In 2020, literary circles witnessed the release of the English translation of the classic Uzbek novel “Oʻtkan Kunlar” (“Bygone Days”) by Abdulla Kadiri (Abdulla Qodiriy, 1894−1938). The translation was performed by Mark Reese, American translator and scholar.

Mr. Reese visited Uzbekistan for the first time in 1994. That year he arrived in Kokand as a Peace Corps volunteer. He taught English at school number 23 for two years, and studied Uzbek at the same time. In one of his interviews he said that not many Americans fully understand what Uzbekistan was. In his opinion, programs like Peace Corps promote mutual understanding between the two nations.

After returning to the United States, he started studying at the University of Washington, majoring in Turkic Languages and Literature, with a focus on Uzbek and Uyghur. Mr. Reese got acquainted with the work of Abdulla Kadiri thanks to Professor Elsa Sirtiut. As he recalled, she was among the ones to initiate the establishment of sister-city relationship between Tashkent and Seattle. Under her guidance, Mr. Reese studied Orkhon writing, one of the oldest forms of the ancient Turkic language. He also learned Chagatai language.

Mr. Reese used the original, 1926 version of “Bygone Days” to translate the novel.

— How did you grow interest in learning Uzbek language and literature?

— I really wanted to teach in an international school. I didn’t want to teach in a Russian school. You could see the debate about Russian and Uzbek among people playing out even in the early 1990s. A lot of my colleagues would tell me, “You should learn Russian because you could work in other countries of former Soviet Union”. But I’ve always stuck with Uzbek. It just seemed rude to me to speak Russian in Kokand. Yet I think Russian is a lovely language. I love Russian literature.

When I went to Shah-i-Mardan for the first time, aksakal (male elder of the local community) walked up to me in a chopon (traditional robe) with World War II medals and said in Uzbek: “Qayerdan siz, mehmon?” (Where are you from, guest?) I told him, “I am from America”. And he said: “I've seen Americans only in movies. You are the first [American] I’ve ever met [in real life].” So, it had a very powerful impact on me.

That began a long journey of me studying Uzbek. After Peace Corps experience, I felt I had more questions than answers. [While in Uzbekistan] I’ve got to pray with 5,000 men in juma (Friday prayer). It was clear that they were excited to be able to express their faith openly for the first time in 74 years of their lifetime. There was a sense of euphoria in the air.

1990s were tough and a little bit dangerous on the roads, and you had to be more careful about street violence back then. But on the other hand, for a guy who grew up in Arizona and studied post-colonial studies as an undergrad it was really amazing to watch a Republic being formed.

— You translated the 1926, authentic version of “Bygone Days.” Kadiri wrote the novel in old-Uzbek. What parts did you find the hardest to translate? Did anyone assist you?

— The hardest parts were these little gaps where Kadiri uses koʻcha tili (street language). He went into villages and tried to capture authentic street language. And it is always difficult. I used to be pretty good at it when I lived in Tashkent but then you just forget.

When I started translating — even in 2004 — there was still not a lot of resources. I was using Explanatory dictionary of the Uzbek language of the Soviet period from 1960s. It is a masterpiece of academic work, but I didn’t really have a whole lot to fall back on like today’s translators have now. But I’ve yet to see a good Uzbek-English dictionary.

So, I relied on local experts. That is one of the reasons why it took 15 years. I had to go to different people and ask what they think of this sentence or this word. Step back and ask myself. Afterwards I would analyze and come back to the translation to see if it was correct. You can get halfway into the novel and realize that the advice that you have been given was just totally wrong. Even the night I hit Send button, I was making changes.

Later, I have thought how to present the name of the novel to the English-speaking audience correctly. I chose not to translate the title entirely. I put “Bygone Days,” but I kept “Oʻtkan Kunlar” on the cover too. I wanted the world to learn some Uzbek. When you read Quran do you read Quran or Recitation? Do you read “Shahname” or do you read the “Book of Kings”?

When I came across a really tough phrase or word, sometimes I would keep it in its original and write the endnote. For example, I kept non as non, not bread. Thus, you can keep the ambiance and feel Uzbekistan as I understand it.

— You said you translated the novel for 15 years. What challenges did you encounter on the way?

— For a while it was hard for people to get a visa to Uzbekistan. That is not a criticism, but just a life, politics, it happens. I was not able to collaborate.

