It could be said that prior to Sadriddin Aini (1878-1954), the history of Tajik literature and the rich history of Persian literature, encompassing famous poets such as Firdawsi, Rumi, and Omar Khayyam, were one and the same. Mutually intelligible regional dialects of Persian existed alongside various minority languages throughout much of present-day Tajikistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Uzbekistan. But dramatic developments were about to give birth to a distinctive modern Tajik literature, of which Aini, a Tajik from a village in present-day Uzbekistan, is considered the father (Perry and Lehr 3).
Calls for social and political change began stirring in late 19th-century Central Asia that effected both deliberate and unforeseen effects on language and literature. In her 1995 dissertation, Transitional Central Asian Literature: Tajik and Uzbek Prose Fiction from 1909 to 1932, Eden Naby writes that early 20th-century Tajik and Uzbek intellectuals were already “focused upon subjects like educational reform, improving the position of women, ridding society of superstitions and abusive religious practices, and protesting the injustices practiced in the khanate system of government” (2).
Prior to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Central Asia was divided into independent khanates; today’s republics were nonexistent. Following the inception of the USSR and the establishment of Uzbekistan and, later, Tajikistan, Aini and others set themselves the task of devising a new literary language to suit their social and political goals. It was felt that literary Persian was “syntactically convoluted” (Perry and Lehr 18), and an effort was made to replace Persian idioms with the language of the people. In 1939, Cyrillic was declared the official script, in order to facilitate Russian-language education and strengthen ties with the other Soviet states. In “Tajik Literature: Seventy Years is Longer than the Millenium,” John R. Perry writes: “The new literary models were to be Gorky and socialist realism. Aini led the obligatory parade of rags-to-revolution autobiographies” (571).
As suggested by Perry’s statement, Aini’s legacy is mixed. In spite of his pro-Soviet activities, Aini fell into disfavor with the authorities for a while and spent time in prison. Regardless of his political affiliations, however, Aini’s memoir is considered a classic of contemporary Tajik literature, and its themes reflect the concerns that occupied the minds of Aini and many of his contemporaries in Russia and Central Asia.
Aini’s influence on literature and society is demonstrated in the memoirs of Tajik folklorist Rajab Amonov (translation in progress). In a chapter titled “My Close Friend” (Jura-i Qarin-i Man), Amonov describes a novel by Aini that captured his attention as a boy. It was completely unlike other books he had read, which dealt primarily with religious figures and supernatural events. This one related the circumstances of impoverished mountain people in the south of Tajikistan and the cruelty of the rich and powerful who ruled over them.
The Sands of Oxus
The Sands of Oxus is the first part of Aini’s three-volume autobiography and one of the few literary works (they number in the single digits) translated from modern Tajiki into English. It chronicles his childhood, including the loss of his parents, who died in an epidemic when he was in his early teens, until the time he left home to become a student in a religious madrassa in Bukhara. In the course of his narrative, Aini describes the region in which he lived, relates some common Tajik customs, and highlights the abuses of the religious leaders.
The glossary includes about ninety-five transliterated terms and helpful identifications of historical individuals. Unfortunately, this edition includes a surprising number of typos. The translation itself is satisfactory, although a bit uneven in places, with once in a while an uncommon word that strikes a dissonant chord. The style–at least in translation–seems more informative than aesthetic, and the narrative turns didactic at times, but it is still a rare and interesting glimpse of late 19th-century Central Asia.
Aini, Sadriddin. The Sands of Oxus: Boyhood Reminiscences of Sadriddin Aini. Trans. John R. Perry and Rachel Lehr. Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1998.
Naby, Eden. Transitional Central Asian Literature: Tajik and Uzbek Prose Fiction from 1909 to 1932. Diss. Columbia University, 1975. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Xerox University Microfilms, 1977.
Perry, John R. Introduction. The Sands of Oxus: Boyhood Reminiscences of Sadriddin Aini. By Sadriddin Aini. Trans. John R. Perry and Rachel Lehr. Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1998. 1-23.
Perry, John R. “Tajik Literature: Seventy Years is Longer than the Millennium.” World Literature Today 70.3 (1996): 571-73.