As part of the campaign against restrictions on UK prisoners receiving books from family and friends, English PEN asked former international cases of concern about the value of reading in detention. A year after his unexpected release from prison in Uzbekistan, author Mamadali Makhmudov describes how books became his closest friends
When I was a schoolboy, I used to have one refuge from everyday problems at home, from idle childhood games. In a quiet graveyard secluded in the hills, in a dense thicket of trees near a quiet riverbed, or among the lonely cliffs, I would go and read a book. Reading, in a still, isolated place, with the company only of the characters inside the book, gave me a particular kind of delight, a sort of divine strength. Even now, I remember those times as some of the happiest, most content moments of my life – and I remember them with a passionate joy.
Sometimes, whether I will it or not, those unrepeatable moments surface in my memory. Then this is what I think:
The books I read so insistently back in those times, back in those distant times, launched me into my future.
They gave me clarity.
They gave me hope.
They gave me faith.
They laid a great foundation for where I am today.
Many long, long years later, I found myself in prison. Then, the divine power of a book was something I felt profoundly once again, and these are the words that resounded in my mind:
Man draws life from air,
Man draws life from water,
Man draws life from light,
Man draws life from food.
And to this list I want to add the following:
Man draws life from books.
I am telling you this from what I know, from the experiences of my own life. I am telling you this from the experiences of my friends who have shared my fate. These friends of mine are conscientious, wise, independent thinkers. And there is more.
The political prisoners,
The religious prisoners,
The prisoners of conscience,
The innocent prisoners…
As they languish in pretrial detention, or in a dungeon, in all the secret dungeons – when they are turned upside down and hot pepper is poured into their every open orifice, when they are hung by their feet and beaten with canes, when their heads are doused with boiling water, when they are sunk knee-deep in a refuse pit, when they are injected with lethal substances, when their screams are muffled in the mud, when they are insulted with senseless, filthy words, when they have the death shroud wrapped around them – these friends who share my fate, no matter how badly then have been bent, have never been broken. What could be the source of this strength? I have one answer:
William Shakespeare. Jack London. Victor Hugo. Byron. Hemingway. Ethel Lilian Voynich. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Their strength stems from the best works of writers like these.
These books gave them strength, and they dedicated their whole selves to remaining true to their convictions, whatever the circumstances, to maintaining their faith in themselves and in the future, to continuing to struggle in the name of those times yet to come. And that is true for me, as well.
From what I can see, in the prisons, dungeons, and penal colonies of Uzbekistan there may be a hundred thousand convicts, and ninety percent of them do not read books. Those prisoners, their morals a shambles, pass their days whimpering in small, low voices, like old Russian women, and pouring their wastewater over each other, deceiving each other, begging small favors from each other.
They pass their days in slander, corruption, insults, and betrayal.
They pass their days acting as stool pigeons.
They pass their days finding ways to get into the good graces of the authorities, dreaming up trouble, schemes, and insults for the political and religious prisoners and the prisoners of conscience.
For the sake of a filthy morsel of food.
For the sake of a soiled conscience.
Or they apply their efforts to betraying the very traitors among them, saying:
They’re doing us favours.
They’re giving us clothing.
The sons of bitches are throwing us crumbs…
These low beasts, these filthy beasts, are betrayed by their own treachery, sheep watching the slaughter, fat and unseeing.
How have these amnesiacs fallen to betraying the people whose fate they share?
This is how I explain it:
They have no path to take other than protecting their own hides, feeding their own bellies, and living like swine. For them, nothing is sacred. They have come to live like scorpions. They have never read a book that awakens in them any hope for life, any love for their home, any hope for the future. Therein lies the whole tragedy. A writer or public figure, his name has slipped my memory, once said, ‘Life without art is brutality’. I believe that life without books is the same.
I was in prison for 16 years and seven months. Even on my most difficult days, books were my companions. Books were what inspired me to banish the feelings of vengeance from my heart, to struggle to survive. Books, and the joy that comes from writing books, brought me out of prison alive. I think that these words of Samandar Quqon, a writer imprisoned 22 years ago, are the truth:
‘My life had been one of work, troubles, and day-to-day cares. But in jail, I suddenly found myself unable to stop reading books, whether new or old. While I was in jail I made plans to kill myself. But I read Martin Eden, and I renounced that goal. In jail, I drew life from books.’
Similar words were spoken, long years ago, by Muhammad Bekjon, Murat Jora, Shoxobiddin, Uktam, Akbar, and Botir, all of whom spent time in prison, and they were the truth; and I have heard them from the lips of my own friends, too.
A prisoner’s closest friend, his most faithful friend, is a book. A book does not forsake you, even on the most difficult of days. On the contrary, it inspires you, and leads you on to a brighter future.
Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega
Shelley Fairweather-Vega is a freelance Russian and Uzbek translator in Seattle, Washington. Visit her website here.
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