November 21, 2022

Travels Across Eurasia III: Tbilisi to Amsterdam

Furqat Palvan-Zade

Scan of the manuscript The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the Book of Ecstasy containing a poem by Arifi. Calligraphy by Tahmasp I and miniatures by unknown artist. 1524–25. Tebriz.

e-flux Notes is publishing a series of four travelogues by Furqat Palvan-Zade, the first from Tashkent to Termez, the second Baku to Shusha, the third Tbilisi to Amsterdam, and the fourth (to follow later) Tashkent to Kassel. They will also appear in book form as part of Beginning in the Middle: Conversations on the Post-Soviet, edited by Elsbeth Dekker and Robbie Schweiger, published by Jap Sam Books.

Author note: These travelogues were written while scouting and filming The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the Book of Ecstasy (2022), a film which reveals my fascination with the eponymous Persian manuscript kept in the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg. As an artefact, the manuscript caught my interest for two main reasons: first, I think that polo—which is considered to be a form of entertainment for rich white people—can serve as a metaphor, or a synecdoche, for the colonial history of the last few centuries. My analysis of the manuscript and polo not only aims to decolonize the game, but also to tell the stories of the violent geopolitical games of Western superpowers in Central Eurasia. Secondly, the multilayered nature of The Book of Ecstasy manuscript corresponds to what I consider to be a significant perception of reality. The kaleidoscope of stories and truths that are preserved in it serve as perfect material to challenge the idea of history and reality as something static or settled. My travel reports, orbiting around the manuscript, are illustrated by images taken on my journey through Central Eurasia.

***

Tbilisi to Amsterdam, September 2021

I moved to Georgia a few years ago after a long period of living in Moscow. Like Uzbekistan, for decades Georgia remained a part of the Russian Empire, and later the USSR. Every periphery of this vast territory is characterized by numerous specifics that determined the relationship to its center. Similar to the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that says, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” each postcolonial situation has its own historical reality—the dynamics of relations with the center, the degree of violence used during colonization, and perhaps most importantly, the biographies of the local intelligentsia, their ambitions, preferences, and moods. However, these features obviously had one common root. This ubiquitous feeling of postcolonialism made me take a new look at the common history of the region—and it was during my first stay in Tbilisi that I encountered this different perspective.

The first thing I noticed is the difference in the use of languages. Tashkent is located a greater distance from Moscow and was part of the Russian Empire and the USSR for much less time. However, one could hear significantly less Russian spoken in Georgia. In Tashkent, Russian is still the language of the intelligentsia and cultural exchange. Over the past twenty years, Tbilisi has radically changed its language policy: schools have shifted towards the English-speaking world and in communication with young people it is easier to use English. But this also applies to older people who speak their native Georgian much more frequently in their daily or public lives.

At a certain point, I even felt like an agent of the center and at first caught myself thinking that for some reason I should start a conversation with Georgians I didn’t know in Russian. It took some effort to stop this. Probably, the linguistic dissonance I experienced in Georgia became my trigger; it was then that I started paying more attention to the history of our countries and applying a postcolonial lens in practice.

One thing led to another. After quite a lengthy stay in Georgia, I eventually came to understand that something was wrong with my subjectivity, language-wise. I realized I was a native speaker of neither Russian nor Uzbek, to say nothing of my English. Although I did study at the national school where we diligently mastered the Uzbek language, literature, and history, gradually, after the years spent in Moscow, Russian had sort of replaced my native language. Over time, I realized I was in a constant state of translation when I was speaking any of the three languages of my everyday life—and it was not entirely clear which one I was translating from. After a while, I came across a quote that rather accurately described my condition:

A resident of the former colony finds himself in the vicious circle of melancholic suffering: cut off from his native language, accustomed to looking at himself and his culture from the outside, he feels despair, he longs for the restoration of the lost harmony, but has to continue existing in the world where the latter is unattainable.1

This quote is taken from the book Not Like a Native Speaker by Rey Chow, a Chinese cultural theorist and a Hong Kong–based postcolonial researcher who has worked at the American Academy and Brown University. (She also writes about Chinese literature and cinema). I am not entirely sure if my suffering is as dramatic as what Professor Chow describes, but the quote comes close to articulating my confusion.

