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Posted 05 December 2007 - 09:13 PM

Journal article by John R. Perry; World Literature Today, Vol. 70, 1996

Journal Article Excerpt


TAJIKISTAN

Tajik Literature: Seventy Years Is Longer Than the Millennium

By JOHN R. PERRY The Tajik language and its
literature are a tangle of
paradoxes. Tajikistan cov*
ers much of the region where the earliest Iranian
civilizations of the Silk Road flourished, even before
that of the Medes and Persians on the plateau to the
southwest; relics of much earlier Iranian languages
are still spoken in the mountains. The written lan*
guage and spoken lingua franca, however, has long
been a variety of Persian, which spread to these
parts from the Iranian plateau with the expansion of
Islam in the eighth century. At the Samanid court of
Bukhara this evolved into the vehicle of a great liter*
ature, replacing Arabic in the East as the voice of
humanistic scholarship, mysticism, and poetry, of
Avicenna and al-Ghazali, Omar Khayyam and
Hafiz. Rudaki, the father of Persian verse, was born
in Tajikistan late in the ninth century. Nobody else
of truly international note has surfaced since.

From the eleventh to the sixteenth century, suc*
cessive waves of invaders (the Mongols, Tamerlane,
the Uzbeks) from Inner Asia massacred, ruled, set*
tled, and intermarried in this zone of passage. Much
of the Iranian population was driven into the moun*
tains or marooned in the ancient oasis cities of the
Oxus basin, Bukhara and Samarkand. The rank and
file of the invaders eventually settled down to farm
and trade among the Iranians. By the middle of the
nineteenth century, when the Russian empire rolled
into Central Asia, this ethnolinguistic cauldron had
simmered down into a peasantry of turcophone
Uzbeks and persophone Tajiks, a small urban com*
mercial and intellectual class (chiefly Tajiks), and a
ruling Uzbek elite that struck even the czar's gener*
als as one of the more bloodthirsty and reactionary
regimes of the age.

Illiteracy and bilingualism were widespread;
Uzbek Turkish was gaining ground as the vernacu*
lar. Persian was still the principal written language
of government, and classical Persian poetry was cul*
tivated among the less devout and more iranized of
the Uzbek khans. The spoken Persian of the north,
including the dialect of the Jews of Bukhara, was
heavily influenced by Turkic vocabulary and struc*
tures. Some literate Bukharans, with the ambivalent
support of the Russians against fierce opposition
from the Muslim clerics, introduced a modern cur*
riculum and methods of education for both Uzbek
and Tajik children, modeled on the so-called Jadid
schools devised by Tatar intellectuals of Kazan. By
the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, the khanate of
Bukhara was already undermined by indigenous
teachers and poets such as Sadriddin Aini ( 1878-1954 ), who were writing a more vernacular
style of Persian with a reformist content.

After the Bolshevik dust settled, Uzbeks and
Tajiks were packaged in 1929 into separate re*
publics. There were several problems with this neat
arrangement, apart from the sizable minorities of
each ethnos that were left in the other's SSR.
"Tajikistan" was allotted the Pamir Mountains and
their western foothills, with its capital at Dushanbe,
a Russian colonial city; Bukhara and Samarkand,
the traditional centers of the Tajiks' literature and
culture, were now located in "Uzbekistan." Never*
theless, Aini and other reformers-turned-revolution*
aries (including the Uzbek, Fitrat) turned with en*
thusiasm and considerable debate to devising a new
Persian literary language, "Tajik," in a new Latin al*
phabet. A concerted educational campaign dramati*
cally increased literacy throughout Central Asia.
Then, a mere decade later, in 1939, Moscow de*
creed a change from the Latin to the Cyrillic alpha*
bet, in order to facilitate education in Russian and
consolidate the revised version of the Soviet Union.
This time there was no debate. Persian materials in
Arabic script were no longer allowed into Tajikistan.

The new literary models were to be Gorky and
socialist realism. Aini led the obligatory parade of
rags-to-revolution autobiographies. Some of his
contemporaries and fellow reformers, such as Sadri
Ziyo, did not change step adroitly enough and per*
ished in the purges of the 1930s. Pairav Sulaimoni ( 1899-1933 ), whose poetry at first followed both
the form and the content of classical lyrical and
mystical verse, was fiercely criticized and in 1930
abruptly switched to a martial brand of socialist
realism. His daughter Gulchehra became an estab*
lished writer who translated Russian verse and

JOHN R. PERRY is Professor of Persian Language and Civilization
at the University of Chicago. He has previously translated from
Arabic (the prose and poetry of Mikhail Naimy, 1974 ) as well as
from Persian and Tajik. His other publications include books and
articles on Iranian history and Persian language and folk litera*
ture. He is currently working on a history of the modern Tajik lit*
erary language.
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