(Exclusive Interview by Dr Shahid Qureshi): – Marat Akhmedjanov is soft spoken, hardworking and fully professional publisher from Central Asia man based in United Kingdom. He is promoting and launching books and arranging seminars on the area in various parts of the world. He agreed for an exclusive interview with the, The London Post.
- Marat Akhmedjanov please tell us a few words about yourself.
Originally I come from Uzbekistan, a country with the biggest population in Central Asia. I was born and grew up in the town of Jizzakh. My mother was Ukrainian and my father was Tatar. I consider myself Central Asian. Perhaps that’s why I’m so passionate about the Silk Road, Central Asia and everything that has to do with the region. When I was a child, I dreamed about becoming a diplomat because I was interested in history, geography, and economics. Time passed, and instead of becoming a diplomat I became a publisher. I believe my childhood dream nevertheless came true, in an unconventional way, though. Silk Road Media and Hertfordshire Press is the only English language publishing house that exclusively promotes Central Asia and Eurasia to the rest of the world. I believe that what our publishing house does today is a part of cultural diplomacy so it is important for international peace and mutual understanding between nations.
- Hertfordshire Press and Silk Road Media were the main sponsors of the 4th OECABF. As publishers of works focusing on Central Asia, what your main interests in participating in the festival?
We pursue several goals in organising this festival every year. First of all, we are a private publishing house, that is, we are on our own. We are not supported by any organisations or governments. As a business, U suppose you can say that we are looking for our own J K Rowling to publish our own “Harry Potter”. At OECABF we look for talented and potentially popular writers. That’s why we give our main prize to the winner of the contest towards the publication of his or her book. When we were starting our festival, we had a dilemma, who do we invite for the festival? Do we re-publish the classics of the region? It was hard to invite people who are no longer alive to the festival, so, we decided that the festival should aim at discovering new talents in Central Asia and Eurasia.
- The number of participants has grown exponentially since the launch of the festival in 2012. How would you explain such success?
When we started our first festival in Bishkek in 2012, we had 150 participants from Central Asia. From the start our intention was to turn this festival into an annual event. We were happy to learn that interest in future festivals was growing. Thus, we had 184, 450 and 800 participants in 2013, 2014, 2015 respectively. By organising the festival we opened a new channel for creative people in the region. People see that we are committed to democratic values and we don’t discriminate against our applicants by origin. I believe that another reason for the growing interest in the festival is we are interested in discovering new authors in the region.
- Regarding your experience as a member of the jury of the OECABF 2015, how did you deliberate and choose the winners? Who came out as the main winner of the $19’000 prize?
First of all, I am actually not a member of jury at any OECABF, including OECABF 2015 in London. My role is to coordinate all of the events that take place in the frame of OECABF. In London, over 20 events were held in 5 venues as a part of OECABF. As for how we choose the winners, we ask our jury members (who are themselves published authors and critics), to be guided by two questions: 1) Would they buy this book and why? 2) Would they invest their own money in publishing the book of the author? After all, as a publishing house we also have to cover our own expenses and the best way to fo that is to find our own Central Asian “Harry Potter”.
- Participants of Kyrgyzstan, a small country with less than 6 million people, finished in the top 3 positions of every category. How would you explain this?
First of all, I’d like to say that Kyrgyzstan has always been a special country for me. Even though I’m not ethnically Kyrgyz and I’m not from this country, I love Kyrgyzstan and am thankful for its openness and hospitality. I think Kyrgyzstan is free and creative country. I’d say high that the level of democracy and freedom here is the primary reason that so many authors from Kyrgyzstan perform well at our literary festivals. In Kyrgyzstan, people are not afraid to express their thoughts and opinions. So authors can write their books about almost any topic they choose. Secondly, Kyrgyzstan enjoys greater freedom of Internet and information. This is also a key factor of Kyrgyz authors’ success. They get access to information much more easily than participants from other countries surrounding it. And finally, Bishkek is a city where the Silk Road Media Regional Office is based. This is of great advantage to anyone from Kyrgyzstan wishing to participate at the OECABF literary festival. Prospective authors really enjoy the proximity of our local representative being accessible and ready to help with any necessary information regarding the literary festival. Furthermore, Kyrgyz authors are in general very active in writing and participating in literary events.
- You are an honorary member of the Association « Generals of the World for Peace ». Tell us more about the Association, its aims and your work with them.
