Central Asia, Center of the World

by Ray Nayler

For Ray Nayler, Central Asia is a grossly misunderstood region that he happened to spend a decade living and working in. His latest story, “The Case of the Blood-Stained Tower,” is his attempt at accurately depicting this part of the world. Read it in our [March/April issue, on sale now!]

I spent almost a decade living and working in Central Asia, in the countries of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan. It is a region most Westerners have a fixed idea of as peripheral—a void between Europe and the great civilizations of China. The West has a muddled image of Central Asia, confusing it with the Middle East, with Persia, with the Caucasus and the Balkans. Central Asia is dismissed as a “Silk Road”—as if it were simply a place one passed through on the way somewhere else. And because most of Central Asia was under the dominance of the Russian and then the Soviet (it was no union) Empire, the modern West has long confused it with Russia, and its inhabitants with Russians.

Lost in all this misunderstanding is the fact that, for many centuries, Central Asia was not at the periphery of the world: it was at the center. It was the axis of cultures, the land of a thousand cities—Merv, Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, and Balkh, to name just a few. Into its cultures flowed Chinese silks and mythologies, Hellenistic sculpture and philosophy, Indian mysticisms, Slavic and Viking coins, and Arab religion. Into it flowed Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Its syncretic, cosmopolitan kingdoms, with Arabic and Persian as their common tongues, preserved much of Greek thought for the West—not in amber, but in active engagement with its ideas: in centuries-long philosophical arguments and engagements with Greek and other philosophical thought.

Mathematical treatises, and triumphs of medicine and geography flowed from Central Asia. Central Asia’s great thinkers included Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West) a metaphysical philosopher whose medical treatises (a side gig for this extraordinary polymath) were the standard for centuries in Medieval Europe, and whose philosophy influenced Thomas Aquinas, among others. His is just one example of dozens.

Central Asia, once the center of the world, is now lumped by the West under the pernicious generalizing term “the Muslim World”—a term which always make me want to refer to the West as “Christendom,” which would be the equally disparaging stereotype. Central Asia is thought of dismissively as a place of religious fundamentalism and “backward” politics, Central Asia’s reputation languishes under stereotypes and misapprehensions applied from afar, with the surety that only ignorance can bring.

Living in Central Asia taught me one thing above others: this place cannot be generalized or stereotyped.

In fact, the nations of Central Asia, apart from Afghanistan, are far more secular than the United States or parts of Europe—carrying not only the deep stamp of atheism caused by Soviet dominance, but also a historically pragmatic attitude toward religion—likely a product of being exposed to so many influxes of faiths. (You may not know, for example, that the mighty Khazars, whose empire stretched along much of the Caspian littoral, were converts to Judaism).

What I wanted to do in “The Case of the Blood-Stained Tower” is to present medieval Central Asia much as it may have been in its complexity—a place of science as well as superstition, an urban marketplace as well as a landscape of steppe and desert—and a place very much at the center of the world, drawing the marvelous and strange into itself.

Living in Central Asia taught me one thing above others: This place cannot be generalized or stereotyped. Nothing said of it could ever be entirely true. And it is supremely difficult to write about in a way that allows Westerners to grasp it without their prejudices getting in the way—so difficult that I have had this idea since 2015, without feeling I was a good enough writer to pull it off.

But Central Asia has been such a substantial part of my life that I have to write about it—and that is why I have been honing this idea for a very long time, building my skills until I was sure I could get the voice, atmosphere, and tone just right.

The result, finally, is “The Case of the Blood-Stained Tower.” I hope you enjoy it, and I also hope it encourages you to go beyond stereotypes and learn more about a region that, while it may seem remote today, was once the center of the world.

Ray Nayler’s critically acclaimed stories have seen print in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Analog, F&SF, Lightspeed, and Nightmare, as well as in many “Best Of” anthologies. For nearly half his life, he has lived and worked outside the United States in the Foreign Service and the Peace Corps, including a stint as Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer at the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. Ray currently serves as international advisor to the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ray’s debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea, is out now from Farrar, Straus, and Grioux. You can follow Ray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/raynayler, on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/raynayler/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/raynayler.

One thought on “Central Asia, Center of the World”

  1. Stories like this one always make me want to know more about the region. When I first started reading this new story of yours I was guessing it set in approximately the 13th C.
    LOVED IT Ray!


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