In the fall of 2011, I met my colleague Paolo Sartori at the Tashkent airport. A few days later we headed off on a field trip to visit various locations in Khorezm and Karakalpakstan, along the lower reaches of the Amu Darya and on the Aral Sea littoral. The visit had been prompted by our colleague and friend Dr. Komiljon Khudoybergenov, who had invited us to join him on one of his regular archaeographic expeditions to remote settlements in these regions. Dr. Khudoybergenov is a long-time employee of the Ichan-Qal‘a Museum in Khiva. He started his career there after serving in the Soviet Army (in Poland), working initially as a photographer, and later on as a tour guide and, eventually, as an academic secretary of the Museum. For many years he has also been tasked with the supervision of a manuscript collection at the Ichan-Qal‘a Museum, which contains a number of valuable textual artefacts, notably, records crafted by the chancellery of the Khanate of Khiva under Russian protection, legal deeds notarized by sharīʿa courts (including endowment deeds), items of correspondence between the Khanate of Khiva and the Russian colonial administration, to name just a few. His office is located in the historical center of the city, in one of the cells of a madrassa commissioned by the Khivan dynast Muhammad Rahim Khan II. In the cramped space of this cell, believed once to have served as the working quarters of a Khivan qadi, one finds oneself immersed in the heady world of the post-Soviet Uzbek museum curator, the local savant, and the archivist.
For nearly two decades, Dr. Khudoybergenov, or Kamil-agha, as everyone comes to call him, has been leading annual expeditions across the region in an attempt to chart a map of private collections of Arabic-script records and, if possible, to persuade their owners to sell such collections to the Museum. This isn’t a wholly new undertaking, to be sure. Similar such initiatives were commonplace in the Soviet era and when they were pursued, as they are now, to “replenish” (пополнить) repositories of archives and manuscript libraries. However, these projects have only just begun to reveal the documentary riches of the region, for the local population possesses vast numbers of such materials, cutting across all the generic gamut, and ranging in chronology from the early modern to the late Soviet period. Nor are these materials all to be found in what we would conventionally think of as libraries or collections. On occasion they have been found in old graves in cemeteries or immured within the walls of old mud huts, where they seem to have been hidden by their erstwhile owners during the years of the Great Terror and the fiercest periods of the Soviet anti-religious campaigns. We heard a lot of similar such stories from eyewitnesses during the course of our fieldwork. Dr. Khudoybergenov regards such expeditions as an important way of rescuing historical records from sinking into oblivion, and of preserving them for future generations. That is why every single piece of paper, whether purchased or received as a donation, is meticulously recorded in the inventory book and handed over to the Museum’s repository. It is in large part due to Dr. Khudoybergenov’s labor that the manuscript collection of the Ichan-Qal‘a Museum has grown significantly over recent years.
Back in 2011 Paolo and I were very keen to learn more about the transmission of Islamic knowledge during the Soviet period and more specifically about the consumption and circulation of certain key texts. When Kamil-agha invited us to join his expedition, therefore, we did not hesitate for a moment. Early in the morning of the appointed day we headed off on our journey. Kamil-agha drove us in his dark Niva. It was a long and bumpy ride, traversing the Amy Darya River back and forth en route, and at one river crossing we stopped to fortify ourselves with a meal of freshly fried river fish. In the afternoon we reached our first destination, a small village next to the town of Khoja-Eli in Karakalpakstan. The family lived in a typical cabin with a small yard. The host, a smiley man in his early forties, seems have been flattered when he learnt about the purpose of our visit, and readily laid out on a garden table a batch of records wrapped up in cotton fabric. It was the usual aggregate of textual genres, which we had encountered earlier in the region and elsewhere in Uzbekistan: a number of legal deeds, codices of conduct for craftspeople (risolas), amulets, a few texts on Islamic dogmatic (‘aqayid), a fatwa against evil spirits (jinns), letters from the war front, family pictures taken in the 1950s, etc. He explained that he had inherited those documents from their grandmother, who was an otin-oyi, that is, a female mullah, who read the Qur’an and even used to teach Chaghatay and Persian to the locals under the Soviets. Following her death, since no one in the family could make sense of the Arabic script, the records laid untouched, without any practical utility, but they continued to be revered as testimony to the family past. Despite such sentimental considerations, the host seemed to be positive about donating his collection for free to the Museum in Khiva. This was somewhat surprising. Frequently on that trip we came across a very different situation, when owners of such antiquities evidently regarded such items as little other than a potential source of income. That was not the case of this family though. To donate this collection to the Khivan Museum was in a sense a way to honor the memory of their ancestor. When asked if he would agree to sell the collection to the State Museum, the host gave a spirited response.
