‘A Poet and Bin Laden’, or Islamic militancy in Central Asia and Afghanistan

The latest set of CamCREES bibliographical notes look at Hamid Ismailov’s talk on 21 January 2014 about his novel Doroga k smerti bol’she, chem smert’ which has recently been published in translation (as A poet and Bin-Laden).  They look at some confusion for cataloguers caused by the book, and end on the subject of otherness.

The title page and cover of the Russian original (kindly donated by Mr Ismailov) and the English translation

The title page and cover of the Russian original (kindly donated by Mr Ismailov) and the English translation

The first CamCREES seminar of 2014 saw the return of a very popular speaker, Hamid Ismailov, the Uzbek poet and novelist.  Mr Ismailov had previously come to speak in 2011 on Soviet novels and Soviet reality, which included discussion of his own novel Zheleznaia doroga (9008.c.7320; the 2007 English translation (as The railway) is at C202.c.5616).

The 2014 seminar revolved around another work by Mr Ismailov which has recently been published in translation.  The Russian original was published in the UK in 2005, as Doroga k smerti bol’she, chem smert’ (The road to death is greater than death, C202.d.3553).  The novel tells the story of Belgi, an Uzbek poet who is radicalised by the Uzbek government crackdown in response to the 1999 bombings, and who ends up meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (the title of the translation is A poet and Bin-Laden).


While the main character is fictitious, Mr Ismailov explained that Belgi is in many ways based on himself, with much of the novel drawing heavily on facts and on the turns he understands that his own life could have taken.  The English translation’s subtitle (a reality novel) reflects this.  In fact, the novel is so persuasively realistic, that it was misunderstood on its publication by some to be a factual document rather than fiction.  It even fooled librarians – most records for the original and translation include a Library of Congress subject heading for Belgi, 1961- — Fiction, as though it’s fiction about a factual figure.  The heading is based on an authority created for Belgi (on that same misunderstood basis) – here’s a screenshot of it.  Cambridge also fell under the collective spell, until we were put right by the author and removed the subject heading!

The translation is not yet in the University Library catalogue, but will be added before long, once our copy has been treated to become borrowable (paperback fiction received under the Legal Deposit Act is not usually borrowable, but an exception is being made!).  The record will show the interesting fact that two translators were involved – one for the prose, the other for the poetry the novel contains.  It will also show a different author…  The original was published under one of Mr Ismailov’s noms de plume, Mir Kaligulaev, and the translation’s record must tie together with the original’s.  A sneak preview of the likely look of the record, from the staff side of the catalogue, is shown below (please click on the image to expand it).

20140121 talk_Eng record

Mr Ismailov said that the novel was ultimately about otherness – about how radicalism stems from otherness but is also against other otherness.  As explained in other CamCREES bibliographical notes, works of fiction have traditionally rarely been given subject headings, except in certain cases such as fiction about a certain war or a certain historical figure (hence the inclusion of the Belgi subject heading when he was thought to be a real figure).  An academic work on otherness, however, would be given the subject heading Other (Philosophy), which can be subdivided geographically.  There are also more specific related headings, such as Other (Philosophy) in literature.

Mr Ismailov is a fantastically prolific writer all round.  His blog as the BBC World Service Writer in Residence is linked to here, and his Twitter account is here.

The CamCREES bibliographical notes aim to link Cambridge library resources with the fortnightly seminars hosted by CamCREES (the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) in the Michaelmas and Lent terms of each academic year.  Each set of notes starts by looking at the specifics of a seminar and then goes on to explore related research tips and library issues.  The CamCREES bibliographical notes were introduced in February 2011 on the University Library’s Slavonic webpages, where all earlier notes can be found.

 Mel Bach

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