The holidays are here and you haven’t bought a present yet for your history and/or book lover! No judgment-I haven’t gone holiday shopping either. But my own frantic panic inspired me to put together this list of 15 books about Central Asia for that special history or book lover in your life.
Central Asian literature is some of the most beautiful works produced in the world ranging from heart-rending poems dedicated to the complicated nature of love to massive epics about the gatherings of humans who call the unending and unconquerable Steppe home. Here are some of our favorite works of fiction that anyone who in interested in history or literature are bound to love:
- 12 Ghazals by Alisher Navoiy and 14 Poems by Abdulhamid Cho’lpon translated by Andrew Staniland and Aidakhon Burnatov
This book is a most have for anyone interested in Central Asian poetry or Central Asian history. The first 12 ghazals by Alisher Navoiy, the founder of early Turkic literature, is a perfect overview of 15th century Turkic poetry and his influence is noticeable in the modern poems written by Abdulhamid Cho’lpon. Cho’lpon is the founder of modern Central Asian poetry and a Jadid who partook in the Rusian Civil War in Central Asia. Thus, his poems provide not only a glimpse into the evolution of Central Asian poetry but also serves as a record of what life was like at the time of revolution and nation building. This book is a most have for anyone interested in Central Asian poetry or history
- O’tkan Kunlar by Abdulla Qodiriy, translated by Mark Reese
Our listeners will recognize Abdulla Qodiriy as a Jadid who lived during the Russian Civil War and the creation of the modern Uzbek State. Qodiriy is basically the Fyodor Dostoevsky of Central Asian literature and O’tkan Kunlar is his Crime and Punishment. It’s also the first Uzbek novel to ever be published.
The story takes place in Turkestan twenty years before the Russian invasion and focuses on Otabek, a 19th century Muslim reformer and trader, and the love of his life Kumush. Otabek goes to a neighboring town on business and meets Kumush and summarily falls head over heels in love with her. They marry and he moves in with her family-to the chagrin of his own mother. Otabek’s mother begs her son to return and introduces him to the woman she’s chosen as his wife. Given the social norms at the time, Otabek marries this other woman and tragedy inevitably follows. The book is a scathing review of the cultural, politics, and traditions of the time and the ever-vital need for reform and is considered the foundational novel of modern Uzbekistan.
- Night and Day by Abdulhamid Cho’lpon, translated by Christopher Fort
Abdulhamid Cho’lpon appears on this list again, but this time for his semi-completed duology: Night and Day. Night is the only completed book in the duology, the second half, Day, is nothing more than scrapes and notes-one more victim of Stalin’s purge. Night was published three years before Cho’lpon himself was arrested and executed by the NKVD.
Like O’tkan Kunlar, Night is a scathing critique on Turkestan society, this time set in a late Russian imperial Turkestan and centering the feminist cause. It is about a young girl named Zebi who is forced to marry a lustful, sluggish local official. She is unwelcomed by his other wives, and they plot a deed most foul. Meanwhile, outside the official’s house trouble brews and the first blossoms of revolution are about to bloom.
- The Dead Wander in the Desert by Rollan Seisenbayev
This book, written and published during the final years of the Soviet Union, could be considered the first example of Central Asia cli-fi. It is about the manmade destruction of the Aral Sea and the small fishing town caught in its death swirl. One of the more depressing reads on this list, but also one of my favorite books. It captures the crushing hopelessness of fighting both indifferent bureaucracy and nature taking its revenge for human hubris while focus on the human cost. A must read for anyone interested in climate issues, climate fiction, and man’s struggle to achieve the impossible.
- The Days Last More than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov
Another book written at the tail end of the Soviet Union, this time mixing in elements of sci-fi. As two astronauts make content with an alien race, the railman, Burranyi Yedigei tries to bury his friend while reminiscing on his life. It is a melancholic and powerful look on life, progress, and upholding tradition.
