LITERATURE OF CENTRAL ASIA

LITERATURE OF CENTRAL ASIA

Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks share the same literary tradition which generally included works in Persian and the Chaghatai Turkic of the Mongols. Many Central Asia ethnic groups have a tradition of epic verse, singer-storytellers and legends. Important writers include Abu Abdulrh Rudaki, a 19th century Samanid court poet regarded as the father of Persian literature; and Omar Khayyan, the composer of rubiayyat poetry; and the Soviet-era Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov (1928-2008).

Central Asian literature traditionally had no written form but was handed orally in the form of stories, verses and poems by bay traveling minstrels and bards. They often gathered in square sand performed for spare change like modern buskers. One of the great unifiers and definers of Kyrgyz cultures is the heroic epic “The Manas”. The Kazakhs and Uzbeks have similar national epics: the Kazakh "Alyp Er Tonga" and "Shu Batir," and Uzbek “Alpamysh”

The Soviet brought literacy but unfortunately the did encourage the encourage the writing down and publication of the epics out of concern that they would arouse nationalists feelings,

See Literatures of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Hamzanama

The “Hamzanama” a spectacular illustrated book commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). It has over 1,400 huge illustrations, many of which were displayed in an exhibition at the Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. in 2002. William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times: “The exhibition was of great literary importance, too. The “Hamzanama” was once the most popular oral epic of the Indo-Islamic world. “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is the “Iliad” and Odyssey” of medieval Persia, a rollicking, magic-filled heroic saga.” The story is largely set in the Iraqi cities that were the site of fierce fighting after the American invasion of Iraq in 2002. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008. Dalrymple’s latest book is “The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857.” *-*]

The “Hamzanama” is “said to be the longest single romance cycle in the world, The fullest printed version, the last volume of which was finally published in 1917, filled no fewer than 46 volumes, averaging a thousand pages each... Born as early as the ninth century, it grew through oral transmission to include material gathered from the wider culture-compost of the pre-Islamic Middle East. So popular was the story that it soon spread across the Muslim world, absorbing folk tales as it went; before long it was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Malay and even Indonesian languages.” *-*

“Even in translation, “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is a wonder and a revelation — a classic of epic literature in an interpretation so fluent that it is a pleasure to sit down and lose oneself in it. The story line itself is endlessly diverting and inventive, and the prose of the translation is beautifully rendered. Moreover, the book gives a unique insight into a lost Indo-Islamic courtly world. For although “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” was originally a Persian production set in the Middle East, the Urdu version shows how far the story was reimagined into an Indian context in the course of many years of subcontinental retelling.

Book: “The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction” by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (The Modern Library, 2008).

Hamzanama Storytellers

William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times:The “Hamzanama” “took particular hold in India, where it absorbed endless myths and legends and was regularly performed in public spaces in the great Mughal cities. At fairs and at festivals, on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi or in the Qissa Khawani Bazaar, the “street of the storytellers” in Peshawar, the professional storyteller, or dastango, would perform nightlong recitations from memory; some of these could go on for seven or eight hours with only a short break. The Mughal elite also had a great tradition of commissioning private recitations. The greatest Urdu love poet, Ghalib, was celebrated for his dastan parties, at which the Hamza epic would be expertly told. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008 *-*]

“Today, however, the Hamza epic is more or less extinct as a living oral tradition: while some children in Iran and Pakistan may still be familiar with episodes, the last of the great dastangos, Mir Baqar Ali, died in 1928, a few years before sound revolutionized the Indian film industry that itself had borrowed much of its style and many of its plots from the dastangos.” *-*

One blogger wrote: “I was first introduced” to the “Hamzamama” “via an Urdu version of these adventures written/translated for young adults by Maqbool Jahangir. It has 10 parts (~200 pages each) and it is written in a style that once you start reading it, its hard to put it down. Yes, it includes giants, jinns, fairies, sea voyages, romances, and battles - all linked to Amir Hamza and two of his trusted friends. In fact, I got into the habit of reading books through this series and my siblings (and now their kids) had the same experience. I absolutely loved this epic and I still have these books with me.[Source: irtiqa-blog.com, January 8, 2008]

