Sunday, May 01, 2005

A New Life Together

Yesterday I went to my second Kyrgyz wedding, a marriage between two of our employees. It was unusual in several regards – the wife is a few years older, a few inches taller, and held a higher-ranking job than the husband. And there were only eleven people in attendance at the wedding.

The invitation said the celebration would begin at 1 p.m. and urged people not to be late. I went with Gulnara, our office manager, and we arrived around 1:30, afraid we were late and would cause problems. Instead, we were the first people there.

About an hour later, the wedding car pulled up. The bride, Baktigul, had her hair specially done and wore a beautiful white dress and veil. The groom, Kanat, also looked very nice in his black suit. They were accompanied by a few friends and a videographer and a photographer, both Kanat’s friends.

We went into the bar of Osh plaza, where a banquet table had been set for 20. There were four spaces at the head for the bride, groom and witnesses. A second table was perpendicular, forming a T. I kept waiting for more people to show up, but it never happened. When I asked Baktigul where her parents were she said, “They are probably doing errands.” What kind of parents would be doing errands on their daughter’s wedding day, I wondered.

The celebration wasn’t a lot of fun. I had to sit next to a woman who my predecessor fired, the videographer was drunk and kept leaning in for close-ups of things like the salt shaker or the Coke bottle, and the food wasn’t very good. It was clear they were on a tight budget. The pears, oranges and bananas were bruised, the candy baskets were full of cheap, hard candies instead of the usual chocolates, and there was little cheese or sausage.

The most popular time of year for weddings in Kyrgyzstan is between August and November, when the harvests come in, fruits and vegetables are abundant, and cattle have become fattened after a summer in the pastures. The cost of a wedding is significantly lower at that time.

People tend to get married in the spring, when everything is expensive, only if there is a specific reason. Another employee got married when I was in Moscow. He had planned to marry in August. But the parent’s of his fiancée said that if he wanted to marry her, he had to do it immediately. Otherwise they’d give her to someone else.

Baktigul told me that she planned a larger wedding in Kyzyl-Kia, where her new husband comes from. But his grandfather died recently. And according to tradition, it’s not allowed to hold celebrations within a year of the death of a close family member. I found that hard to understand. If his grandfather loved Kanat, would he really want him to postpone his happiness for a year because of his passing? Wouldn’t he rather his offspring find joy in life while they can?

I’d heard rumors several weeks ago that these two were living together, “a civil marriage.” As for why they needed to marry so quickly, and without their families, I don’t understand. I thought maybe Baktigul was pregnant, but she wasn’t visibly so. Nigora thought maybe Kanat stole Baktigul. But I didn’t think so, especially since Baktigul was his supervisor. Then Nigora thought maybe they didn’t have their parents’ permission to marry. Or maybe Baktigul, who at 27 already had reduced chances of finding a spouse, didn’t want to risk letting this opportunity go by.

But whatever the reason, the most important thing is that they are happy together. And they did seem to be happy with each other, smiling knowingly at each other and touching each other in an easy, familiar manner while dancing. It was nice to see a couple that seemed to be attracted to each other and both wanted to get married. In the last wedding I went to, the wife was convinced to marry due to pressure from her parents and the practical arguments that this man would be a supportive and good spouse.

Salima, another employee, sat next to me. She is an Uzbek, who tend to be more traditional and marry their daughters earlier than the Kyrgyz. At 23, she’s already pretty old for an Uzbek. She was supposed to get married this fall to a man she didn’t know or like. She was happy when he went off to Russia. She told me that she now plans to marry another man who her parents have selected. I asked if she’d met him and she said yes, “we’ve started talking.”

She doesn’t seem excited about this man either, but likes him better than the first. He speaks several languages and has been working for Lukoil in Russia. He wants to go back to Russia once more before the wedding and she thinks there is a chance he won’t return.

“If he can find a job with a normal salary he’ll stay here,” she said. “Otherwise he’ll return to Russia.”

If the wedding does happen, she said she’d invite me, promising me that it would be a big, loud, and noisy affair, in the Uzbek tradition.

While we were waiting for the wedding party to arrive, I sat at an outdoor table with Gulnara. She is a 25-year-old Kyrgyz from a village just outside Osh. She also is facing intense pressure from her family to marry, and has so far resisted it.

She told me that just this week she took a taxi while working and the driver asked her to dinner. She refused and he then threatened to steal her. Taxi drivers almost always ask me about my marital status, and they occasionally joke about stealing. But as a foreigner I can take it as a joke. I know it is extremely unlikely that they would try to steal a tall American. But for Gulnara, the threat is real. Someone could actually kidnap her and take her home as his bride.

“What would you do if I were to steal you right now?” he asked her.

“I’d burn down your house and your car,” she told him.

He was shocked.

“Whether someone steals a woman depends on their reaction,” Gulnara told me. “When I told him I’d burn his house, he could tell I was serious. But if someone laughs and seems unsure, then they could steal her.

“In the past, when I was a first and second-year university student, I used to really worry about getting stolen. Even though my parents and grandmother didn’t want me to be stolen, I knew that they’d be subjected to a lot of pressure to agree to the marriage and I think things would have been difficult for me. Also, at that time, I would have had a hard time going against my parents.

“Now I feel more independent of my parents. If I were to be stolen, I would definitely say no and leave. But even if I could leave, I think it would still be a traumatic experience.”

Of course I agreed with her. It would be traumatic for anyone to be kidnapped, to lose their freedom of movement and choice, to be trapped in an environment where they don’t want to be. And the fact that Kyrgyz women have to think seriously and frequently about what they would do if they were kidnapped is really sad.

In other news, the family dog Max is back home for good now, after navigating the streets back home four times. I’m just going to have to get used to him.

The weather is warm – in the 80s and 90s – and the city is beautiful. Green trees line the streets, flowers of future fruits have sprouted, and the purple flowers are sprinkled around the city. Fresh strawberries and cherries from Uzbekistan have appeared in the market and people seem happier during the long, sunny days. Today my family is taking me out to the mountains for a picnic. I can’t wait!

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