The “Generals of the World for Peace” Association was founded by Kyrgyz citizen, General Anatoliy Skargin. I know him personally and have cooperated with him for many years. He is a man of action. I like that he is committed to the cause of peace not only in the region, but around the world. That’s why the Association aims to unite peace movements around the world. Now, you don’t have to be a general to be member of the association. I think our publishing house and the association’s common interests overlap in that we both aspire to reach peace and mutual understanding between individuals, countries, societies and even civilizations. Literature is a powerful tool to promote peace. That’s why Anatoliy Skargin initiated the “Generals Award” in the framework of our annual Open Eurasia Central Asia Book Forum and Literature Festival. The “Dove of Peace” medal usually goes to authors and participants of our festival who write about topics strengthening peace and mutual understanding between nations.
- There are ongoing tensions between some of the 20 countries represented this year (For example, Ukraine-Russia, Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan, etc.). Were these tensions visible during the festival? According to you, what is the role of literature regarding these issues?
You are right. There are problems between countries and they should be recognised and openly discussed. Hertfordshire Press aspires to make Central Asia and Eurasia an open and transparent region, because openness precedes mutual trust and development. At our OECABF festival in London, I remember there was someone related to the Ukrainian opposition who submitted her literary work to the contest. We were surprised when someone from Russia asked for her work to be removed from the contest, because she was allegedly promoting anti-Russian ideology. Of course, we only smiled at this. We didn’t remove her work, because it had nothing to do with politics, first of all. She just happened to favour the Ukrainian opposition. We welcome our authors to write about practically any topic as long as they don’t call for violence, discrimination and hatred. Only such works will be considered for disqualification. We are committed to making our festival a safe and open forum where diverse opinions can be expressed. We understand that creativity whether in writing, illustration or film gets its inspiration from what is happening in reality. So, we realise that authors at our festival can and should bring up sensitive issues. I think this is essential for literature to qualify as literature.
- Most of the participating countries are heavily criticised by human rights organizations. How can this festival help to resolve these issues?
OECABF is an event that creates a place for its participants to get to know each other better. Of course when they come to the festival they don’t represent themselves only as individuals. They bring their stories and stories of those people whom they know or by whom their writing was inspired. We don’t limit our participants by political, national or any other criteria. For example, when we held our first festival in Bishkek over 5 Uzbek opposition members participated at the festival. One of them was even nominated for an award for future writers. We welcome dialogue between individuals, organisations and governments.
As for works that mention issues of human rights, I can think of Tajik writer Tolibshohi Davlat’s “Cranes in Spring” that brings up the issue of Central Asian migrants in Russia. It is a frank, open and very sad piece of work, to be honest. The author portrays the lives of Central Asian migrants and all discrimination and harassment they have to go through while going to and living abroad. As a result of this work, local civil rights organisations are using this book to bring more awareness among society about the issues of migration in the region.
- How do you think this festival can promote and improve reading culture in Central Asia?
One might easily be tempted to say that the people of Central Asia are in general are not a reading people. This might be true to a certain degree, considering the last twenty years of general downturn in the region. However, literature is as topical as it has always been, even today in the digital age. I believe it is important to start cultivating reading culture from the childhood. One of first books that we published was “Pool of Stars” by Olesya Petrova. It was a phenomenally successful project, at least for us. We sold over 8000 copies the same year we published it.
- If you had to choose a few words to describe OECABF 2015 what would they be?
The idea of holding literary festival started four years ago. We started it in Bishkek. We had 150 applicants first year. Last year in London at the fourth OECABF we had 800 poets, writers, artists who submitted their work. For us it is a signal that there is a great creative potential in the region, and we want to continue with our annual festival. This year, the OECABF 2016 will take place in Yakutsk, Russia. The contest for works in four categories (literary work, illustration, translation and video) has just been launched and will be open for participants to submit their works until 15th July. I cordially invite all creative people from the region and beyond to be part of this event.
Thank you for your time Marat
(Dr Shahid Qureshi is senior analyst with BBC and Chief Editor of The London Post. He writes on security, terrorism and foreign policy. He also appears as analyst on Al-Jazeera, Press TV, MBC, Kazak TV (Kazakhstan), LBC Radio London. He was also international election observer for Kazakhstan 2015, 2016 and Pakistan 2002. He has written a famous book “War on Terror and Siege of Pakistan” published in 2009. He is a PhD in ‘Political Psychology’ and also studied Law at a British University)