Monday, June 20, 2005

a gathering of old women

The other night, while sitting on the porch with the family, some of Nigora’s relatives came by to invite her to a gathering this afternoon. Nigora’s niece was holding a reception for her mother-in-law, who’d gone to Mecca earlier this year. Because I was sitting there, they invited me too.

I knew the invitation wasn’t sincere, but I thought it would be interesting to see. So I decided to go. And I figured the food would be much better than what I’d find on my own for lunch. So today I spent my lunch break with a gathering of old women.

I picked up Nigora at 2:15 and we went there together. She was wearing a pink-patterned tent-like dress and a head scarf. She carried a covered pot of steamed meat dumplings that she’d run out to the central market to buy.

Her niece greeted us upon our arrival and poured water out of a brass pot over our hands, letting it fall into a golden brass bowl. A towel draped over her arm for us to wipe our hands on.

We were led into the house to a long u-shaped table, piled high with food. Four old women sat at the head of the table. All of them wore long, largely shapeless velvet and silk dresses, and everyone except me wore a headscarf. I felt out of place in my thin-strapped tank top and pink pants.

They welcomed me kindly though, leading me toward a space near Nigora, where we sat on mats near the table. Every time another person arrived, they said a prayer, then wiped their hands over their face, as though they were rinsing their face with invisible water.

Four women sat across from me, with a large carpet hung behind them. They looked like a quartet of queens on miniature thrones. I only had an hour to sample the smorgasbord, but Nigora said she expected to be there until six.

“Can you eat for four hours?” I asked.

“We can eat for six hours,” she said. “That’s probably why everyone here has such a big stomach.”

I ate little strawberries as light and tart as fizzy candies, thick, round cherries, raisins, pistachios, slices of rindless watermelon, plov with meat and tomatoes, chocolates, samsi, and of course, lepushka.

One woman at the head of the table seemed to be taking the lead in the conversation. I asked Nigora what she was saying.

“She’s talking about the Koran, what one needs to do and what one shouldn’t do.” She said that these women had nothing much to do except study the Koran, pray five times a day, and try to live out its requirements. Many of them had been to Mecca.

“Do you want to go to Mecca,” I asked Nigora.

“It’s not my time yet,” she said. “One has to raise their children, educate them, and marry their sons before they can go to Mecca. They have to go with no obligations to themselves or their families. And they also have to live out the Koran, which I don’t do either.”

I asked if it was boring for them to do nothing but pray all day.

“They do other things,” she said, “like looking after their grandchildren. And even the praying is almost like gymnastics. I try doing it during Ramadan and I find that it’s hard. I have to try to get my stomach out of the way.”

After an hour, I left. I didn’t get home from work until 9:30 and Nigora had just returned an hour before me.

“It was kind of boring,” she said. “They were old women and they talked about their things. That one woman who talked about religion never stopped. They tried to interrupt her, handing her tea, and telling her she must be tired. But she’d just set it down and keep talking.

“Those people who know a lot about religion become like fanatics. They have studied a lot and they think people want to hear everything they know. The things she was saying were true, but nobody needed to hear that much. People were stifling back yawns.”

She also said that an old woman at the table lived near us and told Nigora they should go home together. “So I had to wait for her,” she said. “Not only did she stay a long time, but then she walked so slowly. We didn’t have a car and we had to stop several times to rest on the way.”

After coming home, Nigora fixed a quick dinner of eggs, noodles and lepushka for everyone.

“Now I think I’ll go out on the street,” she said. “The women are discussing when to have our next monthly get-together. Everybody has a problem on a certain day.”

“No, you can stay here and drink tea,” Shavkat said. “If you aren’t there, they can decide without you and then tell you the result.”

And Nigora sat down at the table with us. Then Shavkat dominated the conversation, talking about everyone’s concern about his accident, his complete calm, how his blood is full of adrenaline, and how it’s difficult for him to accept all the energy people are sending him with their concern. But as he gradually takes in some of the energy, it’s making him like his coworkers and value his work more than before. His employer has offered to pay for all the car repair and he plans to get it into great shape, then sell it.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

A summer evening

I spent Sunday afternoon at home. After a pleasant breakfast on the covered porch, looking out over the garden, I felt the pressure of the increasing heat throughout the day. One by one, family members fell down for a nap as they became victims of the heat and lassitude. I was the last to give in, but finally succumbed.

The evening tried to make up for the discomforts of day. A heavy wind blew through the street, raising dust into the air, covering Souleymane mountain in a beige mist.

At home, the flowers rocked wildly, a sea of purple, white and red on a turbulent sea. Metal clanged as Faruh did flips on the home training equipment and the neighbors iron sheeted roof rose and fell. The tree branches rocked as though they were flailing, the plastic sheet covering the wood pile hung on for life and a reddish glow from the sunset illuminated the bathroom and shower walls.

“A red sunset means that tomorrow will be hot,” Nigora said.

Habib found protection and privacy with his friend sitting in Shavkat’s beat-up car. Nigora ran around sweeping, then sat quietly on the covered porch, her back against the wall. She got up to check on the pelmeni soup cooking on the outdoor stove, then raised her arms to the sky.

“What beautiful colors,” she said, “orange and blue and yellow. And the
rain is starting to fall.”

It’s was though we were in a living museum, a museum of movement, where we had to hang on tight, but could still enjoy the colors, the wind and rain against our skins, and the welcoming warm yellow light from indoors.