What is the danger of not having foreign specialists who speak Uzbek? You will create a system where it is very hard for people to be a specialist on Uzbekistan.

But for the past four years I’ve really seen the change. The Writer’s Union accepting me — a very difficult organizations to get into — is an acknowledgement that we need as many new and different voices as we can possibly have if we are going to adapt to a global community.

[Besides] there were people that were trying to buy my manuscript. I also had people who were saying that my Uzbek is not good enough for a translation job. But I was translating the novel into my native tongue. If you want a literary translator, first and foremost you have to be a writer who understands the ambiance and culture enough to be able to capture as best as you can.

— Kadiri wrote “Bygone Days” at times of the construction of Soviet communism, yet it would be hard to claim this novel as Socialist Realism. How do you explain this and how do you read the novel?

— I don’t know. I would have to research but the novel got Kadiri killed. If it is a Socialist Realism novel, then it failed. That happened because he was trying to remember the past, the luminaries. One of the arguments presented against him, justifying his death, was that he was a monarchist.

Whoever killed Jadids didn’t believe they were good socialists. When I first read “Oʻtkan Kunlar”, I thought Otabek was a typical Soviet type of hero, yet when you look at what he says those aren’t the words of a Soviet hero. The same with Yusufbek Hajji.

— Kadiri published the novel in 1926 yet sets the plot in Khudayarkhan’s era. How do you explain this? Does it have anything to do with Socialist Realism?

— It is hard to claim it is a Socialist Realism. And I have enough people who disagree with me. Some people say that the only time the word Uzbek used in the novel is for [the name] Uzbek Oyim, I don’t agree with that. In the third volume when Musulmanqul is defeated near Chirchik, [Kadiri] writes the Kipchaks and Uzbeks came closer together and hugged each other as brothers.

But we also know that it took him a number of years to write this novel. Maybe his understanding of what it meant to be Uzbek in early 1920s had changed by that moment.

Jadids are not an organization, they are inspiration. They were cultural phenomenon. If you take a golden age of literature of Harlem Renaissance as an example, you look at different spectrum of poets, musicians, and artists who made Harlem one of the centers of culture in America. When you look at Jadids, there are shades of beliefs. I think Kadiri especially is at the other end of the spectrum because he had a madrasa education. It wasn’t unusual for some Jadids to have madrasa education. Some Jadids were members of ulama. They were religious leaders that wanted to couch the reform within Muslim modern republic, just as they had done in Turkey.

There is a thought that all Jadids were communists and atheists. I do not believe Kadiri was an atheist. I can’t comment on the other Jadids because I don’t specialize in them. But Islam permeates in “Oʻtkan Kunlar.” Sometimes there is criticism that Kadiri was good in criticizing his own people but that is the whole point of the novel. The first sound you hear in the novel is Azan (Islamic call to prayer). It is the first sentence. And one of the last sounds you hear is Janazah (Islamic funeral prayer), when somebody dies. It seems that Kadiri is writing about the birth and death of the idea of reform, and it is definitely couched within Islam. So, I don’t believe he was an atheist.

He may have believed that the Bolshevik revolution brought some hope. That the old order of khans and emirates was overthrown. Maybe Kadiri and other Jadids looked at the Bolshevik revolution as the reordering the society. But if Kadiri had some hope with the Bolsheviks, it died by 1926, by the end of the novel. The end of the novel pretty much tells you about it. One of the sons of Yodgorbek at the end becomes a Basmachi. Otabek dies fighting the Russians.

So, I think Kadiri plays with the timeline. It is a novel about the past to describe his present as a warning to the future. It is a novel of resistance, a novel of memory and loss. It is not a novel of Socialist Realism.

There is another argument. Some point at “Obid Ketmon” as the Soviet Socialist Realism novel. Maybe it is, we don’t know. We don’t have a document of Kadiri’s own hand of what he thought about it. He already ended up in jail in 1920s because of his articles. Maybe Jadids gave the soviet experiment a shot and became bitter about it which is I believe Kadiri did.

I think Kadiri became bitter toward the end. That is why you have such an ending in the novel. He survived the civil war, famine, all of the other tectonic shifts in the region. Probably, the final catastrophe was the creation of Uzbek SSR and the Kazak SSR because Soviets coming to power didn’t mean that the power would be transferred to Jadids. I think he was upset about homogenization of culture. Yusufbek Hajji speaks Tajik throughout the novel. It is this world of different influences that is slowly becoming homogenized under Soviet system.

