“Life in exile! May it be cursed. Once you have become a stranger, a stranger you shall remain.”
Followers of BBC World Service may already be familiar with Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov, who was appointed their Writer-in-Residence for two years back in 2010. Born in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, the now 65-year-old was forced to flee Uzbekistan shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, for “unacceptable democratic tendencies.” The majority of Ismailov’s novels available in English are translated from Russian — The Railway, The Dead Lake, The Underground, and A Poet And Bin-Laden. The Devil’s Dance, published by Tilted Axis in 2018, was originally written in Uzbek and won the EBRD Literature Prize 2019 against other prominent writers from the New East, including Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk. Now living in London, Ismailov is about to see the release of the English translation of another Uzbek-language novel: Of Strangers and Bees: A Hayy Ibn Yaqzan Tale.
The book has an unusual choice of central characters: an Uzbek writer in exile, a medieval Persian polymath, and a young bee called Sina. Their stories do not nest neatly together, but connect through a Borgesian-like labyrinth; it is no wonder that honeybee combs and the rooms of Borges’ famous library both have six sides. One critic described Of Strangers and Bees as “Master and Margarita comes to the Uzbek Cultural Center of Queens.” That’s true, in part. But Ismailov’s work turns out to be gentler than Bulgakov’s showpiece and is by turns more mystical and more earthly.
No longer able to settle into the ego of his own culture, he is forced to perceive the world through the lens of others
Our protagonist, Sheikhov the writer, traces the fate of the real Persian scholar Avicenna, who he believes has spanned over centuries to the present day. Leaving the Soviet Union in the wake (and long-reaching shadow) of perestroika, his pursuit of Avicenna takes us through Tulip-Era Istanbul, Renaissance Italy, and contemporary France.
Like many of Ismailov’s works, this novel borrows stories and storytelling techniques from Sufism, a type of Islam that has long played a significant role in Central Asia. Throughout the novel, Avicenna makes his appearances as the elusive ‘Stranger’ at significant turning points in history. His nameless wandering fulfills one of the central maxims of Sufism, which aims to demolish the ego and experience life through the eyes of the Other — an ultimate form of empathy. This maxim draws comparisons to the exiled Sheikhov’s state, too. No longer able to settle into the ego of his own culture, he is forced to perceive the world through the lens of others, and is subject to the rules of their world. Finally, the bee proves to be the closest of them all to Sufi ideals, giving his whole life to the goal of the hive.
As translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega points out in her introduction, the Quran has an entire chapter titled “The Bee,” and Avicenna himself also wrote extensively about the small insect. Without careful attention, Sina the bee’s delicate, gorgeous fragments throughout the novel could be mistaken for the Sufi parables. The constant murmur of the hive and the bees’ commitment to rituals bring to mind a chamber of whirling Sufi dervishes. One could easily get lost in the beauty of these passages, before being brought back to earth by a pair of fuzzy joints: “Overwhelmed, Sina bowed down to the Teacher’s hairy knees and kissed and embraced them.”
Meanwhile, the writer Sheikhov lives hand to mouth in exile on a variety of odd jobs. His episodic adventures delve into topical themes of every kind, including absurd border crossings, slum landlords, book smuggling (Ismailov’s own books are banned in Uzbekistan), and the politics of language and ethnicity in post-Soviet states.
It is boundlessly difficult to be a stranger. Your usual ways of behaving bear no fruit
One amusing episode follows him to Lake Garda to translate for an Uzbek competitive cyclist who is about to complete the Tour de France. While the public’s interest in the cyclist is hinged on his nationality, the athlete speaks fluent Russian and only haltingly in his ‘native’ language — before each take, he quietly asks Sheikhov how to say what he wants.
The most poignant episodes are those that deal with the ache of emigration and exile. Ismailov is, of course, a writer in exile writing about a writer in exile, so many observations feel raw and true. Sheikhov the character sometimes appears to be a soldier sending dispatches from the frontline of the author’s own life:
“It is boundlessly difficult to be a stranger. Your usual ways of behaving bear no fruit: if your habits are not fit for purpose, you might as well be a wheel off its axle, alone over and over again.”
Ismailov is well aware of his infringement on his protagonist’s story and, side-stepping the autofiction label, artfully introduces himself into Ismailov’s everyday life: “I just happened to have in my hands a book put out in Paris by that same hard-working Hamid Ismailov you’ve heard so much about.” This humour shines through best in the storylines of the writer and the bee — the Stranger’s parable-like sections lack the warmth and generosity of the book’s more contemporary writing. More often than not, Ismailov’s humour is melancholic, self-effacing, or exposes some deeper wound or loss:
“I brought out a copy of Pravda for them as a gift from their native land (I’d grabbed it on the plane, thinking I’d use it to line my formal shoes if it was rainy in New York).”
There are many layers in the humour of emigration. Not only does he have to contend with the sometimes absurd and comical customs of foreigners, but he’s left feeling homesick for a place that no longer exists — the Soviet Union. In fact, in a previous interview, Ismailov quotes Karl Marx stating, “laughter allows us to leave the past behind.” This may not be true, but might make the past easier to digest.
I am a stranger at home, and I am nobody abroad
While the Stranger’s Sufi-inspired accounts occasionally pale in comparison to the other character’s narratives, their language is captured with clarity by Fairweather-Vega, who translated the book from both Russian and Uzbek. At first, these sections can feel uncomfortable, mired in some overwrought and weighty writing. But once the reader settles in, the phrasing and lilt suceeds in invoking a type of mysticism with many influences — not only Sufism, but the wider tradition of Islam in Central Asia with its long history of oral storytelling, and its reawakening after the fall of the Soviet Union. Any reader might find themselves with a pen and paper handy, ready to take down tokens of wisdom.
While Ismailov’s descriptive writing (and Fairweather-Vega’s brilliant translating) leaves nothing to be desired, the cities are described in particularly lush detail. Paris, Istanbul, and even Bamberg bring the beauty of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities to mind and add to the book’s rich, multilayered texture, while drawing links to other great traveling writers. The distinct narratives tied together by Ismailov’s unique writing style form a spellbinding mix of fact and fiction. It is as if he has infused history with poetry — and, as Sina the bee discovers, this is closer to the truth: “Memory is consciousness infused with honey.”
We find ourselves only when we lose ourselves in the Other
For all its depth and complexity, Of Strangers and Bees remains a page-turner, driven by Sheikhov’s captivating inner monologue. He is the immigrant’s everyman, humble and subject to the ways of strangers in strange lands, yet full of a writer’s acerbic and insightful reflection. He demonstrates an element of the exiled author’s psyche that many readers can relate to, however painfully: “I am a stranger at home, and I am nobody abroad.”
In this way, we cannot compartmentalise the book as a rare translation of Uzbek literature into English. Ismailov combines traditional oral Uzbek storytelling with contemporary fiction to create a modern parable about the search for truth. And isn’t that what all literature is about — transcending cultures, languages, and borders to see through another’s eyes and find common truths? Even Sheikhov finds that all searching for Avicenna leads him back to himself, and he realises that he “belonged to something more important than the small, idle details of everyday events in this inhospitable world. We find ourselves only when we lose ourselves in the Other.”
Of course, bees already know this, only in reverse: “Only later did Sina recognise that, without realising it, he had also been building himself.”