Shavkat's accident

Last night I came home and was greeted by strange looks from the three boys in the family.

“She didn’t notice,” Habib said.

“Notice what?” I asked, and went back toward the gate I’d come through. I had ridden by bicycle back home from aerobics and had dared to wear shorts on the street for the first time. I’ve never seen a woman in Osh in shorts. During the ride home, my mind was focusing on analyzing whether I was being stared at more than usual and whether I was making a cultural faux pas, or if my foreigner status or “sportsmenka (athelete)” attire made up for it.

At the gate, I saw that the hood of Shavkat’s little red Niva, nicknamed Butterfly by one of his coworkers, was covered with dust. The car seemed tiny and dirty. I then saw scratches and bends in front, part of the roof caved in.

“What happened?” I asked.

“It got in an accident,” they told me.

The night before, Shavkat had gone to a national park, Kara-Shoro, for his work. He’d taken two of his children, Lutfulo and Faruh with him. Last night Lutfulo and Faruh returned home with one of Shavkat’s coworkers, saying that the rain and the lightening made it too dangerous for them to stay.

“Were you in the car?” I asked the kids.


“But you saw the accident?”

“Yes, dad told us to get out of the car and we were standing on the side of the road when it happened,” Lutfulo said.

“And you didn’t tell us last night?” I asked.

“They didn’t want us to worry,” Nigora said.

“Mother would have fainted,” Habib said. But I wonder if she did know something. At one point last evening, she looked like she was wiping tears from her eyes. She told me that Shavkat would be back by lunchtime, but I didn’t understand why the time of his return was so important.

They explained that Shavkat was trying to climb up a mountain, but the car didn’t have the power. It then started rolling backwards, then rolled over once or twice off the side of the mountain.

“That must have been scary to see,” I said.

“Not really,” little Faruh said.

“How could it not have been,” Habib asked.

“Because after it happened, dad came out of the car and said, “Extreme!””

Everyone laughed. Shavkat frequently declares his love of the extreme, from living in rough conditions to traveling poor roads, and taking adventurers on crazy odysseys. That one word reassured his sons that everything was OK.

He had been charged with bringing something to the park. So after the accident he took the equipment from the car and begin walking the several miles that still remained. On the way, some coworkers in car passed by and came to help.

Shavkat claimed that he wasn’t frightened, but he was so spooked at seeing other people’s reactions that he went back to the smoking he’d given up two weeks before. “I had a pact with a friend that we’d give up smoking together on June 1st. But when he saw what happened, he handed me a cigarette and said we should smoke for just two days. Because that was a lot of stress. Then he handed me some cognac and told me I should drink too.”

“Good friend,” I said, and Nigora laughed.

Shavkat had told me that his car needed repair and wasn’t able to go to the mountains. He said he told the same thing to his employer. But they said their car was also broken and they needed him to go urgently. So he agreed. Luckily, they have agreed to pay for the repairs to his car. He plans to fix it, then trade it in for a new car. In the future, he’ll probably use only the company cars for work.

The battered car now sits in the driveway. Shavkat somehow drove it all the way home. Nigora said it approached the house rattling and shaking. It stands as a medal to his adventure and his survival.

This morning I was awoken by a male voice, one of Shavkat’s brothers, exclaiming in Russian, “No way! You are lucky you are alive!”

In all of his years as a driver, this is Shavkat’s first serious accident. He says the good outcome is a result of his meditation and balance in life.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The White House targeted again

Yesterday afternoon I attended a meeting that was opened by the moderator, “I don’t know how many of you know, but 2,000 protestors have broken into the White House in Bishkek and are sitting in the federal offices.”

I later read that the cause of the protest was the rejection of businessman Urmatbek Karyktabasov to appear on the Presidential ballot. Apparently he is a citizen of Kazakhstan, but has lived in Kyrgyzstan for a long time.

The protestors were successfully and peacefully disbursed with the use of tear gas. Nigora, after watching the news, said the protestors were unemployed people. “You can pay them and they’ll stand there, wave pickets, and go into the White House without any clue of what they are doing or why,” she said. She said that the current President, Bakiev, appeared on the news, saying that people are tired of such disturbances, and should they continue, greater force will be used.

I’m definitely getting tired of them, and I don’t have to live with the long-term consequences in the way the locals do.

It’s getting hot in Osh. I walk to walk in cool, morning air, picking raspberries off the bushes on my way out the door. A few hours later, it’s already intensely hot, with the peak coming after lunch. I never really looked at the temperature, and was surprised when Malik told me it was 34 degrees Celcius. I haven’t had much exposure to temperatures over 30.

“34 is nothing,” he said. “Last year it got to 40 and 41. Summer is just beginning.”

Yesterday evening the heat of the day was followed by a rainshower. By the time I walked home, around 9 p.m., the rain had stopped, but the lightening continued, turning the dark sky a grayish-yellow, illuminated by bolts of lightening flashing in the distance, like a picture show without the usual effects.

One of my favorite aspects of life in Osh is the time spent sitting on the porch. I’m given the best place at the table, the mat against the wall. There, when I’m feeling lazy, I can lift my plate or cup of tea up from the low table and rest my back against the wall. I look out at the square garden in the center of the compound. Many people have neat rows of tomatoes, spices and roses. Nigora has a wild mass of flowers. The daffodils and red roses have already flowered and wilted. Nigora will soon cut them so they will flower again and again until winter. The purple and white daisies are now in season. Tall green stalks promise gladiola flowers soon, with chrysanthemums and asters to come. And the flower bulb I brought Nigora from Holland grows visibly every day.

