The Nurali doston, which used to be sung with a musical accompaniment by itinerant bards, can be considered a classic of Uzbek popular culture. It consists in two contrasted episodes. In the first episode, the hero is in search of his lover. Victorious over both natural and supernatural creatures, Nurali is ultimately impeded by one powerful element: the river Maskan, which he is unable to cross. The second episode relates the coming together of his scattered family. Starting with a series of misfortunes, it builds up into a victorious reunion. It is the character of the hero himself that binds the two parts together. Nurali appears as a full-fledged epic hero right from the start: gifted at birth with an incredible strength, he is promised to a remarkable fate. Yet his impeached love for Marghumon Pari reveals another aspect of his personality. Though he has long sought and fought for the lady, he soon surrenders to his parents’ objections and rejects her. In her love for the hero, by contrast, Marghumon proves stronger in resisting the social conventions.
Nurali’s adventures are an episode of the “Gurughli cycle”, an ancient narrative that can be traced back to the Scythians. The epic has been known throughout the Turkic world and beyond for nearly fifteen centuries. A variety of tales and legends stratified around one historic figure, the Gurughli cycle is known under different versions to the Turks, the Iranians and the Armenians. Yet all of these versions rest on a single narrative kernel: that of a servant blinded by his angry master, and the subsequent revenge of the blinded servant’s son. In the Turkic version, the blinding of the father is connected to a judgment on a horse, and the servant’s son is identified with Gurughli, “the son of the tomb”, or rather Köroghlu, literally “the blind man’s son”. The historical Köroghlu has been identified. The chief of a company of celali, he ruled over a band of outlawed mercenaries of the Robin Hood type that fought against tyranny, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, in the late sixteenth century. Such groups spread all over Eastern Anatolia towards the end of the reign of Selim I. In the narrative, Gurughli’s adventures lead him across Anatolia all the way to Transoxiana. He eventually defeats the king of the Turcomans and rules in his place, setting his capital in Tchambil. But the extension of the epic to the descendants of Gurughli is specific to the Uzbek tradition. It comprises a cycle dedicated to Gurughli’s adoptive son Awaz, and others relating the adventures of Awaz’s sons: Nurali and Rawshan.
Edited in Tashkent by Hodi Zarif in 1964, the present Nurali doston was first transcribed in 1937 by the folklorist Buyuz Karimov. He collected it from the bard Fozil Yo‘ldosho‘g‘li (1872-1955), the most famous representative of the Bulung‘ur school of chant. In many respects, the Nurali epic is therefore an exemplary case of the passing of one text from an oral performance to the printed state, through the intermediary of the manuscript. As Rémy Dor explains in his introduction, the text was strongly impoverished in the process. In the printed rendition, a whole episode of the oral version is missing, and the narrative repetitions as well as the specific markers of orality have all been left out, to say nothing of the massive normalisation of the language and stylistic levelling of the text. The text only retains one feature typical of “orature”: its formulaic style. The editor insists on the specific performance and transmission codes of what he defines as “orature”, as opposed to written literature. Like most of the Uzbek narratives collected from the bards in the early twentieth century, the present text would stand somewhere in between oral and written literature, the written prolongation of an oral literature that the editor qualifies as “literary orature”. But there is more. Dubbed “chantefable” in reference to the French mediaeval romance Aucassin et Nicolette, this Nurali doston is in fact a real prosimetron: it relies on a structural alternation of prose and verse, of narrative episodes and sung passages. Surprisingly composite, however, the passages in verse are not all of one single kind. They present various types of strophic arrangements and rhyme patterns, from simple quatrains to thirty-line “laisses” (assonanced stanzas). Rather uncommon in Uzbek poetry, the phenomenon is acknowledged as Fozil’s hallmark.
The bilingual edition of the text is preceded by an inclusive introduction by Rémy Dor, comprising information about “orature” and about the Gurughli cycle as a whole. The initial overview of Uzbek history is interspersed with illuminating information about the Nurali narrative hinting, in particular, to the Mongol bent of the hero’s character. As for the French rendering, the translator’s choices are all accounted for in great detail. Rémy Dor wished to keep with the contrastive prose and verse of the original, as well as to the fixed syllabic patterns and simple rhymes of popular metrics. Additional explanations and didactic typographic markers all contribute to make this edition, primarily intended for students, easily accessible to the larger public.