Sunday, April 10, 2005

A Day of Remembrance

Last night I came home and found Nigora covered in a headscarf. She’d just returned from her cousin’s. His 64-year-old wife had died unexpectedly the night before.

“Her blood pressure went up and everyone just expected that she’d be treated and then return to normal, but she died.”

She had bags under her eyes and looked tired.

“The close family was supposed to stay the night, but they told me to go home. ‘You don’t have any daughters,’ they told me, ‘and you have small children. There is no one to cook and take care of your house.’

“I didn’t know what small children they were talking about. My sons are big. But even though I’m a grown woman, because I’m the youngest in the family, I’m always seen as the baby.”

This afternoon I attended my first “anniversary,” the traditional event held a year after a close relative’s death. My colleague told me it was “very important” for someone from our office to go, and since I was the only one without plans, it fell to me. Since Kairagul, the employee who was hosting the “anniversary” is one of the locals I knew best, I was happy to be able to attend.

The anniversary marked one year since her mother’s death. Kairagul, an intelligent and ambitious woman, was hit hard by her mother’s death and she fell into a depression. My suggestion that she apply for a graduate school scholarship in the U.S. finally got her out of her funk.

“When you sent me that application, I was suddenly ashamed of myself. Usually I try for everything. And I was embarrassed that somebody else was looking for opportunities for me. I realized that I needed to move on because that is what my mother would have wanted.”

She’s now a finalist and has a one in three chance of receiving a full scholarship to get an MBA in the United States. I can’t imagine a more qualified or worthy candidate and I’m holding my breath in anticipation for her.

I couldn’t remember exactly where she lived, so I took a taxi. My driver was an Uzbek with an old Zhiguli. He wore a white Muslim cap and had stunted fingers on his right hand. We had barely started moving when the car stopped. It seemed we’d run out of gas.

“You’re my first client of the day,” he said. It was already past noon.

“How long have you been waiting for a passenger?” I asked.

“Since morning.”

He got the car going and we drove along streets lined with flowering fruit and nut trees and poplars spreading their first green leaves. The spring colors add a breath of fresh air to the landscape, making me feel bright and hopeful.

Outside of Kairagul’s dingy Soviet apartment building, men dressed in worn suits and fancy kalpaks (tall black and ivory Kyrgyz hats, made of wool) milled around. A group of men were cooking in large pots in the corner of the yard. Another group sat on chairs lining either sat of the entryway to the building, greeting guests as they arrived and left.

I saw Kairagul’s brother in a white kalpak and he led me upstairs. Kairagul was wearing a white scarf around her head, a pale peach dress, and a light blue sweater. About ten of her coworkers were seated on mats in a circle, around an array of round loaves of bread, plov (rice with carrots, lamb and fat), shorpo (a lamb soup), pistachios, raisins, peanuts, candies and cookies.

She offered me a place to sit and I waited a bit nervously. I’d been told by my coworkers that I didn’t have to bring anything. I was just supposed to come sometime around lunch, sit for twenty minutes, and eat. But I didn’t know whether the atmosphere was supposed to be mournful or joyful. She allowed me to take pictures, which led me to think it wasn’t too formal, but people sat rather quietly.

Kairagul gave me a cup of tea and a bowl of shorpo and explained the event to me.

“In the year after a close relatives death, people are supposed to wear only black and dark colors. And I’ve done so for the past year. Today, on the one year anniversary, there was a ceremony this morning, and for the first time in a year, I’m able to wear colors like white and yellow and red.”

She told me that relatives came from the morning until about lunchtime, then coworkers came at lunch.

The talk soon became more jovial, though I felt an underlying formal restraint. The only Russian in the room, an outspoken, heavyset and funny young woman, talked about her experiences seeing pelmeni (local ravioli) being made and how frightening it was to see what was really in it.

She works in Kara-Suu, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border town, and the sight of a lot of protests leading up to the revolution. I asked her if it was quiet there now.

“Yes, it’s fine there, but these protests have become a fashion. Now anytime people are unhappy, they start getting together and shouting. Just the day before yesterday, at the Osh Government Pedalogical Institute, a whole bunch of people gathered and shouted that the rector needed to leave.”

The others nodded their heads, having seen it on the news. No one knew if he was forced out in the end. They said that he had closed a department of the Institute and transferred all the students to other departments. People were displeased with that and they decided to protest.

“Maybe we can all get together and protest,” one of them said, referring to things they were unhappy about at work.

“It would need to be more than just us,” said Ulan, a young man who works hard and plays hard, spending many evenings at a bar popular with foreigners. “It’s only effective when a large group assembles.”

I was impressed. Even though everyone says that the city residents played little to no role in the revolution, clearly they have learned some lessons.

At the end of the spread was a large object wrapped in colorful clothes. It looked like a baby cradle. I asked Kairagul what it was.

“It’s for you,” she said, and started to unwrap it.

She pulled out a bunch of peach-colored small hand towels and passed them around the circle, asking everyone to take one. She then did the same thing with tea cups.

She then pulled out dark round loaves of bread (evidently from the countryside, because, unfortunately, only poor people use dark flour here) and set them on the mat like plates. She then methodologically piled each one with some of the goods from the baskets: triangular fried donuts, two types of candies and cookies. She passed around new plastic bags with handles to everyone, then passed everyone a loaf of bread piled with goodies. We put our loaf into the plastic bag, then were told to empty whatever was left from the spread into our bags as well – raisins, nuts, candies, cookies. The towel and cup were also for us to keep.

When everyone had full bags, it was clear it was time to go, and people filed out, leaving Kairagul alone with her close relatives.

I saw the mourning and reverence in Kairagul’s eyes, but I think she was also pleased to have so many of her coworkers come and to be able to be the host. She looked thin and fresh and young in her pastel colors, despite her 36 years and the difficulties she’s been through.

We should know by the end of this month whether she has a future in America and I don’t know who is more nervous – she or I.

I walked home past teahouses filled with old men in black on the streetside tables, piles of fresh radishes, spring onions, spinach, and newly arrived fresh cabbage, and car seat cover sewing shops. One bored-looking vendor was able to fit all his wares on a single chair perched on the side of the sidewalk – two half-empty bowls of sunflower seeds and individual cigarettes sold from five open packs. I walked past a brick mosque with Arabic lettering. Three young Muslim boys selling caps out front posed for a picture. Workers shoveled animal feed from streetside storage houses into bags, as people begin to buy animals and prepare to send them to the jailoo (summer pasture).

In my neighborhood, I passed a woman carrying two old white bags full of milk products for sale, her voice hoarse from shouting her wares. Another woman sat on the corner, her hands in a large bag of puffed corn, putting one in her mouth and crunching as she called out what she had to offer.

The streets were crawling with children, like worms in soil, and brightly dressed Uzbek women. I paused to chat with the kids on my street. Most of them are Uzbek. Some can speak Russian, others (who go to the non-Russian schools) can’t. But they all make an effort to communicate with me and welcomed me into their games, showing me how they jump rope. I brought out my jumprope and joined them, losing a contest of who could jump the longest to a little girl with a big, crooked smile.

I returned home, wishing I could share this fresh, colorful springtime world with my friends and family and realizing that I really like Osh.

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