When it’s still light, I can sit on the porch and look out over the flowering land, limited by a fence around its perimeter. While I listen to the neighboring banging on their Kamaz, the next door dog barking, the rural vendor crying out, “Milk, yogurt,” down the street, I can almost imagine myself in a flowering field, far away from everything. I can inhale the rich scent of the earth and petals, the wetness trapped in the ground. At night, I sit in the cool air and look out into blackness. But I can still feel the land, I know that small round knobs are growing on the quince tree, I know that so many petals are waiting for the next days sun, to raise their heads proudly one more time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


In what I was able to find out about the shootings, a crowd of people approached a hotel, where Bayaman has an office, and the guard at the hotel shot at them, injuring five.

Today the streets around the hotel were blocked off, buses, cars and concrete blocks used to prevent traffic from entering, and knots of policeman gathering in the area. I didn’t understand why they felt the need to gather the police force and to the block the area off. Did they really think that the exact same event would reoccur?

“They have to look like they are doing something.” one of my coworkers said.

This evening I went to aerobics. The building and the business are owned by Bayaman. Clearly, they were worried about an attack. An armed guard sat on a chair outside the front door, with a burly man seated next to him. For the first time ever, I was able to wear my shoes up to the aerobics room, instead of taking them off in the lobby and putting them in the smelly cubbyholes. The carpets and the air conditioners had been removed. And the wrestling area, usually full, was spookily void of running, grunting and flopping masses.

Our class was about the half the normal size. Nazgul, one of our employees, was there and I asked her why.

“People are afraid because of what happened yesterday. They think maybe this building could be attacked.”

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“No,” she laughed, widening her pancake shaped face. “If I’m destined to die, I’ll
die. If not, I won’t.”

The mood in town is a bit solemn. For most, life goes on as usual. But people are tired of and worried about the troubles.

While driving past the theater with our driver, Malik, he noticed two fire engines near the entrances.

“What are fire trucks doing there?” he asked, clearly nervous about another problem.

Then we saw a sign commemorating 79 years of the fire department.

“Oh, a celebration,” he said, and took a deep breath. “That’s good. We’re
getting to the point where we see people gather and it hurts our soul. Who needs all this protesting and violence?”

Last night Nigora recalled Soviet times, when people always knew what lie ahead. “Now we don’t know what will come in the future,” she said and fingered her headscarf.

Her son Habib, the most conservative of the three, insisted Soviet times were better, even though he never lived through them himself. “Nobody stole then,” he said. “So now we have freedom to go overseas, but nobody has money to go. So what’s the benefit of the freedom if no one can take advantage of it?”

He’s similar to the new group of conservative young Russians. He praises
Putin and makes derogatory comments about the Kyrgyz, especially from the villages.

Recently a grandson of the First Party Secretary of the Kyrgyz Republic visited our home. He’s a Kyrgyz and an acquaintance of Shavkat. I didn’t stay for the conversation, but Nigora later told me about it.

“Although he’s a Kyrgyz himself, he said he’s become ashamed of the Kyrgyz in the south. He even hates them. He says they are loafers. They come up north, cause a revolution, behave horribly, stealing the things that aren’t theirs, and now they are surrounding the capital and demanding land.”

Nigora places her hopes for the future in her son’s education. “Due to the poor quality of education, many people now say forget it, just let their kids work. But I believe that in four or five years, things will settle down. And those who are able to find jobs will be those with educations. I want all three of my sons to study so they can find a place for themselves.”

Shavkat rejected the family’s ideas for opening a business. But Habib went out and found himself a job, through a classmate, in a furniture factory. He works Monday through Saturday from 9 to 6.

“How much do you make?” I asked.

“They told me not to ask. My friend said that I’m coming on as an apprentice and they don’t like it when people who don’t know anything demand money. But he said if I didn’t say anything, they’d pay me fairly.”

His friend has been working there for seven months. He make $15 a month as an apprentice and now makes $30 a month working half time after school. He’s planning to study at the university by correspondence and continue working full-time.

Habib enjoys the collective. He says they are mostly Russian and joke a lot. He also seems to like having the responsibility and is already planning for August, when he can buy clothes for himself before he starts college. As for his responsibilities, he tells me but is silent to his father.

“My dad keeps asking what I do all day, but I don’t tell him anything,” he said. “All he does is criticize all the time, so there is no point in telling him anything.”

Today I went to Uzgen, in a Volga with windows that didn’t open in back, the car filled with the dust from the bumpy dirt road. A tiny section of the road had been paved, so people are hopeful that progress will be made by fall.

Along the way, we saw people bent over in the cotton fields, the rows of green shimmering in the hot afternoon sun, snow-capped mountains in the distance floating through the sky as if they were clouds.

In Uzgen, I visited the ancient mausoleum and minaret, two relics of a past world standing in a grassy fenced in area. One would never guess that the dusty, bustling little town of Uzgen has existed since at least the second century BC, when it was mentioned in Chinese chronicles as the town of Yu. From 1000 to the 1200s, it was called Mavarannahr and served as a capital of the Karakhanid Dynasty, which ruled the area from 999 until Genghis Khan destroyed it in the 13th century.

