Archives for January 2013

Romanticised criminals

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:28 UK time, Friday, 25 January 2013

The murder last week of "Grandpa Hassan" - the ultimate boss of the Russian criminal underworld - was in the headlines of the Russian press for three days. He was shot dead by a sniper while coming out of a restaurant in the very centre of Moscow and the courtyard where he was killed was widely shown from every possible angle.

That restaurant, according to experts, was his working office where he used to meet other criminals, sorting out different problems, planning new business schemes...

The courtyard where Grandpa Hassan operated

I spent years working behind the windows facing onto this courtyard

Here comes my turn. For three days I was nostalgically watching this courtyard, where I spent nearly 10 years of my life. It used to be the courtyard of the Union of Soviet Writers, where I represented Uzbek literature. The restaurant-cum-office of the criminal boss for all those years used to be the canteen I used every day.

So how did it happen that the most liberal, free-thinking and intellectual place in the whole of Moscow became the Casa Nostra, where murky dealings and contract killings were discussed?

To understand this metamorphosis we have to go right back into the thick of Soviet times. There are theories that the Stalinist regime, which sent millions and millions of the Soviet population to prisons and camps, itself organised the criminal hierarchy in order to run those imprisoned masses.

Later the genie got out of a bottle - those well-organised criminals replicated the structure of the Communist party and covered the entire Soviet Union. So-called "onlookers" were appointed to every Soviet republic, province, district. Just as the Communist Party had its regular congresses, so the criminal world had their "gatherings" every now and then.

In a country where the majority of the population lived double-lives (one in public, to tick all the boxes of communist ideology, and the other in private), it was perversely in the class of criminal outcasts that distorted rules of honour and integrity still meant something. For instance, they were quick to settle scores if you didn't keep your word or failed to repay a debt. "Grandpa Hassan" was one of the field marshals of that world, being the so-called "thief-in-law" - the highest rank in the criminal hierarchy.

That underworld came to the fore in all its might during Perestroika and the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Every thriving business was protected by criminal gangs at that time and it has been widely reported that many of the oligarchs had links with generals in the criminal underworld.

After the fall of the Communist Party only criminals were as well organised as their adversaries, the KGB.

Andrey Illarionov, a Russian expert who used to work as an advisor to the Russian President, recently wrote that after the break-up of the Soviet Union and during the big mess of the 90s, the alliance of those institutions - the KGB, the criminal underworld and the Nomenklatura (an equivalent of Civil Service) - came to power in Russia and still governs it to this day.

I have mentioned the pervasive code of honour and integrity which criminals maintained. Some parts of the Russian media - settling their own scores with the communist past of the country - made heroes out of those thugs, equating their disobedience to the Soviet authorities to a form of dissent. Publications in newspapers, glossy books, film and TV were produced to celebrate that world. The lives of gangsters were romanticised.

But the latest killing shows the way this criminal world operated, operates and will carry on operating.

These were the sad thoughts which occurred to me looking at the picture of the Moscow courtyard that was so dear to me...

A Man was Going Down the Road

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 11:27 UK time, Friday, 18 January 2013

Looking back at the festive season I realised that the best present I received was a book.

That book was written by my late friend, the great Georgian writer Otar Chiladze, and is called A Man was Going Down the Road. It is translated by Donald Rayfield - the ultimate connoisseur of Georgian and Russian literature.

This novel is the earliest by Otar Chiladze, written in 1972. I read it years and years ago when it was initially translated into Russian.

The novel A Man was Going Down the Road

As the blurb to the English translation says:

"...this novel is the key to his later work. It begins with the Greek legend of Jason and the golden fleece and the consequences for the obscure kingdom of Colchis after the Greek Jason comes and abducts Medea. But it is also an allegory of the treachery and destruction that ensued when Russia, and then the Soviets, annexed Georgia, as well as Chiladze's interpretation of life as a version of the ancient Anatolian story of Gilgamesh, and a study of Georgian life, domestic and political, in which women and children pay the price for the hero's quests, obsessions and doubts."

