Saturday, January 01, 2005

Bringing in the New Year - Uzbek Style

On the last day of the years, shops buzzed with frantic last minute buyers stocking up for the holiday weekend. Even the tiniest entrepreneurs, those who sit behind a small card table arrayed with cigarettes, matches and candy bars, had expanded their selections, sometimes offering things like oranges or cookies in addition to their usual wares. I walked past a bakery shop selling cake for $11 per kilogram. A line of customers covered the display cases, as the three bakers, men dressed in white aprons, handed over one cake after another.

I bought some bananas and oranges to give to the family, as well as Choco-Pies and candy bars to give as presents to the three boys in the household.

Me, Nigora and Shavrat, and their three sons, Faruh, Habib and Faruh, gathered around the table at 6:30. Nigora uses one of the rooms adjoining mine as the place to receive guests and to hold events. A sofa and several chairs line a low table and they had brought in the TV and stereo system. As part of the “summer” section of the house, it’s unheated. So they plugged in a portable heater, and prepared what they called a sandal – they put a small heater under the table, covered the table with a heavy blanket before putting on the tablecloth, and instructed us to put our feet under the blanket, which effectively trapped the heat.

“If your feet are warm, everything will be warm,” Shavrat said. “Back in the time when there was no heat and no electricity, this is how my grandparents stayed warm, using coal under the table.”

For the first time, I saw Nigora dressed in normal clothing and also for the first time, I saw her hair. Given that so many of her household tasks are outdoors – from cooking and washing dishes to sweeping the paths, doing laundry and lighting the stoves or banya, I had so far only seen her wrapped in layers of non-descript old clothes, a scarf around her head. On New Years eve, she wore a beige turtleneck, a beige and black long plaid jumper and a thick gold chain. Her wavy dark hair fell down to her shoulders. Later in the evening, she put it up in a ponytail, much like a schoolgirl. She suddenly looked years younger. She has a small, round baby face and a pretty smile, gold teeth on the upper left side of her mouth, square white teeth the rest of the way across.

She pointed out to me that she has two crowns on her head, one on the left side of her forehead and the other, like most people, at the back of her head.

“I guess I have two brains in there,” she said.

“Then you must be pretty smart,” I replied.

“My husband doesn’t think I’m smart.”

Habib, her 17-year-old son, a friendly and handsome young man with her bright smile, interjected. “My mother has a university education and my father only finished school. But he somehow thinks he’s smarter.”

“It’s not that I think I’m smarter,” Shavrat defended himself. “I just believe that the man should always be above the woman. That is how it should be.”

“But it doesn’t always happen, huh?” I asked, and the boys laughed.

“I’m content letting him be the head and I’ll be the shoulders,” Nigora said.

Nigora said that she didn’t prepare a special meal, since it was only the family gathering and if she prepared a lot, everything would just be left over. When I returned from work in the afternoon I immediately noticed that our turkey population was down to one. Shavrat had killed one that morning and she used it to make turkey and potato soup, followed by a selection of premade “salads” – beet salad, soy meat salad, some kind of meat with milk and water added to make it gelled, an unidentifiable meat salad, and Chinese rice and starch noodles with carrot salad. We also had fresh fruit, rolls, cake and chocolate.

Nigora poured small cups of Bailey’s Irish Cream, a gift she’d received from an English friend, while Shavrat drank Georgian cognac, a gift from a Russian friend. Shavrat gave the first toast, hoping that everyone could make a wish and work to make it come true in the coming year.

“I wish that my dad wouldn’t drink,” Lufulo said. Shavrat had just announced his plans to quit smoking and drinking starting with the new year, but no one seemed overly optimistic. Shavrat refused his wife’s offer of a $100 bet.

“He really hates it when his dad drinks,” Nigora said.

Shavrat told me how he stopped drinking for five years. But after a colleague who he really respected unexpectedly died in an avalanche while mountain-climbing, he began to drink to dull the pain. His friend’s body was never found and he dreams of joining an expedition to find and bury him.

This was my third New Years spent in the former Soviet Union and it was definitely the lowest key of the three. We just sat around, ate, talked and watched TV. Every so often, the boys would go outside to see what was happening on the streets. As the night progressed, we’d hear more firecrackers being ignited on Technicheskaya Street, just outside our window. It was also a nice opportunity for me to get to know the family a bit better. I had imagined we’d eat dinner together every night, but instead, Nigora brings me food into my quarters. I’ve never been in their section of the house and last night was the first time I’d seen all the boys together and was able to imprint their names and faces into my memory. Before then, I may have passed them on the street without recognizing them.

Shavrat told me that he has a long history with this street. He himself was born and raised in this house and most of the neighbors have also passed their houses along through the generations, so they know everyone near by. He stepped out to say hello to the man who lives across the street. He has a two-year contract working as a welder in South Korea and is now back on his annual one-month vacation. He earns $1,000 a month there and is able to live on $250 a month, sending the rest home to his wife and children. They’ve bought a Mercedes with the money and when he returns, he plans to revive and modernize the family tire repair business.

Shavrat and Nigora told me about their marriage. They had a funny beginning in that they were both 25 and neither of them wanted to get married. Shavrat’s grandparents were looking for a wife for Shavrat and they found Nigora and spoke to her grandparents. They arranged a meeting and Nigora said no, she wasn’t interested. She was a Communist party member working as an engineer in Tashkent and she was happy with her career and her apartment. She didn’t want a family, especially given the expectations that went with marriage among the Uzbeks – that she’d have to take almost full responsibility for cooking, the home and children.