Stories in the Hamzanama

Amir Hamza is an epic hero who had adventures likes those of King Arthur and the Round Table. In real life he was an uncle of Mohammed. He battles dragons and pagan enemies. William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times: ““The Adventures of Amir Hamza” collected a great miscellany of fireside yarns and shaggy-dog stories that over time had gathered around the travels of its protagonist, the historical uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Any factual backbone the story might once have had was through the centuries overtaken by innumerable subplots and a cast of dragons, giants, jinns, simurgh, sorcerers, princesses and, if not flying carpets, then at least flying urns, the preferred mode of travel for the tale’s magicians. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008 *-*]

“Across the Persian-speaking world, from Tabriz to Hyderabad, people gathered around the dastango as he told story after story of the chivalrous Hamza and the beautiful Chinese-Persian princess he longs for, of the wise and prophetic vizier Buzurjmehr and of the just emperor Naushervan. Then there were Hamza’s enemies: the ungrateful villain Bakhtak, whose life Hamza spares, only for Bakhtak to work unceasingly for the hero’s demise; and the cruel necromancer, giant and archfiend Zumurrud Shah. In its fullest form, the tale grew to contain an astounding number of stories, which would take several weeks of all-night storytelling to complete. *-*

“The narrative opens in Ctesiphon, not far from Baghdad, and encompasses places now in modern Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, most of which the West now sees largely as areas of violence and strife... Though the original Mesopotamian place names survive, the world depicted is not that of early Islamic Iraq, but of 18th-century late Mughal India, with its love of gardens, its obsession with poetic wordplay and its extreme refinement in food, dress and manners. Many of the characters have Hindi names; they make oaths like “as Ram is my witness”; and they ride on elephants with jeweled howdahs. To read “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is to come as close as is now possible to the world of the Mughal campfire — those night gatherings of soldiers, sufis, musicians and hangers-on that one sees illustrated in Mughal miniatures, a storyteller beginning his tale in a clearing of a forest as the embers of the blaze glow red and the eager faces crowd around. *-*

“The Hamza epic, with its mixed Hindu and Muslim idiom, its tales of love and seduction, its anti-clericalism (mullahs are a running joke throughout the book), its stories of powerful and resourceful women, and its mocking of male misogyny, is a reminder of an Islamic world the West seems to have forgotten: one that is imaginative and heterodox — and as far as can be from the puritanical Wahhabi Islam that the Saudis have succeeded in spreading throughout much of the modern Middle East.” *-*

Modern English Translation of the Hamzanama

In a review of a modern translation of the “Hamzanama,” William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times: “If the Sackler’s “Hamzanama” exhibition was the first time a Western audience had been exposed to the Hamza story, it also acted as a wake-up call to Urdu and Persian scholars. It quickly emerged that this epic had been almost forgotten. Barely a handful of scholars had engaged with it, no modern scholarly edition was in print in any language, and no complete English translation had ever been made. Yet the story had had huge influence, not least on Indian drama and cinema, as well as on the development of the Urdu and Persian novels, early versions of which were often derived from the dastans. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008 *-*]

“Hence the importance of this remarkable translation, which has just been published by the Modern Library. It is the feat of the Pakistani-Canadian scholar Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who has worked from an Urdu edition published in 1855 by Ghalib Lakhnavi and later revised by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871. Although a fraction of the size of the 46-volume edition, this unabridged translated version still weighs in at an impressively heavy 948 pages. *-*

Thousand and One Nights

The most famous book in Arabic literature is Arabian Nights, a collection of stories that may have descended from an old Persian book called Thousand and One Nights. No one knows where the stories originally came or when they were first told.

The stories from Thousand and One Nights remain popular today. The include classical tales of adventure, magic and wealth set among exotic Eastern settings with harems, bazaars and luxurious palaces. Many people are familiar with the famous stories of Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Babi through films and children stories without knowing anything about the originals.

