Today’s book review is the rare gem Amir Temur in World History, only published in Uzbekistan. Published by the Tashkent “Sharq” Printing Office in 1996, weighing in at 258 pages, only 3000 copies were printed. It’s an academic work, and the names printed are as follows: Iriskulov, A. [editor]; Saidkasimov, Saidmoukhtar; et al. I’m sad to say that even if there weren’t three names on it, you’d still be able to tell that three people [at least] were involved on throwing it together. It’s very difficult to cuddle with, and is definitely a sentimental part of my book collection, not a useful part.
As this is my second post at Registan.net, and I plan on becoming something of a regular contributor, I’ll preface this review with a short introduction. Feel free to skip down to the meat of this article if my personal details don’t concern or interest you.
My name is Michael Hancock. I’m 26 years old. I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but I wasn’t born here. I was raised in rural mid-Michigan, in the thumb region, if you care to visualize the lower peninsula of Michigan as a mitten. I finished High School and went off to Western Michigan University, where I majored in Music Composition and English. In 2003 I received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English.
Following some Music writing gigs and composition projects, I applied for and was accepted in the US Peace Corps. I flew to Tashkent, Uzbekistan in January of 2005 to join Peace Corps Uzbekistan. Following the Andijon Massacre and the ensuing closure of the Peace Corps program in Uzbekistan, I opted to transfer my service to Kazakhstan. I began my second Peace Corps term on June 1st, 2005. After a second round of cultural and language training, I moved to my site of Sayram, in South Kazakhstan Oblast, near Shymkent [Chimkent, as the Uzbeks in my town called it]. I was placed in Sayram specifically to provide an Uzbek community with a Volunteer, since Peace Corps Kazakhstan did not train Volunteers in languages other than Kazakh or Russian. During my 5 ½ months in Uzbekistan, I studied Russian, though my site was the predominantly Uzbek city of Jizzax, halfway between Tashkent and Samarkand. In Kazakhstan I studied Kazakh, even though this did not do much to prepare me for learning Uzbek. The alphabets have small differences, the grammar is slightly different, and various other minor changes added up to the point where all of my Kazakh left me while I studied Uzbek in Sayram. My Russian, on the other hand, was always my safety net in Chimkent, the big city nearby.
In Sayram I taught English to students from the 2nd to the 11th forms, and lived with a host-family for two years, finishing my service in June 2007. My plans are now to pursue a Masters Degree in Central Asian Studies and return to the region as soon as I can. I’m not planning on living there permanently, but I can’t deny that it certainly has a hold of my attention now and for the foreseeable future. I keep a personal blog [www.peaceclog.com] which I started at the beginning of my Peace Corps adventure, and I also am Vice President of the NPO New Music Project [www.newmusicproject.org] out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is a business concerned with supporting classical music composers at the beginning of their career. Shameless plugs out of the way, I hope that you now have a little better idea of who I am, and where I’m coming from. I’m hoping to regularly contribute with book reviews and any news reports I receive from my friends still in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Since returning from the Peace Corps, I’ve made a couple purchases that have really meant a lot to me. The uninitiated may not know, but Peace Corps Volunteers actually receive a lump sum of money at the end of their service, a ‘re-adjustment allowance,’ of around $5500 to $6000, depending on their length of service. I spent a large portion of my readjustment allowance on the laptop I’m using to write this review. Another small portion went to the book I’m reviewing in this article, Amir Temur in World History. One of only 3000 copies, somehow by the miraculous workings of a fate and the caprices of a wandering Turk did this book end up in Ann Arbor. I work as an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher in downtown Ann Arbor, and every day I walk past the Dawn Treader, one of several great used book stores downtown. When I walked by, I noticed a book in their window that really stood out. It’s cover just screamed Uzbekistan. Cracking it open for the first time, I was greeted by this text on one of the first pages, a Government Resolution to ‘propaganda’ to the people about the glory and historicity of Amir Temur. The whole book, as it was written in Uzbekistan, is in that enjoyably difficult to read “official” Soviet English. I’m not sure if the writers actually wrote it in English first or not – it certainly has the overtones of a work that was conceived in Soviet-style Russian, and then painstakingly translated. Part of this stems from the transliteration employed. Part of it comes from the general lack of quality English academic writing and the tendency to quote passages from other works without acknowledging the source. This would be less obvious if they weren’t the only parts of the book that are easy to read – they make it painfully obvious when the authors are lifting the writings of native speakers. Large parts of the Narrative of the Embassy of Ruy González de Clavijo to the Court of Timour appear in this book, though you’d only know it by looking in the bibliography.English through Uzbek and Russian brains is truly unlike any English I’ve yet studied! Anyway, I asked the owner of the store if I could buy it. After shelling out $65, it was my own to do with as I pleased.
As for my complaints about the transliterations in this book, allow me to produce a short tangent.