“I couldn’t believe that she refused,” Shavrat said. “I told her that I’d come in the night and steal her. I was a very attractive guy then and there were at least 50 girls who wanted to marry me. Whenever they said they wanted to marry me, I said that was the end. I wasn’t interested.”

“Listen to him praise himself,” Nigora said, smiling. Their sons were also smiling, as though they’d heard all this before.

“I couldn’t believe that someone didn’t want to marry me and that made me want to marry her,” he continued, as though he hadn’t been interrupted.

“But Uzbeks don’t steal each other, do they?”

“No, that’s only the Kyrgyz,” Habib said.

“I refused,” Nigora explained. “But my mother was very tricky. She started to say that she was sick, and she did become seriously ill. She said that her blood pressure was really high and she was going to die. So I said OK, OK I’ll get married.”

She was a Communist pursuing a career. Shavrat hated the Communists and said that through his musician friends, he foresaw their demire.

“I told her in 1984 that the party was going to end and she didn’t believe me,” he said.

I asked her how it felt when it did come to an end.

“By that time, I was at home, raising children, cooking and doing laundry, so it didn’t affect me that much. Of course, it’s painful when you believe in something and it’s torn down. It’s even worse to find out that what you believed in was wrong. But if I’d been working at that time, it would have been really hard.”

While Shavrat isn’t highly educated himself, he seems to be fairly smart and is very concerned with his sons’ educations. He told me how his two eldest sons studied at the elementary school nearest their home.

“They would come home with all fives (As). Even in Russian, they had 5, 5, 5. And I knew that they didn’t speak Russian very well and they couldn’t have received 5s. But Nigora doesn’t speak Russian very well, so she didn’t notice. And at the school, all the teachers and all the students were Uzbek and Kyrgyz. There wasn’t a single Russian there. So how could they learn Russian? I realized that it was a bad school and I wanted my sons to transfer.

“We have rules here though that children are required to go to the school nearest their home. But I took them to another school, showed the administrators their reports and told them – “Look, you need good students like these, don’t you?” They said yes and they took my sons.”

Habib explained. “The first year, we received twos and threes (Ds and Cs) in almost everything, but by the time we were in fifth grade, we were getting fours (Bs) and even fives (As). Now everything is OK.”

Habib is in the eleventh grade and will be going to the university next year. Faruh is currently a first year university student in the finance and credit department. He was admitted to a Turkish university in Bishkek, but they couldn’t afford to send him there. They are thinking of allowing him to transfer after he’s completed a few years here.
Faruh, a thin 19-year-old with a darker, mouselike face, told me how he is currently having a problem because his Kyrgyz history teacher refuses to give good marks to anyone who doesn’t pay. Shavrat refuses to pay any bribes to teachers.

“I’ll pay the tuition and that’s it,” he said. “There are so many students now who just pay and don’t study at all and don’t learn anything. I want my son to have to learn these things.” That’s a rather bold move in a society with such prevalent corruption.

As we talked, they would occasionally burst out laughing at scenes from an American movie that was on TV, a movie they said was called Black Diamond. It was set in an inner city, many of the cast members were African American and it featured lots of criminal activity and fights.

“This is a movie that everyone has seen several times,” Nigora told me, after they all laughed. “This time they translated it into Uzbek, but they make jokes throughout it. They’ve given all the characters Uzbek names. Right now we know the characters were having a serious conversation, but they translated it as, “So how’s the weather?” and the other guy responding, “I think there is going to be snow.”

During the action scenes, they inserted traditional Uzbek music. One scene that even made me laugh had an African American pizza delivery man, with corkscrew curls, large teeth and an overflowing personality, come into an office building to deliver three pizzas. He was bouncing around the lobby with his three pizza boxes with a lot of energy. Nigora translated for me.

“He’s sayng ‘I have fresh lepushkas (round Uzbek bread) for sale. Fresh, delicious lepushkas, right out of the oven.” He approached a fat Caucasian security guard and tried to sell the lepushkas. “I’m sorry, but I’ve just had samsi (Uzbek meat, fat and onion-filled croissants).”

It was pretty funny to imagine the American characters talking about lepushkas and samsi.

Just before midnight, the lights went out and Faruh took advantage of the darkness to light sparklers in the house. We then went out onto Construction Street. A few minutes before midnight, the street was smoky with the residue of firecrackers being lit off from each household, whizzing and popping noises filled the air as residents, mostly young boys, lit off everything from bottle rockets, to giant colorful fireworks that could be seen from a large distance. I covered my ears and looked all around me, at the explosions occurring from different directions.

The street was full of people, but because it is lined with single-family homes, the people were spread out along the street, each group congregated in front of their home. When I spent New Years with friends in an apartment in Latvia, it was more festive since all the apartment residents went out and congregated together. Some neighbors came by to say hello to Nigora and Shavrat – the man back from Korea, a woman in a scarf and fuzzy wool Uzbek vest.

A man across the street brought out a stereo and set it on a chair in front of his home, then turned on American rock music. A group of children began to dance.

“Last year we had a huge disco,” Shavrat told me. “One of our neighbors has DJ equipment and he set everything up. The street was full of dancing several hours before midnight. This year is calmer. Perhaps he found work playing music this evening.”

We went in to more salads, more champagne, and more Russian and Uzbek festive TV programs. I lasted until about two, Shavrat and Nigora stayed up longer – Shavrat getting drunk with neighbors on his last day before giving up alcohol, Nigora sitting by the TV with her children.

No comments: