Monday, November 28, 2005

A Victim of the Revolution

It was a cold day in Bishkek today. While snow has yet to arrive, the chill winter air is here and the strawberries have finally disappeared from the market.

Today I went to a photo shop that was affected by the March looting. The owners had three shops. Two of them were completely gutted. They lost $90,000 in goods and equipment.

“They even took the carpets off the floor,” one of the managers said. “All that was left was our safe and an old desk that was bolted to the ground.”

They were able to save the most valuable possession, the photo processing machine, by standing around it.

“All this happened right in front of our eyes,” the Office Manager said. “We were right there.”

I couldn’t imagine what a horrible feeling it must be to watch an out-of-control mob tear apart a business you’ve spent the last ten years building and put almost everything you had into. Luckily, many of their goods were in storage facilities, instead of in the shops themselves.

The shop looks pretty good now. I wouldn’t know it had been gutted seven months ago if they hadn’t told me. However, they were closed for over a month as they rebuilt. And they said now, even seven months later, they have far less goods than they had before.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving in Turkey

I just returned from a three-day holiday to Turkey, where I spent Thanksgiving with Mark on the Mediterrean coast. No turkey for us, but the rabbit dinner was a great substitute. As was the sight of the turquoise waters, the pine forested mountains, the crumbling Roman ruins, and the scent of citrus, tea, salt and pine that filled the air.

I came back on a plane filled with traders from the Dordoi market, mostly middle-aged women. Many of them had bright orange or purple hair sticking up and shellacked in place.

There is a term for people who work at the markets, bazarni, which is often associated with uncultured. I never saw any truth to that until this flight. Everyone stood up long before the plane taxied to the runway, ignoring commands to sit. Then, when the plane stopped suddenly, everyone flew forward.

“Everyone is excited to be home and they forget that everyone else is excited as well,” said Larina, the 46-year-old trader sitting next to me. She had yelled at others to sit down, then hopped up to join them. She wore a large bandage on the back of her head, a result of a botched robbery attempt that morning. A Turkish man had tried to pull her purse off her, pulling her out into the street, where she fell and hit her head on the pavement. He didn’t get the bag, but she was pretty upset. “I can’t get rid of the awful impression,” she said.

She was a woman full of sadness. Despite the fact that she built up a good business over the last 15 years and seems to make a good income, she complained constantly about life in Kyrgyzstan, about how she doesn’t know any Kyrgyz and it’s too hard to learn, about the corruption, the lack of work for young people, the poor education.

She is married to an Afghan and a few years ago had the opportunity to immigrate to Canada. Her husband wanted to, but she refused, saying she was too old to start again in a new place.

“Several of our acquaintances went and they are all happy. Now, all the time, my husband says that it’s because of me that we don’t have a good life.”

At customs, people nudged each other, budded and fought in line to the point where they had to assign a customs official to stand guard over the lines. Of course, no one paid attention to the signs that said “Citizens of the Former Soviet Union” and “Foreign Citizens,” so I had to stand behind a long line of Kyrgyz citizens in the Foreign Citizens line.

“You complain about the disorder but here you are, Kyrgyz citizens, making a mess,” the customs officer said. “You are acting like children.”

I enjoyed my vacation, but it was nice to get back to my clean apartment. I went to the nearby market to stock up on vegetables. On the way, a rat ran out of the gutter and right in front of my feet. That was pretty disgusting. I bought peppers, cauliflower, carrots, garlic, potatoes and tomatoes, all under a dollar per kilogram – all fresh and firm and colorful.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


The past few days have gone by so quickly, with unfortunately little time to actually gather with people. Sometimes I almost feel again as though I live here (“I’m going home,” I tell people, when I’m headed to Nigora and Shavkat’s), but always in the back of my mind is the fact that I’m soon returning to Bishkek and that this is probably the longest time I’ll be able to spend in Osh for quite a while. I pass many people on the street that I know and recognize. And I wish I could tell them all that they touched me during my stay here. There is something about the people here that moves me – a kindness, a simplicity, a vibrancy, the courage to continue on despite the uncertainty, a connection with the place and with their families that merge the individuals with the environment.

