This is one of the rare titles that one can recommend in answer to the question, What book should I read on Central Asia? Put it together with a Cadogan or a Lonely Planet guide book and the neophyte traveler to Central Asia is in pretty good shape. Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist whose on-the-spot interviews and articles about the area have appeared regularly in the Far Eastern Economic Review and London's Daily Telegraph, as well as leading Pakistani journals. One obvious strength of the book lies in the fact that the author has spent a great deal of time in Central Asia asking questions of Central Asians. Another strength is reflected in his choice of the title: The Resurgence of Central Asia emphasizes that there was something of significance there before the Russians came.
The first third, roughly, of the book is devoted to a general history, both ancient and recent, of the area as a whole. This is concise and essentially accurate, providing the necessary background without dwelling too long on the seductively fascinating by-ways of Central Asia's very long history.
Then, the rich core of the book consists of separate, detailed studies of each of the five newly independent countries. The general history is particularized to the space now occupied by each of these countries. Thus in the ·Mountains of Islam - Tajikistan," the author, quite properly, reaches as far back as the visit of Alexander the Great to establish the context in which to understand the still unfolding tragedy of this poorest of the former Soviet republics. There is a close and valuable study of the origins and events of the Tajik civil war, including the involvement of interested outsiders such as the Russians, Iranians and various Afghan factions. Thumbnail sketches of the principal Tajik players help explain the tragedy.
Rashid is a thorough reporter who bolsters his first-hand accounts by assiduously mining the writings of others. In the lead-off chapter of this section of the book, "At the Centre of the World - Uzbekistan," the range of his references encompasses Maillart, Manz, Carrere d'Encausse, E.H. Carr, Olufsen (1911), Critchlow, Roi and Allworth, among others. The result is a dense and nuanced account of Central Asia's most assertive country in the throes of transition from the bleak sureties of a distant communist dictatorship to the uncertainties of a homegrown dictatorship trying to survive on its own. The book is not a contemporary report - it covers events only through 1993 - but this fact has its own value, in that we have frozen-in-time pictures of this critical transition period. In the special case of Uzbekistan the reader may be surprised by how little the sociopolitical setup seems to have changed in the intervening five years. There has been, for example, no basic change in the potentially explosive situation in the Ferghana Valley.
While the author has interviewed most of the leading figures of Central Asia, he does not seem to have been taken in by disingenuous claims. The one place where he has willingly gone along with Uzbek chauvinism probably does not make a difference to anyone now living. Referring to the original Uzbek conqueror of Central Asia, Rashid states (pp. 85-86): "Shaybani Khan was helped in his task by the most famous of all early Uzbeks: Mir Alisher Navai...." Recently dead by the time Bukhara and his native Herat were taken by the boorish Uzbek, the elegant Mir Alisher might have laughed at the charge of helping the enemy, but he would surely have knocked over his tombstone at the accusation he was 'Uzbek'.
The final third of the book has two chapters, one on "Central Asia's Foreign Policy" and the other on "Uncertain Homelands - Security, Islam and Nationalism." In this last chapter, Rashid makes some interesting observations that, while not unique to him, arc felicitously expressed. Pointing out that the new nations must somehow learn, for example, to deal with ethnic nationalism and religious fundamentalism, he writes:
In the past, independence or national liberation struggles were processes in which leaders and elites proved themselves and gained experience, the goals of the elite and the masses became welded together and local differences were resolved. These struggles also released enormous energy, commitment and self-sacrificing attitudes towards the building of the nation.... Central Asia experienced no such political process, its peoples were barely touched by political events and the enormous gap between the rulers and the ruled only grew wider (p. 240).
Another wise and intriguing observation by the author remains as apposite today as it was when he wrote it:
It is not surprising that Nazarbayev and Akaev, who both come from traditional elite families within the Kazakh and Kyrgyz clan systems, arc more politically secure, and more popular - and can afford to have a more open view of reform - than Karimov or Niyazov. who were brought up as orphans and can lay claim to no genuine regional or clan base (p. 242).
This is a sound and reliable book. It shares none of the errors that characterized some of the other books about Central Asia that were rushed into print at about the same time. That said, it must be noted that the book has one major, inexplicable and annoying fault: many of the proper names in the book are misspelled. A list of these wayward variants might start with Kohjaev for Khojaev and Sharif for Sharaf Rashidov, but it would also have to include the names, on page 43, of the early Sufis and their orders.