The fairy tales of Thousand and One Nights are believed to be mostly of Persian origin. The moral fables are distinctly Arabian. The tales of animals and beasts are thought to have come from India. Others are probably of Chinese, Japanese and Egyptian origin.

In the A.D. 8th century, the stories of Thousand and One Nights fame were introduced to the court of Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad and one the greatest rulers during the Arab Golden Age. A great patron of the arts, Harun loved the stories and storytellers flattered him by making him a central character of many of the stories, often as a ruler traveling in disguises among his subjects.

No original or authoritative copy of Thousand and One Nights exists. Up until the Middle Ages the stories continued to be passed on orally, with different storytellers telling different stories, and did not take their present form until around 1400 when Egyptian scholars began writing the stories down. Arabic manuscripts that have survived from this period contain about 200 stories. The Middle Easter scholar Edward Said has accused European translations of the stories as being the source of many of the stereotypes and misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims.

No original or authoritative copy of Thousand and One Nights exists. Up until the Middle Ages the stories continued to be passed on orally, with different storytellers telling different stories, and did not take their present form until around 1400 when Egyptian scholars began writing the stories down. Arabic manuscripts that have survived from this period contain about 200 stories.

Sultan Shahriyar and Scheherazade

The heroine of Thousand and One Nights is Scheherazade, the daughter of a grand vizier, of a kingdom between Arabia and China. She is described as "learned, prudent and witty." The ruler of the kingdom is Sultan Shahriyar, who is deeply in love with his wife and feels deeply betrayed by her when he witnesses her having an affair with a slave. Deeply hurt the sultan decides to take revenge on all women by having a new young women brought to him each night only to have her executed the following morning. Fed up with the sultan's cruelty, Scheherazade hatches a plan. She tells her father to offer her and sister to the sultan. Against his own wishes the vizier acquiesces. Both sisters sleep with the sultan.

As the time for Scheherazade execution approaches, her sister asks her tell a story. Her plan is to tell a story until it reaches its most suspenseful point and then stop. To hear the end of the tale the sultan lets Scheherazade live another day so she can tell the end of the story. Scheherazade knows a lot of stories and she keeps this up 1001 nights. During that time she produced three sons for the sultan, who ultimately becomes convinced of her womanly virtue and ends his campaign against women and the couple lives happily ever after.

Famous stories in the West from Thousand and One Nights include Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin. The famous tale of a flying carpet began when three brothers—Prince Ali, Houssain and Ahmed—peered through an ivory tube and saw that the princess they loved was dying. To get to her as quickly possible they flew on a magic carpet

Lesser known stories include The Young King of the Black Isles, The Three Sisters, The Enchanted Horse and Prince Ahmen and Periebanou.

Hodja Nassreddin

Hodja Nassreddin is a sort of Muslim cross between Aesop and Mark Twain and the source of countless stories and fables with moralist messages. Almost every child in Central Asia and the Middle East learns Hodja stories the same way that children in the West learn fairy tales ascribed to the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Anderson.

Hodja Nassreddin was a 13th century sage, humorist, storyteller, mullah and a Sufi (Hodja is a title of respect given to someone who has completed the hajj to Mecca and is often used to describe revered teachers and judges). He was famous for his wisdom and the use of humor to draw the attention of listeners to his lectures.

The Hodja stories are humorous and have a moral message. The Hodja is a lovable character, who is never critical or negative, and has a penchant for practical jokes and getting into scrapes. In Turkey Hodja is known as Nasrettin Hoca. Every child learns about him in school and knows several stories about him. Often pictured with a tall turban sitting backwards on a donkey, he was born in Sivrihisar, Turkey in 1208 and died in Akşehir, a small town in Konya Province in central Turkey in 1284. Some say he was born in the city of Khoy in West Azerbaijan Province of Iran.

