“I lift my head and it seems to me that I see … the sharp minarets of mosques rising proudly and invitingly heavenward. Pale blue, lavender, grey. I can already hear the muezzin’s call to prayer.” Tatiana Mazepina, who won Russia’s coveted Debut Prize for young authors in 2010, wrote these words at the start of her prize-winning memoir about an overland journey from Russia to Egypt, Traveling to Paradise.
Fountains and folktales
Islamic images are present throughout Russian literature, from the earliest narrative poetry to the latest contemporary fiction. Pushkin’s long poem, The Fountain of Bakchisarai, written in the 1820s after a visit to the Bakchisarai palace in Crimea, rolls out a series of orientalising motifs: dark-eyed warrior khans, carpeted harems guarded by towers and eunuchs, maidens serving sherbet in gardens full of vines and roses. But the poem’s emotional power comes from Pushkin’s ability to inhabit a different viewpoint in the Tartar’s Song, its romantic lyricism framed by Islamic ideas: “Blessed is the Fakir who, with joy, sees Mecca in his fading years”…
Lermontov wrote the short story Ashik-Kerib, subtitled “a Turkish Tale” in 1837, the year he was exiled to the Caucasus. It is set in Georgia and starts, in true folktale fashion, with a wealthy merchant (“to whom Allah had given much gold”), his beautiful daughter and a poor minstrel, Ashik-Kerib, who falls in love with her. The story, like Lermontov’s better-known works, shows the huge influence on his writing of his time in the Caucasus.
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