Uzbek poet joins the Taliban in chance encounter
A Poet and Bin-Laden
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
In the years since the September 11 attacks, many authors have tried to examine the driving forces behind Islamic militancy. Hamid Ismailov takes a fresh approach in his "reality novel", reconstructing the biography of Belgi, an Uzbek poet turned Taliban soldier, to picture Muslim fundamentalism through the prism of his life.
Ismailov - who, after fleeing Uzbekistan in 1992, has been working for the BBC World Service covering Central Asia - is ideally placed to tell the story; indeed, as you read the book you realise that he may be the only person capable of doing so.
The question he ponders is, "How did it happen that … Belgi - a poet whose works were being read at that time in French, German and English in the clubs and studios of London, Paris and Berlin - [was] still fighting in a place where even the Taliban had decided it was better to disguise themselves or run?"
To answer this, the author has to piece together what little is known about his hero. The facts are scattered throughout the novel; lined up chronologically, they are as follows.
Living in Soviet-era Uzbekistan, Belgi works odd jobs, writes prose and poetry, takes in his orphaned younger brother, Sher, to bring him up.
After the collapse of the USSR, Uzbekistan is declared an independent state, the former communist leader becoming its first president. As the country descends into poverty and turmoil, the authorities launch an anti-Islam campaign.
In 1997, Sher is detained after performing a Sufi ritual, and a few days later the police release his body bearing marks of torture. Heartbroken, unable to believe that, as officials insist, his brother has killed himself, Belgi goes to see an investigator involved in Sher's case, and is threatened with arrest. His lines, "Out of the old chaotic disorder // to create a new disorder // this, perhaps is to live … " are taken as an incitement of public disorder.
Belgi is persuaded to go away to Tajikistan for a while, where he is hoping to meet a famous Sufi figure. He sets off for Pamir with two friends, but their journey is interrupted by a chance encounter; the three are taken to a camp in a foothills Tajik village, given different names and put through a brief military training course.
They soon learn that they are in a stronghold of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose members claim to be fighting against Uzbekistan's regime, planning to invade the country and free their Muslim brothers.
Although joining the militants never crossed their minds before, the friends stay on. The look of the organisation's enigmatic leader, Tahir Yuldash, "passionate and suspicious, loving and wary, cruel and repentant", remains vivid in Belgi's memory for a long time.
Soon Belgi finds himself waiting at the Tajik border in the small hours, "supposedly on his way to Afghanistan, but actually in search of his own death". After crossing, he defends Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz, is captured by anti-Taliban forces, but manages to escape from the Shebergan prison and carries on fighting for the cause he can't quite call his own, while US bombings go on. It is through Belgi's experience that we enter mujahideen circles and witness the atrocities of the war.
Since the facts alone are not enough to answer the central question about the protagonist, the author tries to guess Belgi's motivations by reading his poems, treating them as documents rather than poetry - an approach that proves more efficient than it may seem. A river changing its course, for instance, is interpreted as a symbol of "blasphemy masquerading as pseudo-tradition". The novel, with its references to Rumi and other great masters, is infused with poetry, most chapters prefaced with poems by Belgi, beautiful and incisive set pieces.
Poetic licence sometimes seeps into the pages dedicated to factual reports. When an excited bandit recounts an incident in which extremists hang the severed head of a local militiaman on his boss's gate, he describes the contents of the terrible parcel as "still warm" the next day. The author pleads inability to document real events, turning to others, including "the journalist Hamid Ismailov", for help.
The latter's reports are dry and informative; combined with numerous transcripts, interviews and witness accounts, they present another layer of the book, full of exclusive material unknown to most English readers. While the author himself admits his distaste for reporting ("I never used to think that I would become a journalist - a profession I had always rather looked down on"), his journalistic alter ego diligently covers various stories which feed into the main plot line, including the 1991 Moscow coup, the emergence of Uzbek Islamist fighters in 1995 and the trial of alleged terrorists charged with organising a series of explosions in Tashkent in 1999.
Passages preceded by "the journalist Hamid Ismailov recalls" are not the only examples of switching to the third person, which has a special meaning in the novel. There are several mentions of a manner typical for Namangan, an Uzbek town hailed as the new Islamabad, where people ask you questions as if talking of somebody else: "And where would they themselves be from?" As the story swerves from one narrator to another, manoeuvring between the first and the third person, it gradually dawns on you that Belgi might, in fact, be more closely related to the author than you are given to believe initially.
The novel portrays Central Asia in detail, one of its recurring motifs being the multi-ethnic nature of the region. To be able to get around it, you have to know not only the local traditions of its different areas, but also a great number of languages, something that comes naturally to its multilingual inhabitants. Dragomans often appear in the story, their roles not restricted to merely linguistic ones. An Uzbek interpreter helping to interrogate Belgi at Shebergan routinely beats him up at a CIA operative's prompt. Another interpreter, taken hostage by guerrillas, tries communicating with his captors: "I started talking about them and their families, and about literature, [but] their answer to that was that they had the one Allah, and they didn't want to know anything else." The world of jihad is truly without frontiers: the militants are described as a "multinational team, which, apart from the Uzbeks, included Kyrgyz and Uigurs, Chechens and Arabs".
The hero himself is a dragoman of sorts: besides military action, he is involved in writing down the stories of the victims of the Uzbek regime to make a documentary entitled The Groan. It is for the screening of this film that Belgi is summoned to a remote place to meet Osama bin Laden. After watching the documentary, the two exchange glances that give "the clear realisation, shot through with apprehension, that each had understood the other totally".
Ruminating on the path that befalls his hero, the author neither takes sides nor provides ready answers. What he does is analyse, at some point quoting Lenin to compare the development of Bolshevism with that of the Taliban: "their entire regime really was just like the infantile disorder of leftism in communism, only in relation to Islam, … all their religious aggression was only the result of a juvenile lack of self-confidence".
The words "genius and villainy are two things incompatible" constantly spring to mind as you read the book. Belgi, whose name translates as "sign", belongs nowhere; his fortune seems predetermined, so the only thing left for him to do is to let life take its own course.
A Poet and Bin-Laden is a timely attempt at penning the history of post-Soviet Uzbekistan, where the book has been banned, and at examining the roots of Islamism. It is also a hymn to human civilisation struggling to break through the barriers of violence and hatred.
Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.