Perhaps no other literary work captures the soul of the Central Asian people than the magisterial work by the Jadid reformer Abdullah Qodiriy, O’tkan Kunlar. Largely accepted as the first novel in the Uzbek language, Qodiriy speaks to the heart of the Uzbek people through a classic tale in the Turko-Persian-Arab tradition, framed within a 19th century historical milieu. Written between 1920 and 1926, Qodiriy attempted to both preserve a cultural heritage under threat and shape an emerging social identity during a time of contending national narratives.
Initially the novel was published in serial form beginning in 1926 and met with critical acclaim. Tragically Abdullah Qodiriy fell victim to Stalin’s purges in 1938 with a heavily redacted version of the novel published in 1939. After a brief shelf life the novel was banned throughout the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death. Abdullah Qodiriy was the first Uzbek Jadid from his period to be rehabilitated in 1956 and in 1958 O’tgan Kunlar was republished with a print run of 80-90,000 copies. Anecdotally, the late Abdullaziz Muhammadkarimov as a young man was present during the release of the 1958 printing of the banned novel and stated that Uzbeks waited for days in lines at Tashkent bookstores hoping to purchase a copy of the book. The version currently under review is the reprint issued in 1996 after the Independence of Uzbekistan and represents the 1926 publication in its entirety.
The story’s narration revolves around two star-crossed lovers attempting to navigate the seismic historical changes wracking nineteenth century Khanate of Kokand. The author in effect deconstructs his own society’s collective memory of the internal conditions that led to Russian conquest through the travails of Otabek and Kumush. In turn the reformist delivers an invective to his own generation imploring them to act to save a heritage imperiled by Bolshevik social reform.
Qodiriy’s modernist Muslim agenda persists throughout the novel. Muslim modernists from the mid 19th to the early 20th century drew largely upon the Ottoman Empire, the nations of Europe and the Russian Empire as models for modernization– yet insisting that their imagined polity remain within a Muslim framework of their own creation. The character of Otabek clearly represents Qodiriy’s own world-view. Our hero witnesses internecine fighting and corruption within the Kokand Khanate, the local population’s obsession with superstition and their complete lack of understanding of the basic tenets of Islam, and the tragic consequences of what Otabek deems social conventions in need of reform.
Qodiriy through his renowned wit and sarcasm captures the zeitgeist of mid-nineteenth century Turkistani society. Venal leadership wracked with corruption, inter-ethnic infighting between sedentary and nomadic peoples, social practices from the simple man on the street to the court of Khudayar Khan all provide the backdrop to a tragic love story symbolic of Central Asia’s own loss of purity. Effectively delivering to his readership an inward-looking instructive outlining the historical, cultural and spiritual reasons for Turkistan’s inevitable loss of sovereignty to the Russian conquest of Central Asia.
The novel has great value as a cultural artifact for those interested in learning about a little known area of the world. Many westerners are only exposed to the economic and political aspects of Uzbekistan with little attention paid to the history, the culture, the language and the literature of a region that enjoys a vast ecumenical heritage breathtaking in its scope. The publication of O’tkan Kunlar allows for the entrance of Uzbek letters into the canon of world literature and informs western societies of a deeper understanding of a people who have contributed great advances to humankind— as Qodiriy hoped for in his own audience.