Thursday, November 5, 2009

72) Books on Central Asia and Mongol China

From Marx to Mohammed
By David Pilling
Financial Times, October 24 2009

Books reviews:

Out of Steppe: The Lost Peoples of Central Asia
By Daniel Metcalfe
Hutchinson £18.99, 241 pages

Inside Central Asia
By Dilip Hiro
Overlook Duckworth £25, 448 pages

In the Bloody Footsteps of Ghengis Khan
By Jeffrey Tayler
JR Books £17.99, 306 pages

Xanadu: Marco Polo and Europe's Discovery of the East
By John Man
Bantam Press £20, 312 pages

Marco Polo's account of his 13th-century journey from Venice to Xanadu, the summer palace of Kublai Khan, is so sketchy that there is still an active academic debate about whether the world's most famous travel writer ever made it to the Middle Kingdom at all. Though he must have followed the Great Wall of China for 1,500 miles , the Venetian merchant fails to mention it even once. His European audience knew little or nothing about China. Yet, after 24 years away, he didn't see fit to relate what, on the face of it, were some of the Middle Kingdom's stand-out characteristics: tea-drinking, foot-binding and calligraphy.

John Man's book, Xanadu, doesn't take seriously the contention that Polo may have invented his journey along the Silk Road and through central Asia to China. For the author, a historian and travel writer who specialises in Mongolia, there is detail in the Venetian's travels that could only have been discovered first-hand. In Yunnan, for example, near today's Burmese border, Polo encounters men who take to their bed for 40 days after their wives give birth, a practice known as "sympathetic pregnancy". Polo recounts numerous other phenomena, quite unknown and fantastical to Europeans of the time, subsequently confirmed by scholars from both Chinese and Persian texts. This, remember, was an era when Europeans thought elephants were creatures with five legs.

More than 700 years later, some regions that Polo wrote about have become familiar while others remain obscure. China has joined the World Trade Organisation and successfully hosted last year's Olympics. The eastern seaboard is no longer enveloped in mystery. But areas of China's interior, such as the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang province, remain virtually unknown to outsiders - the desert is so hostile it's translated as, "You won't come out if you go in". Also little-known are other parts of what is loosely defined as central Asia, which stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west, along the old Silk Road. It incorporates former nomadic lands crisscrossed by Mongolian, Turkik, Persian and other peoples and includes the five "stan" republics of the former Soviet Union.

Dilip Hiro's Inside Central Asia extends the definition to Turkey and Iran. Daniel Metcalfe, the brash young traveller of Out of Steppe, a speaker of Persian, Swedish and Russian who never ventures forth without his mandolin (or his sense of humour), strays into Afghanistan to meet the Hazaras, a minority group of probable Mongolian descent, and stretches the central Asian concept even further.

Each of these books helps to bring the region into sharper focus. Three - Out of Steppe, In the Bloody Footsteps of Ghengis Khan and Xanadu - are travelogues that trace the progress of historical figures or tribes, throwing light on both the ancient and modern. Inside Central Asia is a more straightforward political and social history. For readers who still get their "stans" mixed up and don't know their inner Mongolia from their outer one, all these accounts have much to offer.

These volumes focus on a region that deserves to be better known. But they also bring out themes too pressing to ignore. Central Asia is now the focus of a new "Great Game" as Russia, China and the US vie for a strategic foothold, partly with a view to the war in Afghanistan and partly because of the huge oil, gas and other mineral resources with which the region is blessed (or cursed). Hardly a week passes without Beijing extending a loan to one of the "stans" or buying into companies that control its subterranean riches.

There are social and ethnic tensions too. Xinjiang province in western China has become a flashpoint, home to a Muslim Uighur minority whose lands once stretched into middle Asia. In July, tensions between the Uighur and the Han Chinese left nearly 200 people dead; this month, Beijing handed down the death sentence to six of those it held responsible. An al-Qaeda leader recently called for jihad against Beijing, saying Turkic Muslims were being repressed. He predicted that, like the USSR, China would soon shatter into pieces.

The ebb and flow of religion in a region bookended by modern history's two most formidable atheist states, China and the Soviet Union, is best captured in the no-nonsense Inside Central Asia. Hiro has written extensively on the twin pull of Marx and Mohammed and produces a vivid account of the early Soviet years when women were encouraged to burn their veils in public and bride purchases were banned.

The Soviets temporarily succeeded in damping religious sentiment but by 1987, notes Hiro, a poll of undergraduates with a Muslim background at Tashkent university showed that only 7 per cent described themselves as atheist. There was an upsurge of men with beards and women with headscarves as religion became a form of political dissent. When the Soviet Union fell apart, even leaders such as President Karimov, a brutal adversary of Islamic militants, visited Mecca and restored his first name to Islam. Only after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, did he, like other regional leaders, make airspace and military bases available to the Pentagon for its war against Islamist extremism. The Americans were subsequently expelled.

The tensions of Islam in an atheist land are particularly acute in the so-called autonomous region of Xinjiang, which bubbled over so violently this summer. The brooding resentment of Uighurs living in what many consider an alien culture, despite more than 2,000 years of contact with Han Chinese, is brought out starkly in Jeffrey Tayler's In the Bloody Footsteps of Genghis Khan. Another multilinguist and a Moscow-based journalist, Tayler seeks out the opinions of ordinary Uighurs in Kashgar and Urumqi. One person he meets wants the US to "liberate us, just like you liberated Iraq" and exhorts Washington to bomb Beijing. Even some of the less extreme Muslims he encounters profess a visceral dislike of Chinese food, the Chinese language and Chinese people.

