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Abdulla Qadiri: Oʻtgan kunlar (Days Gone By)

This book is allegedly the first full-length Uzbek novel. Interestingly, it was initially only available in German (as Die Liebenden von Tashkent [The Lovers of Tashkent]) till it was published in English (but not in French) by a French publisher in 2018, though they also published a new edition in Uzbek but using the Latin alphabet (the original had used Cyrillic) as the younger generation was more familiar with the Latin alphabet than the Cyrillic one.

English-speaking readers, however, may have been familiar with it, as it features in Hamid Ismailov‘s Jinlar Bazmi (The Devil’s Dance), a novel about Qadiri (spelt Qodiriy in that book), which I can highly recommend.

The book is set in the middle of the nineteenth century. It opens in Margilan, a town noted for its commerce. The book is also set in Tashkent, which, at the time was part of the Khanate of Kokand.

Our hero is the twenty-four year old Atabek, son of a rich merchant called Yusufbek. (The ending bek is a word of Persian origin, meaning leader). At the beginning of the book he is in Margilan for the purposes of trade. With him is Khasanali, his slave, though Khasanali is like a father to Atabek.

The two men are invited to a friend of his father and, present at the gathering, is Hamid, a bitter and twisted man. For some reason, he takes against Atabek.

While out and about, Atabek sees Kumush, daughter of a friend of his father and she sees him. He learns who she she is but she does not know who he is. It is love at first sight for both of them.

Meanwhile back in Tashkent, the ruler is Azizbek, a cruel and vindictive man. Yusufbek is his advisor but not because of any love for the man but to try and make him see reason, a losing battle. There have been complaints made to the Khan of Kokand but to no avail. The Khan sends emissaries to Tashkent but Azizbek hangs them. In good populist leader fashion (yes, they had them then as well), he pretends to the people that he was acting in their interest and plays the race card, saying that he is defending their tribe – the Karachapans – against the Kipchaks – the enemy. Inevitably the Khan of Kokand sends troops to attack Tashkent and a siege ensues.

Meanwhile back in Margalin, Khasanali is scheming to bring Atabek and Kumush together. Mirzakarim Kutidor, her father, is keen but her mother is not, because she sees Atabek as an outsider. Kumush herself seems to be very reluctant though we do not know why. However, once they are engaged, things seem to go well.

Yusufbek writes to his son, damning Azizbek and advising him not to return for a while. Meanwhile, the evil Hamid has gone to the chief of police and concocted a story that Atabek and Mirzakarim are plotting against Margalin. The two are arrested and sentenced to be hanged.

The two manage to get a last minute reprieve while Azizbek is overthrown. However, Atabek’s troubles are far from over.

His next big problem continues to involve Hamid but also a new enemy – his mother. Uzbekayim has just the one son and, for a long time, she has been determined that she will find a bride for him and she will organise the wedding. She is overbearing, bullying and always wants her own way. She is also racist, damning her her daughter-in-law as a gypsy. Reluctantly Azabek and his father agree that he will take a second wife, a Tashkent woman selected by Uzbekayim. Not surprisingly, this does not go down well with Azabek, Kumush and her family. Hamid takes advantage of the situation to cause more trouble.

We continue to follow Azabek’s problem with his marriage to Kumush, his marriage to Zainab and Hamid’s continued machinations.

However, there is another more important issue – the political one. The Khan of Kokand, Musulman Kul, is not a nice man – cruel, vindictive and irrational. The situation gets even worse when it is decided that all Kipchaks are the enemy.

Qadiri tells an excellent story, involving a complicated love story and a complicated political situation. Most of the people seem to behave either badly or irrationally or both and few come of out of it well. For a first novel from a country, it is very well written and very complex. More importantly, after nearly a hundred years, it has been translated into English, albeit by a French publisher.

Publishing history

First published in 1922-25 in serial form; first published in complete form in 1926 by Muştum magazine
First English translation in 2018 by Nouveau Monde, Paris
Translated by Carol Ermakova