If you ever wanted proof that 13 is an unlucky number, look no further than The Dancer From Khiva: One Muslim Woman's Quest for Freedom (Black Cat, 256 pp., $14). Its author, who goes by the single name Bibish, recounts a life haunted by one misfortune after another and by the number 13. Her birthday, both her children's birthdays, every milestone in her life, it seems, occurs on the 13th day of the month. "Really! You couldn't make it up," she says, and the same holds true for the stories of violence and hardship that comprise her autobiography. Harrowing is not too strong a word.
Bibish was born in the mid-1960s in rural Uzbekistan, a Central Asian republic that was part of the former Soviet Union. Her family was poor, and the women were predictably abused and overworked. As the book opens, Bibish, age 8, is kidnapped and gang raped, an event which she reports in a simple, matter-of-fact tone that only heightens its horror. It's a shocker of an opening, but as the book goes on, it becomes clear that the rape essentially sets the course for Bibish's life. Shame makes it impossible for her to tell anyone what happened, and carrying the secret seems to have set her apart from her family and her village. No longer a virgin, she assumes she'll never be able to marry. Dancing, her primary talent and sole pleasure, is condemned as indecent, which only adds to her alienation. "Every path was closed to me," she writes.
Bibish does eventually escape her village, get an education and marry, but her life remains grim. The litany of her suffering, which includes another violent sexual assault, is almost incredible, but she tells her story in such a frank, unadorned way that it's hard to doubt her. Determined to make a better life for their children, she and her husband immigrate to Russia and work as street vendors during the hardscrabble post-Soviet years. The backward brutality of her earlier life is replaced by urban poverty and ethnic prejudice, as well as constant wrangling with immigration officials who say things like "Go to Siberia, to the taiga, and live there with the bears!" The book ends when Bibish meets the American family who will help her publish her memoir. She also gets the opportunity to dance again. Such a positive note is welcome after so much hard luck, but it feels a bit tacked on. It's hard to believe the curse of number 13 will be banished by a book deal.
The Dancer From Khiva reads very much like a letter to a friend, and the simple, confessional style holds the reader's sympathy through what turns out to be a relentlessly sad story. The book hardly ever comes up for air, though Bibish does have some fun with her protracted struggle to learn Russian, and the detailed descriptions of rural life are fascinating.
It's worth noting that the book's subtitle, One Muslim Woman's Quest for Freedom, is somewhat misleading. It's true that Bibish describes the people of her village as "terribly religious," but most of the mistreatment she receives seems to arise from the ignorance and suspicion found in any remote community. Rape, hunger, domestic violence, racism and bureaucratic callousness are not the products of religion. Of all the bad things that happen to Bibish, only one of them—the punishment for dancing—has anything directly to do with being Muslim. Her suffering is identical to the suffering of poor women everywhere.
The website of the German literary agency that handled the book lists the title as The Dancer From Khiva, or The Story of the Ingenuous. While you can't really blame an American publisher for dropping "ingenuous," the vague swipe at Islam is a little disturbing. Suggesting that The Dancer From Khiva is some kind of exposé of the evils of Islamic fundamentalism might sell a few more copies, but ultimately it does a disservice to both Bibish and women all over the world who confront similar repression and abuse. The cynical marketing casts a shadow of doubt on the book, especially given the recent scandals about faked memoirs. That's a shame, because Bibish's experiences seem perfectly authentic and all too common.
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