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Hamid Ismailov: Hayy-ibn-Yakzan (Of Strangers and-Bees)

As translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega tells us in her introduction to this book, this is not the first book to be called Hayy-ibn-Yakzan. The first version was a story by Avicenna. We know Avicenna as a Persian philosopher and polymath, which, indeed, he was. However he was born near Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan, where he was better-known as Abu Ali ibn Sino/Sina. Avicenna features strongly in this novel and, indeed, we follow his wanderings. He wrote, among many other works, a story called Hayy-ibn-Yakzan, in the 12th century. This novel features various quotations from that work. You can read a translation of the original text from p 137, chapter 12 of this work.

In the 13th century, Ibn Tufail, a philosopher, born near Granada in Spain, also wrote a Hayy-ibn-Yakzan. You can read it in English translation here. He may or may not make an appearance in the book.

I am normally somewhat sceptical about titles being radically changed in English translations. Hayy-ibn-Yakzan means Alive, Son of Awake and clearly that is going to be fairly meaningless in English while the original title – Hayy-ibn-Yakzan – is not going to mean much to most English-speaking readers. The title chosen – Of Strangers and-Bees – works very well, not only because it is catchy but also because this book is, indeed, about strangers and bees.

The theme of exile and being a stranger in a foreign land is, of course, very common in literature, going back to the Bible and Homer. As we are dealing here with Muslim travellers, I would mention Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth century Moroccan whose travels are readily available in English including online and are well worth reading. He mentions the issue of loneliness and isolation we will find in this novel.

More recently, well-known writers such as Joyce and Olga Tokarczuk have covered the topic, Tokarczuk particularly in her novel Bieguni (Flights).

This is clearly a key theme of this book. We follow Avicenna who, you will be glad to know, for this book, at least, did not die in 1037, but continues to wander the Earth. We also follow a man who is known as Sheikhov (his friends called him the Sheikh)) and who seems to be something of an alter ego of Ismailov. He seems to have Ismailov’s manuscripts (which he tries to sell), quotes from Ismailov’s work, is a novelist and more than once calls Ismailov his friend.

Sheikhov could be said to be the hero of this work, as we follow his travels and travails, in the the last century, which means he has problems during war and the Soviet era.

Sheikhov is very keen on Avicenna and studies him, reads him and quotes him. Wherever he goes, he tries to find out more about him. It is he who seems to think that Avicenna is still alive. It seemed that even now they were holding him in prison under a code name, maybe Warsworth, maybe Huggins, maybe Vissens, in some outlying region of Provence, or failing that of Bavaria or Philadelphia. Perhaps he is being kept in Hangar 18. Part of Sheikhov’s journey is to track down the still living Avicenna.

During the Soviet era Sheikhov manages to wangle a trip to France, invited by some French writers. The stay of his colleague and himself in Paris, on very limited funds, is hilarious – this book is certainly far from always being serious – as they end up in a sex hotel and have a host of further adventures, starving and walking everywhere to save money. Indeed many of his adventures abroad are at times serious but at times funny.

On another trip to Paris, he goes to a Benedictine monastery (this one?) where he gets immersed in the life of the monks – the difference between Islam and Christianity is brought home here as well as elsewhere – and reads about the travels of Paul d’Assisi (who, as far as I can determine is fictitious) who, to escape the Inquisition, travelled in the East. However, the key texts seem to have key missing pages and he is unable to track these down.

However, many of his travels have problems, for example, with visas. Another hilarious episode involves him criss-crossing the Franco-German border because of visa issues.

Wherever he goes, he generally manages to track down some actual Uzbek or, failing that, another Muslim, who can help him and who can ease his feeling of being lost in a foreign culture. It is boundlessly difficult to be a stranger, he states and he struggles with this whenever he is abroad.

We also follow the travels of a man called The Stranger. He is clearly Avicenna or, at least Avicenna’s alter ego, as he lives in eras well past Avicenna’s historical death. He has his problems – he is nearly killed more than once – but also his special powers.

In some respects he and Sheikhov cross paths. Both spend time in Bamberg, in Bavaria, for example. We also meet Ibn Tufail in the book, albeit called Ibn Tufeil and a healer from Granada. Whether he is Ibn Tufail in another guise or just someone who happens to have a similar name, is left unclear. (Tufail simply means little child in Arabic.)

I have focussed on the strangers but the bees also play a key part, particularly one bee called Sina. Yes, his name seems to come from Ibn Sina, i.e. Avicenna’s real name. We follow his adventures from birth, which include protecting and assisting the hive, dealing with intruders and getting unwittingly involved in bee politics. It could have been mawkish or silly in the hands of a lesser writer but Ismailov not only shows what is clearly his own interest in and knowledge of bees but also links Sina’s activities to some degree to the main story.

As in any good book, it is not always clear exactly what is happening, at least on a first reading. However, what is clear is that this is a superb book. Separation, followed by return, was surely the essence of this world, he states and it is clear that exile, wandering and dealing with foreigners are key themes. Our wanderers try hard to connect with compatriots or fellow Muslims. They try to make a home in these foreign places. Sheikhov even maintains that Bamberg is his favourite city in the world. But they also show an interest in both other cultures and other faiths. Sheikhov struggles with both French and German but gets by in both.

In many cases, it is survival that is the name of the game. How to cope with visa issues, how to find at least some acceptance in a foreign country, how to find remunerative work and, failing that, how to survive financially, how to cope with the strange customs and procedures of foreigners, how to avoid conflict with the foreigners and their ways, all are key to this book.

However, it is also about learning. Both Sheikhov and The Stranger/Avicenna are interested in study. Sheikhov is always eager to find out more about Avicenna, while Avicenna is seeking the elusive philosopher’s stone.

It is Ismailov’s skill to keep us fascinated by the story or, rather, the stories, which are both deadly serious but, in some cases, very funny, as well as to educate us about his culture, his faith and the very real problems of exiles, particularly those coming from a culture that threatens them, their family and their well-being.

I would add that, while I am not even vaguely competent to judge on the accuracy of the translation, it is clear that translator Shelley Fairweather-Vega has been able to do something that is difficult for a translator, namely adjust the register of the translated text, from the serious philosophical discussions to Sheikhov’s humorous travels, from the bee story to the issue of how cope with exile, so that we are left very much with the impression that she has got the tone just right

I thought Ismailov’s Jinlar Bazmi (The Devil’s Dance) was a superb work but this is even better and I cannot recommend it too highly.

Publishing history

First published in 2001 by L’Harmattan
First published in English in 2019 by Tilted Axis Press
Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega