his life. Or has he just understood it now, coming for the fist time to the Polish city of Gdansk?


The Gdansk shipyard

The shipyard where the Solidarity movement started

He tries to speak a deliberately broken Russian, bending it with extra hissing consonants towards faux Polish - with little success. In the canteen he asks for 'grechka', buckwheat, but the 'Pani' serves him carrots instead. No wonder, because the Polish word for shop, 'sklep', in fact, means 'tomb' in Russian.

However, the subliminal music still goes on.

So what was the story told by that blond dishevelled man in the long black coat? He tries to revive it with associations.

German speech is coming from a little old street, where a guide leads a tour, apparently talking about Gunter Grass, who was born here. Would Grass help in calling back that forgotten story?

He looks around and sees 'Wojewódzkiej i Miejskiej Biblioteki ', which translates into Russian as 'The library of the local troops commander'. So it must be about the Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass. It turns out to be a county library, but there is a thick red-brick volume by Grass on its shelves. He opens the book and guess what he finds there? 'Der Weite Rock', 'The White Rock'. So is it always about something missing in your life, about something distant and dreamy?

The nearest mountain range to Tashkent is called 'Aktash', The White Rock...

In a minute a most gentle and intelligent librarian shows him the rarities of his library. 'This book,' he says, 'is a reprint of Chopin's études, and that one, called 'Narratio Prima', is a reprint of Nicolaj Kopernik's work'. Kopernik, who first told the world that the earth was round? And what did you say, 'Narratio Prima'? The first narration?

He came to Poland, which was 'the West' for him in his youth, from further West, from London. 'Are we wandering the world before ultimately coming home?' he thinks momentarily. The first narration of that old blond man in the black coat among the ruins of the red-brick Tashkenti 'kostyol', is it - was it - about this?

An old red tram with scarlet seats takes him to a train station, where he changes for a local train with worn-out purple seats. He listens to people talking. Small talk of a big city. One wave after another. Like an orchestra murmuring before the piano solo... 'Kocam jarkak alik', he reads the untranslatable graffiti on a red-brick wall. He comes to a station called 'Stocznia Gdańska', which in Russian means 'Sewage of Gdansk'. But again, that's wide of the mark. The place's name in Polish turns out to be 'Shipyard'.

Poland has always been a mysterious country to him. But is it just Poland? Or, perhaps, any country where he finds himself becomes that centre of the world where all threads of his mind, all memories of his past, all notes of his inner music, all bricks of his unconstructed building gather at once?

The most depressing red-brick warehouses of Gdansk, where Solidarność started and ended its own existence with its main adversary, Red Communism (only workers' rusted bicycles, still chained there after all these years, are left as a reminder), are hosting an exhibition of modern art. One thing shown there is the process of making red bricks out of paper pulp. Aren't his vain attempts at reminiscing about the same thing? Red bricks out of pulp...

So what was the story that old blond Pole told them among the red-brick and eternal dust of his roofless home? But does it even matter?


Old buildings of Gdansk

The red bricks of Gdansk

The red tram which brought him here will take him back. One wave after another. He will look at the crossed cigarette sign, 'Zakaz Palenia', and give up. What's the point of trying so hard to bring together things which are so far apart? Is there anything in common between 'Smoking Is Prohibited' and 'Arson Booking'?

Enough is enough. He should go somewhere down the road, somewhere near the river, where kids are playing in a modern playground.

And all of a sudden everything comes together. A blond boy with curly locks, all dressed in red and with a logo across his chest, which reads 'Urban Runner', will tell him the ultimate story of Scooby Doo, the dog chasing ghosts...

That is the story, that is him, that is his life...

The famous Polish writer Stanislav Lem describes in 'Solaris' a human mission to another planet, where a thinking ocean recreates, revives, embodies their thoughts, feelings, memories. Aren't we all islands in the same ocean, echoing one another with intangible sounds, indescribable memories, indiscriminate words?

Stepping stones of red brick...

