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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

The Dancer from Khiva


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To purchase The Dancer from Khiva

Title: The Dancer from Khiva
Author: Bibish
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 248 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Dancer from Khiva - US
The Dancer from Khiva - UK
The Dancer from Khiva - Canada
  • One Muslim Woman's Quest for Freedom
  • Russian title: Танцовщица из Хивы
  • Translated by Andrew Bromfield

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Our Assessment:

B- : completely artless

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The English-language edition of The Dancer from Khiva appears now to have been saddled with the subtitle One Muslim Woman's Quest for Freedom, but that gives rather the wrong impression of Bibish's memoir. She is nominally Muslim, born in a traditional Uzbek town and actually named Hadjar, in honour of her great-grandfather's pilgrimage to Mecca, but religion plays a very limited role here -- only, it seems, to the extent that some of the local traditions and superstitions are closely connected to Islam. As she sees it:

The dreadful thing, as I have said, is that the people there were terribly religious. They observed the laws very strictly, and there was slander and rumor on every side.
       Among the traditions they held onto was the requirement that women be undefiled at the time of their marriage; a woman who is not a virgin can't be married off and brings great disgrace to a family. This compounds the ramifications of "the most painful that happened in my life", which is that when she was eight years old she was gang-raped by a group of men who picked her up on the side of the road. She had told her parents she was going to visit her grandmother who lived a few miles away, and when she finally returned home, after several days or weeks away, she didn't tell her parents, who were apparently satisfied with her explanation that she had been off tending grandma's cows. In her teens she's gang-raped again, and even when she lands a husband who accepts that she isn't a virgin they have to lie to everyone (and fake proof of her deflowering on their wedding night).
       Bibish's childhood was spent in crushing poverty, but she writes with such cheerful resilience, bouncing back after every small and large bad thing that happens to her, that it's hard to get much of an impression of what that life was actually like. (It is also practically impossible to tell that she grew up in Soviet times, beyond the fact that an education was relatively easy to get for a smart girl like her, and that there was an overwhelming bureaucracy -- though the latter continued well into the post-Soviet time.) Sure, there are moments of despair -- a string of suicide attempts, the odd complaint about how unfair life is -- but they are quickly shrugged off. Here is one author who does not waste much of her (or the reader's) time feeling sorry for herself.
       Bibish moves forward, driven by a sort of ambition. She wants a better life (which eventually includes getting the hell out of Uzbekistan, especially once it becomes a semi- and then independent state), but she doesn't have a very clear plan. Instead, she seems to haphazardly embrace whatever possibility there is next, running off to Leningrad, for example, with just a contact-number (of someone who, of course, isn't there when she shows up).
       Bibish portrays herself as something of a country bumpkin and innocent, completely at a loss as to how to handle the big Russian cities, for example, and taken advantage of at various points, but she, like everyone, manages to somehow keep getting by. The narrative moves along in a sort of fog of fits and spurts, Bibish focussing on specific episodes but leaving a great deal out; it's unclear how she got most of her studying done, and she moves from place to place, often separated from her husband and then two children. The dilemmas she faces, like how to get a housing-registration, which is necessary in order to get other paperwork, are significant but also rather dull (it takes her a long, long time ...); indeed, a great deal of what she describes isn't about anything particularly interesting.
       Bibish has little sense of proportion in her writing. On the one hand, it's agreeable to find an author who doesn't overanalyze what's happened to her; on the other hand, she breezily moves past many things that would be of greater interest. She only casually mentions that, according to tradition, the new wife spends a whole year never uttering a word to her parents-in-law; in her case, living with her husband's parents, the Russian mother-in-law isn't such a stickler for this kind of thing, but apparently Bibish did keep mum around her father-in-law, for a whole year and a half -- but we never get any real sense of what that must have been like. Instead readers are treated to several examples -- over pages and pages -- of Bibish's inability to cook.
       Bibish's inability to learn Russian is also mentioned repeatedly, though never really explained, and she describes some of the embarrassing mistakes she makes, passages that lose something in translation but can't have been very interesting in the first place, either. But when she makes a provocative statement she doesn't follow it up, as when she describes how she raised her two sons:
From childhood on they have spoken only Russian. They don't know their own language.
       The communal aspects of Soviet and then post-Soviet life are rather interesting, from the expectations of certain behaviour within the community (to the extent that when she is married off, Bibish's future in-laws' family goes around asking the neighbours about her) to people constantly being thrust together. Bibish rarely lives alone, and even when she brings her husband and sons to Russia they often only find rooms, rather than their own apartment. Near-strangers are constantly helping one another out, but there are also all sorts of tensions, and in Bibish's account it is difficult to get a sense of where everyone really stands.
       The Dancer from Khiva offers a variety of interesting peeks at life in Uzbekistan and Russia, but it's an odd and almost shapeless memoir. Her almost childish artlessness can be mildly irritating, but at least the book reads quickly and easily -- though it can hardly be said to be well-written --, and in a sense it's a welcome picture of life in those areas because she's not constantly moaning about how terrible everything is. Still, the account -- and Bibish herself -- remain baffling,

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The Dancer from Khiva: Reviews: Bibish:
  • Bibish at Nibbe & Wiedling Agency
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bibish (Бибиш) was born in Uzbekistan in the mid-1960s.

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© 2008 the complete review

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