by Agnès Kefeli, Arizona State University
As I traveled through the villages of the Saba and Kukmara regions of Tatarstan in 2008, I heard vague references to giants who had fashioned the landscape with the mud that stuck to their bast shoes. Someone said that giant bones had recently been discovered. At the time, I was so focused on my research project—the history of the mass conversions of Christian Tatars to Islam in the 19th century (the subject of my book Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia)—that I simply dismissed these stories, so far removed from my own interests. A few years later, when I returned to Kazan, the capital city of the Tatar republic, I even avoided the newly opened House of the Giant, where customers can, for the low, low price of 350 rubles, learn what it feels like to become a Lilliputian amidst oversized pans, chairs, tables, and dressers. But I’m so short, I already feel like a Lilliputian. Rather than suffer the indignities imposed by those commercialized giants, I ducked into the bookstores on Bauman Street. And there, by chance, I found In the Land of Giants (Alïplar ilendä), a novel published by the nationalist Favziia Bairamova in 2002. Bairamova is not only a political activist who founded Ittifak, a major Tatar nationalist party, but she is also a versatile and gifted author. She writes in a variety of genres, from juvenile literature to history to journalistic travelogues. Her book, as far as I could tell from its illustrations and a quick glance at the text, was a Young Adult novel. Yet Bairamova also writes about giants in her travelogues, where she calls on all her Tatar readers, young and old alike, to remember their giant ancestors. Puzzled, I wondered how mythical giants could be relevant to a former Soviet citizen whose worldview had supposedly been shaped by seventy years of Socialist Realism. Unexpectedly, these giants did have something to do with my favorite subject—becoming Muslim.
In the 1990s-2010s, gigantism occupied the imagination of many writers, not just Bairamova’s. Some Tatars claimed that the Turkic peoples were descendants of the giants of Atlantis who suffered the consequences of their pride in technology. The surgeon Ernst Muldashev, a former people’s deputy of the RSFSR of Tatar and Ukrainian descent, searched for Atlanteans in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, relying on clues hidden in folk tales and legends. The Tatar neo-pagan Firdus Fatkhelislam wrote his own tale of origins in which the gigantic sun-worshipping ancestors of Native Americans and Turkic peoples lost their pride (and subsequently their size) as they adopted the ways of their colonizers. And while the Chuvash, among them Fedor Siuin, celebrated their own gigantic knights’ struggle against the Tatar-Mongols, Tatar novelists such as Vakhit Imamov sang the exploits of their native Bolghar colossi against Khazars and Russians. Post-Soviet gigantism in Turkic literature symbolized renewed power, honor, patriotism, and national sovereignty, but it also expressed the anguish and economic disarray of the perestroika period. Even in late Soviet times, the Tatar poet Zul’fat bemoaned that Tatar giants had forgotten how to weave their bast shoes and so were left barefoot.
According to the American literary critic Mark McGurl, the early eighteenth century marked the time when giants were relegated to the world of fiction. Whereas in earlier centuries, giants populated the past either as alien monsters or dignified ancestors, they were now confined to children’s books. Science, not stories about giants, explained the landscape. As the poet and literary critic Susan Stewart concluded, gigantism has been domesticated, disenchanted, and secularized.
Bairamova’s gigantology, however, complicates the argument that there is an irreversible evolution from enchantment to disenchanted secularization. In fact, in her diaries, Bairamova tells us that the giants are creatures of history, that they are the descendants of Noah, and that they peopled and shaped the lands from the Urals, where Noah’s ark landed, to Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Siberia. Critical of professional Tatar historians for dismissing the historical significance of genealogies, Bairamova makes history by referring to folk stories, the Qur’an, hadith, Stories of the Prophets, and medieval travelers’ accounts. Her approach, modeled after the prerevolutionary encyclopedist Abdul Kaium Nasyri, reconciles science to the Qur’an. The nineteenth-century archeological discovery of huge bones in Kazan province gave credence to the Islamic tradition that the `Ād people, a tribe of giants, were destroyed by God when they failed to heed their Prophet Hud. Bairamova’s giants, however, were good. In fact, they came as warnings: if Tatars did not return to the five pillars of their faith, they would be wiped out. The giants’ mission was to renew their descendants’ knowledge of Islam, and save the environment, scarred by reckless monoculture and excessive oil drilling in Soviet times. In Bairamova’s Land of Giants, nature begins to heal only when the whole village starts praying five times a day and attending mosque on Fridays.
In her diaries and novel, Bairamova’s giants created a cartography that both questioned the legitimacy of the Soviet borders and served as a call for religious renewal and ecological healing. One could think that Bairamova’s gigantism was just a product of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which allowed Islam to express itself more freely. However, Bairamova was not an innovator. In fact, gigantism was one of the many aspects of Soviet eco-Islam—the idea that Islam is intimately connected with the natural world and the lived environment of the Tatar homeland. The most striking examples of eco-Islam can be found in the works of the Tatar novelists, Akhsan Baianov and Gumer Bashirov. Both writers in the 1970s mourned the impending loss of ethical values through giant eco-mythology. One of Baianov’s characters, Tabrik, a Russian-speaking Tatar approaches the village sacred spring near a sacred hill shaped by a local giant-saint and instinctively cleanses his face, arms, and head, thus following the prescribed order of Muslim ablutions. And Bashirov’s heroes defend the sanctity of a meadow and its sacred springs originally shaped by ancestral giants against oil drilling. There, villagers gather medicinal herbs, make wishes, and even pray. Bairamova’s gigantology expanded this early Soviet trend of eco-Islam: the only difference was that her giants clearly descended from the Prophet Noah, thus projecting Islamic power onto the land and its people.
As noted by the premodern specialist Walter Stephens, giants constitute an important metaphor in the discourse of modern religious authority. Literalists in both Islam and Christianity continue to affirm the historical existence of giants. Bairamova is no different. In the same way François Rabelais’ giants advocated a reforming evangelical Christianity at the time of the Renaissance, her giants call for a renewed reading of the Qur’an and for the routinization of Islamic practice. Her books are listed in newly created ecological curricula along with Baianov’s and Bashirov’s, as possible conduits of further Islamization of the Tatar youth in their native language. As French children in secular schools read Rabelais to absorb his critique of the established Catholic church, Tatar children may absorb her giants’ more literalist interpretation of Islamic tradition and (who knows?) transform their relationship to nature.
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