Or vs And: Julian Assange, Pussy Riot and Modern Dichotomy

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 17:01 UK time, Wednesday, 22 August 2012

I have noticed that one of the most acclaimed modern philosophers, Slavoj Žižek, is giving a lecture in Moscow about the difficulties of being a Hegelian in the modern world.

I'm neither a follower nor a connoisseur of Žižek's philosophy, but I sympathise with his thesis that the thinking discourse of the modern world is much more simplistic than Hegelianism or any other complicated philosophical system.

In fact, over the course of the 20th century it has always been bipolar or dichotomic.

It started with the Russian revolution, which for the simplicity of proletarian perception divided the world into 'them' and 'us', with different sorts of variations: 'capitalists vs proletarians', 'believers vs atheists', 'reds vs whites', etc. That latter form was a colour-blind mimicry, because as a matter of fact the world had become black and white.


Julian Assange speaking outside the Ecuadorian embassy

Julian Assange has been taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy since June 19

According to the founders of communism the world has always been divided by this principle into the exploited and exploiting.

But even those who didn't believe in Marxism followed the same thinking of 'them vs us'.

This was the case in the Second World War, when the so-called liberal West, united with Bolshevik Russia, fought against Nazi Germany.

Then during the Cold War, the former ally of the West -Communist Russia and its satellites - became public enemy number one.

And a similar thing happened during the so-called 'War on Terror' when the place of Communism was taken by Islamic extremism, once again ironically the former ally of the West during a previous struggle.

The rhetoric and pattern of these stand-offs between 'them and us' have stayed pretty much the same. It's just that the embodiment of evil - as opposed to the forces of 'good' - has changed from Hitler to Stalin to Bin Laden.

'Whoever is not with us is against us' became a motto of that philosophy.

I'm not applying any moral judgement here and I'm not looking into the reasons for those transformations; I'm just observing the historical pattern.

One might argue that this kind of binary worldview is in-built in the human mind: 'good vs evil', 'light vs darkness', 'male vs female', 'raw vs cooked', etc.

That may be true, but even there, if you look a bit deeper, some of those oppositions are not equal or symmetric. The quantity of light in the universe is not equal to the quantity of darkness, evil and good are not absolute and interchangeable dependant on the circumstances, and so on.


Pussy Riot in custody

Pussy Riot have vociferous supporters and detractors

Yet it seems that at the first opportunity we reach for our 'black or white' glasses to look at the events around us.

Take two examples which have been in the headlines over the last week: the saga surrounding Wikileaks' founder Julian Assange as he takes refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, and the case of the anti-Putin punk band Pussy Riot, in Russia.

With regards to Assange, one side vehemently believes that he is 'white' and is persecuted because of his political activity, which is heroic.

Others, with equal passion, 'blacken' him, saying that if he is convicted of rape he will not be a hero but a criminal.

The same bitter division mars the case of the punk band Pussy Riot, who sang an anti-Putin song in Moscow Central cathedral.

I've seen believers who are horrified by the 'heresy' of their act and anathematising the band as hooligans.

The other party concentrates purely on the political meaning of their action and treats them as political dissidents.

In both cases, like in many others, one party cannot bear to hear the other one.

Black and white. Or, to be more precise, black or white.

Since we started on philosophical premises, you may know that among many other forms of logic there is disjunctive logic, which is symbolised by 'or' and also conjunctive logic, which leans towards 'and'.

In my previous entries about dialogue vs monologue, mono- vs multi-, totalitarianism vs democracy, etc... we were in fact talking about those 'ors' vs 'ands'.

Reality is not monochrome, monosyllabic or monodimensional. Rather, it's we who are quick to reduce it to black vs white.

So Žižek must be right, it's difficult to be Hegelian in our time.

Not the triumph but the struggle

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 17:21 UK time, Friday, 17 August 2012

I have a confession to make. Though I have lived for over 18 years in London I've never been to a live football match.

I eagerly watch all of them on TV.

But then, all of a sudden, I had a dream ticket to the final of the Olympic football tournament - Brazil vs Mexico. One of the best teams in the world against one of the most aspirational teams. On top of that, one of the most talked-about rising stars of world football - Neymar - was in the Brazilian starting list.

