Portrait Jodgor Obid

... And My Dreams Run Riot

Many writers from the former Soviet Union also got into trouble with the regimes that followed in its wake; among them, the Uzbek author Jodgor Obid, who has now found refuge in Austria. Uli Rothfuss tells Obid's story and reports on the situation facing writers in Uzbekistan

photo: Max Aufischer
Jodgor Obid

​​"Now I'm here, and my dreams run riot": lines by the Uzbek poet Jodgor Obid, who's now stranded in Austria after fleeing from the authoritarian regime of Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan is an oil-rich desert nation, located on the historic Great Silk Road. Around three quarters of the country's 24 million inhabitants are Uzbeks, descendants of the once-nomadic Turkic tribes of Central Asia. Most of them are Sunni Muslims.

The persecution of Uzbek writers

In 1991, Uzbekistan seceded from the Soviet Union and declared its independence. Since then, the country has been dominated politically by the People's Democratic Party, led by the authoritarian President Islam Karimov, former First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. If the regime's harsh treatment of writers is anything to go by, literary activity in Uzbekistan must possess an almost immeasurable explosive force.

Jodgor Obid is an Uzbek poet. Today, he lives in Austrian exile, in the parish of Götzis in the province of Vorarlberg. That he managed to escape Uzbekistan alive is due to a good instinct for dangerous situations, a portion of sheer luck and some very good friends. Jodgor Obid (*1940) worked on a collective farm, on building sites and at a steelworks before being allowed to study literature in Moscow in 1975. From the mid-Eighties onwards, he was no longer permitted to publish his poems through official channels in the Soviet Union, for they were regarded as too critical. In 1989, he joined the Uzbek civil rights movement, "Birlik", which was banned in 1993. The movement's leader was thrown in jail. At first, the regime tried to buy Obid by offering him a responsible government position; he refused, and was thereafter persecuted even more harshly. News of his predicament had spread abroad, however: in 1996, Human Rights Watch Helsinki awarded him their prize for the commitment to human rights evidenced in his works.

Obid's writing is strongly rooted in the Uzbek literary tradition, and he is seen as a writer who has regenerated that tradition. The literary critic Shahongir Muhamed from Tashkent wrote: "Obid is one of the few poets who have succeeded in freeing Uzbek literature from the historical burden of Communism, rejuvenating the Uzbek literary tradition and informing it with a new spirit. He has taken a dead literature that only existed on paper and made of it the literature of an entire people."

Harassment, imprisonment, flight

Although he has now been out of the country for years, Jodgor Obid is still a popular writer in Uzbekistan. Even small children on the street know many of his poems, which are recited at public meetings and printed on flyers. He was jailed twelve times in Uzbekistan; he was tortured because his writings criticised conditions in his native country; and eventually, he managed to escape, reaching Austria via Tiflis, Baku and Moscow. Yet he had to leave his family behind. Even today, he does not dare to phone his wife at her home number, and his writing still circles around the subject of his homeland: in a language packed with images, he finds extraordinary metaphors for his beloved Uzbekistan. His contempt for the country's rulers, including the President, is expressed in drastic images: thus he describes President Karimov as "the stray dog that became a dictator". Though Obid's persecution is now a thing of the past, it still remains present to him in exile, and his yearning for his home and family is palpable in every one of his poems and tales. "I believe poetry has accompanied me all my life", says Obid; and: "I always try to approach the essential nature of things as closely as possible."

The social function of literature

Throughout Central Asia, literature has a vitally important social function as an integral part of public life. This tradition dates back to the founder of classical Uzbek literature, Alisher Nawoi, a 15th-Century humanist thinker. His philosophical depth and the universality of his ideas made him a model for succeeding generations of authors. Nawoi was both a poet and a statesman; and he is a model for contemporary Uzbek writers because he saw poetry as a means of improving the world. His work retains its relevance even today; Nawoi's appeal to his compatriots to love their country and to work for its well-being continues to have a detectable influence on the writings of contemporary Uzbek authors.

Until 1924, the national language of Uzbekistan was Chaghatai. The recorded history of this language dates back to the 15th century. It was the written language of Central Asia, all the way from Persia to eastern Turkistan in what is now China. Chaghatai used Arabic script, while its grammar and vocabulary included numerous Persian elements. (Alisher Nawoi is regarded as the outstanding exponent of this "Old Uzbek" language.) At the beginning of the 20th century, efforts were made to reform Chaghatai, and to unite all the written languages of the Turkish world. As a result, a substantial degree of standardisation was undertaken and achieved. With the formation of the Soviet Union and the integration of many Turkic-speaking peoples into the Soviet empire, however, such endeavours came to an end.

Each Turkic language was now supposed to enjoy its own independent existence, and Uzbek was deemed to be the continuation of Chaghatai. Between 1928 and 1930, Arabic script was replaced by Latin script – which in 1940 was supplanted in its turn by Cyrillic. For this region, the older literature of the region is often now only accessible to specialists (although a great deal of folk literature is still transferred orally). Since Uzbekistan achieved independence in 1990, Uzbek is the official state language.

A generation of writers wiped out

The losses suffered by Uzbek literature under Stalinism can be felt even today. In the 1930s, almost every talented writer in Uzbekistan – alongside most intellectuals in other fields – was harassed and executed as an "enemy of the people". Before these waves of persecution began, Uzbekistan had produced a generation of writers whose works were rich and varied, integrating secular influences and dealing with significant issues of the time. This generation was almost completely wiped out; and the result was a period of stagnation in Uzbek literature, in which the surviving writers were forced to write according to the formulae of Socialist Realism. Only in the 1980s did a few Uzbek authors succeed in breaking out of this straitjacket. In the age of glasnost and perestroika, a group of writers – including Jodgor Obid – prepared the ground for the formation of the civil rights movement, "Birlik". Even in the early 80s, these authors produced works that criticised the regime in Moscow and attacked the various sicknesses of their own society.

The power of poetry

Poetry is popular in Uzbekistan; poems are recited at parties and on the street. When a writer reads aloud from his work, huge numbers of listeners appear. This power of poetry – to bring people together and to inspire their enthusiasm – is feared by those who rule the country.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, saving and renewing the Uzbek language has been an important component in the work of Uzbekistan's writers. In the Soviet period, Russian was the language of the educated and ruling classes – and Uzbek was threatened. Uzbek writers responded by refusing to adopt any Russian vocabulary, thus spearheading the cause of Uzbek as the country's official language. The irony is that some of these writers were being persecuted almost simultaneously by the Karimov regime; for they had dared to engage in open criticism of the old leader's new policies – just as they had done in the Soviet era.

Uli Rothfuss

© Uli Rothfuss/Qantara.de 2004

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