Director’s Death Fuels Cultural Despair
Mark Weil’s passing will have a long-lasting impact on Uzbek cultural life, say members of Tashkent’s embattled intelligentsia. by EurasiaNet 13 September 2007
While the motive and precise circumstances surrounding the murder of prominent theater director Mark Weil remain murky, his death has had an immediate impact on freedom of expression in Uzbekistan.
Weil died on 7 September after being stabbed in the stomach and hit on the head with a blunt object by an unknown assailant in the entry hall of his Tashkent apartment building. Witnesses reported seeing two men flee the scene immediately after Weil began calling for help as he bled profusely. Robbery appeared to be ruled out as a motive, as the suspects did not take any money or valuables from Weil, according to published reports. Uzbek police, citing an ongoing investigation, have declined to comment on the incident.
As the head of the independent Ilkhom Theater in Tashkent, Weil, who was 55, enjoyed a reputation for staging provocative productions that subtly challenged both existing political practices and social customs. Accordingly, those who knew him tend to suspect that his death was somehow politically related. However, some reports have attributed the death to a random act of violence perpetrated by drug addicts.
Whatever the case, Weil’s passing will have a long-lasting impact on Uzbek cultural life, according to members of Tashkent’s embattled intelligentsia. “Mark Weil was not just a theater director,” said one Tashkent artist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He was a pillar of Western culture in Uzbekistan, one of the key columns supporting it. His death – be it at the hands of special service murderers, religious radicals or mere robbers – has political ramifications because Weil’s death caused irreparable damage to the enclave of Western culture and values in our country.”
The artist’s response is indicative of a general and pervasive despair that has set in among intellectuals in Uzbekistan. Artists, actors and writers have had to contend with tightening restrictions on freedom of expression, as President Islam Karimov’s administration battles to keep a lid on social and economic discontent inside the country. The main manifestation of that discontent has been the growth of Islamic radicalism in Uzbekistan.
The artist said that Weil’s death was the “last straw” for him, adding that he would now seek to emigrate to Russia, specifically Moscow.
For many Western-oriented Uzbeks in Tashkent, Weil’s murder poses an immediate question: Can the Ilkhom Theater survive without Weil? And if not, where will those with Westernized outlooks be able to intellectually nourish themselves?
“The very existence of the Ilkhom Theater … in a country like Uzbekistan was absurd,” said one Tashkent professional and theater aficionado. “This independent, courageous and honest person lived and worked in a state that cracks down on the slightest expressions of freethinking. He openly spoke about things that others were terrified to even think of.
“The Ilkhom Theater became the only place where people could enjoy at least a couple of hours of freedom,” the professional continued. “Until recently, Uzbekistan had two amazing things: the magnificent ancient edifices of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva … and the Ilkhom Theater.”
Weil launched the Ilkhom Theater in 1976, and it quickly gained acclaim for artistic independence in the Soviet Union. Eventually, he established an international reputation. In the late 1980s he participated in a collaboration project with actors in Seattle. By the mid-1990s, Weil’s family was living in Seattle. The theater director was a frequent visitor to the city, but he continued to live and work predominantly in Uzbekistan.
The Ilkhom Theater was famous for staging plays that explored controversial social and political topics. Among the company’s most sensitive productions in recent years was one titled White White Black Stork
. The play explored homosexuality in a Muslim society, specifically examining the relationship of two students in a madrasah, or religious school. It also featured dialogue that was critical of conservative traditions.
The Ilkhom Theater presented 'White White Black Stork' at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem this June.
Another recent play, Flights of Mashrab
, contained a not-so-subtle anti-authoritarian message. The production opened just six weeks after Uzbek security forces opened fire on demonstrators in Andijan in May of 2005.
Weil’s murder is the second such tragedy to strike the theater company in just over a year. In June of 2006, one of the company’s actors, Yevgeny Dmitriyev, died in a fire that was caused by arson. Dmitriyev was staying in the Moscow apartment of an acquaintance when it was set ablaze. Russian authorities have not made an arrest in connection with the case.