Umm-El-Banine Assadoulaeff was born in 1905 into one of Baku’s wealthiest families: her peasant-born great-grandfather had discovered oil on his land. She left in 1923, after the Revolution, for Istanbul and then Paris, whence she never returned. Days in the Caucasus, originally published in Paris in 1945, is her memoir of those years.
Perhaps because Central Asia is still off the beaten track, it attracts its fair share of travel writers, maybe more than its fair share, from the venerable Colin Thurbon (who has two, The Lost Heart of Asia and Shadow of the Silk Road), two by horse (The Last Secrets of the Silk Road by Alexandra Tolstoy and On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads by Tim Cope) and the cleverly-entitled Out of Steppe by Daniel Metcalfe and Postcards from Stanland by David Mould. Fortunately for Erika Fatland, the region is changing so quickly that no one, not even Thurbon, remains definitive for long: there’s always room for a new entry.
“Oooh,” said the Brooklyn lady, rapturously to her companion, “Shirley, that would look great on you.” She was pointing at the dazzling 24-karat reindeer broach in the Metropolitan Museum’s 1975 show “The Gold of the Scythians”. Our fascination with the nomads of the steppe has only increased since then, while our knowledge about them has grown by leaps and bounds. John Man’s Empire of Horses is an attempt to evoke the glory and glamor of the Xiongnu empire, as he has done previously with the Mongol empire.
Few contemporary works of fiction from Uzbekistan are translated into English directly. Those that have found their way into the English language are usually classical texts or themselves translations of Russian translations of the Uzbek originals. Given this scarcity of accessible modern Uzbek literature, the casual English language reader could be forgiven for not knowing upon what basis to judge the relative worth of a novel like Gaia, Queen of Ants by Hamid Ismailov.
Justin Marozzi starts his survey of Islamic civilization by noting that the Arab world hasn’t had the best of press lately. “Everywhere you look there’s chaos, fighting, bloodshed, dictatorship, corruption, injustice, unemployment,” a Tunisian friend of his tells him.
Some books are next to impossible to review. Silk Roads is one: encyclopedic in scope and structure, made up of several dozen short essays by almost as many different authors, each lavishly illustrated with indescribable photos of objects and places.
There is, or at least was, a family style restaurant in Queens, a not-always fashionable part of New York, grandiosely styled “The Uzbekistan Culture Center”. The owner, a former pop star on Uzbek national radio, served his friends, neighbors and curious visitors like ourselves pilafs and kebabs with a mixture of post-Soviet sadness, oriental forbearance and a twinkle of raffish self-assurance.
He could have stepped right off the pages of Of Strangers and Bees.