Archives for November 2012

Open Central Asia Literary Festival

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:22 UK time, Friday, 30 November 2012

Last weekend the British Open Central Asia organisation ran a literary festival in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

They invited writers and publishers not just from Central Asia, but from all over the world.

Kyrgyz and Kazakh, Uzbek and Russian, Azeri and Polish, English and Scottish, Jewish and French literati met in the Kyrgyz capital to discuss ways of bringing Central Asia's best literature onto a world literary stage.

Prior to the festival the organisers ran a literary competition, choosing the best of the best in three categories: fiction, literary translation, and book illustration.

Trees in Bishkek

Bishkek in November

Since I was in Bishkek I spent my weekend taking part in the event. Reflecting upon it now I would like to discuss a couple of points which might be of interest to you too.

First of all, the notion of a "world literary scene". Somehow we assume that there is one and that it is connected to English as a global language.

The assumption is that unless you are published in English you are not part of world literature.

The status of "world literature" may be given to French and, to a lesser extent, Spanish works, but it seems that no other languages - including Chinese and Arabic - are considered to hold the same rights.

In fact literature is created and lives its life in every language in which it is written.

And in fact world literature is the sum of all those unknown and unheard works in Georgian and Swahili, Chuvash and Tonga, as well as Italian and Indonesian, Swedish and Gujarati and many many other languages.

Yes, English has assumed the role of the truly global language, but it doesn't mean that the entire world's literature must be judged through English translations.

For instance I met in Bishkek a Polish writer, Jan Vishnevsky, who published his first book Loneliness on the Net in his late 40s, turning himself from a computer scientist into a bestselling author both in Poland and Russia. He sold millions of books in Eastern Europe, but hardly anyone knows him in the West, because he hasn't been translated into a Western language.

Hundreds of his most devoted fans were swirling around him in Bishkek, but to my shame I had never heard of him before the festival.

There's another problem - the problem of "big literatures". Even the books which are translated into English never top of the bestsellers lists - English-language readers would prefer to read English-language authors. There was a joke in the former Soviet Union on the famous Armenian Radio network. A question: "Could a general's sons become field marshals?" - "No way!" - "Why?" - "Because the field marshal has got his own sons"... It's the same way with translated literature.

But even within translated literature there's a kind of "quota for representativeness" - a priority list for bigger nations and ethnicities.

I'm pretty sure that a translated Chinese or Indian writer has a much greater chance of being noticed by reviewers and peers than, let's say, a Latvian or Nepalese writer.

I used to have a friend in Georgia - one of the greatest writers and poets I ever met - whose name was Otar Chiladze.

Just because he was from a small country which never made it into the headlines, Otar Chiladze with all his mighty talent never came to international prominence.

He died several years ago. One English friend of mine who also knew and loved him, said bitterly to me that Otar was maybe the most "Nobelable" of all the writers of his generation.

I'm not so bitter though, his literature lives on in Georgian and in my mind that's a big enough contribution to "world literature".


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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:23 UK time, Thursday, 22 November 2012

Last time we discussed the Communist Congress as a ritual, so I thought this time we could deconstruct Communist-speak.

I'm not a specialist in Chinese, but I know that the very title of the Communist Party in Chinese is food for thought. Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng apparently translates as "party of common prosperity" rather than "communist party".

However I'll leave off the Chinese and stick to what I know best - Russian or Soviet-communist speak.

What are my credentials to discuss this? In one of my books - called A Speechwriter - I told a story about the time I was present at a conference where every speech had been written by me.

The first thing to say is that Soviet communist-speak was quite far removed from normal speech.

There was a joke about a communist who, when asked "How many languages do you speak?" replied, "Russian, Communist and Administrative-Cursing Languages".

Secondly, it was different from ordinary language, not just through the usage of communist terms like Leninist, party, scientific communism, rotting bourgeois-capitalist etc. - but also through overcomplicated syntax and structure. Words would negate one another, so that people would be made to clamber along great strings of highly ideological phrases to get to the end of a sentence, but when they got there they would be none the wiser as to the meaning of any of it.

Any hint of everyday sense to be found in epic reports and speeches extending across many hours would be taken by the general public back to their private kitchens and mulled over again and again, spawning a multitude of guesses and assumptions.

'Reading between the lines' was the most popular phrase back then.

Since the entire communist ideology was in fact a type of religion it also inherited the religious linguistic legacy.

The most striking example in communist-speak is the phenomenon of what you might call "double gerundisation", which came from Church liturgical language. For instance, in the language of sermons the word "glory" would become more solemn if it was made into "glorifying" rather than "glorification".

Communists would take any good, practical word and do the same with it: "speed" would turn into "speedifying" and then into "speedification".
Though at first glance this seems like innocent linguistic play, in fact it goes much deeper.

Having failed to achieve a change in reality (remember the famous Marxist thesis: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it"), they decided to effect a change through words.

In those "double-gerundial" nouns there is always a verbal element, the element of action.

For instance the word "better" always requires the act - "to make" or "making", i.e. "to make better". Communist-speak invented the word "betterisation" which doesn't require the act of "making", but magically takes you straight to the result.

One could write dissertations on these twists and turns in Communist-speak, but I would like to end this piece by quoting a predecessor at the BBC, George Orwell, from his novel 1984:

"'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?

George Orwell worked on propaganda for the BBC during World War II

In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.'"


"In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird."

