Literature of Exile: Hamid Ismailov and Exile as Folktale

“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.”

“I am a stranger at home, and I am nobody abroad.”

A common trope in folklore is that of The Wanderer, a mystical figure one meets on the road or within some shadowy by-way. She may offer wisdom or a curse, he may be enchanted or doomed, but The Wanderer exists forever on the margins of everyday existence.

Author Hamid Ismailov is himself a wanderer. Born in Krysgstan to Uzbek parents, he grew up in Tashkent, then Moscow, where his poetry was deemed “too decadent”; later after championing Uzbek literature and independence he was accused of being a troublemaker with “democratic tendencies” and was forced into a peripatetic existence, hiding in various houses across Moscow until he and his wife could escape to France, then eventually to Britain where he now lives.

A prolific poet, translator and novelist, Ismailov’s fiction is steeped in traditional mythology and fable, with characters who wander through space and time. In 2 novels, both released in English translation by Shelley Fairweather-Vega in 2019, Imailov explores the role of the wandering exile as mystic.

Three exiled wanderers cross paths in Of Strangers and Bees; Sheikov, a contemporary expatriate Uzbek writer; The Stranger, an itinerant mystic revealed to be the medieval scholar Avicenna; and Sina, who is…well, a honeybee exiled from his hive for philosophical pretensions. (“Life in exile! May it be cursed. Once you have become a stranger, a stranger you shall remain; you may endeavour to make friends, but the task is a difficult one, full end to end with uncertainty.”)

Though the reader will easily identify with Sheikov: penniless, disrespected and perpetually unappreciated as he struggles to preserve the Uzbek language, it is Avicenna’s wisdom and Sina’s calm acceptance which give the story its magic. Adhering to Sufi philosophy, the beleaguered Sheikov and the persistent Sina follow Avicenna’s example and learn to experience life through the eyes of the Other, losing their individual egos in an act of supreme empathy. Eternal wandering may be painful, but it is not pointless; for wanderers spread their sweetness across the world just as honeybees spread life giving pollen.

Avicenna

Sina, Sheikov and the Stranger spend their lives crossing borders, both geographic and linguistic. So does Gaia, an aged and embittered Uzbek emigre in 21st century England; her young caregiver Domrul, a Meskhetian Turk who fled ethnic purges in Uzbekistan; and his Irish girlfriend Emer who grew up in the Balkans. The scheming interplay between these three ill assorted wanderers forms the core of Gaia Queen of Ants , Ismailov’s novel of contemporary Europe in flux.

None of these three is exactly where he or she wishes to be. Domrul, who sees himself as a “modern Muslim” who, “repeats the holy names of Allah in the zikr as he jogs down the stairs to the tube”, can not quite reconcile his new Western lifestyle with values he grew up with. Emer struggles with her traumatic memories from growing up in war-torn Bosnia . And Gaia, once a powerful Soviet apparatchik, is preparing to “exile” herself from the world, with Domrul’s help. Told in the border crossing mixture of Turkish, Russian, Uzbek and English, the three characters communicate through an intricate series of parables, fables and re-worked versions of their past selves. The art of exile is the art of perpetual re-invention.

For more about Hamid Ismailov:

‘I’m a stranger at home and nobody abroad’: in Of Strangers and Bees, Hamid Ismailov captures the ache of emigration

Hamid Ismailov is still connected to ‘Uzbek culture’ despite exile from his homeland

Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.

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