Does it get any better than that?


Brazil's goalkeeper Gabriel fails to catch a shot by Mexico's forward Oribe Peralta at Wembley stadium

Mexico's forward Oribe Peralta opened the scoring at Wembley

So I was expecting a real feast - or rather 'fiesta' - of football. In anticipation of the match I recalled all my fondest memories of going to stadiums, which took me right back to my early childhood.

Lo, those ancient years when I was six or seven and used to march five to six kilometres in an excited crowd towards Tashkent's 'Pahtakor' stadium...

Lo, that feeling of a dream or fairy tale, when the emerald surface of the pitch suddenly appears in front of you as you enter the gigantic crater of the stadium, and a fresh breeze flutters the toy-like corner flags...

Lo, the music that solemnly reaches a crescendo as football players enter the pitch for the warm up, and then...

Then the match starts, and you forget yourself, becoming a part of that passionate and noisy organism, like a volcano, which at the moment of a goal erupts into the sky...

I put my best clothes on and left my house three hours before the match. In half an hour I was already at Wembley Park station and joined the colourful and joyful crowds of all-yellow Brazilians with some islands of evergreen Mexicans. Everything was preparing me for the Fiesta.

As part of that majestic flow I reached Gate K and after all the formalities was sent upstairs to find my place.

I didn't spend any time in the bar and cafe area, but decided to go straight to my seat.

As I entered the stadium that same feeling of the emerald pitch and the light breeze fluttering the toy-like corner flags filled my lungs...

It lasted an instant, because the next moment a steward approached me and asked for my ticket. I showed him and he smiled opaquely and said: "The very top!"

Yes, it was a place at the very top of the stadium, beneath one of the floodlights, under the roof, next to a concrete wall. It was the last seat in the row and next to me was the emptiness of the concrete floor.

I looked at the pitch; it was smaller than on my TV screen.

Somehow the feeling of the feast or rather 'fiesta' had disappeared.

I tried very hard to hype myself up to the occasion, thinking that when the stadium would be filled that feeling would return.

But alas, it didn't happen, either when the players appeared for the warm up, or when the dream game started.

Even when Mexico scored in the 38th second of the match and the stadium went berserk, I was trying to join the crowd, but looking at my single neighbour I noticed how confused he was and that made me even more confused.

In brief, I could hardly see what was happening on the field apart from the 'Olympic' mega-strategic view, I didn't feel that I was part of that 'organism', my fiesta was ruined and on the top of everything Brazil lost while Neymar didn't perform well at all...


Brazil's Neymar, sitting down at the end of the match, can only look on as Miguel Ponce, Hector Herrera and Jorge Enriquez celebrate winning gold

Brazil's Neymar, sitting down at the end of the match, can only look on as Miguel Ponce, Hector Herrera and Jorge Enriquez celebrate winning gold

But one positive thing did come out of the experience. Then and there I fully understood the meaning of the famous phrase by Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the modern Olympic Games: "The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle", which was later rephrased as: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part."

Then and there I felt what the Olympic champions may feel in their airless heights as opposed to those of us who muddle along in the crowd.

Prior to that experience I was laughing at reports in the Turkmen press, when they were praising their athletes who broke personal bests, but not mentioning at all that that PB was only ranked as the 49th or 36th place among others.

But now I'm much more sympathetic to those athletes who were fighting not against others but against themselves.

Ultimately isn't that the greatest fight?

Yes, I say after de Coubertin, participation is more important than the loneliness of Olympian heights.

The Olympic Closing Ceremony

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:06 UK time, Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Shall I make 12 points about the closing ceremony, just like I did with the opening of London Olympics? Perhaps I will, but this time I won't be worrying so much about striking the right balance. Why not? Because after the Olympics we are a nation of winners!

1. The power of print

This country is one of the biggest in the world in terms of word processing.


