Land Beyond the River, by Monica Whitlock

Monica Whitlock’s Land Beyond the River is an informative journalistic description of the social and political developments in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan during the 20th century. We borrowed the book from the library but decided it would be worth owning because of its accounts of events difficult to find detailed in one place elsewhere, such as unrest and revolution in Bukhara in the second decade of the 20th century, the Tajik civil war and its resolution in the 1990s, and ongoing displacement of Tajiks due to war, forced migration, and other hardships.

B says he found Whitlock’s description of Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s particularly arresting. Familiarity with these events, he feels, is critical to understanding the state of the present-day republic and its society. Though people refer to the war and its effects constantly, few talk about it in depth, making her account all the more valuable. While reading, we were particularly struck by the impression that many individuals and communities were fighting rather aimlessly, not for power or control, but simply for survival. In the chaos that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the government, Tajiks were hard pressed to meet their basic needs (167-168).

If Land Beyond the River has a fault, it is in the surplus of information it attempts to convey—too many stories, too many locales. We suspect Whitlock gathered enough material for two or even three books during her years as a BBC correspondent in the region in the 1990s. She also reported from Dushanbe and Tashkent following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She has conducted numerous interviews with diverse individuals, whose stories contribute first-person, insiders’ perspectives on the events she describes. However, the number of such stories and their brevity challenged our ability to keep track of the speakers and the events they described.

Similarly, we found the frequent shifts in time and place confusing. For example, a chapter titled “A Year in Tashkent” includes a biographical sketch of Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov, an account of the disappearance of an imam from Ferghana in 1995 and the events that followed in Uzbekistan, a description of the Taliban’s activities in Afghanistan at that time, a biographical sketch of Afghan General Dustam, and a description of developments in the Tajik civil war that year. Though all these events were, likely, interconnected, we found the relationships obscure.

At the beginning of the book, Whitlock gives a great deal of attention to two individuals: Muhammadjan Rustamov, an Uzbek religious scholar from Kokand known as Hindustani, and Sadre Zia, a Persian-speaking Bukharan intellectual (23). We received the impression that the narrative would substantially follow the fate of these two men or, perhaps, their descendants. A worthwhile endeavor, and to some extent fulfilled, but these threads play such a minor role in the remainder of the book, and they are intertwined with so many other personal accounts, that their significance was obscured.

Other publications have analyzed Central Asia’s late 20th century history in rather technical essays from the perspective of political scientists. Land Beyond the River takes a very personal and potentially readable approach to the subject. We feel more sustained attention to each locale, individual, or time period would make the book even more approachable, i.e. centering each chapter around one individual or family.

Click here for Kambiz Arman’s review of the British edition of Whitlock’s book, posted June 19, 2007, on Eurasianet: Beyond the Oxus review

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