O’tkan Kunlar as Origin Story

As the English language title for O’tkan KunlarBygone Days—suggests, temporality was a central concern in Abdullah Qodiriy’s masterful novel of 19th century Central Asia in decline. One could say that by creating an allegory of the past, to depict his present, the author provides a glimpse of the future. And through that convoluted reasoning the reader comes full circle to what could be viewed as an Origin Story for Central Asia.

First and foremost, Abdullah Qodiriy’s worldview was that of a forward-thinking Muslim reformer. He wished to modernize what he saw as a corrupt and decaying Central Asian form of governance ill designed for the demands of the modern world. So, the nostalgia expressed in O’tkan Kunlar did not mean he completely mourned the loss of the old world.  He wished to alter to his own agenda a cultural landscape dear to him while still maintaining his essential identity. The author sought to use the past as a device to illustrate and to weigh the overwhelming sense of dislocation felt from the events of his day. Qodiriy’s 19th century Central Asia was not depicted as an Eden by the author. He held no illusions of an ideal, grandiose past. Indeed, the author’s most biting criticisms in the novel pointed toward the moral turpitude within his own society. The enemies on the horizon, e.g. the Russians, were seen as sort of a force of nature destined to meet the heroes Otabek and Usta Alim at Avliyo Ata with their demise. Yet, perhaps, for all of Qodiriy’s criticisms towards 19th century Central Asia, throughout his masterpiece the reader discerns the bitterness the author felt toward his failed venture.

What we have then in O’tkan Kunlar was an indictment of the political, economic, and cultural shifts that wracked early 20th century Turkistan through an allegory of the past. Qodiriy through the tropes of Memory and Loss forewarned his readers not just of the death of the ecumenical world that formed the Turco-Perso-Indo-Arab culture typical to the Central Asia of his youth. He foretold what the dissolution of his hopes and dreams for reform held for their own lives– we will have our world dictated to us, we will forever pine with the hope of self-rule.

As a reform minded individual, he hoped to preserve the basic elements and character of his society while grafting it to new forms of expression and governance. The 1924 Delimitation of Borders that brought the SSR to Central Asia put an end to that agenda as the cacophony of peoples became nationalized through a largely political process— one that Adeeb Khalid argues Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks had a hand in forming. One could say by looking back at his ‘Bygone Days’ Qodiriy mourned his present predicament and the foreboding the future holds for his worldview and the potential it promised.

As Adeeb Khalid demonstrated in Making Uzbekistan, the Jadid movement, in which Qodiriy played a role, saw the Revolution of 1917 as an opportunity to create an Uzbek nation state along modern lines. Those reformists engaged in a cultural entrepreneurship that meant the solidification of what it meant to be what Edward Allworth called a ‘Modern Uzbek’—just as other national movements around the world sought the same lofty goals. As Khalid shows, the objectives of the Jadids were eventually subsumed by the more cynical agendas of the Bolsheviks. We must caution against generalizations, but the new leadership of the Soviet Republics had no intention of allowing self-rule among Central Asians. Their intent was to placate local notables until they solidified power. The creation, then, of the Soviet Socialist Central Asian Republics, once a hope to assert the Jadids’ vision of a national identity, represented the most cataclysmic event of their lifetime. Instead of self-rule, a world was created along homogenized colonial lines.

Vast amounts of academic energy have been expended in outlining the process of ‘creating’ the national identities of the Former Soviet Central Asian Republics—the taxonomy of Us and Them. Missing from many of those worthy efforts has been a deep textual analysis of literary works from their source languages. Political, economic, administrative documents may give the reader the modus operandi of a moment in history, but literature divines from the author’s soul his raison d’etre. That spark of creation that moved the author now provides its readers with the blueprint of their beliefs and, hence, their culture. Perhaps ideas that were once immediate and ‘known’ over time fade into the edges of collective memory, residual emotions felt, yet intangible, abstract.

The next few posts will attempt to lay out the major tropes utilized in Abdullah Qodiriy’s O’tkan Kunlar to capture the essence of his people. My aim is to help put into context not just the historical and culture milieu of 19th and 20th century Turkistan– a society ‘lost and now found’—but provide continuity and context this piece of world literature provides for our own current period.

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