Of course, I recognized that some things are better in Osh. The drivers here really are awful. And it truly is cold to have to walk outside for a shower or to use the toilet. Granted, I enjoy seeing the ducks and listening to their music on the way, but I think anyone would choose an indoor toilet and shower if given the opportunity.

Weddings are back underway here. This morning I heard the fast-paced, loud, eager sounds of the horns and drums of a neighborhood wedding. Unbelievable that there are still neighbors eligible to be married. Two staff members got married this week alone, and several others are actively looking for potential mates. I heard about one staff member, Melis, who gave himself 100 days to get married. That period expired November 20th, so his coworkers were pressuring him to find someone fast. This is the same guy who told me a few months ago that he was planning on stealing a bride as soon as he was granted vacation.

There was an agricultural exhibition in town for the past three days and the city filled with rural men wearing dark clothes and kalpaks.

Malan, our driver, told me it was obvious these were rural people. “People in the city don’t like wearing kalpaks,” he said.

The agricultural market didn’t last long. I had planned to go see it during lunch one day, but it had already disappeared. It only lasted half a day.

“As soon as they mayor and governor came by and looked, everyone packed up and went home,” Malan said. He was also hoping to buy some fresh country vegetables. “The poor people didn’t have any chance to come buy things. After all that time they spent setting up things.”

Many of the seminar attendees, including my German colleague, were without light (and thus, electric heaters) during my time in Osh. Luckily our house was immune from the outages. Shavkat said it was because our house is located near a school. It was very rewarding to see a large group of leaders gathered from throughout the Osh and Jalalabat regions. All of them had worked for between one and three years and it was rewarding to see the building of a young and promising leadership layer throughout the region.

The big news during my visit was that one of Bayaman’s relatives set himself on fire in the central square in Jalalabat. He wanted his relatives who were involved in the shootout at the Hotel Alai released from prison, and he wanted the government to find Bayaman’s killer. He didn’t die, but apparently burned himself pretty well and caused havoc locally.

In the evenings, I sat drinking tea with the family, and joining in on their discussions. On my second night, the boys were criticizing Shavkat. He hadn’t worked since I’d left and he was resistant to the idea of Nigora starting a business. He’d recently spent $2,000 to buy the Tico, but wasn’t actively using it as a taxi – saying he needed to learn the city first.

“Next year Osh will be full of Russians,” Shavkat said, clinging to his dream of opening a tour firm.

“You keep saying that and every year they don’t come,” Habib said. “The Russian’s aren’t coming.”

When Habib criticized the lack of income in the family, Shavkat asked why he didn’t contribute to the family.

“Because you are the man of the house and it’s your responsibility to support your family. When I have children, I will support them.”

With his manhood insulted, Shavkat went drinking the next day and was asleep by the time I got home.

Nigora found a space to open a small market stall for 25,000 som ($500),
but Shavkat had only given her 16,000 som. I encouraged her to get the more expensive place, for the higher income she could earn there would quickly make up for the difference in price. Nigora didn’t think Shavkat would agree. “I’m worried that if we buy that, we won’t have any money left at home.”

Friday, November 11, 2005

Violence institutionalized

Today I called Sevara, my 19-year-old acquaintance who was stolen against her will in Osh in April. Since then, she has become pregnant, her husband beats her and forces her to wash his feet.

I had a difficult time meeting her after she was stolen. But when we sat together at a cafĂ© last month, she was already thinking of how and when to leave this man. She was sad and did what she could to reduce his anger, and his violence. But before she could leave him, she needed the wedding. “Otherwise, it is shameful for me,” she said.

At that time, she told me that right after the wedding, she’d go back to her parents for 30 days. There she could relax, be herself, and take care of herself. But today, two days after the wedding, I found her at her husband’s house. We couldn’t talk, since she’s not safe speaking freely from home. I can only hope that somehow, someday, she’ll find the strength to get away, and not subject the rest of her life to this young man’s demands. Regardless, a child she is not ready for is on the way and her life is irreversibly marked by his violence.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Back in Osh

"You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place…like you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you'll never be this way ever again." (Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran)

Here I am, back in Osh, back in the room I lived in for ten months, with my laptop back on the table that I spent so much time sitting at.

