From the Oxus to the Amu Darya
Review: In Beyond the Oxus, BBC journalist Monica Whitlock takes readers on a historical and cultural trip across Central Asia. by Kambiz Arman 6 June 2003
A partner post from EurasiaNet
Beyond the Oxus: The Central Asians
, by Monica Whitlock. John Murray, London, 2002. 300 pages.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been few books published that open a window of understanding on Central Asia’s intricate history and culture. Beyond the Oxus
, a BBC journalist’s look at Central Asia’s past and present, is one such book--a competent explanation of the region’s complexities for a broad audience.
THE FLOW OF FATES AND FAMILIES
The author, Monica Whitlock, spent many years as a BBC regional correspondent in Central Asia. In her book, Whitlock provides a sweeping view of Central Asia, in particular Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, through rich and various historical lenses.
The book begins at "a small building of pale bricks," which "stands like a guard-house in a fiercely hot, dun-colored plain" on Uzbekistan’s southern frontier. This building is the shrine of Hakim at-Termezi, a ninth-century sage equally respected in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. By opening the book where Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan converge, Whitlock prepares the reader to attentively travel through the region with her long-lived protagonists.
The book draws readers in by focusing on the life stories of two different personalities: Muhammadjan Rustamov of Uzbekistan and Muhammadjan Shakuri (Shukurov) of Tajikistan. Their stories illustrate how the two countries’ fates and families flow into each other and into Afghanistan.
Rustamov, an Islamic scholar from Khokand, Uzbekistan, was the son of a farmer. He studied in madrassas in Afghanistan and India, suffered repression under former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and died in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Shakuri is a son of Sadre Zia, an ethnic Persian poet who headed the judiciary of the Emirate of Bukhara in the early 20th century. Shakuri left Bukhara for Dushanbe, the capital of the newly established Soviet Republic of Tajikistan, in the early 1930s, after his parents died in a Soviet prison in his hometown. He became a famous scholar and academician, and still lives in Dushanbe. By presenting these different families in detail, Whitlock evokes the variety of political and social views among the region’s intelligentsia during the late Tsarist and Soviet eras.
Whitlock’s book proceeds to deliver some unique historical insights. One of the more interesting concerns the story of the Turkestan Legion, which fought on Nazi Germany’s side during World War II. Red Army prisoners of Central Asian origin, fearing that their Nazi captors would kill them if they did not join their ranks, formed this legion, which has until now largely escaped historical inquiry. Whitlock introduces Norman Lewis, a British officer who later went on to fame as a travel writer. He had the task of escorting 3,000 Turkestan Legion prisoners, many of them Tajiks, by ship to the Persian Gulf port of Khorramshahr in Iran, where they were handed over to Soviet authorities.
Undoubtedly, this episode was hidden from citizens for years, and a majority of people in Central Asia remain unaware of it.
JUMPING ACROSS CENTURIES
The book is also full of stories about ordinary Afghans, Uzbeks, and Tajiks. It delves into people's memories and follows citizens from Uzbekistan as they emigrate to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
By interspersing large vistas with intimate chronicles, Whitlock’s narrative in a few places becomes complicated. She also makes some idiosyncratic choices. While she passes over the details of the removal of ethnic Tajiks from Uzbekistan, she then goes on to ruminate about this policy’s effects. Whitlock argues that territorial divisions in Soviet Central Asia "made a profound difference, not just to the map, but to one’s sense of self." This evokes how the words "Uzbek" or "Tajik" in Central Asia referred both to ethnicity and nationality, causing confusion among people unfamiliar with the strong influence that nationalist sentiment continues to exert in the region.
Along the Tajik-Afghan border. Photo by Konstantin Parshin
The book’s timeline is also difficult to follow in a few places. After beginning in the ninth century with Hakim at-Termezi, she goes further back to explain how "Islam drew Mawara-an-nahr (Central Asia triumphant) into a world with not only a shared God, but a shared alphabet and currency," only to then abruptly jump ahead several centuries. We return to Hakim at-Termezi’s shrine, now "the gateway into Tajikistan, a country that came into being for the first time when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991." Once Whitlock establishes that setting, she retreats to the 11th century to tell the life story of Naser Khosrow (a renowned Persian Tajik poet and scholar). This habit of leaping across centuries dominates the earlier parts of the book.
In addition, the book has a few small oversights. Whitlock reports, for example, that the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, now the country’s main opposition party, was founded on 6 October 1990. The book fails to mention, however, that the IRP began carrying out clandestine activities in 1975. Whitlock also unfortunately describes Safarali Kenjayev, a murdered opponent of Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov, as a "plain-speaking" politician. Most people in Tajikistan knew Kenjayev for his stammer.
Overall, Whitlock has done a service by bringing readers comfortably across the Oxus, the Greek term for what is more commonly known as the Amu Darya River. Her book should encourage the scholarly and the merely curious to get to know the region more closely.