A Tajik author highlights an oft-overlooked community: Bukharan Jews

This book review reminds us of a group of Anusim that still are persecuted because of their Jewish roots.
The author makes an important link between the exclusion of these Bukharans and the treatment of other minorities

Chala (The Outcast)
by Mansur Surosh Dushanbe
Adeeb Publishers, 2000. 110 pages. In Russian

The Outsiders

Najam Abbas


Tajik writer Mansur Surosh's new novel, "Chala," tackles an oft-neglected subject: Bukharan Jews, many of whom converted to Islam in the 18th century. Scorned as traitors by their former religion and never fully accepted by Islamic people, the so-called "chala" have lived an existence that has become a metaphor for the exclusion of minorities in the region.

DUSHANBE — In Tajik, the word chala means "neither one thing nor another" and often refers to something incomplete, deficient, or flawed. In common usage in Tajikistan, it also refers to Bukharan Jews who converted to Islam. Both their former and adopted communities doubted their intentions, and they were treated as outcasts by all sides.

In his new novel, Chala, Mansur Surosh – a journalist and writer from Tajikistan's Leninabad Oblast – tackles the sensitive issues of nationality and belonging that surround the Bukharan Jews. His passionate, humanistic approach-writing about people's everyday lives-challenges the prevailing literary wisdom where chala has been discussed only as an abstract concept, if at all.

Bukhara (now in southwest Uzbekistan) became dominated by nomadic Uzbek tribes in the 16th century who readily accepted Islam. During the 18th century many Jews-some under social pressure, others with the hope of a better future-converted to Islam. As Islamic fundamentalism grew in the next century, so did the rate of forced conversions and pogroms. In recent decades, particularly in the years following the Soviet dissolution, about 250,000 Bukharan Jews have migrated from Bukhara, Khojand, Kokand, Samarkand, Shahre Sabz, and Tashkent to Israel and the United States. Only a few thousand remain in Bukhara, while in Dushanbe there are a mere 300.

Surosh's novel spans the beginning of the 19th century to the 1970s, as the Bukharan emirate was being dismantled. The author has a remarkable talent for recreating the minute details of everyday life in Central Asia. Surosh colorfully draws Bukhara's streets and squares, events, and customs at the start of the century. Leafing through the book, we pass grocery stores, roadside vendors, souvenir shops, kebab sellers, and teashops. There is the Sallokhona (butcher house) gate and the entrance to the Jewish quarter. And then, along with Jews in their traditional attire, we return to the alley where the synagogue is located.

Surosh's story is about such chala characters as Ziev, a leading trader in Dushanbe, and owner of many shops and stores-the reader can almost smell the bales of satin, silk, printed cloth, and velvet. And about Moshe the barber's son, and Abo, Pinhaus, their children and grandchildren, there's also young Yossef trying to cope with the bitter realities of living as an outcast and eventually deciding to end his life.

Owing to several internal and external factors in the 1800s several hundred Bukharan Jews decided to accept Islam so that they could safeguard their rights and social status under the Bukharan Khanate. As a result, they ended up banished from their own community. Yossef is forbidden to see a young Jewish girl, Burho, by a local rabbi, who "decided to save her from any suffering in the future, since there is no future for her in being friends with an outcast." When Yossef tries to argue that quite often the chala converted to Islam in appearance only, with their hearts remaining attached to their old faith, the rabbi says, "one must not live with a split spirit, since it's the person who suffers most and falls victim. It's better not to speak the truth, as it attracts clouds of lies."

After the death of Moshe's father, Mordechai, those who were his brothers in creed turn out to be heartless. They refuse to give him a Jewish burial, though the burial of the deceased, just like the prayer in the synagogue, must be carried out in the presence of at least ten people. They lament, "Here, his soul will not find any peace and will disturb the souls of others." The reader also learns about the gifted voice of the son of a Jewish bootmaker, Levich, who-though a notable performer of the classical Tajik lyric "shashmaqom"-is forbidden to sing at Jewish festivals and celebrations.


Though Surosh uses the term chala to describe that specific group of people, other writers have used the term as a metaphor. Timur Pulatov, a Tajik-speaking writer hailing from Bukhara, says that chala is a phenomenon of forced assimilation that may pose a threat to the language and culture of other communities. "Chala is the experience of specific people, irrespective of their nationality, who-for the sake of their welfare and for the sake of the authorities-are prepared to give up their language, their ancestors' beliefs, and their own people," he wrote in a 1998 article in Moscow's Nashe vremena, a literary periodical.