During my last trip to Tbilisi, I finally made it to the pantheon. This is a cemetery where Georgian aristocracy and intellectuals are buried; many names I found there were actually familiar to me from the toponymy of downtown streets. While walking around, I came across the grave of Alexander Griboyedov, a Russian general and famous nineteenth-century writer. He rejected a diplomatic position in the United States (perhaps it was too far from his native Saint Petersburg) and, as a real Romantic, preferred service in the exotic East. Griboyedov is considered one of the authors of the Treaty of Turkmenchay, according to which the territories between Russia and Persia were revised, a border regime that still retains its relevance today. The border was set at the Aras River, which separated Persia from the Russian Empire and later the USSR. That same border now passes between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Griboyedov and other Russian generals actually started a process of national demarcation in the region. General Pavel Sukhtelen, the son of a Dutch engineer and freemason, was among those responsible for bringing to Saint Petersburg a manuscript containing the poem that is the object of my research. Military campaigns that he oversaw divided the region from Safavid Iran and later predetermined the national borders between the Caucasian republics.

For many centuries, Central Asia and the South Caucasus (including Christian Georgia) were greatly influenced by Persian culture. Half of the population of Uzbekistan speaks (or used to speak) Persian, whereas large areas of contemporary Georgia were once Persian vassals. Although Georgia is a Christian country, in terms of culture it could be included in the so-called Persian world, or called a Persianate culture (although the majority of modern-day Georgians would hate that designation). The Georgian elite had close connections with the Persian shah’s court. The heirs of Georgian princes were often raised at the Iranian shah’s court, being held hostage there until coming of age. Many Georgian princesses became the wives of Persian noblemen. The relations between these cultures were certainly not limited to the elite strata; their traces can also be found in Georgian language, food, place names, and so on.

One of the protagonists of my film is Prince Tahmasp I, a calligrapher and one of the authors of The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the Book of Ecstasy. In the sixteenth century, he and his heir Abbas I were in charge of trans-ethnic exchange and movement, using brutal force to reach their goals. Historians write about hundreds of thousands of people displaced within one century; for the late Middle Ages, such a scale looks very impressive. This is how the famous encyclopedia dedicated to Persian culture and civilization describes the influence of Georgian women on the Safavid Empire:

The influence and power acquired by the Georgians in this period began in the royal harem, where women from the Caucasus, many of them of Georgian origin, became prominent. No less than four of Shah Ṭahmāsb’s surviving sons were born to him by Georgian wives, and one of his daughters by a Georgian wife, the powerful Zaynab Begom, played an important role at the court of her nephew, Shah ʿAbbās I. The queen mother in the seventeenth century was always a Georgian. In reality, she was usually Circassian, though the difference is not always clear. Georgian women played an important role in the court’s marriage politics, and by the end of the Safavid reign a whole web of relations had been established. The influence of the Georgian harem women accounted for the Safavid tolerance for the country’s Christian population. Writing in the early seventeenth century, Pietro Della Valle claimed that there was not a household in Persia that did not have its Georgian slaves.2

The term “Persianate culture” or “Persianate world” is problematic, and numerous scholars have been addressing and arguing about them over the last thirty years. As someone who is deeply immersed in Russian politics and who tracks the Kremlin’s propaganda signals, I can draw parallels with the term “Russian world” actively promoted by Moscow in recent years—also during the 2014 war in Ukraine, when the Donbas and Crimea were incorporated into the space of this imaginary “Russian world.”

One can easily imagine an alternative universe where Iran would not be positioned as an isolated Islamic state, but some kind of an alternative Iran on steroids, which would implement its own aggressive foreign policy based on the Persian language and culture rather than on revolutionary Shiite Islam. Fortunately, this has not happened, and thus I decided not to take this term seriously. For me, this is one more way to approach the history of Central Eurasia: beyond the framework of our common Russian/Soviet past, beyond the politics of heritage appropriation/possession.

There are different ways to determine which internal properties and characteristics are inherent to this Persian world. I prefer the kind of a romanticized approach presented by Hamid Dabashi in his book The World of Persian Literary Humanism, where he, in a certain sense, positions Persian literature in opposition to doctrinaire Islam. Dabashi’s approach could be interpreted as being too Iran-centered; however, at this stage, I do find this to be a useful and inspiring claim. The nationalistic potential of this term is highlighted by Nile Green in The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca, where he says:

Dabashi proposes that the “subversive” and “flamboyant” profile of Persianate literary culture (adab), which had “an effectively feminine disposition” was always distinct from “the commanding doctrinal beliefs, strict juridical injunctions, expansive metaphysical mandates” of Islam. Although he devotes parts of two chapters to the Mongols and Mughals, for Dabashi, the geography of the “world” of Persian literary humanism remained focused on Iran as its “epicenter.” Dabashi’s survey charts the history of the Persianate world as a nationalist teleology.3

The peak of Persian cultural development and spread happened between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Farsi was the lingua franca of the aristocracy and cultural elite of the gigantic region that stretched from Siberia in the north to the Great Mughals’ India in the south, and from China in the east to the Balkans in the west. It was spoken regardless of one’s ethnicity or religion; it was the language of poetry, education, and diplomacy.

