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.

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