‘Sut, Kattiq, Kaimok!’ always mingled with the morning azan (‘call to prayer’) from the mosque one block over from my Soviet apartment in Qo’qon, Uzbekistan. As a provincial from Arizona, I had much to learn about the new world Peace Corps cast me into in the mid-1990s. In fact, before Peace Corps, my sole international travel involved highly questionable road trips in an old chevy through Hermosillo and Sinaloa to scuba dive in Mexico. Uzbekistan was something entirely new to a wayward son of the American West and the global community. Over thirty years, many clever theories have been bandied about regarding the former Soviet Union. Still, one thing was clear to me on a day-to-day basis in the mahallas (‘neighborhoods’) of Qo’qon. When the azan rang out throughout Qo’qon, a palpable euphoria pervaded among those who could openly express their faith in Islam for the first time in 74 years.
It also meant that I was bounding down the stairwell of my apartment to intercept the lady for my morning milk or yogurt and cream for hot non (‘bread’) on Fridays. Those early mornings meant entering my apartment with the inevitable rumblings of a Soviet-Era apartment building waking with rattling water pipes, whistling teapots, and the neighbors working out their plans for the day in Uzbek and Russian. People leaned a little outside their windows to smoke their first cigarettes of the day against the aching cold in the winter and the last moments of cool in the summer.
With ersatz coffee made and kasha (‘porridge’) boiled with milk and sugar, I would sit with my old radio purchased in Tashkent and attempt to pick up BBC news. Then, suitably fortified, I would make my way to Maktab 23 to teach English for the morning and then work the rest of the afternoon on program development with my fellow teachers. Those misguided projects were long teas, or cognac on Fridays, to help them with their spoken English. I took daily walks to the few blocks to Khudoyor Khon’s Orda (‘Palace’) or the Literary Museum that hosted the Marifat Maktab, one of the first independent schools in the Ferghana Valley. I sat long hours with the local intelligentsia attempting to learn all I could from them. For the rest of my life, I will always hold that they taught me more than I ever taught them. For the rest of my life, I will always miss the call-to-prayer measuring out my time on earth.
In retrospect, the 1990s showed me that we must not take Uzbekistan’s current reforms for granted. The tragic Civil Wars in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the war in Chechnya, ethnic conflict throughout the Soviet space, grinding economic hardship, all coupled with the euphoria of self-determination, brought great hope and fear to those around me. With talk of the greatness of Timur also came burning cars on the side of the road in Khujand and groups of men squaring off for material gain. Men and women who knew the price of sausage and could travel to the Black Sea once a year on vacation now saw their way of life come to an end. Suddenly Independence became their one hope of redemption—there was no way back.
My most significant moment in Qo’qon came during Hayit (‘end of Ramadan’) in 1995 when I performed namaz with what must have been thousands of men assembled at the congregational mosque (Masjid Jomi). The profound moment of praying alongside my host family among the sea of doppi (‘skullcaps’), the green and blue striped chopan of the city all saying as one omin, is in my heart forever. The Masjid did not survive the Karimov era. It was closed for ‘Wahhabist’ activity soon after my visit and is now a museum. In 2018 I went to the masjid swimming in a sea of memory and donated funds for its maintenance. I still have the bilboq—embroidered sash prepared by a man’s bride for their wedding—one of the Mullahs gave me for my attendance.
I learned from Qo’qon in the 1990s that I understood absolutely nothing about what I experienced over one year and nine months. Nothing from the “Tankie” world seeing the Ferghana Valley as a doomed region destined to implode into an orgy of ethnic violence rang true. I lived in Qo’qon 5 years after the ethnic cleansing of Meshketia Turks wracked the city in 1989. None of the high-minded commentaries seemed to capture the profound tragic accounts relayed to me by people who witnessed those events. For many of who barely survived or lost family members during the Soviet military’s response, the events of 1989 were no abstract, emotionally removed history. Graduate school helped with a framework of understanding. Indeed, academics like Devin DeWeese, Paolo Sartori, Bakhtiyor Babajanov gave me the underpinnings to analyze my experiences. Learning proper Uzbek beginning from the Orkhon inscriptions in Mongolia and making my way to a modern idiom certainly helped, as did Chaghatay, Persian, and Uyghur.
