Archives for April 2012

Genghis Khan in London

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:43 UK time, Thursday, 26 April 2012

You might have heard about the installation of  the Genghis Khan monument in Marble Arch, London. See here

Obviously it quickly became a matter of controversy.

I was invited to one of the radio programmes to take part in a discussion, where I meant to argue the case for artistic freedom. I declined the invitation.

As a writer I am very much interested in the figure of Genghis Khan and even wrote about him in one of my novels.

Being an Asian, you can't escape this medieval ruler who shaped the history of the continent for many subsequent centuries after him.

To give you a couple of examples from our part of the world, Tamerlane the Great - another great medieval Asian ruler -  came to power claiming that he was an in-law of the dynasty of Genghis Khan. Without this relationship, he understood that his power would be illegitimate.
Even when he conquered half of the ancient world from Turkey through Russia and to India, he didn't dare change the rulers of the 'Ulus' or kingdoms, set up by Genghis Khan.  This shows exactly who had the upper hand in that vast pan-Asian empire and so strong was the legacy of Genghis Khan.

Another of my compatriots, Babur-shah - a founder of the Great Moguls Empire in India - didn't identify himself as Timurid (although he was a great grandchild of Tamerlane) but related himself to his more distant ancestor Genghis Khan, which was reflected in the name of his Empire.

As an outstanding ruler Genghis Khan left his legacy in many spheres from law to military tactics.
Moreover,  his legacy is present even in todays world: physically, among our contemporaries, up to 8% of the Asian male population are considered to be direct descendants of Genghis Khan.
So there are many fascinating things to be told about him.

But why did I decline the invitation to make his case then?

We also know from historical sources that Genghis Khan was one of the most ruthless conquerors  this world has ever seen. He wiped out whole cities and their entire populations in Khwarezm, Russia, Iran and China. Mountains of ashes and skulls were left after his hordes passed through - country after country. Bloodshed and terror, which this merciless nomad brought to the flourishing cities and towns, is still remembered by many nations in their songs, poems and legends. According to historical sources up to 40 million people were killed because of the Genghis Khan invasions.

Yet one can argue that this ferocious forage was the rule of the game at that epoch, that all medieval rulers both in the West and the East were savage fighters. More sophisticated apologists may even say that he not just destroyed, but also united the world under his power.

But not all means are justified by the end.

There is also another point, which I notice quite often around me; We easily accept moral values when they don't apply directly to us.

If I were a Han Chinese, I would be happy to discuss the idea of federalism in Russia, but probably not mention Tibetans or Uighurs. If I were a Russian I'd be more than enthusiastic to debate a possible partition of Afghanistan, but not mention Chechnya or Dagestan. The same would be the case were I a Turk, with regards to Kurds or an Uzbek with regards to Karakalpaks, and so on and so forth.

I make just some geopolitical points, but the same attitude could be extended to any of our belongings or identities.

But as Socrates famously said: Amicus Plato, sed magis amica Veritas, or Plato is my friend, but truth is a better friend...

I think that was the visceral thinking behind the decision not to make an apology, in the Greek sense, for the ruler who might have even been one of my ancestors.

How difficult is it to change?

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 10:40 UK time, Friday, 20 April 2012


A Tajik writer, now turned 75 and who used to consider the whole of Central Asia as a product of mostly Iranian culture, recently wrote an article. And this paragraph was in it:

A Kulyabi man married a lady from Pamir. They travelled to Khujand. But, en route, in Garm, they stopped for a feast with relatives. Among the guests were people from Gissar and Bukhara, Tashkent and Ashgabat and Samarkand and the guests from Uzbekistan turned out to be all hidden Tajiks, and the majority of Tajiks – were in fact Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Turkmens ...
And the guest of honour – a Bukharian Jew from New York City - a great singer who sang a classic Shashmaqom, was (unbeknown to him), in fact, a half-Mongol - the distant descendant of Genghis Khan, but said that he was a half-Chinese from Xinxiang’s Dunguns ...

The sage said:
- The people are God's thoughts ...
Who is against God's thoughts? .. Who?
O Allah!..
Long live the great honey teeming a bazaar of people, mixed as a sharp, spicy salad of Samarkand!
Long live the Eternal Bouquet of Nations, which is sweet and fragrant - there is nothing on earth like it!
You made it, o, Allah - and the one who is against this Holy Bouquet - is against God.
And this is the Satan.
People have long ago solved the problem by loving each other sweetly, and mingling with each other in love...