The red-brown clay mausoleums were marked by engravings and foliage on terracotta up to three centimeters deep, covering doorways, pillars, and walls. We climbed up the brick minaret to look over the sleepy section of town. The silver Lenin statue and row of markers to Soviet heroes seemed a strange complement to the buildings of ancient rulers. Mountains rose in the distance, ringing the town with earth and stone.

Returning to the central part of town, I went through the imposing blue and turquoise tiled pillars that mark the entrance to the central market. I walked through the narrow aisles, amidst sheets of plastic hung up to protect the goods from the sun and rain. Vendors stood near piles of crab apples, peaches, plums, tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh mountain honey, fat sold in vials as medicine, bags of flour, and sweet, yeasty smelling lepushka.

On the way back, I made my usual stop to buy fish. At one point along the Uzgen-Osh road, fishermen lounge in the shade in summer, or hold up fish in mittened hands in winter. They catch it in a nearby river and bring it right to the roadside to sell to passing travelers. It’s some of the best fish I’ve had in Kyrgyzstan. Several times, I’ve found the fish still alive, even after the two hour trip to Osh.

Monday, June 13, 2005

A shooting a few blocks away

It seems that the bandits are really raring up for the election and that is bad news for the vast majority who want peace and stability.

I've been sitting in an internet cafe for the past few hours since our connection at work is too slow to use for research. My coworker called me and asked if I was OK.

"Of course. Why?"

"Apparently there have been some events in the city," he said. He knew the location, near the Hotel Alai, a couple of blocks down from where I was, but didn't know what happened or why.

He was trying to call people closer to the scene to see if they knew anything. In the meantime, some of our staff were heading home early.

Everyone once in a while, someone would pop into the internet cafe and talk about the news. With time, I started to hear the word "shooting."

I marveled at the primitiveness of the oral information network. There is no news chanel to turn to, people just talk to others and see what they've heard.

Only when I heard another patron ask another, "What time was the shooting today?", I asked him if he knew what happened and he directed me to a Russian-language webpage (

There I read that there was in fact a shooting, with automatic weapons, and that it was somehow related to Bayaman, the most renowned bandit of the south and also a government deputy. This is the third incident related to him in the past week alone. And of course, those are only the incidents I actually hear about.

Last week, two of my coworkers, a European and a local, ending up running from a crowd while in the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border town of Kara-Suu. I found out today while I was in Kara-Suu that the cause of the uprising was a group of vendors who revolted against the market owner (a brother of Bayaman) and put another owner in his place.

"Why did they revolt?" I asked the driver, who looked like a friendly version of Saddam Hussein.

"Because he didn't treat people well. He raised the rent and he threatened to take their goods if they were late in paying for the guards."

"How did so many people organize?" I asked.

"That's the question," he said. "They organized very fast and I don't know how they did it."

"Isn't Bayaman mad?" I asked. "Is there a risk he'll do something?"

"Of course he's mad, but he's in Bishkek."

A few days before there, there was a disturbance of protestors with clubs at the local administration building. A local financial leader told me that Bakiev (the president's) followers were sparring with Bayaman's followers, who wanted different people appointed as mayor. The mayor is appointed by deputies and acccording to this man, "Bayaman has already started putting pressure on the deputies to pick the people he wants."

The government decided to postpone the selection of the mayor until after the July 10th presidential elections.

It seems there are powerful people with money exploiting the poor and using them as protestors and implementors of their own interests.

I had debated between two routes to the internet cafe. If I'd chosen the second, I would have gone through that area just shortly after the shooting happened. I've never been to this hotel, but the Australian who recently stayed with Nigora and Shavkat and I spent his first evening there.

Now that it's been a few hours, news is coming out. It's now on the front page of Soon it will just be another news feature, that worries, excities, and then disappears into the stacks of prior events.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

A wedding and a funeral

“They buried another one last night,” Nigora told me this morning. “He lived one street over.”

“Did he go together with the other man who died?”

“Yes. They say they all went together on one day and all died together. They were all buried together, each grave numbered one, two, three. They must have just found him.”

“Was he also religious?”

“We don’t call that religious. We call it a war.”

Nigora didn’t know this man and didn’t attend the ceremony.

While my neighbors were burying their son, I attended the wedding of two staff members, one of whom stole (kidnapped) the other (see the February 4th entry to read how I found out about this. I later invited Feruza to lunch and verified that she was kidnapped against her will).

The bride, Feruza, and groom, Bakit, have been living together since October, when Bakit stole Feruza. I was very curious to see the wedding, but it was also psychologically trying, knowing very well that the bride had not wanted to marry the groom. It took on an atmosphere of dark comedy, as people laughed and sang and drank and toasted in the usual manner, but realizing that Feruza was not truly happy, was only accepting the fate that was forced upon her. I felt great pity for her parents, who lost their daughter, and great dislike for Bakit’s mother, who I assumed must have helped put the marriage scarf onto Feruza’s head immediately after the kidnapping, tying her to their family forever.

The invitation read 6 p.m. and I went with a few staff members at that time.

“It’s polite to arrive on time,” Damir told me. “But everyone knows that it won’t really start until at least seven or eight.”

So, being polite, we were one of the first people there, and sat at a table on the street for over an hour while waiting for the bride and groom to return from their picture-taking around town.

While there I spoke with Damir and Oksana, both 22 years old. Oksana is unusually vocal that she has no interest in getting married.