— In an interview with Voice of America you mentioned that your version has Kadiri’s Jadid views that were censored in Soviet publication of 1936. Do you remember what views exactly?

— One is monarchist views. I haven’t read all of the different versions but I’ve met with Bakhodir Karimov who is an excellent specialist on Kadiri. He has read all the versions, especially the one released in 1950s. So, I know that starting in the 30s and until the 50s “Bygone Days” was positioned as the novel about love.

I think it was an attempt to insert Soviet ideology into the novel. Because the novel about love is a safe topic. Also, in later versions Yusufbek Hajji’s big speech where he touched on impured waters of Turkestan was erased.

We should also remember that up until 1950s it was illegal to own “Oʻtkan Kunlar.” It might not have gotten you into the jail, but it could have been used as an evidence to say that you are not ideologically pure.

I do know from reading some of the versions and speaking with specialists that decidedly after 1933 the novel was being presented more and more about love, and last more about criticism of colonization policy.

— In his novel Kadiri never mentions Jadidism. Not a single protagonist is a Jadid, yet the influence of Jadidism is still there. Who do you think is a Jadid in “Bygone Days?”

— Definitely Otabek is a Jadid. Adeeb Khalid, and I don’t always agree with him, but he brings up the point that Jadids was not necessarily the term they used to describe their own ideology. Sometimes it was an epithet that the ulama used: “new this,” “new that,” “Jadid this,” “Jadid that,” “these guys who keep talking new, new, new, new.”

Jadidism is a term we use in order to understand the social phenomenon. So, for me it is an inspiration, not an organization. How we understand Jadids in 2021 is different from how they were understood by a Soviet scholar. Soviet scholars were very much trying to keep that stuff hidden — anything that can be used against them, or not allowed to study at all, like Amir Timur. Jadidism means different to different people during historical periods.

Look at the second chapter, the most translated chapter in any dissertation. They latch on the initial chapter, but they don’t look later on how Otabek’s views have changed. Khondamir Kadiri, Abdulla’s grandson, told me that Otabek is an autobiography of Abdulla Kadiri’s views. Otabek is Abdulla Kadiri and how he feels about the world.

We see in the second chapter. A young man suitable for the khan’s daughter lays it out, “If I had wings, I would fly to the khan of Kokand khanate and implement each one of these reforms occurred in Russia…” You look at Russia in 1840s, 20 years before conquest of Tashkent, I am not sure what Otabek would have seen worth bringing to Turkestan. So, probably, Kadiri was talking about his own 1920s. And how as a Jadid he is dealing with graveyard of ideas. Playing with the timeline he is warning future generations about upcoming dangers.

— Do you have a favorite protagonist? If yes, why?

— Hasan Ali, for sure. He was always loyal to Otabek and Kumush. He reminds me of cowboys that I grew up with. He is riding his horse and rides off where is needed to do the right thing.

A very close second is Usta Alim. He is a bit of Sufi himself. He likes a little bit of wine. And if you look at Yusufbek Hajji, maybe he represents more traditional and institutional form of Islam and then at a far spectrum you see Usta Alim who is a little bit more a Sufi, unofficial form of Islam. Maybe Sufism was practiced this way. I really like how Kadiri wrote that character.

— Can we say that Otabek’s behavior in the novel is spoiled? He may seem soft and indecisive to many people. What do you think about it?

— That was one of the later things I’ve heard from Uzbeks. I was really surprised when I heard it but that is good because it helps me to get a local point of view and to make the translation as organic as possible.

Otabek makes some really big mistakes. He is constantly moving between Tashkent and Margilan, not staying home. He doesn’t fulfil his spousal duty to Zaynab. Zaynab’s family has a right to demand divorce, but there is a sudden illusion that Zaynab is sleeping alone at night. There is no kundoshlik (being a co-wife, to share a husband).

But in the end Otabek agrees to the second marriage, which was a big tragedy, in which Yusufbek Hajji was also complicit. It is Otabek’s moment of weakness.

— Otabek is rude with his mother. In one scene he says, “You say „shame,“ but you don’t know the meaning of it!” Jadids highly appreciated mothers, yet Kadiri makes Uzbek Oyim an antagonist. Why do you think it is so?