Cars wrapped in newspaper at the closing ceremony

The printed word dramatically took centre stage at the closing ceremony

Thousands of national and local newspapers, hundreds of radio and TV stations, myriad internet bloggers, twitterers, etc. Politicians and commentators, writers and rappers, judges and teachers - they are all mostly about words. Processing words is one of the biggest industries of this country and your humble servant is part of it. Kim Gavin, Director of the Olympics show, paid tribute to it by wrapping everything into newspapers and words. The piano, taxis, the 'octopus' of the Union Jack - everything was covered in typed words.

2. Walking the walk

Brits are really good at 'talking the talk', but recently haven't been so great at 'walking the walk' or rather 'working the work'. The London Olympics, I dare to say, have changed it. Hard work and determined effort are once again held in high esteem. Our champion athletes have proven that in two to four years one can make the enormous progression from a beginner to an Olympic champion.

3. Politicians

There was a moment at the beginning of the closing ceremony - when Churchill appeared on top of Big Ben and recited famous verses from Shakespeare's The Tempest (as opposed to Brunel in the opening ceremony), when I thought: "Politicians are seizing the show again, and again words will prevail over actions", but then...

4. Sportspeople and celebrities

The stage appearance of Henry, Prince of Wales - aka Prince Harry - as a representative of the Royal Family, along with the Head of the IOC, was also quite symbolic. Harry is one of the sportier royals. One of the things that has happened during the Olympics is that winning sportspeople, at least to some extent, have also become 'celebrities' and role models along with mostly decadent rock stars.

5. Let's rock!

Talking about rock stars being the ultimate role models for young people in this country for many years (that "I'll wake up rich and famous" attitude), one might observe that the easiest resolution between 'talking the talk' and 'walking the walk' or between words and actions is a song. Therefore the mighty word-processing industry in this country quite naturally turned into the mighty pop industry. The closing party either rationally or subliminally was built around that. It was a British rock party.

6. Communities reunited

The Olympics have finished with what the Queen's Diamond Jubilee first introduced to the country's mood - the feel-good factor. The 'can do' mentality shown by so many winning British athletes whose names were previously unknown was echoed by successes in providing security, infrastructure and transport. The city and the country came together to make the Games a success.

7. Games makers

Volunteers - 70,000 of them were working free of charge, putting the shows together, guiding and stewarding people and taking part in ensuring security. Even at the closing party they were softly 'kettling' thousands of sportsmen into the spaces of a giant Union Jack spread over the stadium, to expose them regardless of their creed, colour, gender or age to one and a half hours of non-stop British rock... But even that was the behaviour of winners... By the way at that particular moment a lookalike Elton John appeared on top of Big Ben.

8. Stomping to fitness

British modern dance is an even more radical resolution between words and actions, interpreting song in space without words, but in pure action. The dance group Stomp, deliberately mixing up London's 'rush hour' with 'brush hour', swept away all the words and newspapers. Are we changing our attitude from 'talking the talk' to 'walking the walk'? Dance is closer to sport than song. I don't know if we are witnessing a renaissance in dance, but I'm pretty sure that stadiums, pools and gyms will be under strain in the near future. I can already see signs of it in my local fitness club.

9. There are no superhumans

Athletes entered the stadium not through separate gates, but from among the spectators. We love the word 'interactivity', but here it was even deeper than that. It showed that athletes are not superhuman, that they can walk out from among ordinary, everyday people. We still love to see a moment of weakness even in the winners. The collage of the best Olympic moments was all about tears - tears of joy and despair.

10. Can you look away?

A paragraph about British rock. It was represented in its full glory - from the teenagers of One Direction to the grandpas of The Who; from dazzlingly vivid Jessie J to occultly revived Freddy Mercury.


Roger Daltrey of the band the Who performing at the closing ceremony

Roger Daltrey of the band the Who is a grandad several times over

I must admit that I'm always slightly embarrassed when solid men in their late sixties or early seventies behave on stage as ever-potent playboys, especially against a background of Dionysian young athletes, but it might be a matter of taste or tradition. I guess I might have looked away and just listened to their music. But then seeing on screen a dead bored Japanese face, which was perhaps accidentally shown, I felt a bit concerned about the feelings of some Saudi or Egyptian, Iranian or Chinese athletes, who have no freedom to look away or switch off the sound like myself... But we will, we will rock you!