“Especially with our Kyrgyz traditions in which the wife is expected to do all the washing, cooking and cleaning, I really don’t want to get married,” she said. “I don’t like doing those things and I’m better off being single.”

They told me that they get a lot of pressure from relatives (“I have at least 200,” Oksana said) to marry early and to have as many children as possible.

“We all have relatives in the village and they all know exactly everything that everyone is doing. If you come visit, you better bring six kilograms of candy, because you have to share everything with everyone,” Oksana said.

“On the one hand, it can be good. Because if anything happens, especially to children, everyone joins together to help. But on the other hand, people watch closely the actions of other people and criticize what they don’t like. And there is a lot of pressure to conform,” Damir said. I like Damir a lot. His face has been pockmarked with acne, but seems to have cleared up recently. He is calm and smart and polite and was recently made the leader of his group of employees. He is a Kyrgyz at heart, but is open to and interested in learning about other ways of doing things.

I asked them how many children they wanted. Oksana wants four and Damir three.

“Is that typical among people of your generation?” I asked.

“Yes,” they said.

“If everybody your age has four children, then the population will double by the next generation,” I said. “Do people think about things like population growth and limited resources?”

They looked at me with open mouths, but Damir’s face immediately registered recognition after the surprise. “No,” they said.

“But Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have such a big population,” Oksana said.

“Not in absolute terms it doesn’t,” I said. “But in relation to the number of jobs available it does. Also in relation to the amount of cultivatable land. Do people think about where their children will be able to live and work, about whether or not there will be enough resources for them?”

I knew I must sound like someone from another planet. And it was clear from their reactions that no one had asked them such a question before.

“No, we don’t think about what will come after us,” Oksana said.

“I suppose that’s why people in America live better,” Damir said.

“I think people here are afraid of being alone in their old age so they try to have a lot of children in order to ensure that they won’t be alone,” Oksana said.

At seven, we were joined by two of their coworkers, Camilla and Ainara, also in their early 20s, and the bank director and head accountant. People stood up and started to file inside. As we went up the stairs, I noticed fresh drops of blood on the ground of the fancy red, yellow and green Magnat restaurant, probably from the meat.

Tables were lined along both ends of a long hall, leaving a wide space for dancing in the middle. Large, bright and simplistic paintings of lake Sary Chelek and green fields hung on the walls. At the front stood a table for the bride, groom and their two attendants, with a small round table in front of it for the presents.

Plates of tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, sausage, apples, cherries, peaches,
almonds, pistachios, candies, noodle salad, chopped liver, raisins, fried rolls, and lepushka were piled high on our table. We sat there, hesitantly nibbling, for almost another hour.

“They must be waiting for a really important person,” Mirlan, their director said. Apparently, Feruza and Bakit were sitting in the car and were not allowed to come in until this important person arrived.

Finally, the important person came, the bride and groom entered, and took their places at the head table. Their parents started off the process of giving toasts, which would continue through the entire night. And poor Feruza and Bakit had to remain standing during every toast. Their parents drank champagne together and then danced. All the toasts were in Kyrgyz, so I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

“Feruza’s mother is either crying or is very nervous,” Oksana said. Bakit’s mother had her hair elegantly arranged in an up-do and moved as though she considered herself a high class woman. When she came closer, I noticed a line of dark hair above her upper lip.

I wondered what Feruza’s parents felt. Because she was stolen, Bakit’s family was expected to cover most, if not all, of the expenses. Their daughter clearly married into a well-off family. But they knew she didn’t want to marry him and they missed her presence in Jalalabat, where they live, three hours away. It wasn’t the first time they’d had a daughter kidnapped. Their older daughter was stolen and managed to reject him, later finding and marrying a man she loved.

“If someone is kidnapped, they can leave,” Camilla explained to me. “But the shame will last forever and they will have a really hard time finding anyone else.”

I told her about Feruza’s sister’s case.

“It can happen,” she said. “But usually the woman is so upset by the experience that she never finds anyone. And in fear of this, most women give in after being stolen.”

The wedding was a lot like the one I attended in Bishkek. There were at least 200 people, the food was endless. I managed to eat a little bit of soup, but I didn’t touch the main meal of stewed beef, mashed potatoes, kasha, coleslaw and a tomato wedge.

“This is only the first round,” Ainara laughed. “There are still several rounds to go, including plov.”

“No wonder I never make it to the wedding cake,” I said. This was my third wedding and I never stayed long enough to see the cake.

“That’s why our cakes are typically very small,” Oksana said. “Because by the time they come out, people are so stuffed they can’t eat any.”

I visited another table where a large group of our employees were sitting.

“Who will be next at your bank to get married?” I asked.

“It depends who gets stolen next,” they laughed.

Albina said that she didn’t have to worry about that. “I’m a Tartar and in our culture people don’t steal each other.”

“So you’ll know the date of your wedding in advance?” I joked.

“Yes.” She smiled.

People gave toasts in groups – one family, one group of coworkers, one group of friends. They stood at the far end of the hall, while Bakit and Feruza stood to hear what they had to say. Then to the accompaniment of a merry march music, they strode across the hall to place their gifts on the small round table, and if they wanted, to kiss or shake hands with the bride and groom.

The most common gifts by far were carpets and flowers. I know that they hang carpets on the walls as well as on the floors here, but I still couldn’t imagine how they could possibly fit all those carpets in their home.

