Friday, February 04, 2005

Visit to a small southern town

Today I paid a visit to a small village outside of Uzgen, about two hours along a rutted road from Osh. On the way, the signs of campaigning politicians were manifest, preparing for the February 27 elections.

My driver, Malan, looked at all the activity skeptically. He doesn’t plan to vote. “They don’t do anything for anybody,” he said. “Last year a candidate came to my door. I asked what he would do to increase employment and he said he’d find people jobs. I told him, ‘You don’t have that ability and you shouldn’t promise things you can’t deliver. Once you get in office you’ll put a guard outside your door and tell him not to let in people like me because you don’t have time.’ He’ll have a large salary, a private car and won’t need to answer to anyone. He can practice corruption and will get a stomach out to here,” he said, indicating a protruding belly.

I saw posters affixed to car windows and to shop fronts, faces plastered across billboards, banners hanging over the roads, and caravans of Volgas “agitating,” as the locals call campaigning. It seems as though President Akaev’s face, which a month ago was everywhere, has been replaced with the faces these politicians. So far, I’ve only seen male faces, and some of them are quite ugly. They put mountains behind them, or have themselves posing with family and children to show their gentle sides, but their oversized bodies and mean expressions speak for themselves.

The nastiest looking one was a billboard for Mamat Orozbaev. His serious, mean face looked like a gangster looking out over the town.

“He’s corrupt,” Malan said, when I asked about him. “I know him.”

A nicer looking guy was Murat Malabaev. His young face appeared on posters in small roadside villages. While driving in between snow-lined trees like still-life icicles, we went under a green banner reading “Let’s vote for a good guy, Murat Malabaev.” I asked Malan about him.

“He’d be a good deputy,” he said. “I hope he wins. He’s rich and has a lot of containers (the metal boxes that people sell goods out of at the market – they cost several thousand dollars a piece) in KaraSuu. He bought apartments for several people who didn’t have homes. He also gathered pensioners and handed them each 100,000 som ($2,500) so they could do something for themselves. He does something then talks rather than the other way around.”

It seems like in Kyrgyzstan, what makes a good deputy is having spent your own money to help people. In Jalalabat, Oksana took a job helping a politician to campaign. She thought he’d be good because he bought bricks for her Russian Orthodox church. When I asked if he had a chance of winning she said yes. “He’s good looking, with very light skin and even though he’s a millionaire, he’s not stingy. He spends money to help people.” It’s a contrast to America, where what gives one the advantage is having spent one’s own money to promote oneself.

In Uzgen, I met a colleague Ilyas and we took a taxi to the neighboring village of Murzaarik. The sky was one big white sheet and the earth was a mixed bag of snow and mud. People struggled downed slushy streets, trying to avoid the spray from cars. A man on horseback got splashed, as did the people, horses and cows that didn’t get out of the way in time.

Agitation was in full force in Murzaarik as well. Campaigners were providing free lunch to village residents and a significant crowd had formed.

While there, we met a man, Marat, who invited us into his home. “My family is gone at the moment because my brother just stole a wife and they are all at the celebration.”

Marat and his wife make a living by selling vodka and cigarettes through a window in their living room, and renting out time on a billiard table in a clay and hay shack at the back of the house. He was short and thin, with a pointed mustache and the face of a Chinese emperor. He wore a round, brown fur hats, like a soft calabash set on his head. When he removed the hat, he looked younger and more friendly, his black hair plastered against his head.

When Marat went out to get his wife, I looked out the window where they fed people’s habits, watching a man herding cows down the snowy street. The room was unkempt and dirty, smelling of cabbage. Lacking furniture, we sat on a mat on the floor. I wondered what it would be like to spend the days in a room like that, waiting for someone to knock on the window for a shot of vodka or a smoke.

His wife returned, plump and red-cheeked, quiet, but exuding an enthusiasm from the festivities she’d just come from. They brought us back to the billiard table and I watched several young men passing the weekday afternoon around a dimly lighted billiard table.

We took a walk with Marat and I asked him about the wife-stealing. He and Ilyas had both laughed and told me it was “a tradition” when he first told us about it. Of course, it makes me sick, but I tried to keep a straight face so that I could later ask more about it. I wanted to know if his brother had known this girl. And I wanted to know about the logistics. How do they physically steal a woman?

Marat told me that his 30-year-old brother had been married once before, but his wife had left him. That’s a sign that he’s not a good husband, which makes me feel even worse for the unsuspecting bride. He said that he had tried to steal another woman before, but had failed. In order to steal the woman who is now his second wife, he got some friends together to help him. He didn’t know the woman, who lived in another village, but someone had recommended her as a good candidate to steal. She was 30 and had never been married.

He approached her and invited her to a café. When she hesitated, he assured her that he only wanted to get to know her. She got into the car, and that was it. His friends prevented her from getting out and they drove to his home.

He hadn’t told his parents in advance that he was planning to steal someone. They weren’t ready and upon seeing a new daughter-in-law, they had to sell some livestock to cover the expenses.

“I just don’t understand it,” I told Ilyas as we sat together on a bus back to Uzgen. “Why would someone want to take a wife by force? Why would they want a spouse who doesn’t love them?”

Ilyas said he didn’t know. He was the father of a three-year-old daughter and told me that he dated his wife for a year before marrying her. He told the details of the case of one of my employees who stole another. Apparently they had dated at some point in the past, but were no longer dating when she moved to Jalalabat and began working there. When he heard that she’d be coming to the wedding of a colleague in Osh, he planned to steal her.

“He did it himself, without any help,” he said. “He hired a taxi driver and told the driver that he was planning to steal a girl and got his agreement that he wouldn’t interfere. Then he went to the beauty salon where she was getting her hair done for the wedding and took her by force into the taxi.”

“Did she want to marry him?” I asked.

“Not then. But after the wedding she did.” He paused. “Don’t tell her that I told you that. She would be offended if people knew she didn’t want to marry him.”

Now that this girl is back in Osh as the man’s wife, I work with her. She is very young, sweet, intelligent and a good worker. I can see why he would like her as a wife. But I find the method of achieving his goal disgusting. He’s also a good worker and it’s strange to work with them both individually, knowing that he’s a perpetrator of kidnapping and possibly rape and she is the victim who has now arranged her life to make the best of the situation. This week she was sick with stomach problems and I won’t be surprised if I soon hear she’s pregnant. Personally, I think that any staff member who steals another should be fired. But so far, I haven’t been able to implement that.

On the way back to Osh, we passed a woman and child carrying four old tires on a bike. “They are taking those home to burn in the stove,” Malan said. “They probably don’t have any coal. What do you do if you’re cold?”

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