The inclusion of a certain country into a particular region is always a problematic and controversial gesture. Today’s Poland refuses to be recognized as part of Eastern Europe. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the concept of Northern Europe was popular in Russia. In the 1990s, for some time, the idea of Eurasianism again enjoyed popularity—presented more than half a century ago by Russian emigration representatives as an alternative to the old Europe on the one hand, and by the international left movement and international political organizations on the other.

Some of my Russian, Georgian, and Uzbek friends react negatively when classified as “post-Soviet,” which I find rather indicative. Equally problematic is the term “Central Eurasia,” which I often use in my texts. In this regard, I like the position of Svetlana Gorshenina, who, in her article about the region of Central Asia, says that in each individual case the researcher must outline the regions according to the pragmatics of the moment, at the same time keeping in mind all the conventions and limitations this term implies. That is, it is important to approach the issue with a focus on what exactly you research and what you want to say.

I recently interviewed Madina Tlostanova, a trans-diasporic (Circassian-Uzbek) decolonial feminist thinker, writer, and professor of postcolonial feminism at Linköping University (Sweden). We discussed her monograph What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet? Decolonial Art on the Ruins of the Soviet Empire. I addressed Madina with this question: “When will we stop being post-Soviet?” According to her, this experience cannot be simply cancelled. In fact, we can never cease to be post-Soviet, she says. What’s more, the frame has to be broadened, and we need to openly say that the whole world is now living in a post-Soviet state—the whole world is experiencing post-socialism. It is no coincidence, she argues, that decolonial studies emerged in the early 1990s as a reaction to the void formed in place of the socialist project.4

How can these contradictions be resolved? And do they really trouble me so much? Or are they just a part of the agenda that is being imposed upon me by the global community of researchers and contemporary artists? Sometimes it appears to me that by thinking so much about my country or the places I have lived in for so long, I am actually getting tangled up in self-exoticization.

To figure out my real attitude towards all these issues, in 2020 I decided to move to Amsterdam. In a sense, it was a counterintuitive step; it was strange to research your country and region (or even different regions that were being outlined, slipping away, and overlapping with one another over time and space). In addition to being counterintuitive, there was a certain weakness and an escape into comfort inherent in this decision, as well as a conformist gesture and an attempt to monetize one’s postcolonial experience. To legitimize yourself as a researcher and author, you must constantly exoticize yourself by choosing topics that would classify you in one way or another in the academic system and the global contemporary art network. But this is something one apparently needs to put up with.

In Amsterdam I met with Alfrid Bustanov, a researcher from Tatarstan who had been writing a dissertation at the University of Amsterdam. I asked him a question about self-exoticization and the reason why he, as a researcher, chose topics related to his region and identity. Could it be described as an attempt to assimilate into the academic community and legitimize oneself as a researcher? Alfrid replied that one should not succumb to the illusion that by being in the West you were selling your postcolonial—or any other—experience.

For many years Alfrid has been engaged in fieldwork and the cataloguing of manuscripts that have survived in private collections. According to Alfrid, the distance between him and this object of research is approximately the same as if his object was of Western origin. Relatively speaking, it is wrong to describe yourself as a specialist in a certain region—you cannot be a specialist in Russia or any other specific region. Instead of false self-exoticization, you need to engage in purposeful deprovincialization—you are not a specialist in Central Eurasia, but instead, for example, in the spaces of cultural interaction. The principles these spaces follow in the course of their development are universal.

The most important piece of advice I got from him is to be careful in making far-reaching conclusions. If a person wears a tubeteika and an oriental khalat, this should not always be regarded as an indicator of colonial systems or orientalism, exoticization or self-exoticization. Sometimes a person does it simply to figure out and understand what it feels like to wear a tubeteika and a khalat.

Postscript

According to Boris Groys, history occurs in a space between the archive and life, between the past that is being collected and reality, understood as everything that has not been collected. Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of history—not as a static and well-defined set of facts, but as a field of struggle, constant reassembly, and re-actualization of traumas, disagreements, and reinterpretations originating from a point in now—is one that I fully share.