“There is no way that we would sell the collection, – he said, – but we know who you are, we often see you on TV, so it would be our pleasure to donate it for free”. Saying that the man handed over his private collection to Dr. Khudoybergenov.
After saying goodbye and leaving the house in a somewhat upbeat mood we headed off to our vehicle. Yet, even before we got into the Niva, our conversation led us in an unexpected direction:
“I am not sure that what you’re doing now is perhaps the most sensible way to go about dealing with these records”, Paolo protested. “Once evicted from their original environment, they will lose their meaning, their historical significance. If you want to put them into your Museum, well, go ahead, but you’ll make of these texts only dead letters. And by applying the Museum’s archival taxonomy, you’ll be dismantling the collection’s internal coherence. Nobody will ever be able to know what all these items represented here, for this family!”
“But this is the only way of rescuing these records,” – Kamil-agha said, seeking to justify the approach that he had been following throughout the entire course of his career. “If we don’t take them now, they’ll become lost in a few years anyway, as has been the case on multiple other occasions. The Museum’s repository is the most appropriate place for storing these texts.”
The atmosphere inside the car became ever tenser. At one point it seemed like the disagreement was turning into an argument. I felt I should intervene into the debate, but I wasn’t unsure what to say. My initial sympathies had been fully with Kamil-agha; I admired what he had been doing for years, investing his time, efforts, and resources into this initiative, frequently paying out of his own pocket, and sometimes encountering distinctly chilly responses from the people he visited. His project seemed, furthermore, an effective way of preserving historical artefacts in remote regions in Uzbekistan in a way in which the state wasn’t able to do. But were Paolo’s objections without merit? Certainly not, and thinking what he said struck me with the force of revelation. In 2011 I had not yet encountered Mal d’archive, but even in my uninformed state I could appreciate the sense of what Paolo was saying about the use and abuse of Soviet archival taxonomies. To this end, I could do nothing but to watch what looked like two approaches, two worldviews and two different ways of thinking that were clashing with each other in a sweltering car somewhere in the vicinity of Khoja-Eli. It felt like a genuine clash of civilizations – even though of course postmodern critiques suggest that cultures never actually clash –, where two systems of knowledge proved to be incommensurable.
Fortunately, the tension gradually dissipated, and we headed off further to yet another destination on that few-days long journey.
Time has passed since then. Neither Paolo nor Kamil-agha has ever mentioned that exchange again. And probably I would not have remembered the episode, were it not for the following incident. A few years later, circumstances once again brought me back to Khiva. After spending a few days there, I was about to catch a cab to take me to the airport, when I was approached by another fellow-traveler on that earlier trip whom I did not previously mention. Erkinboy is a friend and neighbor of Kamil-agha, and someone who is often described as “without specific occupation.” His presence on the 2011 expedition was barely noticeable, for he said a few words over the course of the whole trip, and I only had a vague memory of his presence. “I can’t help but recalling what your Italian colleague told us,” – started Erkinboy, faltering, – “… it makes a good deal of sense to me: what we usually perceive as being an unchallenged truth proves to be otherwise, or … hmm… , there truly might be many truths out there …”.
On the face of it, this might seem like a trite observation, yet I could not agree more. One of our besetting challenges both as academics and as global citizens is the fact that systems of knowledge are frequently incommensurable; and Erkinboy has evidently come to understand that maxim far earlier than the rest of us.