Uzbek is now written in a modified Latin alphabet that is quite different from the Turkish Latin. Personally, I love it. It’s supremely simple for me to type in Uzbek. There are no characters that aren’t found on a standard American-style keyboard. The only diacritical mark used is the apostrophe, and that isn’t so common. I apologize if this goes over people’s heads, but a book like this is pretty standard for those studying the region in depth. Anyway, Uzbek has four really tricky sounds to transliterate, one of them a big problem with Russian as well. The Uzbeks have transliterated it themselves into their own Latinized alphabet in a way that is simple and easy to follow. My complaint is that when they in turn try to transliterate these words and proper nouns into English, they use completely different methods.
First, Ў, which is spelled O’ in Uzbek, often times is simply written with a U in English. [Uzbek, for example, which by rights could also be O’zbek] Then there’s Қ, which they spell as Q. And then the best letter of them all, Ғ, the sound of gargling, and they write it as G’. However, most English texts reproduce this as GH. Ulughbek, for example, could also be Ulug’bek. And then my most hated transliteration. The X, which Russians invariably write as KH, and similar to the CH in Scottish Loch. Oh, how I hate the ‘KH’ interpretation. The Uzbeks, and I love them for this, simply write it as an X in their own Latin alphabet. But, when transliterating for English documents, they invariably go back to the Russian standard of KH.
I could go on and on. Russians don’t have a letter for the “J” sound, so they usually use a combination of “D” and “ZH” to create the “J.” Then Uzbeks, who DO have a J sound, will turn that word, which should just be Masjid, for example [Masdzhid in Russian] into Masdjid. Got that? The same word can be Masjid, Masdzhid, and Masdjid. Enough to drive a guy up the wall. Throw in some KHs and I’m just about hearing nails on chalkboards. But you be the judge – which would you rather read? Faxriddin Jansulaibeg’ or Fakhriddin Dzhansulaibegh? Maybe I’m crazy, but I actually have a preference, and it’s the first one. If you think this is just something that never comes up, you probably haven’t spent much time in Central Asia. Did I live in Jizzax, Dzhizzakh, Djizzakh, or Jizzakh? Was there a massacre in Andijan, Andijon, Andidzhon, or Andizan?
Kazakh, [Qazaq!] as some of you may know, is a-whole-nother kettle of fish. Another day, another story.
This book is a joy to own and a fine conversation piece, but it’s anything but a joy to read. There are sections of text that have to be reread multiple times to discern their meaning, and sometimes I feel I’m only understanding them after trying to translate them back into Russian to follow the original train of thought. Then there are the pictures: beautiful pictures, dozens of huge glossy pictures! The book is very, very large – about 10” by 12” – and the pictures were the selling point for me. However, the captions are all in a crazy mix of difficult transliteration and random translations, not to mention more than a few incorrect labels. However, there are several pictures that really shine – some shots of the Bibi-Khanum mosque in downtown Samarkand before the reconstruction. Re-construction is absolutely right, as the modern government obliterated the original work, judging restoration to be costly and impossible. The Bibi-Khanum we see today is truly only a copy of the Bibi-Khanum that was built at the orders of Amir Temur.
So, after reading this, have I really learned that much about Amir Temur? No, not really. It’s pretty clear after opening it up and poking around that this book wasn’t even intended to be opened or studied. The coffee-table book does not exist, I guess, in the former Soviet Union. People do not read on the subway. Books, from my own experience, are kept in the offices of bosses, directors, and other bureaucratic higher-ups, almost like a kind of portable wall-dressing. Every time I read in public, I was interrupted by someone moved by my seemingly pitiable plight of not having anything to do. Why else would a person stick his nose in a book?
Amir Temur may be a hero the Uzbeks, but he’s not the mythical hero of literature that Robin Hood or Richard the Lionheart may be for British children, or Paul Revere or Johnny Appleseed may be for American children. I think that Uzbeks prefer the fairy-tale stories of unrequited love they inherit from the Persians, like Alisher Navoiy’s[Ali-Shir Nava'i, the “Chaucer of the Turks”] retelling of the classic “Farhod and Shirin.” Another of my proud possessions is a copy of that in “old” Uzbek, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought I could read more than 2 words in a line. It’s thankfully written in a Cyrillic form, however, and not in the Persian script of Chagatai.
In all honesty, this is a book that I should tell others to avoid purchasing except as an oddity. If you truly want to learn more about Amir Temur, there are better books out there. And, well, there’s always Wikipedia. My book suggestions on those wishing to learn more about Amir Temur would be to pick up any or all of the following: [the titles link to their Amazon pages]
Narrative of the Embassy of Ruy González de Clavijo to the Court of Timour, at Samarcand, A.D. 1403-6 This work follows the embassy of Spain that visited the Court of Amir Temur in his final years before death on the march to conquer China.
Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World This is a bit of revisionism. The author takes a few liberties in the name of spicing up a story that is unknown to Westerners so that they’ll be able to see just how Amir Temur measures up to other Empire Builders in Asia.
Tuzak-I-Timuri Straight from the man himself! This is the autobiography of Amir Temur, in translation – it’s passed through a couple languages. From the original Chagatai, it went into Persian. I’m not sure if there was a middle man between Persian and English – though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was translated into French or Latin somewhere along the line.