“They will give many of them away,” Camilla told me. “After the wedding, they will repay those who helped with the wedding by giving them carpets. And among the scarves that Feruza received, she will invite women over and let them each select a scarf that they like.”

Weddings here don’t seem to be structured to please the bride and groom, but more to please relatives and friends. They don’t have a lot of fun during the ceremony, they have to give away many of their gifts, and there is rarely a honeymoon. Both Feruza and Bakit will be back at work on Monday.

Since they have been living together since she was stolen, they are exempted from this tradition. But Camilla told me that in the villages, the mother of both the bride and groom spend the night in the same room as the bride and groom. And the next morning they hang up the sheet on the fence in front of the house, so everyone can see if the bride was a girl or woman.

I said that sounded terrible and she told me that sometimes one of the families will offer money and ask the people to leave the room. She told me of someone she knew who had a father sit right outside the door of the couple’s room to listen.

In between toasts, the emcee encouraged people to dance to the Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian music. Most of the guests were Kyrgyz. There were some Uzbek, at least two Tartars, and as far as I could tell, I was the only Caucasian. People started off dancing in tight circles, only among those they knew. But as they night progressed, guests became more friendly and the circle widened. While there was vodka and wine available, many people didn’t drink at all and few drank heavily. I didn’t see anyone lose control. That is a distinction between the north and the south of the country.

I had a nice time, I ate well, and I enjoyed having some fun with the people I often see only at work. Last week I took ten employees on a weekend trip to a national park. Thinking that they deserved a break and I was eager to spend time in nature and to get to know them better, I subsidized the price a bit. We slept in rusted wagons, hiked all day to a mountain lake, enjoyed a steaming banya, and enjoyed horseback rides along the rushing river waters. Everyone had a fantastic time and those who didn’t go now keep asking when we’ll organize another trip. I really like and respect my employees and despite the unavoidable divide that comes with being the boss, our relations are good and I enjoy spending time with them.

But at this wedding, I also clearly felt the cultural divide. I recognized that if I grew up in this society, I’d accept some of the traditions. But I found it shocking to hear my smart and relatively modern employees telling me about things like kidnapping, people watching a couple’s first (or not) copulation, expectations of the women to do all household work, and the refusal of men to help a woman’s parents, even if they have no sons, as standard aspects of their lives.

Another employee of mine (who also stole his wife, but at least they had been dating first), recently put his pregnant wife in the hospital, where she is soon due to give birth. I wondered what he was doing at a wedding when he could have a child any minute.

“How will you know when she goes into labor?” I asked.

“I won’t. She suggested I come and we go through the process together. But I don’t want to be there to hear her screams.”

“It was half your fault you know,” I said and he laughed. But although the men consider themselves to be strong, most are unwilling to provide even the moral support as their wives go through physical pain (usually with no painkillers).

I stayed until eleven, long enough to see the plov served (but unable to fit a bite into my stomach) but not long enough to see the cake. I stepped out into the wet streets and took a taxi bike to my dark and quiet street, all the children who populate it from dawn to evening tucked into the boxes lining either side of the road.

Today is a cold and drizzling day. The mature magenta roses and fresh white daisies sparkle under the drops of water. But for me, it’s a perfect day to hibernate. I slept late, read, and am now sitting at my computer, listening to the dripping water, to the calls of a rural woman selling dairy products, to the hammer of someone repairing a cargo truck across the street and to the shooting coming from a video game being played in the neighboring room. I don’t want to leave Osh anytime soon.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The future of the south

Last night Nigora asked Shavkat if I could move my belongings to Bishkek in the neighbor’s Kamaz. She was clearly sad at the thought of my leaving.

“You are better off in Bishkek,” Shavkat said.


“Because Osh is almost Uzbekistan and the situation there could explode at any point. We have several people in the neighborhood who died in Andijan and they are probably planning something in revenge for that. I tell Nigora that you need to come to and from work via the main road, not the street that takes you past the home of the mother of the man who was killed. But she doesn’t take it seriously and keeps forgetting to tell you. It would be better for us and better for you to be in Bishkek. We worry about you.”

He said that at the mourning ceremony today, he’d have “his ears to the ground,” to try to hear what people gathered there were saying, to hear if there were any plans underway.

The talk freaked me out, not so much because I’m afraid of the daily risk of extremists, but because I had nightmares after Faruh told me one evening about a neighborhood of extremists not far from here. I was hoping I wouldn’t get nightmares from Shavkat’s talk.

This evening I walked home during what seemed like a prelude to storm. The dark blue-grey sky behind Souleymane mountain illuminated the harsh rocks. A cool wind blew around me, as if I had a portable fan. The sky seemed to call out to pedestrians, announcing its intention to throw a wet carpet over everyone.

When I got home I asked Shavkat how the visit went.

“It was very quiet,” he said. “No one said anything. There people there who didn’t like this guy who died, but they went out of respect for his mother. And then there were the people, like the guy across the street, who refused to go because they were afraid that agents would be there collecting information and this would all go to Karimov (the Uzbek president).”

Shavkat told me that he received a lepushka, a round loaf of bread, from the family. “These are only given to old people or to relatives,” he said, “to people they respect. Out of all the men in the neighborhood, they only gave one to me and to an old man who lives nearby.” He is distantly related to the family, through his cousin who married a girl from the family.

Nigora was among the women who visited after lunch. But she didn’t have time to visit with the mother, saying that she was constantly busy serving guests. “His mother is a very healthy person,” Nigora said, referring to the man who died. “She’s very tall and she is quite fat. But it’s clear she’s lost some weight due to grief. People say that her second son is in prison connected to the Andijan events.”

