The new telling of “Forty Girls,” which mixes video, songs and traditional and modern music, marks a bold departure for a Muslim country. That is particularly so in Uzbekistan, as it struggles to shake off a legacy of brutal repression left by its former president, Islam Karimov.
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Gathered in a concert hall recently in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a group of eight women and one man rehearsed a musical retelling an ancient epic tale called “Forty Girls.”
The story dates back more than 2,000 years but has a strikingly contemporary theme: how a band of female warriors in the deserts of Central Asia had — long before #metoo became a rallying cry in the West — resisted aggression by the men who wanted to conquer them. The women all die in the end but nonetheless avoid submission.
The new telling of “Forty Girls,” which mixes video, songs and traditional and modern music, marks a bold departure for a Muslim country. That is particularly so in Uzbekistan, as it struggles to shake off a legacy of brutal repression left by its former president, Islam Karimov, who ruled the country from independence in 1991 until his death in 2016.
Karimov left so little space for independent creative activity that many of the country’s artists stopped working or fled abroad, including Saodat Ismailova, the creator and director of “Forty Girls.” She spent most of the past decade in Paris with her husband and daughter but recently returned to Tashkent with the blessing of the country’s Culture Ministry, to rehearse her show.
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It has been funded by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, a program that, like many foreign ventures, withdrew from Uzbekistan when Karimov’s rule took a sharply repressive turn in the 2000s.
The performances, Ismailova, a filmmaker, said in an interview, would “break all the clichés about our cultures” — and also remind Americans that “girl power” long predated the disgrace of Harvey Weinstein.
Ismailova said she disliked being labeled a feminist and considered the #metoo movement a peculiarly American and dogmatic response to a complicated issue.
All the same, she has drawn a distinctly feminist lesson from the “Forty Girls” epic, a story originally transmitted only orally but put down on paper during the Soviet era by a Russian poet and ethnographer who understood Karakalpak, a language spoken by the storytellers in western Uzbekistan who had recited the epic for generations.
“If you read it carefully, you see that all the problems start with men,” Ismailova said of a story that nearly everyone in Central Asia knows at least vaguely. “It is a deep memory for us that is very far away,” she said.
Her fascination with “Forty Girls” — “Qyrq Qyz” in Uzbek — began by chance with a visit in 2012 to a secondhand bookshop. While browsing the shelves, she stumbled across a Russian translation of the epic by Arseny Tarkovsky, the ethnographer father of the celebrated Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.
She had a dim memory from childhood of having heard the story of “Forty Girls,” but the Russian translation brought into focus a story that has since taken over her life and work.
The story of the female warriors long predated the arrival of Islam in Central Asia in the middle of the eighth century, and despite efforts by some Islamic preachers to mute its message, the epic survived, thanks to traditional storytellers and the freewheeling nomadic ways of much of the population.
“Nomads adopted Islam in syncretic forms that assimilated and preserved myriad local practices and beliefs, many of them connected to veneration of spirits and various forms of shamanism,” said Ted Levin, a musicologist and an expert on Central Asia at Dartmouth College, who has worked with the U.S. cellist Yo-Yo Ma to promote the region’s culture in the West.
Stories about other female warriors, based on a mix of legend, poetic invention and historical fact, also date back more than 2,000 years. The best known of these are ancient Greek accounts of the Amazons, fierce warrior women who fought in the Trojan War and figure in the chronicles of many Greek historians and poets.
They were long viewed as fictional, and there is no evidence to support ancient Greek tales about women fighters cutting off one of their breasts so they could shoot arrows more easily.
But, said Adrienne Mayor, a scholar at Stanford University and author of “Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World,” the “Forty Girls” epic is rooted to a large extent in historical fact, with some scholars relating their exploits to accounts of female warriors that appear in ancient biographies of Alexander the Great. “Scholars believe that the events in the ‘Forty Girls’ epic are historically and culturally plausible,” she said.
The women the Greeks called Amazons were particularly prevalent among the nomadic, horse-riding peoples of Central Asia, where ballads about heroic women fighters are deeply embedded in the culture of Uzbekistan and neighboring countries. The arrival of Islam crimped the role of women but never entirely conquered the relative freedoms they enjoyed under nomadic tradition.
“Forty Girls,” the earliest layers of which date to the sixth century B.C., revolves around Gulaim, a 15-year-old girl who rejects marriage and gathers around her 40 like-minded horsewomen on an island in the Aral Sea. That inland sea, in Karakalpakia, a remote desert region in the western part of what is today Uzbekistan, has now mostly disappeared, drained of water by Soviet-era irrigation projects that diverted the rivers that fed it.
Memories of Gulaim and her companions, however, have survived. In what seems to be homage to their exploits, teenage girls in Karakalpakia today start wearing a “girl soldier” costume of dark blue woven hemp when they reach 15.
Gumshagul Bekturganova, a 23-year-old musician from Karakalpakia whom Ismailova recruited to sing and play the dutar, a two-stringed instrument, said she admired Gulaim because “she was very pretty and courageous.’’
“She is a symbol of the fighting spirit,” Bekturganova said.
She added that she had been discouraged from taking up the dutar, traditionally seen as an instrument for men, but that she had ignored her dissuaders. “Men and women should be equal, but men still try to stand a step above us,” she said.
Ismailova, the director, has repeatedly explored the ways in which women can assert themselves. Her debut feature film, “40 Days of Silence,” depicted four generations of Tajik women who live entirely without men.
“I am not a feminist,” she said. “I am against the idea of women without men. There are no women without men and no men without women. I believe in individuals, whether men or women.”
Her production of “Forty Girls” ends with one performer reading out the names of 40 Central Asian women who have made their mark in science, the arts and other fields. They include the Queen of Altai, who resisted the Russian conquest of Central Asia, and Nurkhon Djuraeva, the first Uzbek actress to unveil her face on stage. She was murdered by her brother.
Real equality, Ismailova said, will come only if the achievements of individual women are remembered.
The music for “Forty Girls” was composed by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, a musician born in Uzbekistan who previously served as composer-in-residence at Harvard University. It features ancient folk melodies stitched together into what he described as a “collage of musical forms that is both modern and traditional.”
Yanov-Yanovsky said he did not see the production as a feminist manifesto but as a parable open to many different interpretations. “If the audience has many questions, then I think we have succeeded,” he said. “The more questions, the merrier.”