11. Goodbye, world

Nonetheless, although British rock (occasionally interrupted by British fashion or British multiculturalism), was a bit excessive for my taste, inasmuch as we have exposed our achievements to the world this time we were also much more accepting and open to the rest of the world. Representatives from other countries were shown in TV collages and the marathon winners' medal ceremony was all about it and the next Olympic city - Rio's short and beautiful presentation confirmed to us that we have changed over the course of these two weeks. Wiggins has changed us, Ennis has changed us, Mo has changed us, Murray has changed us, Bolt has changed us, Rudisha has changed us, the Games have changed us...

12. From words to actions

It was great to see the last act of the show while the flames of the London Olympics were being extinguished. It was a ballet dance in which Darcey Bussell was flying like a phoenix reborn from the flames. Ballet is not the strongest art form in Britain. If you want to see world-class ballet you go to different countries and different theatres. But that was a symbol of a new challenge. It was showing that this country is ready for new challenges, from words to actions, and that is maybe the biggest legacy of the London Olympics.

Generation G or Generation P?

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:00 UK time, Thursday, 2 August 2012

One of my latest posts was about dialogue replacing monologue in many areas of human activity.

Kids looking at smartphones and tablet computers in Seoul, South Korea

Generation G (or P) in action in Seoul, South Korea

Yet when you go through some recent news which we have covered over the last week or two one can notice that in many cases quite the opposite is the case.

Let me give a few examples:

UN observers have entered the Syrian village where anti-government activists claim 200 people were massacred on Thursday. The UN said the attack on Tremseh mainly targeted the homes of rebels and activists. The government in Damascus says it carried out a military operation against terrorists. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18840285)

At least 42 people including 12 soldiers and 30 rebels have been killed in fighting in the remote Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan, state television has reported. People are trapped in their homes because of the heavy fighting in the streets, where armoured vehicles have been seen. Dozens of people have been reported wounded. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18965366)

The Uzbek authorities suspended the licence of the Russian Mobile operator MTS for 10 days on July 17. Left without communication and Internet, 9.5 million subscribers of the Russian MTS company’s branch in Uzbekistan are flowing to the company’s competitors in masses. Spokeswoman Yelena Kokhanovskaya said on Wednesday the company was considering the case as an "unwarranted attack" on Russian businesses. "At no time did any audit reveal any significant violation by Uzdunrobita of the laws of Uzbekistan, in particular with respect to tax, foreign exchange and licensing requirements," Kokhanovskaya said in emailed comments. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/uzbek/uzbekistan/2012/07/120717_mts_uzbekistan.shtml)

These events are different in scale, nature, circumstances, location, etc., yet what unites them is the authorities' disregard for dialogue as a form of resolving the issue. Very often it takes rather aggressive, militant forms: 'We do as we wish and you just watch!'

Be it an opposition that disagrees with the direction in which a country is travelling, or customers left at a loss by their own devices, or civilians who die as collateral damage - it's all about a pyramidal, monologic approach as if those who are in power are the masters but not servants of their people.

But as I said in that previous blog entry, something unstoppable is happening in the world, something seismically changing.

Look at today's kids. When I travel I notice that young teenagers, be they in London or in Central Asia, in Africa or in Russia, in Xinjiang or Iran are playing the same games, are addicted to the same social websites, are in a way growing up with the same values.
For my own convenience I call this digital generation Generation G or the Google Generation.

Yes, they might be of different social backgrounds, different levels of education and social mobility, but there's something like the internet which unites them.

A modern Russian writer, Viktor Pelevin, wrote a book called Generation P, meaning Generation of Pepsi, outlining the appearance in today's Russia of the ubiquitous consumerist breed of youth, which is also true.

However, one can argue about which trend will ultimately prevail or on which side the striking balance will lie.

Maybe I'm a bit idealistic, but somehow I want to believe, that just as in the case of the Arab Spring, peers should replace masters and slaves. What do you think?

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