Another theme that emerges from all four books is the abiding endurance, even appeal, of authoritarianism. Polo was a great admirer of Genghis Khan, who in the early 13th century used terror and brute force to create the biggest contiguous empire in human history. Like modern Mongolian admirers of their national hero, Polo played down stories of Genghis Khan's butchery, emphasising instead his achievements in bringing order (and the world's first postal service) to the Silk Road. "Wherever he went, he found the people disposed to submit to him and to esteem themselves happy when admitted to his protection and favour," he writes.

Such attitudes prevail even today. Tayler recounts how he balked at the invitation from his Mongolian guide to kneel in prayer before an altar dedicated to Khan. His guide, for whom Khan was a great and gentle liberator, remonstrates: "He was not only a warrior. He was a poet too. He wanted people to treat each other kindly. He was, most of all, against rudeness."

The acceptance of, even outright support for, authoritarian leaders is something Tayler encounters throughout his travels from Russia's Red Square to China's Tiananmen. In Makhachkala, in the Russian republic of Dagestan, he finds nothing but admiration for Russia's latest strongman. "Putin's great," one drinking companion tells him. "He's ordered society. Call it authoritarianism, KGB rule, who cares? What matters is that people get their pensions on time and workers get their salaries. He has put an end to the chaos of the Yeltsin years." In Beijing, while lining up at the mausoleum of Mao Zedong, Tayler concludes: "That crowds throng to his embalmed body even now tells us that the future of this country probably does not belong to liberal reforms, that not all people march when freedom calls, that atrocities can be suffered and forgotten." The former Soviet republics, too, have fallen prey to authoritarianism. Since it declared independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been led by Islam Karimov, a former Communist party official whose public statements include: "I am ready to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic." Criticised for rigging elections and smothering a free press, those around President Karimov have been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including boiling political enemies to death. Saparmurat Niyazov, president for life of neighbouring Turkmenistan until he died in 2006, was such a one-man band that he renamed the month of January after himself and, says Metcalfe, changed the word for bread to his mother's name.

Of the four books, the most entertaining is by the youngest author. Fresh, witty, and full of quirky detail, Metcalfe's Out of Steppe is pleasantly uninhibited. His first taste of Uzbekistan takes place in Nukus, a grim former Soviet industrial city, of which he writes: "The name alone recalled nasal effluent and the arms race."

Yet the book is also a serious, sometimes moving, account of environmental degradation, political repression and social isolation. It is organised around a search for six minorities including the Jews of Bukhara, the Germans of Kazakhstan (brutally persecuted on trumped-up grounds of Fascist links), and the inhabitants of Uzbekistan's Karakalpak republic, whose livelihood was destroyed by a mad Soviet experiment to raise cotton production. This journey may not have you booking your next holiday to Kyrgyzstan or Turkmenistan, but it brings the region into colourful focus.

Tayler is also strong on the social dislocation felt by people in parts of central Asia and Xinjiang. That contrasts with the optimism and energy he encounters in China, where he finds political discontent melts away under the warmth of economic progress. The book, an odd fusion of serious analysis and personal anecdote, ranges unpredictably from historical sweep to chance encounters in trains and discos. I lost count of how many times our author spies a "Rubenesque figure" or the "fresh and svelte" body of a taxi driver. Are there no male drivers in these parts? He spends more time than one would have imagined strictly necessary at central Asian strip joints and Chinese nightclubs replete with "statuesque and lithe, glabrous-skinned" girls in black bikinis. Sometimes gratuitous, some of the encounters nevertheless manage to be genuinely revealing about age-old prejudices and changing norms.

Man's Xanadu is the odd one out in that, like Polo, its author spends more time in China than in central Asia, particularly in Xanadu itself, now called Shangdu, the northern capital immortalised by Coleridge. The book, though erudite, comes across as the account of a slight eccentric. Trying to conjure an image of Kublai Khan's pleasure dome, a sort of super Mongolian tent, the author gets a friend of his architect-son to help him erect a modern-day approximation. There is even a guide for how to build one yourself. Perhaps necessarily, given Polo's sketchy accounts, the book is given to lengthy speculation - on the origins of a headdress Polo brought back to Venice, for example. The resulting book is almost as much about the author as about Polo or the region.

The most straightforward of the four is Hiro's Inside Central Asia, a detailed and nuanced overview. The book is thorough and diligent, but the country chapters - as opposed to the thematic introduction and conclusion - plod chronologically. Still, it is the most comprehensive of the four and most deliberately brings out themes of ethnic tensions, religious intolerance and struggle for political identity. For many, these lands at the crossroads of the Eurasian continent, between the splintered Soviet empire and the rising Chinese one, remain a mystery. These books, Hiro's particularly, help put that right. They reveal what we should have already known: that the grand themes and tragedies of the lands Marco Polo explored and Genghis Khan conquered so long ago are mirror images of our own.

David Pilling is the FT's Asia managing editor
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009.

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