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Life imitating art: Mamadali Makhmudov
by Siobhan Dowd, International P.E.N. Writers in Prison Committee

(November 23, 1999) In April this year, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan told journalists that he was "prepared to rip of the heads of two hundred people, to sacrifice lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic."

His gory turn of phrase might justifiably send a chill down the spine; and, if one examines his record during his illegally prolonged term of office as president, the inevitable conclusion is that Uzbekistan today has indeed become a place of fear.

A rich literary tradition

A former Soviet republic in central Asia, Uzbekistan is intensively farmed (it produces much cotton) and thickly planted with orchards and vineyards. Flanked by Turkmenistan, it is part of the rich Turkic culture of the area which boasts a remarkable, if rarely heeded by the west, literary tradition.

The dastan, an ornate form of epic verse with distinctive narrative motifs, has for centuries been the main mode of poetic expression. To this day the Turkic peoples recite some fifty or more old dastans, each set by a poet known as an ozan and featuring a hero, known as an alp, who is often endowed with such magical qualities as being able to speak when only a few days old. The dastan celebrates victories in battle, love, and the surmounting of treachery.

Mamadali Makhmudov, Uzbekistan's most famous poet, is serving a 14-year prison sentence. Photo courtesy International P.E.N.

A cunning disguise

It is no surprise, given President Karimov's hatred of all opposition to his rule, that Uzbekistan's most famous modern-day ozan, the writer Mamadali Makhmudov, is today in jail, at the start of a 14-year sentence.

Makhmudov, aged about 50, is apparently enjoying a similar fate to the "alp" in his own dastan.

His 114-page Immortal Cliffs, his first major work as a writer, appeared in 1981 in two issues of the Uzbek literary journal Shark Yildizi. Makhmudov, who said it took him four years to complete, presented it as a historical fiction, crafted in general conformity to the Soviet guidelines for artists in those days and displaying the requisite "socialist realism."

However, literary experts such as H. B. Paksoy, writing in a 1987 issue of the academic journal Central Asian Survey, saw otherwise.

The tale is in fact a cunning disguise from start to finish - even in its being a dastan in form, which only readers steeped in the literary traditions of the area would have readily appreciated.

Makhmudov's alp, Buranbek, becomes inspired by the spirit of his ancestors, seeks to unite the Turkic peoples, fights the invading Russians of the late 1800s, is captured and tortured, and at one point finds himself the victim of treachery of his own kinsfolk. The structure of the story and much of the language echoes the older dastans; and at the same time, had Makhmudov been writing a coded form of his own life, it could not have been more pertinent.

Soviet persecution

The Soviet rulers realized belatedly the anti-Soviet message concealed in the story; in 1952 the official Literaturnaia Gazeta had already dismissed the dastan as being "impregnated with the poison of feudalism." On realizing that Immortal Cliffs was a modern-day dastan, they put pressure on Makhmudov to "repudiate" it.

He did, in the mid-1980s, issue an opaque statement: "Rating my creative potentials higher that I should have done," he said, "I took up my P.E.N. to write about a very complicated historical period. As a result I allowed some shortcomings. What is the reason for this? Because I could not convey the spirit of that age precisely."

A critic, claiming to speak for him, added that he was "revising" the work and wanted to stress the "positive influence" of Russia on his homeland.

Paksoy has pointed out that, in fact, Makhmudov's work could not have been more exhaustively researched and is heavily footnoted; the characters may be fictional, but the backdrop in which they operate is real, and certainly not the doctored "Soviet" version of history that was available in the encyclopedias of that time.

Enemies in his midst

Makhmudov, like his alp, Buranbek, had lived in Russia for several years in his youth. Despite the problems his book caused him in the 1980s, he continued to write both poetry and short stories. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he became a less marginalized literary figure, and in 1992 Immortal Cliffs retrospectively won the country's Cholpan Prize.

Makmudov's only crime seems to be owning a few copies of an opposition newspaper.

Like Buranbek, though, Makhmudov was destined, having seen the back of the invading "foreigners," to fall prey to the venom of enemies in his midst.

During the 1991 presidential elections, he chose to support "Erk," a political party founded by his fellow-writer Muhammad Salih. The party lost the elections to President Karimov and, since 1993, the party and its newspaper have effectively been banned; Salih has had to flee the country. Erk supporters have repeatedly been targeted with arrest, and there have been many reports by Erk detainees of torture and beatings in custody.

Makhmudov's first arrest was in 1994. His house was raided and a firearm produced as evidence of his "terrorism." This charge was subsequently dropped when it was greeted with general disbelief.

He was next charged with embezzlement and abuse of his position as chairman of the Cultural Foundation of Uzbekistan and sentenced to four years' imprisonment. However, after investigating the case, human rights groups from Amnesty International to the United Nations' Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions concluded there was not a shred of evidence. After an international campaign, he was released early in a presidential amnesty.

An unjust arrest

His current imprisonment dates from last February when he and several others were rounded up a few days after a series of bombs went off in the capital, Tashkent. Security officers drove him and his wife away in a car, stopped after a few kilometers to let his wife out, and then drove on to an unknown destination.

While on trial, Makmudov sneaked a note to a human rights organization saying police had brutally beaten him.

For three months, his wife and daughters were not told where he was. A letter from the government to Amnesty International during that period seemed to indicate that he was not in official custody. However, in May, he "reappeared" in a jail, facing serious charges.

He and five others were eventually brought to trial. Makhmudov had only two opportunities to talk to a lawyer beforehand and the trial was held in camera. One of the defendants managed to pass a testimony to a Human Rights Watch representative which turned out to have been written by Makhmudov. "In the basement," he wrote, "they regularly beat me ... they burned my legs and arms. They put a mask on me and cut off the air and hung me up by my hands... They told me they were holding my wife and daughters and threatened to rape them."

The evidence against the six seemed to rest entirely on their possession of banned copies of the Erk newspaper. This led to charges of "threats" to the president and to the constitutional order. The sentences handed down ranged from 8 to 15 years in jail, with Makhmudov receiving his 14-year term.

International human rights groups have protested against these sentences and the flouting of international standards of due process during the trial and the detention proceeding it. The government has in the past shown itself sensitive to international opinion - it has, from time to time, for example, sent faxes and e-mails to the writers' association P.E.N. in answer to the latter's queries; readers may like add weight to the campaign on Makhmudov's behalf by writing letters appealing for his sentence to be quashed to:

His Excellency Zakirszan Almatov
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Ul. Novruz 1
700 029 Tashkent
Republic of Uzbekistan
Fax: + 73712 395 525

Sara Whyatt of International P.E.N. provided some of the information contained in this article. Article appears courtesy The Literary Review (London).

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