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Hamid Ismailov: Manaschi

Manas is the great Kyrgyz literary epic, comparable to other great national epics, like the Mahabharata and the Kalevala, but longer than both. It has been primarily an oral epic and only recently published in full. Selections have been translated into other languages, including English.

A manaschi is the person who learns the text and recites it, like the troubadours of medieval Europe. Baisal is, or rather, had been a manaschi. He had given it up ten years previously, becoming a mullah and hunter. He dies at the beginning of the novel. Our hero, however, is Bekesh. Bekesh has a Kyrgyz father and foster-father but a Tajik mother. His mother had died when he was very young and his father remarried. He had been brought up by his grandmother and his uncle, Baisal.

Bekesh is working at a radio station when he learns of Baisal’s death. He gets a leave of absence and heads for Chekbel, the village of his birth and where Baisal lived. As mentioned, we learn that Baisal had given up reciting Manas and had become a full-time hunter and mullah. These two themes – the conflict between Islam and the traditional Kyrgyz culture as represented by Manas and why Baisal gave up reciting Manas will be key to this novel.

Bekesh is not well-off so he has to hitch a ride to Chekbel, which he does with a colourful lorry driver whom we shall meet again. He stays with Rabiga, Baisal’s widow, but finds that his nephew, Dapan, often stays there as he does not get on with his stepfather, Adolat. Bekesh soon finds that he does not get on with Adolat and the two will clash in this book.

One of Bekesh’s relationships is with Tumor. Tumor was Baisal’s eagle and he is ferocious and missing Baisal. We learn the story of how he was captured. Relationship to important animals is also a key theme of Kyrgyz culture and Bekesh’s relationship with his horse will also be important. Dapan and Bekesh get on very well. Bekesh asks him In town the Kyrgyz say you are either a follower of Manas or a Muslim, so say which side are you on?’ Dapan cleverly replies Our forefather Manas was a Muslim, he converted everyone he conquered to Islam. Our forefather Manas made the heroes Shavruk and Akhun Muslims!

Bekesh has managed to obtain tapes of interviews he did with Baisal at the radio station and the pair eagerly listen to them. Ismailov will now give us snippets from the Manas story. These snippets will come from various sources – from Baisal on the tapes, from both Dapan and Bekesh and from other characters. Interestingly we learn that both Dapan and Bekesh learned a lot of the Manas legends not from the men but from their mother (Dapan) and grandmother (Bekesh). Indeed, Baisal seemed somewhat reluctant to pass on the tales to either Dapan or Bekesh.

What is also interesting is that in telling the Manas tale, he makes comparisons either with Baisal’s own tale or with the current situation. For example, on the tapes, we learn how Baisal and other Kyrgyz were forcibly made to fight for the Soviet Union in World War II. Come on, for Stalin!” they said, and made us face tanks. We learn their grim tale but, at the same time we learn of Manas’ war against Neskara. There are several other examples of this juxtaposition.

The village of Chekbel happens to be on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Obviously this had not been a problem when Bekesh was growing up as it was all in the Soviet Union, but now there is an uneasy truce. Efforts are made to harmonise relations between the two communities but there are also efforts made to cause disruption, led by Adolat. Bekesh manages to stir things up and there is a fight between him and Ardolat and his friends, though peace is made.

Darpan is having lessons with a mullah on the other side (i.e. his stepfather’s side) and Bekesh visits the mullah, Shavvol. Shavvol criticises Manas – Your Manas is utterly heretical and erroneous, which does not improve relations between the two men.

Things are made more complicated when Tajikistan brings in the Chinese to build a road through the mountains. Some Tajiks are critical, saying it will benefit Kyrgyzstan, giving them a road through Tajikistan. Bekesh, Adolat and others try and befriend the Chinese with mixed results. Some of the Chinese have suffered at the hand of their government as, they were, in many cases, the illegal younger brother of an older sibling, at a time when the Chinese had the One Child policy. Bekesh is reminded that the Chinese were Manas’ worst enemy and that comparison is definitely made.

Things, however, get really messy when Bekesh organises a Bairam festival, aiming at bringing the two groups together. Not surprisingly, things get out of hand and then go from bad to worse. It was as if scenes from the Manas had come to life and the world of the dead had been recreated in Chekbel.

The military are called in and the border between the two countries is enforced. Bekesh is inevitably involved. He does try and escape and goes to meet another Manas reciter, Shapak, who lives a lonely life in the mountains with his elderly wife. We see from Shapak that here is more to being a Manas reciter than reciting Mans. He must also be a healer and, indeed, be able to see into people’s souls, which Shapak does with Bekesh. However, we also learn that a Manas reciter is often cursed.

The book starts off fairly slowly, with Baisal’s death and Bekesh’s journey to Chekbel. However, it gradually picks up steam, as things get out of hand, and we finish with a crescendo.

Ismailov is, of course an Uzbek. Uzbeks do get mentioned but definitely not in a positive light, at least as seen by the Kyrgyz. However, the Manas legend, though very much a Kyrgyz legend, has a resonance throughout Central Asia, not least because of its hostility towards their traditional enemies, the Chinese.

Once again, Ismailov gives us a wonderful story or, rather, several wonderful stories. We get not only snippets from the Manas legend, but also the current conflicts – Islamists against Manas lovers, Tajik vs Kygyrz, Central Asians against the Chinese. Several people give us their take on the Manas legend, quoting it and/or reciting from it in their own words. We also get various stories or what they call parables from various characters but in particular from Uncle Sattor. In short, once again, we see that Hamid Ismailov is a pre-eminent story-teller as well as a documenter of the history of his people.

Publishing history

First published in English in 2021 by Tilted Axis Press
Note that the book has not been published in the original Uzbek
Translated by Donald Rayfield