The world would likely be a better place if there were more people like Jeff Fearnside in it. Ships in the Desert is a collection of essays based on and informed by four years that Fearnside spent in, mostly Kazakhstan early in the century, first as a teacher for the Peace Corps and later managing a fellowship programme. He comes across as concerned, thoughtful and, above all, tolerant.
Ships in the Desert is a collection of linked essays that seamlessly incorporates elements of memoir, travel writing, and literary journalism in a series of vivid vignettes that are both intimate and wide-ranging.
The Silk Road has long caught the imagination of travelers and has hence been the subject of interest by many writers, the majority of whom at least in English have hailed from the West. Iftikhar Malik, a professor of modern history at Bath Spa University, in his 2020 book, The Silk Road and Beyond, offers a personal perspective on contemporary travels as a Muslim scholar to Central Asia and beyond. Malik draws on four decades of travel and writes from the lived experiences of a curious academic.
Though death looms in Amanat: Women’s Writing From Kazakhstan, the collection sounds a celebratory note.
Of the three empires that dominated late antiquity, Rome, China and Iran, it is the last whose legacy we understand least. “Proportionally to its historical significance, Iranian Inner Asia in this period is probably the least known and most grossly understudied time and place in world history,” writes Minoru Inaba in the introductory essay to The History and Culture of Iran and Central Asia.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Dilnoza Duturaeva, an Uzbek historian at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales challenges the conventional narrative that the Silk Road declined following the collapse of the Tang dynasty in 907, and remained in eclipse until the establishment of the Mongol empire 250 years later. While the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty delighted in chronicling exuberant trade missions from the west, the Northern Song (960-1127) had little to say about such trade. This is reflected in the arts: compare the countless Tang terracottas of western traders, camels and horses with the scarce examples from the Song. Historians have argued that the fragmentation of political power across the steppe in the 10th and 11th centuries had made trade too dangerous and costly.
“One might ask,” begins Riaz Dean in the introduction to his new book The Stone Tower: Ptolemy, the Silk Road, and a 2,000-year-old Riddle, “how this book is different from the many others about the Silk Road.”