They arrive, in the developed world, from their home states that are dreadfully poor, war-wracked, or sometimes where they were born will no longer recognise them as their own. Sometimes we hear their stories, the Congolese in London, the Haitians in New York, but more often they are statistics, issues, problems.
Rarely do they get a chance to speak for themselves, to tell their stories. But that’s what Bibish has been lucky, and clever, persistent and brave enough, to do in The Dancer from Khiva.
And it’s a story from parts of the world we’re rarely exposed to, for she was born in a small village in Uzbekistan, a traditional Muslim area, where women were bound by strong traditional limits and restrictions. And she’s moved herself to a city just outside Moscow.
Her story’s a reminder that these migrants, these asylum-seekers, these supplicants, are in fact the brightest, the bravest, the best – the humans who will not settle for a small, constrained, sad life, who strike out, however unwisely and uncertainly, in search of something better.
Following the tales of Bibish’s life, as she breaks taboos by dancing and appearing on television, running off to study on her own, finding her own husband, completing her higher exams with a newborn baby and appendicitis, moving her reluctant husband and two sons to Russia, where she barely speaks the language and they face rampant, vicious discrimination – this is a trek of a life that bears comparison with the great explorers of history.
Yet all of that effort, that bravery, manages only to take Bibish and her husband to an uncertain life as market traders, with no security of housing or income, vulnerable to dangers ranging from theft to official persecution.
Bibish doesn’t come out as an altogether likable character; she’s doughty, tough and persistent, but prone to self-pity (understandable as it is) and still capable of remarkable naivety and with a strictly limited view of the world.
Yet this is a remarkable story, one that illuminates the uncertain place that so many people living in our cities now inhabit. Last year the landmark of more than half of the world’s population living in cities was passed, and Bibish’s story, while exceptional in being told, gives an insight into the tremendous difficulty of their experience.