She said that at the end, the mother encouraged guests to take all the food with them, that she held the ceremony in her son’s honor and didn’t want to have any leftovers.

Women started to fill their plastic sacks, but Nigora wasn’t comfortable taking much. “I don’t like taking things,” she said. Nevertheless, she took a lepushka and a few pieces of candy that were near her, passing them out to us at the dinner table. So I ate a piece of candy provided by the mother of an extremist killed in Andijan.

After dinner, the family had it’s version of an argument, with everyone trying to convince Shavkat to allow Habib and Lutfulo to work during the summer. Lutfulo, 19, remained silent during the conversation, but Habib, just about to finish high school, argued hard. He never spoke without respect for his father, but criticized his drinking, his smoking, his protectiveness, his resistance to risk and his refusal to allow them the freedom to work.

Shavkat claims that his sons don’t have the strength to work, that if they open a businesses, they’ll lose interest after two to three months and they’ll lose everything.

“How do you know we don’t have the interest or the strength?” Habib asked. “We’ve never had the chance to work. A father is supposed to support his children, to encourage them to try new things. But our father is a pessimist and a critic. He always tells us that we can’t do this and we can’t do that. He told me I study poorly, but I already got my first acceptance letter from college. When I showed it to him he said that the college must need money and that’s why they are inviting me to attend.”

“What’s important isn’t money,” Shavkat said, “But the ability to push oneself to the physical maximum.”

“That’s his idea,” Nigora said. “And he thinks everyone else should think the same. “

Addressing Shavkat, she said, “You don’t always have to go the max. If a glass of beer is full, you don’t have to drink it all.”

Shavkat said that they can’t walk the three kilometers to school, but instead ask for a ride.

Nigora and Habib joked about how the real problem is that Shavkat wants to feel needed.

“Faruh will call Shavkat at work and tell him he’s running late for school, could he come home and drive him. And Shavkat comes during his lunch break and drives Lutfulo to school.”

Shavkat agreed, laughing. “I then just pick up something to eat quickly on the way.

“My dad is scared that if he lets me work, I’ll get my own car, then my own house, and I won’t need him anymore,” Habib said.

Nigora tried to reassure him that Faruh still has five years of school left, so Shavkat can still give rides for five more years. He threatens that when all his sons are married, he will go live in a hut in the mountains, but no one takes him seriously.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Mourning the extremist

Nigora told me over dinner this evening that tomorrow she will go to the home of the young man killed in Andijan. She said the family is expecting so many people that they are dividing visiting and prayer times into two shifts – men before lunch and women after.

“If this guy was an extremist and he went to Uzbekistan to do bad things, why are so many people going to gather and mourn him tomorrow?” I asked.

“They won’t be mourning him,” she said. “They are going out of respect for his mother. I can’t refuse because she did many good things for us and for others. We went through a hard financial time when we had to marry off all of Shavkat’s brothers. It’s a custom to present to the wife’s parents a large round of bread and she would bake huge lepushkas for us.”

She said that among this woman’s son, the one who died was considered calm and unlikely to engage in such activities. “I can’t understand why he did it,” Nigora said. “Probably for the money. These groups get lots of money from Saudi Arabia and people like Bin Laden.”

I asked if she noticed women covering themselves up more than in the past. Even within the past few months, I feel like I am seeing headscarves, long zip-up robes, and even the rare complete face scarf more often.

“Yes,” she said. “Those people are religious, too religious. And many of them belong to those groups like the Akhramists and Mahibists (may be spelling this wrong). We have five or six people on our street like that, including the family of the man who died.”

She said that all of her and Shavkat’s relatives wear pants and show their hair. “When I go out somewhere, I go like that,” she said. “But when I’m getting together with people on the street, I dress like they do so that they won’t look at me.”

She usually wears a long, shapeless dress and a headscarf that is tied in the back, instead of those clasped under the chin, like I saw on two women stepping off a marshrutka today.

After dinner, she came into my room to get Shavkat’s Muslim cap, called a tubeteka in Russian. It was black with white embroidery. “Shavkat hasn’t worn this in ages,” she said. “Many people wear it often, but Shavkat only wears it for funerals. He’ll have to wear it tomorrow when he goes visiting.”

When I leave Osh, I’m really going to miss my evening conversations with Nigora and the rest of the family. I can’t imagine sitting at a table alone, or in front of a TV.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

One more day in Osh

Another full day in Osh and another chance to treasure all of the unique characteristics of this city, good and bad.

The cherries are fully in bloom and are dripping off our tree at the office. Yesterday the landlady’s son came by to pick them and fell off the ladder with a crash. He lay stunned in the dirt, his pockets bulging with red marbles.

I made it to aerobics this evening for the first time in over a week. Once class had started, a stout, petite Russian woman who is a regular attendee came up to me and loudly declared, “J, you are in my place!”

I had seen her kick others out of “her place” before and I found it annoying. While I don’t particularly care too much where I stand during class, I was already there, I had forgotten it was “her place” and I didn’t feel like stopping the routine to move.

“I don’t see your name on it,” I told her.

“I always stand here,” she insisted, while the rest of the class looked at me.

I moved my step over enough so that she could fit herself in the front row and said, “This is a bit like kindergarten.”