— I think she is kind of a symbol of what Kadiri saw as backwardness. Views that are antiquated that need to go.

So, Uzbek Oyim believes in andi (translate as “outcast”, to be viewed as “the Other” and to understand witch or seer as explained by Mr. Reese in the endnotes of his translation) thinks about Kumush as a margilani witch who is casting spells on her beloved son. Uzbek Oyim sort of represents the symbol of ignorance the Jadids were trying to deal with.

Uzbek Oyim is more interested in “mahallada duv-duv gap” (what neighbors would say) than in the happiness of her son. And she is fickle. In the end, when Kumush finally shows up, she is amazed by the beauty of “Margilani witch”, that she just tosses Zaynab aside, and has dilemma, “What do I do with Zaynab now.”

Zaynab is the one who really loses in all that. I am very sympathetic to Zaynab. She was the most beautiful woman in Tashkent. She could have married someone who could have made her happy, could have had kids. She could have had long rich and married life but she didn’t get that. She went crazy. There were times when Kumush plays word games with Zaynab and gets a little bit mean.

— One of the most mysterious lines in the novel is “What you are looking for is not on those shelves…” said by Oftob Oyim. What do you think Kumush was looking for?

— I will bring an example from the movie The Razor’s Edge with Bill Murray. After World War I, having witnessed its horrors, Murray’s character goes to Tibet and reads dozens of books, seeking knowledge. After meeting a monk he says, “I brought all my texts with me to sit on top of the mountain and find wisdom.” Monk shows him a mountain path towards the shelter that keeps people warm during the inevitable snowstorms. Murray walks up there with all his books and finds there four posts. No roof, and the snow is coming. In order to survive he has to burn all his books. The message is that you are not going to find wisdom in books and other things, you are going to find it in other ways.

I think Kadiri was spiritually minded. When the person looks for material things, the world will not give him what he wants. You need to seek it in immaterial.

But I should be honest with you. One of the questions I’ve got today from a young student was Did you understand everything about “Oʻtkan Kunlar?” I said, “No, of course not.” I’ve read Moby Dick a dozen times. It is beautiful, one of my favorite novels. Folkner and Prust too. To understand them all you need to read their work dozen times.

— Do you think ideas of Jadids Kadiri embedded in “Bygone Days” are coming to life in contemporary Uzbekistan?

— Absolutely. I am not a propagandist and I don’t even care if I form a good relationship with the Uzbek government. I always say the things I believe, and I will be perfectly honest. When President Mirziyoyev became President, I was extremely cynical. I had a right to be so. I even become fearful about what was to come. Can it get worse under this new person that I don’t know anything about?

I’ve made an explicit policy to avoid politics at all costs, but I will talk about the Jadids as related to President Mirziyoyev. There were several moments that made me a true believer that this was really about reform.

One morning I got a text from my colleague. She says, “I will send you a clip and you are not going to believe it.” I watch the clip and it is President Mirizyoyev talking to a group of mullahs. He talks very fast. It is hard for me to understand, and he says, “Listen, if I find out that you have kundoshlik (co-wives, sharing a husband) it is against the law and I will fire you.” He makes a reference to “Oʻtkan Kunlar.” He says, “One of our great writers, Abdulla Kadiri, talks about the dangers of kundoshlik.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

The other moment was meeting ambassador Javlon Vakhabov in Washington DC. I did my interview with BBC and then I got an invite to go to the embassy. The ambassador had just received his credentials. I was really cynical. I thought it would be some guy in a grey suit looking very much like Soviet type person. I got in the embassy, and I thought, “Oh my God, this guy is young and accessible to people.”

I had worked for Navy academy, one of the most prestigious academies in the world. It is the most difficult university in the world to enter because you need a letter of recommendation from the President or the Vice-President, or the Secretary of Defense, or your Senator, or your Congressmen. I had met some really good leaders and I am pretty good judge of what leadership looks like. Here comes Ambassador Vakhabov, distinctly un-Soviet. And it was in that moment when I realized that I need to stop using a phrase “former Soviet.” It is no longer relevant anymore. It should be used only in reference to one part of the nation’s history.

So, I just thought to myself, “this is something new.” I noticed all these young Uzbeks who have been to Harvard, Georgetown, Oxford. Some of them were really big businessmen and bankers. I thought two decades of all these exchange programs with the U.S. and Europe finally gave results: Uzbeks have built distinctly non-Soviet identities. That is the future of Uzbekistan. These are future decision makers. I really hope Vakhabov is one of those.

