Why Tamerlane After All?

Half in jest, I added a blurb yesterday about why this blog is named what it is. Tamerlane, I wrote, is my namesake, so in a sly sort of way, I was naming this process, this practice, this site, after myself. That still holds true, but I'm beginning to wonder about something more critical that might be gleaned from the name. I'm still reading Solnit's Storming the Gates of Paradise, the book's essays moving from reportage to the revelatory. A brief line caught my eye in her essay "Sontag and Tsunami": "The Iraq War has been a strangely unseen war...".

A strangely unseen war.

It's a sentiment I'm inclined to agree with, though not one which I'd like to work through now (indeed, I think many abler voices have written about the limited views afforded of Iraq). Her phrase does, however, call up something else I'd been thinking about: the absence of maps in our contemporary debates. Is the unmapped also that which is unseen? Is to see something to map it? Again, I think these arguments have been worked through by abler hands than mine, but I continue to hold on to the problematic relationships between the visual and the geographical. The problem of the cartographic eye, I suppose.

But to return to this notion of the unseen. One might argue that one of Solnit's consistent acts throughout her writing is this act of making the unseen seen, of bringing what had been relegated to the background forward, of making what is customarily invisible visible. This is, as much as anything, a political project, but it is not a partisan one. One might also argue that this project of making things visible is something that stands firmly within a humanist tradition.

That humanist tradition is something which has also been of interest to me of recent, and brings me back to the figure of Tamerlane. My own rough grasp of his history involves an empire and a city: He ranged through the Central Asian steppes, through Afghanistan, as far west as Damascus and Ani, in the process sending back artisans to enrich Samarkand. What seems striking to me today, however, is how ill-equipped we are to imagine that process. A geographical imagination, perhaps, which has ceased to be able to see. It can process and compute, perhaps, but it cannot see.

Looking back on my recent work here, that which I've seen has figured strongly into my own writing, and probably explains some of my fascination with Solnit's work. Both of us, I might suggest, have a particular investment both in seeing and in making things seen. It is a problematic project (as most are), but I think a pressing one.

During the days of the Soviet Union, Tamerlane merited mostly scorn and opprobrium in the textbooks. With the Soviet Union's dissolution, the newly minted government of Uzbekistan seized upon Tamerlane as a suitable national icon. His statues now sit astride central squares and boulevards, an attempt to link a marginalized present to a triumphant past. This work here is not that, but I would like to persist in thinking that writing is about making things visible, about making the unseen seen. Broadly conceived of, then, this blog isn't a site about any one particular thing (though perhaps it would make more sense if it were) as much as it about a consistent enthusiasm or mania. And Tamerlane - he of the once-ruined, now-restored, almost arrogantly large Bibi Khanum - might be a fitting icon after all.


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