Published in 1926 and considered the first full-length novel in the Uzbek language, Bygone Days (O’tkan Kunlar in the original) is also one of the country’s first examples of realist literature, which many view as a bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries. Set in Tashkent and Margilan 20 years before Tsarist Russia’s 1865 conquest of what is now the Republic of Uzbekistan, author Abdullah Qodiriy reaches into the region’s colonial past as a metaphor for the Uzbek SSR of his period — and a poignant warning to future generations not to surrender their heritage.
Qodiriy (1894-1938) frames his narrative in the classical Turco-Persian poetic tradition of the Beloved, the epic poems of star-crossed lovers characteristic of medieval Central Asian literature. The two lovers of this novel, Otabek and Kumush, struggle with both traditions and the countervailing forces of modernity, such as Russian influence. The protagonist, Otabek, a twenty-something merchant and the son of a notable Tashkent family, is symbolic of the author’s hope for political reform in Central Asia. Through him, we journey through the decaying Kokand Khanate led by a young Khudayar Khon, the last ruler of his line before the Russian invasion. All the while, Otabek pines for his bride, Kumush, who is Qodiriy’s ideal progressive woman: educated and opinionated. Unfortunately, the young man’s mother has her own idea of a partner for Otabek, forcing him to take a second wife according to tradition. The domestic conflict that follows as a result takes place against the backdrop of major historical events involving corruption, ethnic cleansing, and eventual conquest.
The knotty social issues depicted in Bygone Days still hold eerie parallels to those faced by progressive Uzbekistanis today, as they wrestle with the powerful role Islam once again plays in society, corruption, ethnic tensions, and the preservation of their identity in the face of globalisation. This tale of love among the chaos of 19th century Central Asia could be seen not only as the story of the origin of contemporary Uzbek people, but also, almost 100 years after the publication of Bygone Days, as a measuring stick for the reforms currently underway in the country.
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