April 18, 2017

Bringing some Flaubert to Tajikistan? Not so fast…


Strange stuff’s going down in the small, beautiful, beleaguered nation of Tajikistan.

Last week, there was news that the country’s police officers will be legally required to attend more theater (note that, because Tajikistan does not yet contain a musical adaptation of Groundhog Day, this is permissible under the Geneva Convention). Around the same time, the capital, Dushanbe (formerly Stalinabad), was convulsing over a transit plan imposed by the new mayor, Rustam Emomali, whose father is President Emomali Rahmon.

Now, Abdullo Ashurov and Farangis Najibullah report for Radio Free Europe, the nation is implementing tight restrictions on the transportation of books across its borders. Any book brought into or out of the country will require official travel documents, a move the government says is intended to “prevent valuable manuscripts from being smuggled out of the country.”

Many see another motivation: to control the dissemination of violent ideology. Since sectarian hard-liners lost the civil war here that immediately succeeded the collapse of the Soviet Union (of which Tajikistan was a member), concern over religion-soaked forms of violent extremism have led to a number of laws and initiatives that mobilize state repression in the defense of secularism — an exotic flavor in the US, but a familiar one in spheres of former Soviet influence. Recent examples have included campaigns of forcible shaving, a prohibition on any public worship by minors, bans on some books, and crack-downs on groups like the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and the pan-Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir movement. In 2015, Gulmurod Khalimov, the US-trained commander of Tajikistan’s elite OMON security force (familiar to diligent readers of Russian fiction thanks to Viktor Pelevin’s indelible Omon Ra), made waves by defecting to ISIS, which surely sparked some sense of urgency in the Tajik capital.

Ashurov and Najibullah quote an “expert on social affairs” (¿huh?) named Saidi Yusufi as predicting that books written in languages that use the Arabic alphabet, like Arabic and Farsi, are likely to fall under especially keen suspicion. (Tajik, like Farsi, is an Indo-European language distantly related to English; it is most often written in Cyrillic, the alphabet used by Russian.) The article notes:

The State Customs Service recently confirmed that a copy of Bustan, a famous work by the renowned medieval Persian poet Saadi Shirazi, had been seized from an unidentified Tajik citizen traveling abroad.

The customs office said in March that the book was confiscated along with three others — including a book on interpretations of dreams and a book of spells. All four books were in the Arabic script.

(Sidenote to the Tajik stranger traveling the world with a book on dream interpretation and a book of spells: Hi you are cool.)

Time will tell whether the new rules have any impact beyond hastling travelers. In the meantime, if you’re going to Tajikistan—and you should—be sure to get that Bartleby pre-approved.



Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.