In 1992 Hamid Ismailov was forced to leave Uzbekistan as his writing was deemed too subversive for an increasingly totalitarian government, and found a home both in the UK and in the BBC’s World Service.
He has been the BBC’s Writer in Residence since 2010 and is the author of many novels, including The Railway, A Poet and Bin-Laden, and The Dead Lake; poetry collections and books of visual poetry.
An interview with Hamid
What does the word ‘exile’ mean to you?
In terms of my own destiny, I am not a classic case of an exilée. Though I was kicked out of my country but this country invited me, it was more like a football transfer – they found me in Germany and brought me here for a new role with the BBC Central Asian Service.
While in that sense I’m not the classic exilée at the same time I have a metaphysical relationship with the concept of exile. In one of my really early poems I wrote that I’ve gone astray and found myself in this world, this is the Islamic acceptance that all of us are gifts on this earth. In that sense even in my country I used to feel a guest rather than an owner.
The concept of home is shifting too, it’s not a given. If you take my case for example I was born in Kyrgyzstan but to an Uzbek family – it was part of the Ferghana Valley but then it was cut and given to Kyrgyzstan. Then I was brought up party in Uzbekistan, partly in Kazakhstan, partly in Russia – there were too many homes to remember.
I don’t take my relationship to exile too seriously or tragically, it’s just something that goes with me.
What do the literature and culture of Central Asia have to offer the UK?
I come from a part of the world that is not recognised but holds the greatest examples of narratives. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights was recited to the Samarkandi ruler. The stories are about Baghdad, Damascus and other places but the actual storytelling took place in Samarkand which is contemporary Uzbekistan.
Another thing that not many people know is that the longest epic, Manas, is from Central Asia. It has over two million lines. The Central Asian people have a very rich storytelling history and heritage and have created many storytelling techniques, some of them are absolutely brilliant when used in contemporary writing. It’s important to share this richness with the rest of the world.
Why does diversity within the arts matter?
I would like to answer this question the other way round.
Let’s take music as an example. You can play on the two-stringed Uzbek Sato, or you can create an ensemble – ultimately the best music is created by orchestras.
Or another example, literature. When I was very young I was in the Soviet hospital and next to me was an alcoholic and he used to read authors like Faulkner and Steinbeck when I was lying next to him.
I asked him why he didn’t read contemporary Soviet literature and he replied, “It’s all about Kolkhoz, Kolkhoz, Kolkhoz. (grain, grain, grain). Why should I read it?” That was a good lesson to me.
‘Everyone loves diversity and the unknown, even the known unknowns. It’s in the nature of humankind on the one hand to protect your identity to be proud of your roots and where you’re coming from but on the other hand to be interested in otherness and what happens beyond your senses, your island, your mountains.’
Uzbekistan came under Russian rule from 1920, and was a Republic of the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1991. After independence the same regime remained in power, and the hardships of transition led many to leave to Russia and the West.
Uzbekistan is a totalitarian state criticised for human rights abuses against those who challenge the government’s power, including members of religious organisations, political opponents and human rights activists. It consistently ranks among the lowest in the world for freedom of expression. In 2005 Uzbek troops fired into an unarmed crowd of protesters in Anjidan, killing hundreds. Their bodies were buried in unmarked graves.
There was a 71% increase in asylum applications from 1990 to 1991, due to an increase in applications from Zaire, Angola, Pakistan and Ghana. The pressure of these rising numbers and increased demand upon housing and welfare in areas of settlement led to the introduction of a more coordinated approach. The 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act therefore became the first piece of primary legislation in the UK to deal specifically with asylum. It was designed to increase decision making and deal with the backlog of asylum cases. It introduced finger-printing for asylum seekers, reduced rights to housing, denied entry to those who had travelled via a ‘safe third country’, and made it compulsory to apply for asylum on arrival.