Perhaps the main conclusion of my trips around Central Eurasia in search of the identity of one particular manuscript lies in the statement that there are specific situations and each of them has its own truth—not in the postmodern sense, where the coexistence of different conflicting truths undermines all the grounds for rational judgment, and not in the sense that we can be frivolous in our attitude to reality. Quite the opposite. We must be brave enough to see the real basis of social constructs and what lies behind things covered in dust—the relations of living people, their desires, fears, and worries.

In her book What is “Islamic” Art? Between Religion and Perception, Wendy M. K. Shaw offers an alternative approach to the question of attribution. She deconstructs the term “Islamic art,” used by orientalist historians of art, and draws attention to the fact that there is no need to try to fix some specific features inherent in Islamic art, which, according to her, is a dead-end position. Instead, she proposes a study of the way the object works in regard to people’s perception.

In the sixteenth century, the manuscript containing The Ball and the Polo Stick, or the Book of Ecstasy evoked certain feelings among the masters of the court workshop of Shah Tahmasp I. When you read the medieval history of Central Eurasia, you may get an impression that the real reason for the brutal wars of that period were the khans’, shahs’, emirs’, and sultans’ passion for art and crafts—they just wanted to have a group of talented and interesting people around them. From Samarkand in the east through Herat and Sheraz to Istanbul in the west—all those dynastical and religious conflicts happened because Muslim rulers loved these exquisite manuscripts and wanted to have their own ateliers and workshops (so-called kitabhane) in their courts. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but it’s hard to deny that the will to prestige and social status is the main engine that has motivated most of history.

In the nineteenth century, in the Muslim intelligentsia circles infected with the idea of nation-building, however, completely different feelings prevailed, since for them these manuscripts symbolized something rather outdated, something that was better left abandoned in the name of progress. In the postwar period, among young philologists of Azerbaijan, the manuscript inspired patriotism and interest in their roots—at first naive, but eventually growing into a violent conflict at the end of the USSR years.

I like the idea of agency in things. One needs to probably trust them more than people.

One of the first provocative questions I heard from my peers when I started discussing my future research on the Persian manuscript was a question of nostalgia. “Are you doing this out of nostalgic feelings?” they would ask me. That is, they wanted to know if I was attracted to the golden age of Islam, when Central Eurasia was a region where handsome princes played polo, wrote poetry, and enjoyed other pleasant court activities. It’s true that I could really have got engaged in this research out of nostalgia—but in a different sense.

I am of course concerned not with the abstract and rather academic issue of the attribution of phenomena and artefacts to a particular culture, but with a simpler and more common human issue of home and belonging.

Some time ago, in answering my question about his definition of home, the historian Sergey Abashin said,

Home is a multiplicity of locations, sometimes in various regions, cities, and even in different countries. We are connected with each of them, and each of them leaves an imprint on us. Home is the various social relationships which formed us, specific temporalities—the past or the future—and even the distinct materiality and corporality expressed in the sensations of touch and smell. All of these dimensions co-exist in us, and we are constantly moving between them, both physically and in our imagination, each time rebuilding our “home” anew, and in this way constructing our personal biography, identity, and subjectivity.5

Perhaps, having outlined in my trip reports the trajectory from Tashkent through the Caucasus to Amsterdam, I have also drawn up my personal constellation of locations that have left an eternal mark on me—the places I can call my temporary homes, where I have done something or am still going to do something. It was at these homes that I started relationships with people in order to reassemble again and again our histories, both common and particular.

Notes
1

Rey Chow, Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience (Columbia University Press, 2014), 27.

2

“Georgians in the Safavid Administration,” Encyclopaedia Iranica .

3

Nile Green, The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca (University of California Press, 2019), 5.

4

Glazok, “Interview with Madina Tlostanova: What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet?,” YouTube video, June 15, 2021 .

5

“The Home of Many Easts,” EastEast .

Subject
Caucasus & Central Asia, Russia

Furqat Palvan-Zade (b. 1986, Tashkent) is an independent curator, researcher, and filmmaker. In 2014 he cofounded the syg.ma project—a community-run platform and an expanding archive of texts on society and art. This platform serves as an engine and a tool for launching various collaborative projects mapping an international community of writers, activists, artists, and designers. As a filmmaker and a researcher, Furqat is working on a series of projects investigating the transient geographies and overlapping cultures of Central Eurasia.

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