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Saturday, 30 April 2016

Writing – research - Beyond the Oxus

Most writers need to do some research for their books. That research shouldn’t be simply to insert blocks of text because it’s interesting, in the manner of Dan Brown. It should be used to get a feel for a place, a time, a people. There are countless books available to delve into to obtain details about the flora, fauna and culture, to lend credibility to the fiction. We’re not copying slavishly, or plagiarizing swathes of text, but ‘getting the feel’ to convey the ‘reality’.

My latest work in progress, set in Afghanistan in 1979-1980 has involved a huge amount of research reading. Yes, I’ve travelled through Pakistan and up the Khyber, but I haven’t been to Afghanistan itself, though that land has held a fascination as long back as the release of the film, King of the Khyber Rifles!

One of the books I’ve read is Beyond the Oxus by Monica Whitlock (2002). As a BBC correspondent for central Asia, Whitlock has gleaned a great deal from eye-witnesses. It’s a fascinating history of the central Asians, the people of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Inevitably, the book also concerns Afghanistan.
Besides personal accounts, Whitlock gives us fascinating history of a relatively unknown region.

Here, in 973, was born one of the greatest Muslim scholars, Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad, called Biruni, thankfully. ‘His study of the rotation of the earth was revolutionary. He calculated longitude and latitude, observed solar and lunar eclipses in detail, and was an early cartographer, mathematician, physicist, geographer and anthropologist. He spoke Aramaic, Greek and Sanskrit as well as Arabic and Persian.’ (p14)

Another important figure was ‘Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa, who disseminated through his treatise written in Baghdad in about 825, the Indian counting system that included decimal places and the concept of zero. This system reached Muslim Spain about a hundred and fifty years later, his treatise being translated into Latin in 1120 by an Englishman, Robert of Chester, who visited Spain to study mathematics…’ It took some seven hundred years after that treatise before the concept was widely used in Europe. He brought us the word ‘algebra’, not to mention Arabic ‘sefr’ which gave us ‘cipher’ and ‘zero’. (p15)

There are several tragic stories about lives ruined. One individual is Damulla Sharif, who fled to Afghanistan in 1927, along with almost half the population of his town. Some seven years later he chanced returning and crossed the border, but he was caught. ‘Before he was taken away, he made a hurried bonfire of his hundred-book library, rather than give them the pleasure. He spent the next twenty years in and out of prison, accused at one point of writing “anti-Soviet poetry”. By the time he was finally released in 1955 he could neither see nor walk properly, and was tormented by the memory of his burnt books. He resumed his studies none the less…’ He worked as a night watchman and in his free time taught and wrote poetry. (p97)

When Ella Ivanova was two, ‘Stalin ordered the evacuation of her village… about 450 miles south-east of Moscow, a solidly German corner of Russia ever since the first pioneers arrived at the invitation of Catherine the Great…’  Ella heard from her mother and sister what happened. They had 24 hours to get out, leaving their cow, and everything but the clothes they wore. They killed a pig, cut it up and took it with them. They were taken by train to Siberia, and her father was put in a concentration camp while her mother brought up four children in a one-room hut. Her mother was almost killed in a fight over a radish. When their teacher left, the replacement never arrived, she was eaten by wolves on the road. ‘Wolves hardly ever attack humans, and it tells you how hungry even they were.’

After Stalin’s death the family was reunited and headed for Tajikistan to find work. ‘We found a paradise on earth here!’ (pp99/100)

Stalin forcibly moved hundreds of thousands of families, many to Soviet Central Asia, presumably for fear that they would collaborate with the Nazis or the Japanese. Indeed, ‘compulsory migration had begun in the 1920s, as a means of moving labour to where it was needed.’  In order to increase the production of cotton, whole villages of Tajiks were moved to the plains, a forced migration that lasted from 1952 until the 1970s. Remarkably, one man hid his small library under the hay in the cattle shed and even when forcibly migrated, he took his books with him. Many had to construct their living quarters, families perished and starvation was normal; the workers didn’t get paid for six years. ‘They were set to work in the plantations in one of the hottest inhabited places on earth, and forbidden to return to their mountain homes for fifteen years.’ (p109)

This is but a very brief overview/review of an interesting book that takes the history up to 2002.  What shines through is the indomitable spirit of people to surmount the depredations of despots, to survive in spite of incredible hardship throughout a turbulent history.

Recommended reading. 

A shorter version of this review has been posted on Amazon.

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