HAMID ISMAILOV is an Uzbek writer who was forced to leave his native land in 1992. Torture in Uzbek jails apparently includes boiling of body parts along with the more commonplace use of electroshock on genitals and plucking off fingernails with pliers.
In 2001, two prisoners were reportedly boiled to death. Despite, or perhaps because of, this brutality Uzbekistan has, it is speculated, been one of the destinations where the US government sent Al Queda suspects so they can be more vigorously interrogated than would be possible elsewhere. These darkest materials are the inspiration for Ismailov’s ‘reality novel’, A Poet and Bin-Laden (Glasoslav Publications ).
Belgi is a widely published young poet forced into the conflict that, in many ways, defines our times. Uzbekistan’s all too real President Islam Karimov is a central figure. An old style Communist determined to hang on to power; Karimov crushes the secular opposition and launches a campaign against Islam, under the pretext of fighting fundamentalism. One victim is Belgi’s brother. His mutilated body is handed over to Belgi by police who claim he committed suicide. Belgi ends up in an Islamic militant camp in Hoit near the Kyrgyz border.
This book shows how extreme political movements actually come about. It is never about the few socially disabled cranks always to be found in such organisations, be it Al Queda, the Workers Revolutionary Party, or the BNP. What matters is when cataclysmic events push real people with lives towards such organisations.
Even after the murder of his brother, Belgi’s course is not set. His girlfriend, Caroline, is an American journalist and wants to investigate more deeply the mystical Sufi tradition within Islam, a philosophy far removed from the fanaticism that enables the Saudi obsession with lopping people’s hands off or the Taliban need to shoot schoolgirls. Again, however, events intervene.
Belgi watches the attack on the Twin Towers on TV. When the second plane hits its target he says: “I understood without any words – simply from the childish cry emitted by the anchor man – that we weren’t watching a Hollywood film.”
As the US revenge on Afghanistan ensues, Belgi moves through the fringes of the Islamist movement into the inner counsels of Al Queda where he eventually meets the man himself. If you want to know how an entirely sane, cultured, young man could become what most people would describe as a terrorist, read this book.
Central to the novel is the vast hypocrisy of the West, who talk human rights and democracy but when it suits collaborate with regimes which boil people after first having pulled out their fingernails. There are of course other hypocrisies about the place.
Those whose problem with the President of Uzbekistan is not his penchant for having people’s finger nails pulled out but that he is a friend of the United States, if he were not a friend of imperialism, then the torture might not be so bad, in fact it might not be torture at all.
People like President Islam Karimov do not easily leave the stage and when it looks like one of them might be forced to do so, there is always either a Henry Kissinger or a member of the anti-war movement to tell us why, in effect, it would on balance be better if said puller out of finger nails were left to pull out a few more.
The Poet and Bin-Laden offers valuable insights into the consequences regimes like this have for all of us.