Archives for December 2012

Master and Margarita

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:01 UK time, Friday, 21 December 2012

In my youth I had a colleague in one of the Soviet institutions where I worked who was a typist. She helped me from time to time with typing my manuscripts. Once she had a

She was much older than me and used to study by correspondence at the philology department of the university.

Her problem was that she should have written an essay on Gogol and
Bulgakov but she hadn't read the books.

I promised to help her as that was the time when the entire country was reading Bulgakov's rediscovered 'Master and Margarita'. Not only was it promised but I masterfully delivered that inspirational essay.

I loved the theme; both writers were from Ukraine, with a wonderfully skewed view of Russian life and literature. Both extensively used fantasmagory and surrealism in their writings, though the difference was that Gogol had started his writing career with it, whereas Bulgakov came to those elements towards the end of his writing life.

There was another strikingly common moment - Gogol burnt the manuscript of his last novel, just as the Master of Bulgakov had.

But as Bulgakov said: 'manuscripts don't burn'. The last phrase was key for my essay and it played a surreal 'Gogolesque or Bulgakovesque' role in the life of my poor colleague.

One day she came to work in a desperate mood. 'What have you done to me?!' - she exclaimed repeatedly.

'What's the matter?' - I asked her, completely lost.

'Your essay won the first prize and now my tutor is requiring me to continue my research and write a PhD thesis!'

My poor simple colleague!

I recalled this embarrassing incident while watching 'Master and Margarita' at London's Barbican Centre, staged by the 'Complicite' theatre company.

Mikhail Bulgakov shot to fame in the 1930s because of his plays rather than his prose. So it's interesting to see the process of deconstruction of his novel into a play.

A famous Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin defined two schools of Russian prose: that of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevskiy. According to Bakhtin, the first school is a monologic one and the second is based on dialogue.

The school of Tolstoy looks at the world from the point of view of a single author-protagonist, whereas the school of Dostoevskiy grants the right of speech to the characters.

In that sense Bulgakov is a writer of the Dostoevskiy's school. Therefore even his novels, with 'Master and Margarita' in particular, are structured like dramas with several counter-points of views.

'Master and Margarita' is an especially complicated and multi-layered novel with several equally important stories within one narrative: the story of the Devil descending with his team onto Moscow is intertwined with the story of the Master's love to Margarita and the story of Jesus Christ (Ieshua Ga-Nozri) crucified by Pontius Pilate.

The play staged by Simon McBurney greatly exploits that interplay, adding the drama of different platforms to the drama of plots. Acting is intertwined with video, sound interplays with both of those, actors interact with audience, everything swirls like a Russian blizzard or the Moscow hectic after-revolutionary life.

In the interval after the first part (which had lasted nearly two hours) I was thinking - 'What a brilliant production!','But what is left for the second part apart from the Satan's ball?'

I proved to be right on both accounts; the second part was mostly about Devil's ball and the overly long ending. It's understandable: one had to bring every strand of the story to the culminating end: to set up the ball of Satan with the nude Margarita, to crucify Ieshua Ga-Nozri, to get the Master out of the mental house and unite him in the hereafter with Margarita.

Just to keep this serial ending going on, Satan all of a sudden turned out to be the Master - then the very same Satan unexpectedly transformed into Jesus Christ...

All in all it was a wonderful show which I recommended to all of my colleagues as a festive treat.

BBC World Service Thanksgiving service

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:51 UK time, Monday, 17 December 2012

My most memorable event recently was a service of Thanksgiving for 80 years of the BBC World Service which was held on the auspicious day Wednesday, 12/12/12 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, just to the side of Trafalgar Square in London.

One should mention that the international radio service of the BBC began on 19 December, 1932, and now broadcasts in dozens of languages including English.

The guest list of the service was impressive. The Most Reverend. and Right Honourable. Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, was present there along with Lord Patten of Barnes, the Chairman of the BBC Trust.

The service started by the congregation singing the Hymn 'All People that on Earth do Dwell'. Then representatives from some of the BBC's language services talked about what working for the BBC World Service meant to them.

Irena Taranyuk from the BBC Ukrainian said: "I grew up with the BBC World Service. It was my father's favourite station - he listened to it in Russian, accompanied by the hissing and cracking of Soviet jamming stations. I loved sharing those night-time listening sessions - it was our secret, not to be mentioned to anyone, as it was a punishable offence in the 1970s to listen to 'enemy voices'. When I joined the BBC Ukrainian Service my father cried... It was beyond his and my wildest dreams that his daughter would come to work for the same BBC World Service".

Priyath Liyanage from the BBC Sinhala told of people living thousands of miles away, who had lost everything, without food, without water, not knowing where their beloved ones are, were hiding under a burnt-out tree, hiding from the shells and crossfire - and connecting their transistor radio to a bicycle dynamo, waiting to hear the World Service through crackly short waves...

I was also touched by the story of my colleague Pooneh Ghoddoosi from BBC Persian, who said: "I ask myself every day why I work for the BBC World Service. My job has kept me from going back to my country, Iran, it puts my family there at risk; my parents have been interrogated and intimidated because of me. But every day I choose again to go to work, and I remain thankful for doing what we do, because I think the information we deliver can inspire and enlighten people".

