Uzbekistan's first postage stamp issued after independence was unusual in its choice of subject; one would expect the first issue to feature the flag (as was the case with independent India), and subsequent ones to picture strongmen or founding-fathers. In Uzbekistan's case, it was a 200-year-old Kokandi queen called Nodira Mohlar-oyim (Nadira Makhlar-oiim) -- wife of an usurper, mother of a debauch, power behind the throne for decades, Sufi teacher, and ghazal poetess with 10,000 verses in her bayat. (Cynics will say the philatelic choice is probably due to a series on Arts In The SSRs having been long planned by the Soviets timed for Nodira's bicentennial; the Uzbek authorities taking a path of low resistance in allowing it to be released. The stamps were printed in Moscow.)
The director of the museum on the palace grounds, a stout Uzbek lady in stylish dark-green leather, is telling me all about otins, the women-clerics of Central Asia, who fill a role somewhere between mullah and witch-doctor. She drops her voice and whispers conspiratorially: "If you come at night after the moon has set and before the sun has risen, you might see Nodira-begim kneeling in prayer in that niche." The power supply fails; the museum room plunges into darkness. We turn on cellphone displays and slant around the lighted panes. In a pale blue phosphorescence the framed image of a queen appears on the wall; her features are indistinct but she is wearing an ascetic's dark cape, made of rough wool in this land of silks. In fact, the word sufi, according to one explanation, comes from the Arabic tasawwuf, at the root of which is suf, or wool.
Nodira's husband Umar Khan ascended to throne as the 7th ruler of the Khanate of Kokand in 1811, after engineering the assassination of his brother Alim. He died in 1822, when Nodira was 30. While Madali Khan, the son of Umar and Nodira, was being groomed for rule, Nodira was part regent and part mourner.
O straight cypress, what are your thoughts?
Your promise of rendezvous burnt my soul.
Bound, I pray for pardon,
My aim is your perfection.
You argue with the face of the moon,
O, sun, have you achieved eclipse?
For the wealth-seeker, water of paradise or water of Kaaba,
For me, the pure drops of your tears are enough.
You may not yet read them,
But your fortune-telling on holy sheets was blessed.
More precious than Jamshid's cup in which you could see the world,
O sufi-beggar, your broken glass.
Your lovers died in your sorrow,
But you show not a particle of care.
O sick heart, in separation,
You have not strength to beat.
O, Nodira, you speak about love,
And your condition becomes more and more notorious.
(adapted from a translation by Razia Sultanova)
The folk-culture of Central Asia has retained strong pre-Islamic elements. Wherever you go, large billboards proclaim O'zbekistoni yomon kuzdan asragin! (May God protect Uzbekistan from the evil eye!) In her forthcoming book From Shamanism to Sufism: Women, Islam and Culture in Central Asia, Sultanova discusses how in her opinion Central Asian women kept alive traditional Shamanic Islamic religious culture, especially Sufism (even when all religion was banned under the Soviets), most significantly in Ferghana Valley, which she calls 'the cradle of female Islamic culture.' Another of the celebrated voices from the otins of Ferghana is that of Jahon-otin (1780-1845), whose takhallus or pen-name is Uvaysiy (Jahanotin Uvaisi):
If I ask for the sign of meeting from people who love, they kill me,
If I don’t ask I die.
If I build a shop of love for the suffering people, they kill me,
If I don’t build I die.
Don’t put me to torments of jealousy, O death,
if my beloved is sitting with another,
If I bark unceasing like a dog at his door he kills me,
If I don’t bark I die.
There is no other way but to be patient,
If I want him till the dawn of day.
If I wander like a vagabond hither and thither, he kills me,
If I don’t wander I die.
If I was absent while I was far away,
It was because my beloved said, forbear:
If I go today to see the flower of his face, he kills me,
If I don’t go I die.
He avoids me, intimidates me,
My soul leaves this ephemeral world.
If I stay with this wan face, O strange Uvaysiy, he kills me,
If I don’t stay I die.
(again, adapated from Sultanova.)
The bayats of the classical otins of Ferghana are now what is called ethnomusic -- retreating to the village and the elderly under the onslaught of mp3 pop. An example of the traditional music of the Uzbek Sufi women can be found here.
As for Nodira, her son Madali Khan turned out to be a spectacular debauch even by the standards of the khanates, eventually infuriating the clergy by marrying not only his wife's sister but also her mother. The Emir of Buhkara arrived to deliver Kokand from the despot. Conquering Kokand in 1842, Nasrullah had both Madali Khan and Nodira executed. (The Kokandis soon realized that a homegrown despot was better than one from Bukhara, so within a year the nephew of Umar and Nodira was back on the throne. Such was the patrimony of Khudayar Khan the palace-builder.)