It’s unbelievable how much a city can change in a matter of weeks. Just in the drive from the airport to town, I saw new shops, a new covered market, a new restaurant, one business that closed down, lots of lights decorating cafes, and enough cars to make traffic crawl through the central streets.

I went to aerobics and saw that Bayaman’s former club was still going strong. There were twelve people at aerobics, over three times as many attend the classes where I go in Bishkek (though, of course, it’s 6 times more expensive in Bishkek) and there were quite a few wrestlers there as well.

“Oh, JJ is here,” exclaimed the manager when I came in. This woman, the same who used to yell at me about my dirty tennis shoes, seemed happy to see me. The instructor knew my name and I felt as though I was back at home.

Driving back to my home, we followed the path I’d taken hundreds of times before. We passed my favorite shops, my favorite kiosks, the landmarks that constituted my world. I realized that for most of the people who knew me, the shopkeepers, business owners and other people that I had regular but casual contact with, I just disappeared. I was moving through a space that was so intimate to me, yet which no longer contained my presence. I was happy to be back, but sad to realize that I was no longer one of the small parts that make up the city of Osh. I wished I could move right back.

I loved the fact that many people – the attendant at aerobics, my taxi driver – spoke Russian poorly. I loved the thick, deep Uzbek accent. I loved the Ticos, virtually unseen in Bishkek (“I want a big, masculine car, no matter how high the gas prices get” one Bishkek taxi driver told me when I asked) that crawled across the city like little beetles. I loved the sight of people collecting the dead cotton plants from the fields, to use them to heat ovens that they’ll bake fresh lepushka in. I loved the pumpkins, tomatoes and apples that were piled on the counter when I arrived home.

Even at home there were changes. The family had bought ten white ducks and they quacked in a cage in the courtyard. Shavkat bought small chunks of coal, which can’t be burned, but cost much less than the large pieces. They added water, made them into circles and put some wood chips on top to help them dry. Later, these circles can be put into the fire and used as coal. But for now, it looks like they’ve put some kind of circular patterned tile across a part of their courtyard.

Nigora moved the kitchen to the patio of her home, instead of going outside to cook, and the family is no longer eating outside. We had dinner together in the guest room. Nigora made soup, a baked duck (fresh from the cage), hand-canned plums and candies. I brought a cute cake from Bishkek decorated like a ladybug and they spent a good five minutes enjoying the view before they’d destroy it by eating it.

After a leisurely dinner, during which we caught up on each other’s news, we sat for well over another hour talking about differences between racism, nationalism and tribalism, especially among the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. It was so nice to again have such an evening discussion. I learn a lot about local attitudes and viewpoints from them. In Bishkek, it’s just me, myself and I and the dialogue is much less interesting.

Habib told us how the Kyrgyz can’t be considered a nation because they are so clan-based and can’t find unity among themselves. Nigora and Shavkat agreed (Nigora said there were over 350 Kyrgyz clans). But unlike Habib, they didn’t think Uzbeks were any better. They talked about a caste system among the Uzbeks, in which people are part of one of three categories, based on skin color.

“So, people know what group they belong to. But no one goes around thinking that they are better than someone else because of their skin color. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

“They don’t say it out loud, but they think about it,” Nigora said.

Shavkat gave the example of a neighbor. His wife’s parents were opposed to their marriage because she belonged to a higher caste than he did.

“That just doesn’t happen,” Habib said, with his typical know-it-all attitude.

“How can he not know this?” Nigora asked. “He lives on a street full of Uzbeks.”

“Do you ever talk to any Uzbeks?” Shavkat asked him. “All your friends are Russian and Kyrgyz.”

“You don’t know history,” Habib said. “Have you read any books?”

“No,” Nigora said, smiling in her typical upfront and disarming manner. “But you have history sitting right in front of you,” she said, pointing at Shavkat and herself.

Shavkat talked about the ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in 1990 to 1991. “I was in a situation where thousands of Kyrgyz wanted to kill me, but that doesn’t mean that I now think badly about Kyrgyz,” he said.