My role was to read a famous parable from St Matthew's Gospel: "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It's no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

"You are the light of the world. A city build on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp hides it away, but places it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others..." -

These words made me to think about my colleagues at the World Service.

And as if echoing these words Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams closed his sermon with words: "The World Service has not lost its 'saltiness' - the strong taste of honesty and courage. We need it to flavour our national and international life and to freshen our vision. We lose its distinctiveness, compassion and imagination at our peril..."

Dr Rowan Williams (left) and Hamid Ismailov (right)

Mughal India

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 18:00 UK time, Monday, 10 December 2012

The exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire is currently running at the British Library in London. More than 200 manuscripts, objects and paintings are on display, covering the entire period of the Mughal Empire from 1526 until its eventual decline in 1858.

Though the empire, which covered most of the Asian subcontinent, is called the Mughal Empire, in fact the founder of it, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, was born in Andijan, modern Uzbekistan. Throughout his famous diary Baburnama (written in Chagatai - which is considered to be classical Uzbek) he referred to himself as a Turk.

However, since this great-grandson of Tamerlane the Great was also a descendant of Genghis Khan on his mother's side his empire came to be entered into the history books as the empire of Mughals or Moguls.

The British Library exhibition is mostly about the achievements of that empire: great change, including a centralised government, religious tolerance, new systems of education and a revival of artistic and cultural traditions most famously embodied in the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal, India

Shah Jahan wrote of the Taj Mahal "The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs / And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes."

But the history of the empire was marked with tragic events too. One of them was the rivalry between two of the sons of Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal. They were Dara Shukuh and Aurangzeb.

Dara Shukuh, a Sufi who had translated the Upanishads into Persian, was the elder son of the king, so should have inherited the throne. However, his younger brother, the orthodox Muslim Aurangzeb defeated him in battle, arrested him and executed him. He also imprisoned his own father - Shah Jahan, and his daughter Zeb-un-Nisa.

In my recent novel A Poet and Bin-Laden I tell the story of that fratricide. Here's a chapter showing the humiliation of Dara Shukuh after his defeat.

To this day Aurangzeb could still feel that gaze on him: passionate and suspicious, loving and wary, cruel and repentant, but never betraying itself with a single wrong word, let alone action. Dara Shukuh's story had come to an end and his star had finally set. The same Malik Jivan whom the prince had once saved from execution by trampling by an elephant had seized the prince and his family on a mountain track as they were on their way to Persia. This guileful Pashtu had written to Aurangzeb to say that in his grief after the loss of his beloved wife Nadira-Begim, Dara Shukuh had not even raised his sword. Only Sipehr Shukuh had fought to the end - but what could the prince do against this gang of bandits, Aurangzeb thought disdainfully.

Dara Shukuh and his son had now been brought to Delhi in chains and given into the charge of Nazar-bek. As God was his witness, Aurangzeb would have preferred his brother to flee to Persia, from where there was no return, but now he would have to a find a punishment for Dara Shikuh that would frighten his enemies and inspire his allies. This is what Aurangzeb would do: before gathering the Islamic judges and pronouncing sentence on this heretic and kafir, he would order Dara and Sipehr to be paraded through the whole of Delhi, facing backwards on a dirty elephant. From the Lahore gates through the two largest and most crowded bazaars Chovki Chandni and Saadulla, then past the fort to old Delhi and then finally this route of shame would end at the Hvaspur prison. But parading ahead along this route with his gang of bandits would be that jackal, Malik Jivan, on whom Aurangzeb would confer the title of Bahtiar-khan.

Aurangzeb knew perfectly well what kind of reception the people would give Bahtiar-khan, how the women would pour basins of slops and urine on him from the rooftops and the boys would pelt the gang with rotten eggs and fruit! And he would arrive at the palace for his audience in that state!

But Aurangzeb did not guess how, at the same time, the people in all the quarters of Delhi would sob and weep at the sight of the two princes dressed in rags and chained to the bare back of a she-elephant.

... Under the fierce summer sun Dara Shukuh shuddered on the back of that elephant as it ambled through streets in which he had known such incredible honour and glory. In the bitterness of his shame he did not even raise his eyes from his rusty shackles and only once looked round at the cry of a beggar who exclaimed: "Dara, when you were king, you always threw me a gold coin. Alas, today you have no alms to give me!" What could the prince throw to him do but a tearful glance or a heavy sigh? But he tore off a piece of gold-threaded brocade that was left on his sleeve by chance, and tossed it to the beggar ...

A howl ran round the market of Delhi ...

* * *

Dara Shukuh gazed though the ogeed loopholes of the Hvaspur Fort at the twilight advancing from the east and refused to admit that the dampness of his eyes was not caused by the evening breeze. His son, Sipehr Shukuh was cooking lentil soup in one corner, while his father, who had moved away to the opposite corner, was recalling his life, grain by grain. For some reason he saw a snowy road on which his mother, Mumtaz Mahal had scattered blood-red rose petals, and himself at the age of nine, hugging his six-year-old brother, who was trembling from the cold, and trying to warm the little boy's icy hands with his breath...

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