‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is a metaphor. It’s about humanity; it’s not…
Hamid Ismailov’s accomplishments, both intellectually and professionally, are astonishing. As a polyglot with works published in multiple languages – and translated into even more – he is an accomplished poet, writer, and translator. But Ismailov is also a writer in exile, having been forced to flee his home of Uzbekistan after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since 1992 he has lived and worked in London, both for the BBC and as a successful writer and translator in his own right. Of Strangers and Bees is an alluring, disjointed novel of parables and allegories – a somewhat autobiographical, or at least self-inspired, novel about an Usbek writer in exile. In many ways, Of Strangers and Bees feels like the culmination of all of Ismailov’s works, experiences, and philosophies.
Of Strangers and Bees
This is a book that could, arguably, only have been written by a poet. Though it is a novel, to read it is to experience that familiar feeling of wandering the labyrinthine mind of a poet. It is a novel of disparate, disjointed, enigmatic ideas and concepts, roped together like a life raft with the purpose of keeping the writer afloat.
Of Strangers and Bees tells three stories: one of the Uzbek writer in exile, here named Sheikhov. Sheikhov is a somewhat lost man. Having been exiled from his home, he is very much a citizen of nowhere attempting to come to terms with that fact, while also seeking to understand and enjoy the wide world in front of him. He’s a smart man, and moreover he’s an amusing one. There’s charm to him – sometimes alluring, sometimes almost goofy. And Sheikhov does not wander the world aimlessly, obsessed as he is with the idea that the great medieval Persian thinker and philosopher known in the West as Avicenna did not die in the eleventh century, but in fact still roams the world. Sheikhov clearly sees a parallel between himself an Avicenna, and has convinced himself to head out in search of the legendary philosopher.
“It is boundlessly difficult to be a stranger. Your usual ways of behaving bear no fruit: If your habits are not fit for purpose, you might as well be a wheel of its axle, alone over and over again.”
Avicenna himself also makes up the second of three narrative threads in this novel, as we are somewhat sporadically taken back in time to his life and his world, though he is usually represented as the Stranger. We are also given, on occasion, quotes from Avicenna that aid us in understanding the mind of Sheikhov and, by extension, of Ismailov himself. The third narrative thread is by far the strangest, arguably the one that most betrays the poet’s heart at the core of this book. And that is because it recounts the life of a bee, here called Sina. What Sina represents might potentially fly (so to speak) over the heads of some readers. This is, of course, a very disjointed and at times vague novel. Though in this reader’s mind, Sina and the events of his story seem to exist as a parable for the Soviet Union; Soviet Russia, after all, having treated itself as a hive of worker bees existing in service of the ‘queen’.
This interpretation is suggested, as well, by Of Strangers and Bees’ excellent Translator’s Introduction. Shelley Fairweather-Vega not only did an exceptional job at translating this enthralling text into English, but her introduction also greatly helps to ground the story a little for those readers who find its poeticism too abstract or disorientating. Beyond discussing the potential meaning behind the story and life of Sina the bee, it also introduces, for the uninitiated, the concept of Sufism. Sufism, as Fairweather-Vega explains, is a Persian and Turkic philosophy which informed all of Persian literature; it is the search for knowledge and wisdom through the love and acceptance of God. As Fairweather-Vega says of the novel in her introduction: “One could read this novel as Ismailov’s return to the roots of Uzbek literature with a multi-layered Sufi parable, in which the narrator, Avicenna, and the bee called Sino are all on the path of searching for something bigger than themselves.”
Sheikhov is searching for Avicenna, or at least his wisdom and – as a result – perhaps a sense of self-satisfaction and belonging. He has been exiled from his home and so, he seeks the core wisdom and knowledge which originated close to him, as a way of keeping home close to his heart, and to remain connected to it. Avicenna searches to understand the world at large, often appearing in various cultures as the Stranger; he is weaving a common thread across nations and peoples. Sina is searching for his role and his purpose as part of the larger hive. Understanding all of this is key to enjoying the three narrative threads of Of Strangers and Bees. And while readers might have their preferred thread to follow, all three offer worthwhile observations and ponderings on life, wisdom, belonging, and the very acts of learning and searching.
“What had the Stranger sought, and what had he found? Or was the road, now, the most important thing, the road and the silence which enshrouded this world, a world as abrasive, senseless, and mysterious as a dream?”
None of this could be as much of a success as it is without the strength of translation of Shelley Fairweather-Vega. Her introduction proves a deep understanding of not only Ismailov’s approach to writing and of the book itself, but also to the inspirations that led to its existence. There’s a greater purpose to every decision made on the road to bringing life and form to Of Strangers and Bees, and all of that is felt and enjoyed through Fairweather-Vega’s tremendous and dedicated translations. While I cannot read Uzbek, I nonetheless feel the poetry, the rhythm, the beauty of Ismailov’s writing through her flawless translation.
There is boundless wisdom at the heart of this book. But, that being said, Of Stranger and Bees reads more as a comfort and a companion to those of us who feel lost or who seek answers and a sense of understanding, rather than actually offering us those answers. It invites us to discover the joy of searching; to appreciate the satisfaction that can be found in seeking wisdom, rather than in obtaining it. In that sense, Of Strangers and Bees is an enormously successful collection of interconnected parables that encourage readers to feel the thrill of life and the beauty of exploration and discovery in the face of our often-daunting feelings of loss and confusion.