I was so happy to read this fragment, because, generally, I like this writer very much, with the exception of his soft tendency to Pan-Iranism. I immediately started to share this paragraph with many of my friends.

Some of them were quite sceptical, explaining my enthusiasm by the spring and sentimentality attached to it by default. Others couldn't understand what I was so excited about.

When I started to analyse what made me so celebratory, I realised that apart from the natural beauty of the description of Central Asia as a melting pot, which is close to my heart, the point was the ability of this particular writer to change at the age of 75.

Every one of us must know quite well how difficult it is to change.

We carry with ourselves our assumptions, unfulfilled resolutions, die-hard habits throughout our lives, feeding the world with 'the same piece of old cheese' which we are ourselves, according to a famous quote from the American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

Though the world around us is changing at ever increasing rate, very often we adapt to it by a superficial mimicry rather than a real deep change in ourselves.

Obviously not just Western philosophers, such as Thoreau, have thought about the difficulties of inner change.

In fact the most inflated and misused word 'Jihad' is also about it.

According to the Prophet Muhammad there is a lesser Jihad, which is about fighting for your belief, when it is threatened by others, and there is a great Jihad, which is about fighting your inner enemy, the devils which sit inside of yourself, be it disbelief, greed, intolerance, anger, lust or anything of that nature.

So the great jihad is about changing yourself for the better, perfecting yourself as a person.

Thus if this particular writer can change his outlook for the better at the age of 75, why not celebrate it? Be enthusiastic and excited about it, use it as an example to follow in our everlasting struggle to become a better person.

To change the world start with yourself, as they say.

The book of Bush tales is nearly ready

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 17:02 UK time, Wednesday, 11 April 2012


Bush House artist's drawing

Bush House will no longer be the headquarters for BBC World Service

BBC World Service is in the process of moving from its historic headquarters, Bush House, to New Broadcasting House.

Many services have already moved, others will eventually join them and by the end of this summer Bush House as a broadcasting centre will be closed.

As you may remember, to celebrate its history, I announced a project for a book - Bush House Tales. Now the book is nearly ready; the anecdotes have been collected, classified, edited, and the cover has been drafted.

Just to give a taster of the book, here are some stories from the language services:

When I joined the BBC there was a Pashto service program called The World of Youth. For it, we were supposed to either translate some of the packages about new discoveries or interview some Afghans inside Afghanistan or outside.

And I proposed to my editor that I could write for children – that was something I thought was lacking, something for five or six-year-olds.

And then a colleague suggested that I use a special machine which would allow me to change my voice to create a character. My character was a rabbit. I would talk to her and read a story, and then she would interrupt me, asking all sorts of silly questions, the kind of questions children usually ask.

My daughter was five at that time, so I used to read my stories to her and then put her questions into the rabbit’s mouth. I wrote a story about a little girl who lost her mother and she stopped washing her face and brushing her hair. Then she sees her mother in her dream and the mother says, well, I’m still there, I’m still watching you. When she wakes up and starts brushing her hair, it's a step in the right direction.

My colleague went to Kabul. He came back and he said, “Najiba, this big Taliban commander came to me and whispered in my ear, 'Who is this rabbit? Is that a little girl? How old is she?'” I had to change my accent then – that was one way to convince people that it was not me. - Najiba Kasraee from the Pashto Service


One morning when I came to the office, my secretary told me that there was a call for me from Scotland Yard and the caller, Mr Ewing, would like me to ring him back. I became nervous and wondered what could be wrong. I tried to remember my movements on previous days, then I rang the chap to arrange a meeting, and he came to see me.

Inspector Ewing wanted to know about the telegram sent to Hyderabad which said: “Broadcasting next week, please listen on 12, 18, 21 and 23.” This, the inspector said, sounded like a code. I explained that it was quite simple; when students record a message, you can’t give them the exact date of a broadcast, so we give them a number of possible dates when their message would be included in the programme.

Apparently, this student wanted his family to listen to his message on all those days.
This satisfied the inspector. He then sat there chatting, enquiring about my various colleagues who were not there at the time. I was rather surprised and asked him how on earth he knew them. He said that it was his job to keep an eye on all the Indians, who they were, what they did and where they got their money from. - Iqbal Bahadu Sadeen formerly worked for the Hindi Service.

The Russian Service had a dedicated language supervisor who was public enemy number one. One day several of his colleagues got together and presented him with a piece of paper. It was a master copy, or rather, it was a master sheet produced by the duplicating system we had then, which just looked like a typed script. Anyway, there was this sheet labelled “Insert for literary magazine” and he processed it in the usual way, leaving no sentence unturned. When his colleagues saw it they said, “Didn’t you know that it’s Chekhov?” To which he replied, “Anton Pavlovich made mistakes too, you know.” - Milada Haigh tells the story from the Russian service.