Perhaps it was my comment, perhaps it was the fact that the space I made for her didn’t offer her a full-on view of herself in the mirror, perhaps she took offense that I didn’t move myself to the back of the room, but she grabbed her belongings and left the class in a huff.

I later asked a local colleague in the class if it was normal for someone to claim a certain space of the floor.

“No,” she said. “She’s someone with a very difficult character. She once made me move from her space as well. Somebody needed to stand up to her.” Today I guess it was me.

In the evening, while Nigora prepared plov for dinner, I could hear Faruh’s young voice outside my window chanting in Arabic, like a miniature minaret at home. He stumbled over the tough words, like rushing water caught by rocks. In the other direction, I could hear the roaring of race cars from the video game Farhat was playing.

Later, over dinner, Shavkat told me that Faruh wouldn’t be attending Arabic classes any more.

“I quit,” Faruh said with a smile.

“There is something I just don’t like there,” Shavkat said. “It’s good for young people to learn to read the Koran so when they are 40 or 50 they can peacefully attend the mosque. But to do more than that is not necessary. He could become a fanatic.”

Shavkat told me how the employees of the geological company where he sometimes works rob the company, submitting receipts for goods purchased higher than the actual purchase price.

He told how he was recently told to buy 600 metal boxes. “I was given $11.50 per box,” he said. “But by spending one minute negotiating the vendor, I lowered the price to $6. In a matter of minutes, I saved the company several thousand dollars. But no one said a word of thanks. Instead, I started to become the object of pressure and intrigue. People were telling me not to do things like that because then it makes it harder for them to write inflated prices.”

He cited another example of an employee who recently bought a car for the company for $8800, when Shavkat said he could have bought it for $6,000. According to him, the foreign owners and managers turn a blind eye to such behavior.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The gossip in my neighborhood

This afternoon, during lunch, I found out about a new movie theater in town. To date, all I knew about was a little room, where I hear they show DVDs of war and horror movies to viewers packed in on the 20 to 30 chairs. Now there is a new place, where they also show DVDs, but on a large screen and with room for 280 viewers. Now that I know I could be moved to Bishkek any day, I’ve learned that I have to seize the moment and not put anything off.

I called Nigora and asked if she’d like to join me at the melodrama, After the Sunset, playing this evening at seven. She doesn’t get out much and I thought it might be fun for the two of us to go out. She accepted and I bought the tickets.

A little while later she called. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I can’t go. Shavkat has returned home very drunk. It must have been someone’s birthday at work. And I’m afraid that if I leave something bad will happen.”

I was disappointed that she had to refuse an invitation she seemed to want to accept, but told her we’d go another day. Yet, at this point, I never know whether there will be another day or not.

When I returned home late in the evening, she served me reheated rice with potatoes, tiny peas and meat on the outdoor table and sat with me while I ate.

“Have you heard anything more about what happened in Uzbekistan?” she asked, while pulling off her pink headscarf to reveal her black hair knotted at the base of her head, refolding the scarf and putting it back on.

I admitted I hadn’t read much lately, but I’d heard that several countries had called for an international investigation of what happened, but President Karimov rejected that.

“You know,” she said. “At first I was a bit offended by Karimov. He said everything was instigated by people who came from Osh and Jalalabat. And I thought Osh is always blamed for everything.

“But last night we buried the son of our neighbor who lives just a few doors down. He was killed there on May 13th.”

“Why was he just buried last night?” I asked.

“Because two sons were there. One was killed and the other was in prison in Jalalabat until just now. Only when he returned could he tell his family that his brother was killed and was lying there. The family went to claim his body, to wrap him in a white cloth, to bring him back, and to say the prayers.”

She said the neighbors are all saying that he went there with a rifle to kill people and to take power.

“He was a very serious and quiet man, 30 years old” she said. “No one expected it.”

“But how do you know that he had a gun or that he went to kill people?” I asked.

“Because that family belongs to an Islamic party, the Akhramists and everybody knows that. Also, the neighbors said they saw a list of those who died and there were four or five people from our neighborhood alone.” She began to list off neighboring streets where men had been killed.

“So they party called them and they all went together,” she said. “When someone joins that party, there is no turning back.”

She then told me the gossip that this family might have received a lot of money from this party.

“This family used to be poor,” she told me. The husband died and the wife baked bread. Then she began to import goods from Iran and Iraq and sold them at the market. When her sons were grown up, they took over. Of course, it’s possibly they became wealthy by honest means, because they work all the time. But it’s strange for the husband to be dead and for them to have three giant houses, one for the mother and one each for two of her three sons. People say that the party might have been paying them. And they say that these two sons were offered $5000 by the party to go to Uzbekistan. That’s big money to us,” she said.

“So how do the neighbors feel about having Islamic radicals on their street?” I asked. Of course, I was feeling pretty nervous about it and wondered if they felt the same.

“We’re not close enough to them for it to really effect us,” she said. “People don’t feel sorry for the guy, since he went there himself and got himself into it. But they feel sorry for the mother, since she raised him.”

I asked her a lot about her sources of information and it seems like it is exclusively neighborhood gossip. So I don’t know how much to believe and how much not to believe. I do know that there are some people here on the fringe. I came across one business owner through my work who refused to take a loan that he needed because he wouldn’t let his wife leave the house to sign the spousal agreement form. I also know that the vast majority of people here are peaceful and good. I can only hope that their wishes for governance and their hopes for the future are the ones that take precedence.