Mark Reese receiving the Order “Doʻstlik” (Friendship) at the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Washington, DC.

I can say that more activities are coming out of the embassy that I’ve ever seen. That is an indicator that Mirziyoyev has given him the power to pursue an agenda. It is not just Vakhabov. He is an incredibly talented individual, but it is also his leadership that had given him permission to do what he is doing. I see real change here.

Uzbekistan will do one step forward, two steps back. That is what happens in the reform process. It is a social contract that is forming where Uzbeks get to decide what is reform. 15 years ago nobody would ever dream of doing something like that: defying a building that being build or other activities. I am not criticizing Karimov’s regime. I am just saying that things have changed, globally, where the Uzbek government has acknowledged that we need to change, if we are going to adjust to the globalization.

I want to see free journalists and bloggers who can express their ideas free of fear of imprisonment, but I also think that the President inherited a lot of baggage. He inherited a massive system. I think he is sincere about reforming it but once again, you try [managing this system]. What are you gonna do, fire the entire Uzbek government? What he is trying to do is foundational. With all due respect to previous leadership, you are starting over again. You’ve got some experience in building a new republic.

People want change, but it has to be on their own terms.

You have a more conservative segment of society. I never saw women in rumol (headscarf) in the 90s. You had to go to Kokand or Margilan to see traditional Muslim practices. Today I see it more in Tashkent. Tashkent used to be the land of shirt skirt but now I see more conservative expressions of Islam. I am not afraid of it, but it is just a sign.

What I am afraid of I will express in a joke: Tashkent is changing, but not changing. One thing that has not changed in Tashkent is that the Uzbeks are the same, but they are allowed to have voice, to express who they are.

I’ve seen dark days of Uzbekistan. The reforms you are doing now are the dreams that the Jadids had in the 1930s. They dreamed of independent republic. You gained independence in 1991, but you are doing the reforms only now. Jadids had a spectrum of beliefs but what they wanted was for Uzbeks to speak in the voice of Uzbeks, to tell their own stories.

Mark Reese in front of the wall where an artist, known as the local Banksy, painted a portrait of Kadiri and his poem.

If a woman wants to wear a rumol, that is not my place, that is her decision as a woman to make how she is going to dress. I just hope that the husband didn’t force it. The only thing I am concerned about with these reforms is people being allowed to make their own decisions. I am not for conversative or for liberal. All I am for is that for Uzbeks to tell their own stories or somebody else is doing to tell them for them.

— Your translation of “Bygone Days” remains inaccessible for ordinary Uzbeks. What needs to be done to make it available for the general public in Uzbekistan?

— I have a program that I am trying to further. It is called Muloqot Cultural Engagement Program. I’ve been working on it for years. Within it I want to translate Abdulla Kadiri’s “Mehrobdan Chayon”, create a movie script of “Oʻtkan Kunlar” for Netflix and adapt materials from “Oʻtkan Kunlar” for implementation in the school systems so that those values make it into school system. Not as propaganda but for kids to be aware of their own national literature. I don’t want propaganda. I want kids to read more and know more about where they come from.

A lot of people keep asking me: “How do I buy “Bygone Days?” I tell them, “Don't.” I am negotiating with ministries about providing it for free as long as it is for non-commercial purposes and within the school system. I want students to have a copy of it for free when they go to their library or school. Uzbek government can subsidize the printing in small amounts so that a student in maktab has a copy. I made it clear to everyone: I want to sell it only to tourists or businessmen.

This project was entirely self-funded. I spent a lot of money and time doing this and made no money back. Zero profit. I’ve given away more books than I’ve sold. But I can’t make one dollar out of a student. The idea that some kid from qishloq (village) who wants to read my book has to pay $25. No way!

I made it very clear: I need help. You know, all these nice things they’ve said about me, “Mark, what’s the next book you are going to translate?” I say, “I don’t know, I need help. You talk about helping me, do this through a grant, or other official way of financing.” I think the Uzbek government acknowledges that.

I think Uzbekistan needs to bring more foreign experts like me. Collaborations are good. You get new ideas from people, you become a better professional, and a better person. You should not be afraid of collaboration; you should seek it out.

The interview was prepared by Jakhongir Azimov and Davlat Umarov.