Throughout my subsequent journey of coming to grips with my experiences, Abdullah Qodiriy’s O’tkan Kunlar (‘Bygone Days’) brought me tremendous clarity. Published in 1926 to great acclaim, Soviet authorities soon censured the novel with redacted versions to follow. After 1938 the book was banned, and owning a copy made the owner politically vulnerable. Otkan Kunlar’s narrative begins in 1845, 20 years before Tsarist Russia’s conquest of Tashkent. One could say that the tragic love between the story’s star-crossed lovers, Otabek and Qumush, represented the sense of memory and loss felt by Central Asians as their ecumenical world became more homogenized through Soviet rule. I have often stated that Qodiriy depicts a not-so-distant past as a metaphor for his present circumstances and a stark warning for the future. We see in O’tkan Kunlar the beginning of the end for Khudoyor Khon and his Qo’qon Khanate through internecine fighting and ethnic conflict. The main hero Otabek seeks to reform a land he loves. Still, he inevitably dies at the hands of Tsarist forces in present-day Kazakhstan after losing his wife, Qumush. An exciting aspect of the novel is when the writer, Qodiriy, speaks directly to his readers, drawing them into his world imparting a sense of urgency to his audience. The universality of his messages resonates even with an Arizonan. The NKVD murdered Abdullah Qodiriy in 1938 during Stalin’s Great Terror. Ever since, Abdullah Qodiriy and his works have been seen as the origin story of the Uzbek people as we know them today.
My work has centered on bringing to light a beloved Uzbek author to global readerships and understanding the Uzbeks on their own terms. The second concern over the past twenty years has held profound implications for the populations of Central Asia. As a translator and site manager during Operation Enduring Freedom, I witnessed first-hand the vast gulf in understanding between ‘westerners’ and the populations they engaged. Since 9/11, the learning curve has been steep. I believe we were well intended. Any fool in Afghanistan or Washington DC could understand that we were not “getting it” on the language and culture front. So, Qodiriy’s concerns became my own while translating the novel:
What is the role of Islam in governance? What is the role of women in Islam? Should women go unveiled, or should that be left for them to decide? What about the education of women? Will we be viewed the same as the Russians, just as they were in 1845 and 1979? How do we not contribute to ethnic tensions through our activities in the region? Among many others that haunt me today.
I sat down to translate the novel between 2005 and 2007 in Afghanistan. Warfare could be characterized as long periods of boredom punctured with sudden moments of fear, rage, and hurt. For sure, my own experience of war informed my translation, but also those moments in Qo’qon when the azan would wake me from my dreams of the high desert near Flagstaff in Arizona. Likewise, my experience dealing with corrupt individuals in Uzbekistan during the 1990s and early 2000s shaped how I developed certain aspects of the novel’s villains. The impossible bravery of Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Afghans in the face of struggling governments and factional fighting formed the character demonstrated by Otabek, his father Yusufbek Hajji, and his companion Usta Alim.
Personal trauma also played a role in how I understood the meaning and purpose of O’tkan Kunlar. I owe my life to a bus full of Tajik refugees escaping a terrible Civil War in 1995. I was on my way to Termez as a Peace Corps volunteer when our bus broke down in the late afternoon. Over the next three hours travelers urged me to go with them for safety but because of language barriers I refused —better to stay with the bus until morning. Surely someone from Peace Corps will know that I am missing, I thought. That left me alone with six young men, deep into their bottles of vodka, and increasingly aware of my presence. What ensued was a fist fight and me running up a hill with my belongings. The refuges in the bus saved me as a snowy night descended on the road to Termez, as it was clear to them I was in peril. The driver’s assistant pulled me into the door well of the moving bus as it ascended the hill running parallel to me. He was a bear of a man in an old Soviet army coat, and I hugged him as the door slammed shut. The refugees greeted me with Allahu Akbar as the thugs chasing me faded from the advancing vehicle. I was brought tea and non while the passengers clapped me on the back. Allah is compassion, and it was written I would be saved by those who were themselves lucky to be alive.
For translation to have meaning, the work must have meaning to the translator. Otherwise, we should throw in the towel and use Google translate. Working with the Chaghatai, Persian, Arabic terms, O’tklan Kunlar created a journey, a memory of past feats of daring, impossible to derive from computer-generated language. Perhaps no other medium brings people closer than rendering foreign words, idiomatic phrases, and expressions into a form close to the reader’s heart. The translator should represent a bridge between cultures. There is no other calling more sacred than to show that, despite the distance of language, history, and culture, the essential heart we all share in the world beats for us all with the same rhythm of life.