Pulatov-who is also the editor of the Moscow-based Literary Eurasia -laments in the book's preface those "power-hungry people who at the time of the establishment of national states in Central Asia cut the Tajik land into parts as if slashing off the head and chest of a mountain lamb, separating Samarkand and Bukhara from the bleeding body. Since that time, I-and millions of inhabitants of Bukhara and Samarkand-am called Tajik by those in Uzbekistan who wish to 'put us in place,' while in Dushanbe-where the chala spirit haunts people-they call us Uzbeks. The most educated, most civilized successors of [Tajik ruler] Ismail Samani-who, despite every pressure and prohibition are trying to preserve their language, culture, etiquette, and customs-have been and are still being treated as chala." The Tajik population living in present-day Uzbekistan considers itself a victim of forced assimilation. Despite this, many Tajiks feel compelled to identify Uzbek as their mother tongue and register as Uzbeks in order to secure jobs and other social benefits.

Until now, nobody has covered this theme with such detail and passion as Surosh. To many, Bukharan Jews appear to be an issue concerning a very limited audience-a local problem in a small community. But Surosh sees this topic within a broader context as communities are forced to change their identity and views. He attempts to examine the social implications and psychological consequences of the way such people are conceived and accordingly treated by others.

It is quite obvious why Surosh's book has failed to get any reviews in Uzbekistan. During the seven decades of Soviet rule, authorities swept aside the nationality issue in an attempt to portray the USSR as a voluntary union of hundreds of nationalities, all of whom enjoyed equal rights. Any attempt to write about those issues was considered a provocation that might have pitted nationalities against each other. Such attitudes remain deeply ingrained.

In an interview with Transitions Online, Surosh points out that "for a long time, issues such as minority rights were not covered sufficiently other than a passing comment here and there." That is why he decided to "break the taboo and write about a topic that may take modern Tajik fiction to a higher, perhaps global plane, since it sheds light on a far-reaching issue rather than just a local issue." Although he feels it is an untraditional theme, Surosh believes it is an issue that must be brought into the open. "I am always on the side of the sufferers, and [I] like that my readers feel the same way too."

A collection of Surosh's essays and biographical sketches is due to come out in the spring. Among other works, the book will include a chapter called "Chala-Raspiyatiye Dushe" [he Crucified Souls] in which he describes how his personal observations of some incidents involving some chala individuals in his neighborhood led him in 1995 to contribute his first story to the Russian-language literary journal Dushanbe. "From that day onwards, I didn't draw any satisfaction from my creative work as I felt that, since not enough had been written on this theme, it required deeper treatment."

Marina Kovtun, who is writing a doctoral thesis on Surosh's writings at the Russia-Tajikistan Slavic University in Dushanbe, says a lack of awareness about the past may lead to an inability to understand the present, and Surosh's work tries to figure out if and why the chala became victims of circumstance.

Surosh freely admits that he takes the side of "those who become the hostage of intolerance and sanctimony." He says plainly, "under the present sinful times, to find a true Muslim is as difficult as looking for a real Jew." The book is indeed sympathetic toward chala, even to the point of romanticizing them.


Najam Abbas conducted his doctoral research on Central Asia's Russian-language press at universities in Kazakhstan (1994-1997) and Tajikistan (1998). He works for an international project in Dushanbe designing humanities curricula for Central Asian universities.


Transitions articles on Jewish communities and ethnic identity:

Konstanty Gebert's "Poland Contends With Its Vanished Jews" from February 1998, discusses how Poland continues to suffer "phantom pains" from its Jewish losses. In January 1999 edition Johanna Grohova confronted "Czech Disinterest in the Holocaust." She argues that current Czech school textbooks are spreading misinformation about the remaining Jews and ignore their role as a social group. In October 1998 Nadira Artyk discussed the post-Soviet "Exodus of Minorities" from Central Asia. After years of living together-mainly as a result of Soviet forced resettlement policies-many of Uzbekistan's non-indigenous ethnic minorities chose to return to their historic homelands. The process was certainly accelerated (according to the author) by Uzbekistan's increasingly mono-ethnic practices. In November 1999 Felix Corley analyzed the Uzbek government's track record in terms of tolerance of religious groups in light of the decision to release five Christians and one Jehovah's Witness from prison.

Other Resources:

Virtual Jerusalem is a comprehensive site offering information about Jewish communities worldwide. Their section on Uzbekistan includes the demography and history of the Jewish community in Bukhara. Available in Russian and English the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS web site offers a comprehensive index of Jewish communities throughout the CIS and includes news updates. A more thorough history of the Bukharan Jews complete with a bibliography can be found on the Byblos site. The Union Council of Soviet Jews held a briefing in Washington on 26 October 1999 discussing anti-semitism and fascism in the Russian provinces. The Jewish Museum in New York maintains a 'virtual' exhibition about Jewish populations in the Caucasus and Central Asia. It includes a short historical write-up along with images of the exhibition itself. For a list of online resources and links concerning Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the CIS check out jewish.com. A very thorough lists of links to online sources on Russian and NIS literature can be found on a sub-site of Ekskursii.