Hodja Stories

One Hodga story goes: The village boys like to play practical jokes on Nassreddin because he was such a good sport about it. One day they accompanied Nassreddin to a hammam (public bath) with eggs concealed under their clothes. After they arrived and had settled in, the boys said, “Let’s play a game. Anyone who can not lay an egg has to pay the bill for everyone. The boys then promptly set down their eggs in a roar of laughter. Without missing a beat, Nassreddin responded by crowing and flapping his arms like wings. “For all these hens there must be a rooster, “ he said, “And as the rooster, of course, In need not pay the bill.”

Another Hodja story goes: one day a villager borrowed a pot from the Hodja. When the Hodja returned it, the pot had a smaller pot inside. When the villager asked why, the Hodja told him the original pot had been pregnant and it gave birth to the smaller pot. The villager was perplexed but happy with his good fortune. A few weeks later the Hodja asked the villager if he could borrow a large pot. The villager agreed, expecting a similar result as the previous time. [Source: Lonely Planet]

A few weeks passed and the villager didn’t get his large pot back. When he asked why the Hodja told him that the pot died. The man said that was ridiculous, pot’s don’t die. “Ah,” the Hodja told him, “but you were quite happy to learn that a pot could become pregnant and give birth, so it’s only fitting that you accept the consequences of the large pot’s mortality.”

Koran, Poetry and Printing

In his book Introduction to Islam, Dr. M. Hamidullah writes: "Another art peculiar to Muslims is the recitation of the Koran. Not accompanied by instruments of music , and not being even in verse, the Koran has been an object for recitation purposes, since the time of the Prophet. The Arabic language lends to its prose a sweetness and melody hardly to be surpassed by rhythm verses of other languages. Those who have listened to the master singer, or Qari, reciting the Koran [or calling the faithful to prayer] know that these specialties of the Muslims have unequaled charms of their own."

The Koran was the first book ever written in Arabic. Because it was considered sacrilegious to use machines to make the Koran, the first printed copies of the sacred book we not made until almost 300 years after Gutenberg printed his first Bible. In the 18th century the Turkish sultans allowed books other than the Koran to be printed on presses, but even then calligraphers in Istanbul protested this action by parading with their reed pens and ink wells in a coffin. It wasn't until 1874 that sultans allowed the Koran to be printing on printing presses, and even then, only in Arabic.µ

Muslim Poetry

Partly because of its association with the Koran and god, poetry has traditionally been considered the highest Arab-Muslim cultural form. Most of the Arab world's most famous literary figures have been poets. They have often been regarded as men blessed or cursed with special talent denied ordinary men, in some cased from demons.

Muslim poets wrote love songs rich in betrayal and sensual imagery, usually accompanied by musical instruments. Even Muslims who are illiterate can appreciate poetry because they recite and hear the poetic verses of the Koran every day.

In the pre-Islamic era poets acted as storytellers, historians, judges, philosophers and counselors. With the arrival of Islam, the rich language of the Koran because an expression of poetry in itself. In the courts of Baghdad and Damascus, poets were held in the highest of regard. Many famous poets seemed to have had drinking and women problems.

Popular styles of poetry included: 1) the qasida, an ode that originated in pre-Islamic times with accented meters and with a single rhyme running throughout it; 2) the muwashshah, a style that emerged in the 10th century and had a pattern of rhymes that appeared in a series of lines repeated throughout the poem. Among the most popular subjects were the exaltation of God, praise or rulers, odes to nature and romantic love and mysticism.

Persian Poets

The Persian provinces produced some of Islam's greatest scholars and poets: Izami (died 1209), Hafez (died 1390), Saadi (died 1292) and the 10th century Samanid figures Avicenna and Omar Khayyan. Many of great "Persian" poets and literary figures were in fact Tajiks from Central Asia. Iranians love Sufi poets.

Omar-Khayyám (1048-1123) was a Persian mathematician who enjoyed drinking and writing fatalistic poetry. He is famous in the West for his Rubiayat, or quatrains, but he was best known in his time as a mathemitican and astronomer.