But Bush House as well as the book about it is not all about the language services. Here’s another tale from Lynne Plummer:

I was a studio manager at Bush for seven years from 1961.  There was a rumour that a ghost walked at night on the ground floor of the South East wing. I was doing the dawn chorus, as the series of back-to-back 15-minute transmissions was known to us. While the man was reading the news in front of me in the studio, the main door was opened and steps vibrated down the little passage beside the cubicle and towards the studio...  I leapt to the cubicle door to protect my presenter, but although the footsteps were clearly audible there was nobody there. Spooky? Definitely!


Poetry against dictatorship

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:49 UK time, Wednesday, 4 April 2012

In the last entry I discussed this issue from the point of view of dictators.
This time let's discuss another angle: how poetry, as the ultimate manifestation of human liberty, stands against dictatorship and totalitarianism.

The easiest and most obvious answer is with its content.
The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin's ode To Liberty or the poem of Uzbek poet Chulpon, The Heart, are good examples.

Pushkin writes:

Now, flighty Fortune's favoured knaves, Tremble, O Tyrants of the Earth! But you: take heed now, know your worth And rise as men, O fallen slaves!

And Chulpon:

What is this, my heart, why such - With the fetters made you friends? Neither wail you have nor much Of the cry, and slowly sense. Abuse will never hurt a soul, Will baseness forever leave? When will broken be a hobble, Swords are cut, but who'll believe? You're alive, not passed away, You're a man, act humanly, Refuse the fetters, don't obey, In fact, you also were born free!

At best, these kinds of poems become anthems of liberty and freedom, mobilising people to fight against dictatorship and tyranny.

However, apart from the direct call to freedom, poetry could play a more subtle role, liberating the consciousness of people who are facing different forms of totalitarianism.
The poetry of Joseph Brodsky comes to mind.

I don't mean the content of his poetry, but the very form of it. Scholars who analysed his poetry nearly overlooked this part of his poetic technique.

On the surface Brodsky applies all the Soviet figures of speech and discourse; his poems are usually 'classic' or traditional by form, they are predominantly long rather than short and quite wordy rather than succinct, as if he takes for given the inflated nature of the Soviet Communist speech.

But what happens within this seemingly 'all-Soviet' form is quite unique.
Just imagine the following form:


So Brodsky fills it in with his sentences or thoughts which go like this:

eeeee. Fffffffff, Gggggg
ggg. Hhhhhhhhhhhh, Iiii

His syntax breaks the form from inside. His free thoughts start anywhere he wants and end anywhere he wants, disregarding the outer form. The external form becomes just a pro-forma, whereas the poets consciousness, his thoughts live their own, free life within this given form.

So relate this paradigm to the social life in the totalitarian Communist society and you understand how explosive, how rebellious and how subversive this purely poetic experience is.

Joseph Brodsky is not the only poet, who liberated the mind with the means of pure poetry. Chulpon, whom I mentioned above, was also using the 'Soviet speak' during the Stalinist years of the '30s, but the way he used it deconstructed that speak to its opposite.

Here's a fragment of his poem A Poet of Nowadays:

A poet of nowadays is the poet of squares and crowds: every worker recites his poems at his workshop, every pioneer/boy scout hums his poems by heart...

Every single element of poetry could be used to liberate minds and stand against dictatorships.

If, in one instance, Brodsky was fighting totalitarianism with the help of its own rhetoric tools and discursive means, his contemporary Gennadi Aygi, was expressing himself through the minimalism and the art of pauses.

So it was - from an unseeing visage And dazzling Resilient (in its close wandering) As if estrange: desperation (with unseeing: Before him: Abiding - this face)

Poetry could mock, make a parody, use irony, sarcasm, parables, directly mobilise, etc..

But also poets and their lives can become role-models and in that sense even the least dissident creature, who lives his private life indulging himself with poetry, is usually seen by the authoritarian regimes as the ultimate threat to its very existence.
Therefore so many poets are arrested, imprisoned or exiled in and from Uzbekistan (and similar countries).

One can write volumes and volumes about the relationship between poetry and dictatorship, but I would like to end this piece with a short poem, which shows why dictatorships see poetry as their deadliest threat:

creating a new chaos out of an old one - that is maybe what we call 'living'...

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