The tension in the early 1990s was due to the Soviet government giving prime space in the center of the city to Kyrgyz. At the same time, they were making Uzbek families (including Nigora’s parents) move, tearing down their homes to build multi-story apartment buildings to give to the Kyrgyz.

“People started to protest,” Nigora said. “They said we’ve been living here for this long and you kick us out and give our space to people who have never lived here.”

Shavkat and Nigora claimed that in their childhood, there were virtually no Kyrgyz in Osh. Now there are quite a few. “And now that other Kyrgyz want to move here from the mountains or the villages, these same Kyrgyz who came are against giving them land,” Shavkat said.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Weekends with the nature enthusiasts

Yesterday I took my second trip out into the mountains near Bishkek. A local man organizes trips each Sunday. Everyone gathers at 8 a.m. on a central street corner and pays $3-4 for transportation in a comfortable bus and a guided hike. They all bring their own food and have a picnic lunch.

The organizer, Boris, is passionate about nature and tourism and the trips are excellent. Even better, almost everyone who goes, especially at this time of year, is local. So it’s a great opportunity for me to meet some fascinating people from varied professions.

On the first trip I became friends with a doctor, Natasha, who treats stomach cancer. She’s in her late 40s, but looks at least ten years younger. She told me that if found early, stomach cancer could usually be cured. But because of the poor diagnostics, most of her patients don’t find it until it’s too late.

“They don’t feel sick,” she said. “Maybe they aren’t eating too much, they lose a little appetite, or they are a little tired. By the time they are really feeling sick, it’s usually already advanced.”

Due to the stress of her job, she finds it important to get out into nature once a week. Yesterday she brought along her son, a fourth year student in the medical faculty.

Yesterday I met an interesting woman, also named Natasha, who works on counterfeiting money issues. She was dressed so nicely and so enthusiastically took pictures with a fancy digital camera that I thought she was from France. I was surprised she hear she was a local.

She told me that in August, her only son moved to New Zealand to attend college. She went with him and said the country was beautiful, quite similar to Kyrgyzstan in the prevalence of mountains. I asked how good her son’s English was.

“He thought it was good,” she said. “When he left, he had $30 in his pocket, collected as gifts from grandmothers and relatives. He thought that he had a lot of money and that he knew English well. Then he got there and realized that he didn’t have much money and he didn’t know English well.”

This diminutive woman, with raspberry pants, short dark hair, glasses, and a big smile, got ahead of the whole group. We walked three hours, virtually non-stop, to cover the 14 kilometers to a frozen waterfall. Most, including me, were exhausted when we arrived. She had continued on and added another several kilometers to her hike.

Ramadan is now over, though I could barely even feel its presence in Bishkek. No one that I had any contact with was upholding the fast. Only one co-worker gave up alcohol. In any case, Thursday was a holiday to mark the end of the holy month. Now I expect that weddings will begin again in Osh in earnest.

Today is also a holiday, some old Soviet holiday, like day of the revolution. I was hoping to take advantage of the three day weekend by traveling somewhere, but the timing didn’t work out and my passport is currently at an embassy, limiting my movements.

Fall is definitely here. All the trees are yellow and the leaves are regularly swept into the gutters and burnt. But it hasn’t yet become cold and the weather is good for walking. I feel lucky to be in such a moderate climate, where there is no threat of snow, even in November.

I’m starting to get into the rhythm of life in Bishkek. I have new projects to work on at work, I’ve found some aerobics classes to go to, and my apartment is starting to seem like home (though it is still uncomfortably quiet). Yesterday my heat was turned on. Until then, I used a single portable heater that I’d carry with me from room to room, trying to heat up the place I was spending my time. But suddenly, the entire apartment has become bathed in warmth and I no longer need the heater. I buy my food from a nearby market, walk almost everywhere and have several friends, mostly locals, who I can spend time with.

On Tuesday I’ll return to Osh for almost a week for a seminar. I’ll need to pack up the other half of my belongings while I’m there. It seems like a short time and it will be sad to realize that I’ll probably never be able to live there again. But I’m really looking forward to seeing my family, friends and staff again.