Literature in Central Asia
By H.B. Paksoy, D. Phil. 22 April 2003
It is difficult to imagine Central Asia without literature. Of the epic literature and poetry produced by numerous Central Asian ethnic groups, scholars are most familiar with Turkish and Persian literature and, to a certain extent, writings in Arabic and Urdu. Some of the oldest forms are odes to Tengri, the deity worshiped by the Mongols in their monotheistic belief systemNext came the chorchok (also known as sav, jir, dastan), oral histories, as well as didactic stories drawn from that genre.
Poetry writing was one of the earliest pastimes in Central Asia. Folk poets still perform poetry at teahouses, as they accompany themselves with a stringed musical instrument generally known as kobuz. Other performers often join in, contesting for top honors and monetary and other awards. This musicopoetic competition has always been an eagerly awaited entertainment feature at special occasions such as weddings and funerary feasts. Or a traveling minstrel may recite and act out an entire epic, such as the Manas (c. 995, the national epic of the Kyrgyz people, centering on a heroic figure called Manas), Iskandarnameh (The Book of Alexander the Great, by the Persian poet Nezami, c. 1141-1203), or Shahnameh (The Book of Kings, compiled by the Persian poet Firdawsi, c. 935-c. 1020).
Poetry Written by Rulers
To win the respect and allegiance of his subjects, a new ruler usually issued a collection of his poems in a specially prepared volume. This collection was duplicated by scribes and read aloud at teahouses. The ruler’s prestige was increased when people enjoyed such poetry on aesthetic grounds, an especially desirable achievement if the new ruler was establishing a dynasty to replace a previous one. Hikmet, by Shibani Khan of the Uzbeks, is an example of such poetry written in the early sixteenth century.
Mirrors for Princes
Manuals prepared to instruct future rulers and to improve the abilities of reigning kings, termed Mirrors for Princes, include such works as the Kutadgu Bilig (published in English as Wisdom of Royal Glory), the Kabusnameh, and Siyasatnameh (The Book of Government). The Kutadgu Bilig was written by Yusuf of Balasagun and dedicated to Tavgach Bugra Khan of the Karakhanid dynasty (999-1212), in 1170 The Kabusnameh was produced shortly afterward as a series of admonitions to the writer’s son and heir detailing how to extract the most from the earthly pleasures in his realm. The Siyasatnameh was presented by Nizam al-Mulk (1018/19-1092), the prime minister of Alp Arslan (c. 1030-1072), the Seljuk ruler, as his testament and as a defense of his own political actions.
Before the arrival of Islam in the tenth through thirteenth centuries, several dominant belief systems coexisted in Central Asia, including Tengri, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. Special literature was created or translated for the purpose of disseminating each newcomer religion, when it arrived. These missionary works were rendered into the Central Asian languages dominant at the time that the religion reached the region and, in some cases, were translated out of them for dissemination in other regions. For example, Buddhism made its way from India into China by way of the Uighurs, who translated sacred Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Uighur and then into Chinese. Christianity established a small foothold in western Central Asia with the Codex Cumanicus (c. 1300), a Latin guide to the language of the Cumans, a people of Central Asia.
In eastern Central Asia, the Ghaznavids (977-1187) and Karakhanids held sway as the Islamization of the region got underway. In the central area of Central Asia, the Seljuk or Oghuz Turks (1038-1157) and the Timurids (fifteenth-sixteenth centuries) were the dominant powers. The Mongol Golden Horde khanates (fourteenth-sixteenth centuries) held the northwestern region. Farther west were the Ottoman Turks (1453-1922), who were sometimes involved in Central Asian affairs. These polities and dynasties all directly or indirectly participated in the proliferation of Central Asian literary traditions.
Under these rulers, Islam popularized two new literary genres in Central Asian polities. The first dealt with the myths associated with the conversion of Central Asian populations to Islam, and the second was concerned with the struggle of Islam against the extant belief systems in Central Asia, in the form of tales of battles during the conversion process. The Persian poet Mawlana Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi (1207-1273) was one such figure making use of the genre. Rumi relied on his voluminous poetry to spread the word of his Sufi (Islamic mystic) sect.
Philosophy, Astronomy and Other Sciences, and Mathematics
The rulers of polities provided the patronage and favorable environment for the production of masterpieces, by which the rulers would be remembered for eternity. Therefore, regardless of the nature and objectives of the writing, Central Asians adhered to certain rules in their works. This is evident even in books not entirely devoted to belles lettres. Among them are the writings of the Turkish philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi (c. 878-c. 950) and the Arab historian Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari (c. 839-923). Their works were translated into Western languages and published from the sixteenth century on. Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), the grandson of the Turkic conqueror Timur (1336-1405) ruled Samarqand and the environs and was the author of astronomical and mathematical works that influenced European studies, when, beginning in the seventeenth century, they were translated into Latin and printed in Oxford, England.
Reportedly of Uighur descent, Mir Ali Shir Nava’i (1441-1501) was one of the premier literati and statesman of his time. He wrote voluminously and with apparent ease in Chagatay, a Turkic dialect, and in Persian and long served as prime minister of the Timurid ruler Huseyin Baykara (reigned 1469-1506) of Herat and Khorasan. Much of his tasteful poetry remains untranslated, but among his prose works, Muhakemat al-lughateyn (Consideration of Two Languages) has been translated into English. Babur (1483-1530), another direct descendant of Timur, established the Mughal empire in India. He was also an accomplished author in Chagatay; his memoirs are still highly praised and regarded. Jami (1414-492), a Persian poet and mystic, was Nava’i’s friend and fellow man of letters of the period in Herat.
