Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek writer whose works are banned in Uzbekistan. He has lived in the United Kingdom since 1994. Several of his Russian-language novels have appeared in English to critical acclaim (notably The Railway, translated by Robert Chandler, and A Poet and Bin Laden and The Dead Lake, both translated by Andrew Bromfield). He has continued writing in exile, and worked for a while for the BBC’s Uzbek service in London. Over the past few years, I’ve been working with Ismailov to create the first English translations of his Uzbek-language work.
In Ismailov’s fiction, realistic plotlines weave in and out of other types of writing — songs, poems and fables—that often reflect the oral literature traditions of Central Asian or Sufi religious traditions and philosophy. Together, the present-day episodes and the more fantastical sections combine to offer a philosophical examination of past and present, truth and fiction, and ways to reconcile them all. Some of the best representations of that technique are excerpted for you here, in these two fables from Ismailov’s Uzbek-language novel Hay ibn Yakzan and the Language of the Bees. The book spans centuries and half the globe, and it tells the story of an Uzbek writer in exile, not unlike the author himself. One night, as perestroika is just beginning to stir the familiar order of things, the narrator dreams that the renowned Persian (but actually Uzbek!) philosopher, poet, healer and alchemist Avicenna did not truly die in the 11th century AD, but has in fact been condemned to roam the world, just like him. Everywhere this Uzbek writer goes, he finds traces of Avicenna, and with them, traces of his own mixed-up cultural and religious heritage.
The shorter fable, “The Fox and the Flies,” was recorded by the real-life Avicenna. In Ismailov’s novel, it is presented as a parable told by the political and spiritual leader of a hive of bees. The longer fable, “The Crow and the Bee,” is originally by Ismailov himself, and it stands alone early in the book as a rather mysterious episode sandwiched between more conventional narrative sections. Its connection to the larger plot only becomes clear later.
About the translator: Shelley Fairweather-Vega translates creative, academic, and legal texts from Russian and Uzbek to English in Seattle, Washington.
The Fable of the Fox and the Flies
A wise man said, “This is my advice to you: Die like the fox did when it was being bitten by the flies and mosquitoes.”
They asked him, “How did that fox behave?’’
And he told them: “Once some hunters were trying to chase a fox into a trap. The fox jumped into a river and swam clear to the other side. When the hounds came rushing after her, the fox had no choice but to climb up on the opposite bank and hide in an overgrown ditch. The fox was injured and scratched all over. No matter how she tried to climb out of that ditch, she could not do it, and she gave up. Then the flies and mosquitoes fell upon her, and they bit her.
“In that ditch lived a porcupine. When he saw how the fox had fled from the hunters only to end up a prisoner of the flies, he asked her, ‘Fox! Shall I chase the flies away from you, and pull you out of this ditch?’
“And the fox answered, ‘Not under any circumstances! Your sympathy only hurts me, and your generosity is even less helpful!’ The porcupine asked her, ‘But why?’ And she answered him, ‘Now that the flies and mosquitoes have claimed me, they will not give up their prey to anyone. They’ve drunk so much blood that they are docile now. If you chase them away, others will descend on me like starving hounds, and suck the rest of my blood from my body!’”
The Fable of the Crow and the Bee
Long ago, in the land of Mongolia, there lived a king by the name of Qorud. He was the king of all winged creatures. One day, King Qorud decided to have a taste of the most delicious flesh in the world, no matter to whom it might belong. He summoned before him, from among all the flying beasts, the Crow, the Swallow, and the Bee, and this is how he greeted them.
Swallow with his forked tail
Swallow in the spring,
If you see a swallow sail
Blessings he will bring.
Crows are eaters of the dead
They pick their meat with care
If a crow flies past your head
Misfortune you will bear.
Honey bees to honey pray
Let them fly before you.
Gather nectar through the day
And ne’er a false word for you.
After he pronounced those words, King Qorud gave his three winged soldiers their instructions. “There are three dimensions to this world: the height of the heavens, the length of the land, and the depth of the deep blue sea. Fly now in all three directions, and find me the most delicious meat of all!” The three winged creatures bowed to the king, and flew out of the royal chambers.
As they soared together, the oldest, the Crow, cawed out: “King Qorud spoke of three dimensions. I will go land at the edge of the water, and watch its surface, and perhaps I will see something interesting. You, Swallow, fly up to the sky. You will be in your element with all those insects! And you, Bee—you take the surface of the Earth. After three days, we will meet back here, and make our decision.”
Each one of them agreed that this was a very good plan, and then the three winged creatures flew off in three different directions. The Crow settled down by the water, but other than a dead toad, all he saw on the surface was his own reflection. The Swallow flew up into the sky, and started chasing flies and mosquitoes, while being chased himself by hawks and falcons. But we will leave the two of them, for now, at the edge of the water and in the blue of the sky, and hear some more about the Bee, flying along just over the surface of the earth.
When she went out collecting nectar, the Bee flew from flower to flower, and now, in the same way, she flew from beast to bird and took one bite of each, to find out which of them was the tastiest. She sampled them all. She tried the Goat, and the Elephant and the Tiger, and the Porcupine and the Snake; but none of them had a flavor that was anything at all compared to the taste of Man.
The three days had not yet passed when this news had already spread, from the Butterfly to the Magpie, from the Magpie to the Hedgehog, from the Hedgehog to the Rooster, and from the Rooster to the whole wide world. So of course the news also reached the ears of the Swallow in the sky and the Crow sitting on the shore. The two of them conferred, and when the Bee returned to the meeting place, they asked her, as if nothing had happened at all, “Who, then, has the tastiest flesh in the world?”
“Man does,” answered the honest Bee.
But the Crow sighed, and pretended to be hard of hearing, and complained to her, “I’m an old bird now, and my eyes and ears are not what they used to be! Come a little closer, and repeat that again a little louder!”
The bee buzzed up closer to the Crow, right up to his open beak, and when she started to say loudly, one more time, “The most delicious thing in the world is the flesh of Man!”, the Crow snapped his beak shut, and cut off the Bee’s tongue.
And now, back in the court of King Qorud, the three winged creatures had to make their reports. The Bee tried to speak, too, but could not make any sound other than a buzz.
“What is she trying to say?” the King finally asked.
And the Crow answered him, saying, “If Your Majesty permits it, I will tell you what she says.”
When the King graciously permitted him to speak, the Crow said this: “She is saying ‘poison’, and she explains that the taste of poison is superior to all others. And her own honey, she says, is made of poison, too.” To which the King replied, “In that case, I will taste this poison,” and he tried it, and in that very instant he died.
Ever since then, people like you and me have never been food for bees; but King Qorud became food for the crows. And that is how the King becomes lunch, and our story comes to its end.