The Party Congress as a ritual

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:21 UK time, Thursday, 15 November 2012

China's ruling Communist Party has held an important congress with sweeping leadership changes.

More than 2,200 delegates from across China gathered in Beijing's Great Hall of the People and selected a new Central Committee, which in its own turn elected China's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee.

The congress was a well-choreographed display of power and unity, though the proceedings, as many observers have noticed, mostly took place behind closed doors.

The choreography of it made me think about the ritualistic nature of events like party congresses, which I have witnessed personally in the former Soviet Union.

Interior view of the Great Hall of the People during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Party Congress

Inside the Great Hall of the People during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Party Congress

First of all let's think about the way things look - a grand hall where thousands of party members are seated row upon row like the congregation of a cathedral during the mass or liturgy.

But in place of the altar they see the body of the party leadership - the Central Committee. They are placed above them on a high podium with altar decorations - flowers in front and a communist coat of arms behind.

Just as an archbishop has his ambo, the general secretary or party chairman has his rostrum from which to deliver his speech, his sermon.

The process contains several archetypical moments which key into the most ancient parts of the public's unconsciousness.

A graphic showing the make-up of the communist party congress

I have looked up at this as a member of the public, and looked down from it as a part of the presidium.

When you are sitting amongst the ordinary members (I wanted to say 'in the crowd' but it's not a crowd since everyone is ordered and well-behaved) you are faceless, just one of many, as opposed to the selected ones on stage.

Those people on stage might look the same as you, they might well be wearing the same uniform as you, but they are definitely 'first among equals'. Seeing your mirror image sitting amongst the 'selected and elected' brings on a surge of hope and fear. The hope relates to the future - one day it may be possible to become like them. The fear relates to your current vulnerability, when any of those 'chosen' could snuff you out with a wag of his finger.

But when you are sitting up in the presidium, you are just as keenly aware of the distance separating you from the row upon row of 'members, who are really 'extras' to the process unfolding within the hall. You might share a joke with someone sitting next to you about a member of the congregation who looks odd, or someone else who is snoring away...

And yet the same two feelings torment you up in the presidium, only in reverse order - fear and hope. The fear is that you will lose this privilege and the hope is that it won't happen to you.

Looking at the layout of the Great Hall, it's clear that communist ideology has taken Hegelian dialectics, turned them upside down, and sewn them into its fundamental principles.

The first of these dialectical laws concerns the unity and conflict of opposites. The main body of the hall and the presidium are one, but they are opposites. The difference between them also subliminally alludes to the eternal 'class struggle' stated in the Communist Manifesto.

The second law refers to the inevitable transformation from the quantitative into the qualitative. Going from being a member of the party's body to becoming one of the 'selected and elected' requires lots of quantitative efforts which ultimately turn into a qualitative change.

"Sorry is the soldier who doesn't dream of becoming Napoleon" goes one of the most famous communist proverbs.

Marx himself said: "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits." Replace the word "science" with "power" and you'll grasp what I'm talking about.

The third and final of the rules is the negation of the negation.

Nobody in the Great Hall would admit what I am saying here, but we can use this rule to negate their negation and show how ritualistic these congresses are and deconstruct how they appeal to the most profound human feelings.

What are we afraid of?

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:50 UK time, Friday, 9 November 2012

Kids are afraid of darkness because it can't contain their imaginations.

The same phenomenon happens in our social lives, when we look at the things which are unfamiliar to us.

One example is the perception of Islam by an average person in the West: Islam appears to him or her as darkness does to a kid - a frightening monolith.

A boy reading the Koran

It is not easy for one person to represent a religion as huge and diverse as Islam

In fact this isn't just the perception of normal people - even at universities or on television channels you often see a so-called Muslim writer or expert, whose task is to present the whole of Islam to a challenging public.

I myself have been in this situation many times, talking on behalf of the whole of Islam (more than a billion people of different ages, genders, races, ethnicities) - trying to encapsulate all those people from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia, from Tatarstan to Nigeria.

You could never imagine a Christian writer who would dare to present the whole of Christianity to any audience, but it often happens to Muslims.

When one sees Islam on the inside it's as diverse as any human creed or deed: dozens of schools, hundreds of branches, thousands of views and interpretations, millions of local rituals and traditions...

Let's take the most topical news of the week - the US Presidential elections. Some of the Muslims of Central Asia I've been in touch with argue that Barack Obama suits them much better than Mitt Romney, because as they argue "he has got a touch of Muslim blood".

Others say that he had a chance to mend the relationship between the US and the Islamic world, but not only did he miss the chance, he worsened the whole relationship.

A third group would argue that usually Republicans are much stricter with local autocrats and therefore if Romney had come to power the US would pay more attention to human rights in Central Asia.

There is also a view that neither of them would or will help the cause of ordinary people in Central Asia, that the US President will always act for the benefit of America first and foremost, and the interests of Americans have nothing in common with the interests of local people.

As you see, there is a variety of views on this single issue.

A Sufi parable comes to my mind.

A lover knocked at the door of his beloved.
"Who is it?" she replied.
The lover replied, "It is I."
"Go away. This house will not hold you and I."
The rejected lover retreated into the wilderness. For a long time he prayed and meditated on the beloved's words. Finally he returned and knocked at the door again.
"Who is it?" she said again.
The lover replied, "It is you."
Immediately, the door opened.

So until we learn to see the other, the darkness in front of us will be always frightening.

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