Friday, January 21, 2005


Today was a national holiday and a day off of work. The occasion was the Muslim holiday of Khurban-Eid. This is the second Eid, or Ramadan. The first one, including a period of fasting, was in October and November. This one is shorter. The holiday itself is only one day, but people make a three-day weekend out of it. Many people visit their relatives in the villages. On Thursday night, they prepared plov and other food. Those who lost a relative during the year sacrificed an animal.

On Friday morning, many people visited the cemetery. Women aren’t allowed to go to the cemetery for a burial, but they can go for visits. Then the rest of the day is spent remembering those who passed away, giving away food and plov to friends, relatives, and the poor, and visiting friends and neighbors.

My landlady is Russian (so this isn’t a holiday for her) and I didn’t have any locals to hang out with here in Jalalabat. So I enjoyed the day off by sleeping in, reading, and watching TV. Then I decided I’d go into town to check out a concert I’d seen advertised. I had no idea what it was other than a music concert that began at 3 and cost 75 cents.

The city was quiet, covered by a cool fog. I spent the 20 minute walk talking with my landlady’s husband, Victor, who I’d met along the way. He was going to see what might be going on for the holiday. On the way, he stopped several times to shake the hands of his acquaintances and to wish them a happy holiday. “It’s not a holiday for me,” he said. “I’m of another belief.”

There are seemingly very few Russians in Jalalabat and I hear more Kyrgyz and Uzbek than I do Russian. So that makes me curious about the Russians who are here – how they came here and why they stayed.

Victor, a 56-year-old Russian, told me that his parents came from Samara, Russia, together with their three children in 1944. They were escaping the wartime famine. Victor was the only child in his family born in Jalalabat.

He said that there used to be a lot of Russians in the Jalalabat region, but that most of them left (“ran” in his words) in 1990, when the Soviet Union came apart.

“Why didn’t you run away?” I asked.

“Because I had a job and an apartment and a family. Russians got nervous because the Kyrgyz suddenly became very nationalist and proud. But they soon learned that just because they are Kyrgyz doesn’t mean that they get everything for free. They also had to go start selling at the market.”

He seemed to be on good terms with a lot of the locals, based on the number of hands he shook on the way. And when I asked who Erdindik was, having seen a lot of things named after him, he told me that erdindik means friendship in Kyrgyz. But he said that now, he’s often the only Russian at work in a group of ten and that it can make relations difficult.

He has worked as a bus driver since Communist times and said that for him, life is only getting hard now.

“In the past, they used to give us a new bus every five years. But now I’m driving a 1990 bus. I pay rent and have to pay for all the repairs myself. There is a lot of competition now, with buses and taxis, especially since there are basically only two roads out of Jalalabat. In order to cover the rent and make a profit, a driver needs to work 30 days. But not many of these old buses can stand to be driven 30 days a month.”

He drives a route between Jalalabat and the Lenin village, 40 kilometers away. But for the past two months he hasn’t been able to work because he injured his hand.

When I reached the center and separated from Victor, I found the central park buzzing with families and young people. Most of the women wore headscarves and long coats, the men wore short black jackets. People sat in pairs on swings, twirling around on a automated swing-like ride. Others stood in pairs on the four boat-shaped swings on an old swingset, using all their force to send the boats up as high as possible.

Knots of people gathered outside the yellow Barpi theater, which sounded like Barfy to me. The concert was supposed to begin at three, but ticketholders had to wait outside until four before being let in.

The theater had been recently remodeled, funded by the US Agency for International Development and a couple of U.S. nonprofits. The lobby was carefully painted sea green. And the performance hall was a fresh pink and white, with red velvet curtains hung over gold arched doorways. But it was still unheated and still had old bleacher-like seats on a scratched floor, like a school gymnasium.

The performance began. A series of self-conscious male singers performed to the accompaniment of a keyboard player and an electric guitar. Above them on stage, trios of red, orange, yellow, green and blue balloons hung from the ceiling with tinsel. The lights flashed on and off, seemingly dependent on how the lighting person felt at any particular moment. A little girl, no older than three, emerged from the audience and began to dance onstage. Dressed in a winter jacket and an ivory cap, she confidently shook her shoulders and hips to the Uzbek pop music like an experienced woman.

The audience was restless. People came in and out, talked, and got up to greet each other during the performance. No one sat in their assigned seat. A couple attendees used laser flashlights to point red dots on the singers faces.

The hall only filled up 40 minutes after the concert started. At that time, young men began to gather in the back of the theater and formed a dance circle while a popular song was being sung. The audience attention and four videocameras turned to the back of the auditorium. I watched a woman in near the front turn back and smile, a row of pure gold teeth flashing.

The atmosphere was similar to several low-grade concerts I’d attended in Siberia. But there I usually knew someone. At the very least, most people knew who I was and accepted me as part of their community. Here I was just a foreigner, and with my puffy powder blue ski jacket, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I paused before I pulled out my notebook and pen, knowing that would draw more attention to myself, but I didn’t want to lose the details of the concert.

Not long afterwards, I had curious onlookers seated on either side of me – a 15-year-old to my left, a slightly older and inebriated man to my right. They took turns pulling on my sleeve and asking me questions – what was I doing there, what was I writing, was I married, did I have kids, did I know it wasn’t normal to not have kids yet at my age, did I understand Uzbek, where did I live, did I like the concert, did I like it there.

“Everyone is looking at you now,” the man on my right said. “They are wondering what you are doing.”

They weren’t too pleased with the concert, though the man on my right was more disappointed than the 15-year-old.

“How much did you pay?” he asked me.

“30 som (75 cents).”

“The good concerts cost 100 som ($2.50). There was a really good one a week or so ago and another good one over New Years. This concert isn’t very impressive and you can see, people are leaving.”

He was right, people were started to leave in droves. There were lots of empty seats in the previously overfilled auditorium. No matter that people were still up there singing.

I thought back to when I first thought of coming to Kyrgyzstan and I was told I could be posted in Jalalabat. I’d never heard of the place and looking on the map from across the ocean, it seemed like a remote, heavily Muslim and potentially unstable place. I remember thinking that alala in Jalalabat sounded a lot like Allah. I was nervous about the idea and hoped I’d be sent instead to the more Russified north.

I haven’t integrated into the city in my two weeks here, but neither have I had any problems. Every day I walk the street alone, live among locals in an apartment complex, and sit among them at a concert. It reminded me that no matter how frightening the idea of terrorism might be, I have to remember that terrorists are by far the minority. I see that I can come, uninvited, to a Muslim festivity, and be greeted with acceptance and curiosity. I remember that hiding behind my own culture and national border won’t do anything except increase misunderstanding and fear.

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