A well-known Jewish theater director murdered in Uzbekistan may have been a victim of nationalists or homophobes, a distant relative and Tashkent Jews say, rather than anti-Semitism.
Mark Vail, who founded the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent in the mid-1970s when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, died after being stabbed and brutally beaten on Sept. 7 by two assailants near his apartment in the Uzbek capital. His attackers did not take any money or belongings.
A relative, Peter Vail of New York City, suggested that one of Mark Vail’s theater productions prompted the attack.
“One of the Ilkhom’s most successful performances narrates a story of a young Muslim guy who feels to his male friend something more than just friendship,” Vail told Radio Liberty.
The play, “White White Black Stork,” about love between two religious school boys, was based on a novel by the Uzbek dissident writer Abdulla Kadyri, who was executed during Joseph Stalin’s reign. Same-sex relations are taboo in Uzbekistan’s conservative culture.
“On the other hand, Mark annoyed local nationalists because he was a hub of Russian-language, Western-oriented culture there,” Vail said. “Like in nearly any post-Soviet country, the nationalists suspect the Russian-language theater was a state within the state and believed that undermined the local traditions.”
A news report suggested that the Ilkhom’s performance worldwide of “White White Black Stork” and another homoerotic play, “Taking Care of Pomegranate,” could well have triggered controversy in Tashkent.
Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia, said one Jewish community leader in Tashkent told him many in the community believe Vail’s murder is related to “White White Black Stork” and its homosexual content.
The community leader added that police were saying Vail, 55, may have stumbled into a drug deal, Levin said. The community leader was “pretty emphatic” that the murder was not of an anti-Semitic nature, Levin added.
Vail was killed one night before the opening of the 32nd season of the theater he created during the Communist era. His theater also has held performances in Moscow, Germany, New York and Seattle. Vail’s wife and two daughers live in Seattle; Vail split his time between Washington State and Tashkent, home to some 30,000 Jews. Vail had planned a U.S. tour later this year.
Uzbekistan police have declined to comment on the murder. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it is “following thoroughly” the murder investigation.
This wasn’t the first violent encounter for the Ilkhom troupe. In May 2006, unknown arsonists set fire to an apartment in which the company resided during its tour in Moscow, according to Leyla Izmailova of Tashkent radio.
“They had to jump from the fourth floor to escape,” Izmailova said of the actors. “One of them, Eugeny Dmitriev, later died of burns.”
Some Jews in Tashkent reached by JTA declined to be interviewed, citing an “atmosphere of intimidation” against anyone expressing non-official opinions in a country still reeling from the bloody suppression of an uprising in May 2005.
President Islam Karimov’s term ends in December, but there is no sign of an election to replace him.
Uzbek Jewish community leader Victor Mikhailov was cautious when asked about ties between the country’s Jews and Uzbeki authorities.
“Uzbekistan is likely one of the best places for Jews to live even though the majority of the population here is Muslim,” Mikhailov said. “Our synagogues, Jewish cultural centers and other facilities are not guarded and not protected. Jews in this country have never faced any anti-Semitic sentiments. We open our doors for everybody.”
Vail had not been involved publicly in politics, and when abroad he described the political system in Uzbekistan as “undemocratic and boring.”
“People shun society because of poverty,” he told German Deutche Welle radio in June. “Tashkent is losing its intellectual reserves. I feel myself tightly there.”
Vladimir Paley, director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Russia, told JTA that Vail had never concealed that fact that he was Jewish, though he also didn’t highlight it.
“The Ilkhom Theatre he founded and led is officially called Russian, though everybody in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union understand that it is a euphemism: Russian means ‘Russian-language’ here,” Paley said. “I know that Mark always accepted the invitation for the Jewish holidays and other events, but in Uzbekistan, an authoritarian state, it is safer not to overemphasize one’s Jewish roots.”
Vail had noted in his biographical notes that his ancestors, French Jews, settled in the Ukrainian town of Zhitomir in the early 19th century.
(JTA copy editor Marc Brodsky in New York contributed to this report.)