The Czarist Period
l480’s Russian armies proceeded to invade Central Asia, the literature began to reflect the struggle between the invaders and the defenders. The Russian invasion attempts were not always successful. In 1506, Shibani Khan of the Uzbeks sent a quatrain to Muhammed Amin, the khan of Kazan, congratulating the latter for turning back the Russian attack on Kazan. Shortly afterward, dastans (chorchok, sav, jir) were pressed into service as well. The 1552 variant of the Chora Batir dastan described the fighting over Kazan. In 1905, Ismail Gaskprinski (or Gaspirali, 1851-1914), an influential Tatar journalist, wrote a poem to admonish his detractors: If my arrow would hit the target / If my horse should win the race / Chorabatir is valiant / If my arrow could not reach its target / And my horse cannot win the race / Tell me, what could Chorabatir do? (Paksoy 1986:TK)
The Basmachi and the Semi-Independence Period
During the nineteenth century, when the greatest portion of Central Asia fell under Russian armies, the response of the Central Asian leadership was to have medieval Central Asian literature collected and published. In 1916, the Basmachi (Turkistan National Liberation Movement) began fighting, at first spontaneously, later in a planned and coordinated manner, to construct a Turkistan polity. For a time, the movement was successful. According to Togan, a prime mover of the initiative, the dastan Koroglu not only kept morale high, but also served as a role-model, because the historical Koroglu had fought for freedom against all odds.
When Central Asian peoples could not openly circumvent Russian censorship, they resorted to writing highly coded satire. The journal Molla Nasreddin is a prime example. Named after a people’s philosopher who lived prior to the thirteenth century, it was founded by Jelil Memmedkuluzade (1866-1937) and published in Tbilisi, Tabriz, and Baku from 1906 to 1920. Exercising an enormous influence on its readership, it spawned dozens of emulators across continents. When Mikhail Gorbachev instituted perestroika, the Soviet policy of economic and governmental reform, in the mid-1980s, the journal was reprinted in Baku, as a reminder of what had gone before. Those who reprinted Molla Nasreddin had the same objective as its founder, Memmedkuluzade: autonomy and freedom.
The Soviet Period
When the 1917 Bolshevik revolution began, Central Asian people were endeavoring to commit their vast and ancient literature to print. After 1924, when Central Asia was divided among various Soviet Socialistic Republics, the Oriental Institutes, now Sovietized worked to regain control of the process. One method they used was to collect and record on paper the oral literature as if the materials were intended for publication, but then to bury the collected manuscripts in a myriad of inaccessible archives. Some manuscripts were supposedly lost, their reciters who had carried on the oral tradition murdered. When other methods failed, the Soviet bureaucracies charged with the management of Central Asian literature began mounting court trials of books during 1950-1952. At this time, traditional literatures of the countries of the USSR were banned After the accession of Nikita Khruschev (1894-1971) to Communist Party leadership, the publication process resumed, but with new methods. Rather than allowing the originals to be disseminated, the Oriental Institutes insisted on issuing approved versions. Also, purported dastans on such themes as Ode to the Tractor and Ode to the Collective Farm were issued to replace the traditional ones.
One solution used at this time to circumvent censorship was fiction literature. During the 1980s, Olmez Kayalar (Immortal Cliffs), by Mamadali Mahmudov; Kuyas ham Alav (Sun Is Also Fire), by Alishir Ibadinov; Singan Kilich (Broken Sword), by Tolongon Kasimbekov; Baku 1501, by Azize Caferzade; and Altin Orda (Golden Horde), by Ilyas Esenberlin exemplify this genre. Despite being fiction, all these novels contain, to various degrees, footnotes with historically accurate information and provide details of how Central Asia was invaded by Russian armies. The Soviet apparatus, spearheaded by the Oriental Institutes, tried to pressure these and other authors to rewrite portions of their novels to cast the Soviet Russians in a better light. Failing that, the Soviet bureaucrats endeavored to have the authors recant their written assertions. Despite the efforts of the Soviet bureaucracies, defiant works kept appearing.
A number of authors took advantage of the Soviet state’s atheism policy to disseminate views not otherwise printable. Aliser Ibadinov, in his Kuyas ham Alav, insisted on the necessity of remaining true to ancestral beliefs, which predated not only Soviet ideology but also Islam. This Ibadinov accomplished by portraying how Central Asians resisted the spread of Islam.
The Post-Soviet Period
Some Central Asian authors were sent to Soviet jails simply for writing. In some cases, world attention focusing on the plight of these writers managed to get them freed. One such case involves Mamadali Mahmudov. One of the reasons that the government was willing to free him was, perhaps, that Mahmudov was simply quoting passages from older works, such as the Dastan Dede Korkut (committed to paper in the sixteenth century although dating from a much earlier period). After the Uzbek Republic declared independence in the post-1991 era, Mahmudov was rewarded for his earlier work by being given the newly instituted Cholpan Prize. Named after a Central Asian author who perished in Stalin’s Soviet jails, the Cholpan Prize was meant to honor Mahmudov’s skill in transmitting historical documentation and narration under the guise of fiction. In 1999, Mahmudov was abducted and jailed once again. To what extent his new incarceration is due to his past sins of the Soviet period is yet to be understood. His case has been taken up by various groups and governments, including Amnesty International, Helsinki Watch, Human Rights Watch, and Digital Freedom Network.
Perhaps the ancient literature of Central Asia is continuing to serve the original intent of its creators. The following poem was printed in Muhbir (Tashkent, November 1982), the official organ of the Uzbek Communist Party Authors’ Union. The message is still valid:
Give me a chance, my rebellious dreams
My father has erected his statue in my memory
May years and winds be rendered powerless
May his legacy not be erased from my conscience
Give me a chance, my rebellious dreams
Grant my father a holy Dastan
May years and winds be rendered powerless
May his remembrance never be allowed to fade
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