- The Devil’s Dance by Hamid Ismailov
This book inspired our interest in the Jadids and Central Asia’s role during the Russian Civil War. It is a fictionalized account of Abdulla Qodiry’s last days, trapped in a Soviet prison, while writing a book in his mind about Oyxon, the wife of the Khoqand khan during the 19th century. It is Hamid Ismailov’s first book written in Uzbek to be translated into English. The Devils’ Dance is a haunting exploration of how people fight to keep their dignity in a tyrannical society determined to break them.
- Manaschi by Hamid Ismailov
This is Hamid Ismailov’s most recent book, published this year by Tilted Axis Press (which is an amazing press that deserves all our support). The story focuses on Bekesh, a Kyrgyz radio presenter who, after the death of his foster-father, grapples with the responsibility and power of upholding communal memory. Bekesh’s foster-father was a Manaschi, an oral storyteller who preservesd Manas, an epic Kyrgyz poem that details early Kyrgyz history. As he struggles with his calling, he gets embroiled in a local feud with tragic results.
Being a history podcast, it should be no surprise that we have plenty of history book recommendations. Many of these books we use in preparation for our episodes.
- The Sands of Oxus by Sadriddin Ayni
This is a memoir written by one of the few Jadids who survived the Stalin purges: Sadriddin Ayni. Celebrated today as one of Tajik’s national poets, this memoir covers his childhood including his education and how he supported himself and his brothers when both of his parents died from illness. It is an interesting memoir that provides a glimpse into an often unresearched and unknown time period and region of the world.
Another book published this year, this book has the Herculean task of telling the entire history of Central Asia from the 1860s to present day. It is a light and easy read that covers a lot of ground, including the history of the Xinjiang region. This is a must have for anyone looking for a thorough but easy to understand introduction to the complexities of Central Asia.
- Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence by Shoshana Keller
Another book that provides an overview of Central Asian history, this time focusing on the long and complicated relationship the region has with Russia. This book also starts earlier than the book by Adeeb Khalid, starting in the seventeenth century, when Russia and the khans of the Steppe starting trading with each other. Shoshana Keller examines how their relationship changed and expanded over time and what the future may hold in store for the region. A must have for anyone interested in Russian history or wanting an introduction to Central Asian history. Adeeb Khalid is one of the greats in Central Asian history and is a must read for anyone interested in the region.
Our second season would not exist without this book. Making Uzbekistan covers the cultural and social history of Uzbekistan from the Russian Revolution to the creation of the modern state in 1924. It focuses on the struggles of the Jadids as they attempt to survive the many upheavals and dangers of revolutionary Central Asia and Russia. A must have for anyone who wants a deep dive into Jadid and Uzbek history.
- Polymaths of Islam: Power and Networks of Knowledge in Central Asia by James Pickett
Another book published this year by a new scholar, this book provides a much-needed history of the ulama and the role Islam played in preserving and sharing knowledge in Central Asia from the beginning of the adoption of Islam through the Soviet period. A bit of a dense read, but one anyone interested in Islam or Central Asia should have on their bookshelf.
- A History of the Tajiks: Iranians of the East by Richard Foltz
The Tajiks are often screwed over or left out when it comes to Central Asia. This book rectifies that mistake by telling the story of Central Asia through Tajik eyes. While this book covers the entirety of Central Asian history and is not as detailed as Making Uzbekistan, it serves as nice counterpoint or expansion of Adeeb Khalid’s research, present the history of Central Asia from a non-Uzbek perspective.
Before Central Asia was broken into states, it was ruled by various khanates. This book covers the rise and fall of Khoqand, one of the more dynamic khanates in the region. It focuses on the economic developments of the khanate, one of the first to do so. It also covers some of the history detailed in the Devils’ Dance, making it a nice companion book.
This book provides a detailed history of the Bukharan khanate when it was at its most fragile. While the typical narrative was that the Bukharan khanate ran itself to the ground, Scott Levi provides three other arguments, focusing on the development of the Bukharan military, the ecological situation of the region, and the economic networks the Bukharan khanate relied on, arguing that it was a combination of these three strains that led to Bukhara’s crisis. An interesting piece of research on a region and time period that deserves more academic attention.
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