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.

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