Omar-Khayyám wrote: “I sometimes think that never blows so red/ The Rosse as where some buried Caesar bled.” “Rubaiyat of Mar Khayyam” was a popular book in the Victorian era. Produced by an American expatriate Elihu Vedder, it was filled with images of skulls, owls and lizards set to Omar verse.

Al-Ghazali

Abu Hamid Mohammed al-Ghazali (d. 1111) is one of the great poets and thinkers in Muslim history. He made great contributions to Islamic theology, philosophy, literature, science and legal scholarship. In Baghdad in 1095 he suffered a nervous breakdown due to questions about his faith that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He went to Jerusalem and recovered by doing Sufi excercises and concluded that God could not be found in reason and rationality but was more likely to be discovered using the rituals of Sufi mystics who aimed to have a direct relationship with God. He returned to Iraq 10 years after his breakdown and wrote his masterpiece The Revival of Religious Sciences, which became the most quoted text after the Koran and the hadiths.

Al-Ghazali was sort of like of a Muslim equivalent of St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas: someone who wrote beautifully and was able to bring religion down to earth so that it could be understood by ordianry people. In addition to writing about deep philosophical issues he also wrote about music and what heaven is like.

In The Revival of Religious Sciences, al-Ghazali offered inights into prayer and knowledge of God and provided spiritual justification for Muslim rules on ordinary activities such as washing, eating and sleeping so that Muslims could feel they were doing something more than just following rules and that the only infallible teacher was Mohammed. Other Al-Ghazali works included The Deliverer of Error and The Incoherence of Incoherence.

On Disciplining The Soul Al-Ghazali wrote: “"If his aspiration is true, his ambition pure and his concentration good, so that his appetites do not pull at him, and he is not distracted by the hadith an-nafs (discourse of the soul meaning egotism of the soul) towards the attachments of the world, the gleams of the Truth will shine in his heart. At the outset, this will resemble a brief, inconstant shaft of lightening, which then returns, perhaps after a delay. If it returns, it may be fleeting or firm; and if it is firm (thabit), it may or may not endure for some time. States such as these may come upon each other in succession, or only one type may be present. In this regard, the stages of God's saints (awliya) are as innumerable as their outer attributes and qualities". (Translation by Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad).

Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi

Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi (1207-1273) was Persian born in what in now Tajikistan in Central Asia and settled what in what is now Konya Turkey when his family fled westward to get away from the Mongol hordes. The son of a Sufi master, he was trained in Muslim theology and Arabic and Persian literature.

Celaleddin Rumi (also spelled Jelaluddin Rumi) was a traditional religious teacher until he was 37, when he met a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, who changed his life. Recalling his first encounter with the man, Rumi wrote: “What I thought of before as God, I met today in a human being." Their partnership was short. Three years after they met Shams was murdered by one of Rumi's jealous followers.

Rumi was devastated by the loss of his teacher. He poured out his feelings of sorrow, longing and love in a steam of poems that he wrote at a rate of 15 a day for the next 29 years until his death. In one poem he wrote, "When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth but find it in the hearts of men." Rumi was known as a “drunken Sufi” because he found ecstacy in dancing, poetry and music.

Rumi's Poetry

Rumi's poetry can be passionate, spiritual and sexual. He often wrote about the masteries of human desire and the ecstacy of love. In Daring Enough to Finish he wrote: [Translated by Coleman Barks]
Face that lights my face, you spin
Intelligence into these particles
I am. Your wind shivers my tree
My mouth tasse sweet with your name
In it. You make me dance daring enough
To finish. No more timidity!
Let fruit fall and wind turn my roots up
In the air, done with patient waiting.

Rumi eschewed ritual and emphasized tolerance. In Spiritual Couplets, one of the most influential pieces of Islamic writing, he famously wrote:
Come! Come ! Whoever, whatever you may be, come!
Heathen, idolatrous or fire worshipper, come!
Even if you deny your oaths a hundred times, come!
Our door is the door of hope, come! Come as you are!

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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