I still remember my utter joy when reading this book - as if my mouth was full of Georgian grapes and the taste of the famous Georgian wine, be it Kindzmarauli or Akhasheni, sending my head into a spin...

I had the same sensation - maybe even stronger - while reading the English translation of the book. But this time my dizziness came from the autumnal clarity of the language, from the transparency of the prose flow, from the typographic quality of the book. It is as if the Georgian wine of Otar Chiladze's novel has been matured even further in English barrels. Here's an excerpt from it.

"After the rain the world was shining, laughing in its primordial beauty, showing neither tiredness nor age, ready to begin everything again, to give birth, to create, to kill and destroy. Perhaps it was now, in this one minute, in the conjunction of muddy earth and baking sun, that so many different sorts of seeds sprouted, so many shoots, worms and insects broke through fibres, cocoons and eggs to emerge in the sunlight, where each had room to spread their limbs, to swim, to turn, because just as many were leaving the sunlight, dying, being washed up, rotting, and taking their place in the cycle of death and life, but in a new form, changed by the eternal transformation, coming back to earth after a myriad of years, transfigured when their turn came. But after a myriad of years their duty would be the same: to live and die, to die and live, and so on without end... Each creature must leave behind its likeness, and until it has created that likeness, it may not die, because death counts as rest for it. So on passing over into death, it can wait with its arms folded to be supplied with new vestments and new mask and to be called: 'Arise, your time has come!'"

When I studied biology at university in my youth one of our professors loved to repeat the formula: 'Every phenotype repeats its genotype', which in its simplicity means that species, especially in their embryonic development, go through the evolutionary stages of their biologic race. Sometimes I think that we live through the same process psychologically, i.e. repeating in our biographies to some extent the entire world history: the joyful Greek childhood, the Roman adolescence, the sombre Middle ages, the unexpected Renaissance, the wise Enlightenment, etc...

The last time I met Otar Chiladze it was in the centre of Tbilisi in 2006 at the flat of another great Georgian writer, his brother Tamaz. Otar told me then that he had written a new novel Godori - The Basket - which I promised to read, but never did. Otar Chiladze died in 2009 and ever since I have lived with the guilt of that unfulfilled promise.

Finally, I read it in parallel with the translation of his first novel.

Unlike A Man was Doing Down the Road, it's a bitter novel. In a nutshell it's about the intermarriage of Georgian NKVD killers and intellectuals. At the same time the novel's content is much wider - a discussion taking in the place of Georgia in history, its relationship with Russia ("it was digested by Russia 200 years ago to come out through its rectum"), Georgia's current situation in the world and its future... Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which tells the story of the Buendia family, Chiladze tells the story of the Kashelia family over the last 100 years, in which a son kills his father after he suspects him of sleeping with his wife.

The novel is written as series of streams of consciousness from different characters, but at the same time could be read as a series of confessionals. It gives a multidimensional view of modern Georgia with all its problems, labyrinths and cul-de-sacs.

"We beat our breasts - we are born warriors! Well, every nitty Georgian has a price on the black market - as a detergent, a condom or black pepper ... Add to that total theft, encouraged by the authorities and raised to the rank of the state policy ... " - one of the characters thinks.

Another one repeats: "Georgia has already outlived one life ... The world has changed and has been reshaped a thousand times, just to give us a chance to come once again into the world from the womb of the empire through her rectum; no one in this world will give us the room ... They would rather splash gasoline onto the linen, and set fire as to the bed of the plague ... ".

It's a bitter and honest novel which is relevant to all post-Soviet states searching for a new identity. I hope that one day Donald Rayfield, having brought to English readers Otar Chiladze's first book, will translate his last one too.

A national treasure in exile

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 11:49 UK time, Friday, 11 January 2013

This week was a sad one for me. A close friend of our family, the great Uzbek musician Abdurahim Hamidov passed away in the US at the age of 61.

