Of Strangers and Bees: Hamid Ismailov

Translated from Uzbek and Russian by Shelley Fairweather-Vega
Published by Tilted Axis Press

“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.”

One night, Uzbek writer Sheikov dreams that Avicenna—the great Persian-Uzbek thinker, physician, astronomer and writer of the first century, also known as Sheik-ar-Rais—was alive and being held somewhere in the West.

“The information felt so reliable that, as I slept on, I thought of how many centuries had flown by, and wondered how they had kept up the lie for so long. … how could this wanderer, a stranger everywhere he went, have survived unnoticed all these years? …

“It was then, in that dream or half-dream, that I understood clearly that from now on this secret would not only occupy a particular place in my own nomadic life, but would actually become that life’s central meaning, as well as, incidentally, the contents of this book.”

What follows is a narrative of three strands woven together. First, there Sheikov’s journey in the West. Then there are the travels of Avicenna, or the Stranger, as he moves through different centuries and countries. And finally, there is the story of Sina, a bee.

The prologue sets out these strands: Sheikov recounts his dream of Avicenna and of his decision to go to the West to find him. He also tells a story of how, when he was a child, a bee stung him in the eye. Bees are central to the book: Avicenna, like Hamid Ismailov himself, was fascinated by bees and wrote extensively on them. The other theme running through the book is exile.

Sheikov is an exiled writer, living in Europe. He travels to Paris initially to search for traces of Avicenna but then finds that he is not allowed to return to Uzbekistan. So he travels from country to country, penniless for the most part, making a living—if you can call it that—by working as a painter, translator and helping a director make a film about the Uzbek cyclist Djamolodine Abdoujaparov. In these chapters, you get the West seen through the eyes of someone from the East, a perspective from which Western culture is completely foreign and often incomprehensible.

This is emphasized by the fact that dates throughout the book are according to the Hijra calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar.

Interspersed with Sheikov’s account are the stories of the Stranger as he travels the world—and across centuries—to Japan, Mongolia, Baghdad and Florence. He is an observer—and sometimes a participant—during some key periods in world history. The way this section is written gives you a sense of 1001 Nights: the chapters read almost like fables with some magical realism sprinkled through them.

The final strand follows Sina the bee as he is born, grows up, becoming part of the hive and eventually fighting as a soldier in a war with another hive. Sina is eventually cast out from the hive, becoming like Sheikov and Avicenna, an exile. And like Ismailov himself, who was forced to flee Uzbekistan because of his “unacceptable democratic tendencies”.

In the Translator’s Introduction, Shelley Fairweather-Vega points out that all three—Sheikov, Avicenna and Sina—are searching for something bigger than themselves, and Avicenna’s presence as the Stranger “serves one of the main maxims of Sufism: the idea of annihilating the ego and experiencing one’s own life through the eyes of the Other”.

I have tried to describe a book that is really indescribable. It’s a mix of fable, travel and natural history, and even that does not do it justice. Fairweather-Vega’s translation captures the different tones as the narrative moves from one strand to another. All I can say is, read the book for yourself. It is not a quick read—and I mean that as a compliment—it is immersive and a delight.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK

One thought on “Of Strangers and Bees: Hamid Ismailov

  1. Pingback: The Best Books of 2022 – Talking About Books

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