Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Jalalabat is a hard city to describe, even more so in winter. The town of about 200,000 has a long history, extending back to the time of the Silk Road. According to my guidebook, it’s named after Jalal-ad-din, who set up teahouses and caravanserais for the many pilgrims who came every year. In 1878, it felt the influence of Russians, when they set up a garrison and military hospital. Subsequently, some servicemen settled there, liking the hot springs, warm weather and good soil.

As part of the Ferghana valley, tobacco, fruit, vegetables, cotton, walnuts, wheat, corn and silk worms all grow in abundance in Jalalabat and I imagine it transforms into a different world in the summer. During Soviet times, it was known as both an agro-industrial center, and as a supply center for nearby coal-mining towns. Today, the population is largely Uzbek, with most of the Russians having fled at Kyrgyz independence. It’s home to many universities and their students but it lacks an intellectual vibrancy. Looking down at the town from the mountaintop, the city is a blanket of grayish-white roofs. There are a few five-story apartment buildings, but most live in aging single-family homes. The whole area seems as though it could be wiped out with one tornado, earthquake, or stamp of a giant’s foot.

When I think of Jalalabat, I think of tree-lined streets, market vendors lining the train tracks, movement, the monument across from the legislature symbolizing mountains and a Kyrgyz kalpak (traditional hat), and steaming water – coming from gutters, from tiny holes in the ground, dripping into manholes – reminding me that we are walking on steaming earth.

A couple incidents seemed typical for Jalalabat. One morning on my way to work, a train came through town. It needed to cross Lenin street, but instead of stopping the cars for the train, the police officer stopped the train for the cars. When the train began to honk, the police officer moved the gate to stop the cars. Even though they could clearly see a train there, the cars pushed ahead, refusing to stop. The police officer gave up and let the cars go, keeping the train in its place.

I also met a bank employee who told me about a religious Muslim client of his, who believed it was wrong to take a loan. But he needed money for a car. So he applied for credit, with the condition that the bank employee would take the money, would go with the client and hand the money over to the car seller. Then the client would pay what he considered “monthly rent” to the bank for the use of the car. And at the end of a certain period it would magically belong to him.

My landlady, Oksana, was an interesting character. She was a heavyset woman who couldn’t believe that I pulled the fat off meat. “That’s the best part!” she’d say. “I’m not supposed to have it, but I eat it anyway.”

She loved fat and she loved garlic. The food she made was so greasy that the leftovers gelled in condensed fat. She didn’t use any spices, but put giant pieces of garlic into everything. On my first night there, she pulled a piece of fresh garlic out of her pocket, asking if I wanted it, telling me it would be good for my teeth.

She was a queen of folk remedies. When I had a cough, she said she usually carves a hole in a radish, puts honey in it, lets it sit overnight, and then drinks the juice. She offered to do that for me and I declined.

When a sty began to form on my eye, she was worried. “That comes from walking around without a hat!” she said and told me that if I didn’t treat it immediately it would grow.

She gave me two pieces of unprocessed cotton, told me to hold them against a teapot full of boiling water and then press them against my eye. I wasn’t able to get the cotton very hot that way, so I held the teacup inside against my eye and the sty was gone by the next morning.

A very religious Russian Orthodox, she brought me holy water in a Coke bottle that she said she’d collected from the river during a service. She served as the church choir director and went there several times a week, for services, baptisms and funerals. Given the aging church membership, there are many more funerals than baptisms. But she’s not discouraged. Her own daughter is married to a Muslim, but she and her daughter secretly baptized her granddaughter.

One weekend, on the Old Russian New Year, she invited me to a church service. I asked if I’d need a headscarf because I didn’t have one.

“It would be nice, but it’s not necessary. Also, usually pants aren’t allowed. There might be some old women who will bug you, but as we say, each should take care of their own.”

The church was small, neat and inconspicuous, located behind a row of lepushka bakers, the scent of flour and yeast filling the air. Attendance was more than I expected, but given that it was a holiday, the 17 old women and three old men didn’t make for a packed house. Punctuality didn’t seem to be important, with people coming in throughout the service. Almost no one was under 60, though occasionally grandchildren came in to spend some time with their hunched over grannies in thick socks.

In Russian Orthodox churches, attendees stand during the long service. Only if they can’t take it anymore do they sit on a bench at the side of the room. I got lazy after a while and sat down, marveling at the old people who stood without a break.

The church glittered with greens and silvers and gold and the choir voices rang out like knives hitting crystal glasses, clear and melodious. The choir was hidden from sight behind a wall, as the metropolitan often was as well.

When it was time for confession, Oksana came out from hiding and sat next to me on the bench. I was very surprised to a see young man also emerge from the choir area.

“If you have sinned, you can tell the priest now,” she said, looking at me expectantly, eager for me to participate in her church’s practices. People were lining up at the front of the church.

“I can’t really think of anything,” I said. It was true, I hadn’t done anything terrible lately and I wasn’t excited by the prospect of trying to communicate whatever minor sin I could come up with in Russian. So instead I watched as people went up to the left side of the alter, near a fountain, told the metropolitan their sins, then bowed while the metropolitan laid a white cloth over their head and read a prayer. One woman burst into tears while she was up there and couldn’t stop crying.

I stayed for what seemed like a long time, but each time I thought it was about to end, I was mistaken. I was glad I came. I liked watching the money collection, when people put money into a bowl, then the collector handed some of it out to those in attendance who needed money. I also saw some individuals handing small bills to others around then. It was nice to enter a warm and pretty and melodious world, if for no reason other than a break from the daily sights of Jalalabat. But eventually I started to edge my way toward the door and returned to the frozen air and the warm smell of fresh-baked bread.

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