Put simply, he was the best dutar player in the world. He played this piece, Qo'shtor, while was living in Uzbekistan. His skills, his passion, his greatness are there for all to see.

Abdurahim Hamidov

Abdurahim Hamidov made his simple instrument sound like an orchestra

You might be surprised to hear that the dutar has only two silk strings and yet the richness of the music which he plays on this long-necked lute is comparable in my mind to symphonies.

Qo'shtor means double string and it's not just the description of the dutar itself, but in Abdurahim Hamidov's interpretation it turns into two historic traditions of Uzbek music.

On the one hand - literally - it's sophisticated and subtle music that has come down from the courts of Samarkand, Kokand and Bukhara, and on the other hand - once again, literally - it's a nomadic tradition from the vast steppes of Central Asia.

Uzbeks lived at the crossroads of different civilizations and Abdurahim Hamidov shows in this majestic piece both wings of their culture.

My wife, Dr. Razia Sultanova, an ethnomusicologist and specialist on Central Asian music, introduced me to Abdurahim Hamidov's music some 20 years ago, when she was recording him for the CD published in Switzerland.

In one of the interviews she carried out with Abdurahim and one of his masters - the late Fattokhon Mamadaliev - they told a parable in which Socrates created a divine musical instrument which was later called the tanbur, a four-string lute. Plato was quite envious of his teacher and while meditating in the cave recreated the shape of that instrument, but because it was just a shadow of the original, it turned out to be a dutar. Thus, they said, the tanbur is a male instrument and the dutar is its female reflection.

But in the hands of Abdurahim Hamidov, the dutar superseded even the tanbur.

There is another parable that Abdurahim Hamidov and Fattokhon Mamadaliev loved to repeat.

Once a husband brought home two pounds of meat and said to his wife: "This evening we'll have a visitor so please fry this meat!"

While frying the meat the wife tasted one piece, then a second piece and then a third. She so loved the fried meat she finished it off. That evening, when her husband came home with his friend she pointed at the cat, saying that he had eaten the meat.

So the angry husband weighed the cat in front of her and seeing that he weighed two pounds exactly exclaimed: "If this is the meat, where's the cat?!"

The death of Abdurahim Hamidov was doubly sad for me because he died far away from his native country, in exile in the US.

I think that if life in Uzbekistan forced Abdurahim Hamidov - a national treasure - out of the country into exile, where he was doing all kinds of jobs unrelated to music and playing his beloved dutar just occasionally, something must be seriously wrong with Uzbekistan today.

Another prominent cultural figure of Uzbekistan, the poet and politician Muhammad Solih, who also lives in exile once wrote a poem, which I thought could be dedicated to the memory of the great Abdurahim Hamidov.

My feet are chained by the ice of December,
which thaws under the green pine-tree...
While I kneel in front of the white January
the New Year asks me: 'What are your wishes?'

I wish the following: tell your January
to keep still for a moment,
while I write this: tell your February
not to cheat on the spring.

Order to March not to turn snowdrops into dry foliage,
explain to May that we are not bad people,
tell December as soon as you can
not to take away my friends along with itself!

Facebook or chaykhana...

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 15:51 UK time, Friday, 4 January 2013


Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni 1965


Yesterday I read on Facebook the following fragment about Michelangelo Antonioni (the great Italian cinema director) and Tonino Guerra’s (his great script-writer) visit to Uzbekistan.
In brief it goes as follows:

“We were driving in the Fergana Valley on a road lined with poplars on both sides, along the endless cotton fields... At some point we noticed two old men on the road and they were of such beauty that I thought: God is not single, he has a twin brother.

I offered to stop and pick up the elderly men. We backed up and asked where they were going? ‘There, about ten kilometres’, – one of them replied.

The old men sat in our van. We started the conversation, asking: who they are, how many children do they have? It turned out that one of them had 65, the other 80 grandchildren; both of them were working on the farm of Lenin, etc.

