Reading Abdulla Qodiriy’s Otgan Kunlar takes a reader on a historical journey through the narrow, mid-nineteenth century streets of old Tashkent and Margilan. Readers will visit the homes and communities of Otabek and Kumush while witnessing a tale of love, respect, betrayal, coercion, resentment, enmity, hunger for power, and death. Readers will experience a chapter in the history of the region bringing its characters to life. The story will immerse readers in the customs and traditions of that time, but readers will be mistaken if they think that what they are reading is a hundred-year-old saga with nothing in common with modern Uzbekistan. Written in 1920’s Tashkent, the story was also seen as a criticism of the author’s current society. Central Asian traditions and customs with both their negative and positive traits maintained resilience over the past century by mutating into the 21st century Uzbekistan and the rest of region.
The main character of Otgan Kunlar Otabek and his nemesis Hamidboy (boy means rich in Uzbek and used as prefix in male names), later killed in the story at the hands of Otabek while attempting to abduct the love of Otabek’s life, are unquestionably two opposite characters. Otabek is a progressive, educated, and worldly young men; Hamidboy is a backward, scheming, and sexually rapacious middle-aged man. These two characters are worlds apart, yet both become engaged in polygamous marriages.
Hamidboy already has two wives at the time he meets Otabek. His rapaciousness leads him to commit crimes and attempt to abduct Kumush, Otabek’s only love, to make her his third wife. Otabek on the other hand, after marrying Kumush, little thinks about marrying another woman. Kumush is everything he always wanted: intelligent, beautiful, and loves Otabek as dearly as he loves her.
Otabek’s frequent trips from Tashkent, where he lives with his parents, to Margilan, where Kumush lives with her parents, irritates his parents, in particular his mother, Uzbek Oyim. His parents eventually pressure him to take a local girl, Zainab, as a second wife. Uzbek Oyim rationalizes that a local wife will be able to cool Otabek’s passion for Kumush or at least reduce the frequency of his trips to Margilan.
Uzbek Oyim comes across as a malevolent woman, but if asked she would explain without hesitation that in the context of the society in which she lived which, in fact, is still fully applicable to modern day Uzbekistan, she tried to do the best for her family. As any other mother, in particular an Uzbek mother (ironically her name literally translates as “Mother Uzbek” as if she embodies all Uzbek mothers of her time), she is unhappy about the loss of her son’s attention. Uzbek Oyim becomes increasingly irritated that no sooner does Otabek return from Kumush than he makes preparations to leave again. She finds it hard to reconcile the fact that there is another woman in her son’s life who is stealing her only child. As any Uzbek mother, she dreamt of going to respectable households as sovchi (a group of women who show up uninvited at the doors of marriageable girls to inquire about their backgrounds) to select the best future wife for Otabek, but more importantly the best daughter-in-law who would humbly serve her. As any Uzbek mother, she wishes to throw a lavish wedding ceremony, the tales of which would be remembered in all corners of Tashkent.
Otabek did not want to marry Zainab. It was against his progressive ideals as a new-generation intellectual. Polygamy for Otabek epitomized the backwardness of the ancient Kokand Khanate that Tashkent was still a part of at that time and one of the ills of the traditional world that needed to be opposed along with other practices. The imperviousness of his mother to his concerns convinced Otabek that his parents would not give up on the idea of marrying him to a local Tashkent girl, and he decides not to return to his parental house and, instead to stay at his in-laws’ with his love, Kumush, for the rest of his life. However, Kumush’s father convinces Otabek and his daughter that returning to Tashkent and acceding to the will of his parents by wedding a second wife is an upmost necessity. According to Kumush’s father, Otabek must make his parents rozi (do what his parents want him to do and receive a parental blessing).
Receiving such a blessing at that time, and in modern Uzbekistan, is a significant part of spirituality that Central Asians maintain. Not receiving this blessing would have consequences that would haunt the individual and bring about all sorts of misfortunes throughout his life. Operating under these beliefs, Otabek leaves Margilan and returns to Tashkent to marry the woman who becomes his second wife. (In modern Uzbekistan, being rozi (rendering blessing) has permeated laughably to all facets of life. For example, an official tormenting an individual to give a bribe asks a tormented to be rozi for the money that would be departing their pocket for his!!!)
When the Kokand Khanate became the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, Russians officially eradicated polygamy by outlawing the practice. The socialist rule was supposed to free women from the medieval practices of the society and give them equal rights. Polygamy is still illegal in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, but in Islam God’s law allows a man to have multiple wives as far as a man can financially support them equally.
Polygamy in Central Asia outlived the Soviet Socialistic rule and almost 100 years after Abdulla Qodiriy wrote O’tgan Kunlar, on June 15, 2017, President Shavkat Mirziyoev of Uzbekistan stood in front of more than a hundred mullahs (Islamic preachers at mosques) and spoke of (notice the parallel!) rescinding the practice, as the city of Tashkent ignominiously leading the trend, where mothers press their sons to take a second wife. President Mirziyoev threatened to send to jail the mullahs who administer religious ceremony for men taking second wives. Not only that, he invoked kundashlik (the practice of sharing one husband among two or more women) from O’tgan Kunlar that wreaked havoc on the families of Otabek, Kumush, and Zainab and that tragedy should dissuade modern families from repeating the same mistakes.
Polygamy was widely discussed recently in neighboring Kyrgyzstan as well when respectable former Mufti of Kyrgyzstan (the most senior religious leader) from 2010-2012 Chubak aji Jalilov announced taking a women as his second wife. The announcement came in his YouTube channel he uses to broadcast his sermons to more than 100,000 subscribers – a sizable number for a small country like Kyrgyzstan. He advised other men within the capital to follow his example. “My elder wife is resentful now, but things will settle down,” he said encouragingly. The announcement from the former Mufti might barely be equated to a frontal attack on secular laws incriminating polygamy given the backdrop of Kurmanbek Bakiev’s, Kyrgyzstan’s former president, open practice of polygamy and attempts of legalizing the practice during his reign.