 It was mostly curious Tonino Guerra, who asked the questions, the Uzbek host Ali Khamrayev was simultaneously translating. Funny enough, only one of old men answered the questions. The other kept silent. Tonino asked why only one man was answering. Ali did not even translate the question, but stated: ‘Because he is a senior. It is our tradition: only senior speaks, and younger must remain silent’.

- How old is the younger one?
Ali translated the question to the younger one, but the old man still kept silent. Senior one, looking at the younger, said:
- Ninety-eight.

Soon we arrived at the Lenin collective farm and stopped the car to say goodbye to both men.

It was a year when the first Polaroids had just appeared in our country. In Moscow, Bertolucci had given it to Antonioni as a present - ‘Take it with you; it’ll be your visual notebook’. With this camera Michelangelo approached the old men: ‘Can I take your picture as a memory?’ Ali translated it. The senior Uzbek nodded to him. Then again imperiously nodded towards the 98-year-old younger mate. They were standing on a beautiful road with the poplars in the background.

Michelangelo, directing the camera towards them, quickly explained: ‘You are going to see a miracle now!’ – Not a single muscle flinched on their old faces. – Now I click on the button – (he pressed the button) – and here we are… (the picture with the first dark spots came out of the Polaroid) – you see – green poplars, and here you are, both of you…’ - Antonioni handed the photo to the old men. The senior glanced at ‘the miracle’ and then showed it to the younger with no wonder at all.

Puzzled Antonioni took the picture back from the hands of the old man, looked at it as if he was carefully considering it, and then said, ‘Yes, it seems, it’s not quite in focus… Can I do it again?’ Ali translated, and the old man nodded.

Antonioni quickly ran back to the same spot, setting up the shot for a long time, then repeated the same process and the new picture to the old man with the words: ‘Yes, you were right. The previous one wasn’t focused enough. But here you are, this one is perfect in my opinion. This is for you... a souvenir in memory of our meeting’

The senior again looked at the miracle, then showed it to his minor without letting the picture out of his hands, and after a pause emphatically said something in Uzbek. Ali did not translate it. All looked at him waiting for the rendering. ‘Well, Ali, did he say something?’ Ali was silent. In an awkward pause Antonioni asked: ‘What did he say?’ At that moment the senior man gave the picture back to Ali and walked away towards the boundless cotton fields of the Lenin collective farm.
Alex finally translated what the old man said, ‘We don’t need it.’

And there we were: in the silence of the highway, in a remote Uzbek province, amid the magnificent Lombardy poplars stretching to infinity, the great film director Antonioni with a photograph in hand, next to the great screen writer Tonino Guerra, all standing still… Antonioni not believing what had happened broke the silence, turning to Guerra: ‘All our life, Tonino, we are fighting for great art, constantly coming up with something, and here you are - can you imagine? – they don’t need it?! We are in deep s…t!"

It’s a great story as it is, but it also made me think about the nature of social networks, including Facebook. The live dialogue is always if not hierarchical, at least asymmetric, like in the case of those two old Uzbeks, one of whom is ‘older’ than old. I remember not a joke but a real story told by our grannies: once they saw an 80-year-old man crying. ‘Why are you crying?’ – they asked. ‘My father rebuked me!’ – ‘What for?’ – ‘I forgot to say hello to my grandad…’

But in the case of the Facebook everyone is given the podium of that ‘grandad’, subduing all others just for the comments or likes.
Therefore like in the case of the senior Uzbek returning the picture back to the great Antonioni very often one might feel the same feeling towards Facebook : ‘Too much of you! Too much of you!’

Or is it my age speaking through me, installing itself onto that podium?
Maybe I have just missed one of those endless conversations in a chaykhana**?...

(**Chaykhana are teahouses. Central to Uzbek culture, these teahouses are a place for people to meet, socialise and discuss matters of the day whilst drinking tea. They serve the same cultural function as a British pub. Chaykhanas are usually only frequented by men, although women are allowed with an invitation.)

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