Thursday, March 02, 2006

In remembrance of a grandmother

I’ve been surprised at how few life events have been marked among my co-workers. I’ve been to weddings and funerals of employees, but not of colleagues. In the last year and a half, three colleagues have become pregnant, but none have gotten married. Today I attended my first event, a pominka, or 90-day remembrance gathering for my colleague’s grandmother.

Ninety days ago, she died of cancer, in her 70s. In accordance with the Muslim tradition, Almaz’s family gathered friends, family and acquaintances for a lunch in her honor.

They held the ceremony at the Dostuk hotel, a formerly Soviet establishment that seems to have been remodeled to acceptable standards.

We were among the last to arrive and the 300-plus guests packed the reception hall. At the front of the room sat several men in kalpaks. More men than women attended the lunch and many wore dark colors, though I was told that among Muslims, white is the color of mourning.

I came in a group of 15 and we were seated in a small room separated from the main hall by a latticed wall. The other people at our table, four young men, didn’t speak to us. When they left early, one of my co-workers said it was because they were intimidated to be surrounded by women.

We ate plov, platters of meat, cabbage salad, Russian salad, oranges, apples, lepushka, bobi, sweet rolls, cookies and candies. Shortly after we sat down, I could hear Shavkat, a religious co-worker from the south, saying a prayer at the neighboring table.

About a half hour into the gathering, everyone quieted while someone read a general prayer. After that, everyone stood up as one. They took the plastic bags that had been placed under their plates and began to fill them with the leftover food.

“You should take a little of everything,” Kasiet told me and my other non-Muslim co-workers. “Take some bread, some fruit, some meat, some candies. There shouldn’t be anything left on the table when we leave.”

Kasiet told me that men used to be embarrassed to take food with them. Only the women did so. “But in these times, they take as much as anyone else,” Kasiet said.

Holding our blue and white plastic bags, filled with food, we walked through the condolence line, our bags crinkling as we walked. Almaz’s mother stood with a scarf wrapped around her head, her hand repeatedly wiping a handkerchief over her red, tear-stained face. I shook her head and offered her my condolences. Kasiet gave an envelope to the family, in which she’d placed money collected from all of us. It’s a Kyrgyz tradition to give money, rather than gifts, for weddings, funerals and feasts. This helps to recoup the expenses incurred in holding the event.

Except for Almaz’s mother, all the others in the condolence line were men and Kasiet told me to pass them by. Only men shook hands with the men.

On the way back to the office, Kasiet told me about the Muslim practice of burying people within three days. In the south of Kyrgyzstan, they bury on the day of death. My colleague Damir told me it was because of the heat.

“But the speedy burials mean that there have been quite a few cases in which people were buried who weren’t really dead. I’ve heard of funerals at which there were signs of people trying to get out of the grave.”

March 8th, International Women’s Day, is coming up next Wednesday and the city is preparing. The Altyn jewelry store glitters with lights and a giant, illuminated 8. They also show commercials on TV of a man waking up from a nightmare in which he couldn’t think of what to give his wife for the holiday, until he found out about the 40-50% discounts on gold earrings at Altyn.

Everything from crystal shops to flower stores are reminding people of this holiday. It’s not as if they need reminding. The millions of women in Kyrgyzstan wouldn’t let them forget. The upcoming holiday, together with the change in seasons makes for active trade. Spring is in the air, with temperatures already in the 60s and people seem eager for the return of good weather.

At the same time, a certain nervousness remains regarding the anniversary of the revolution, which takes place on November 24th. Today, on the way to the pominka, we saw a group of people gathered on the street.

“I see these groups scattered around and I feel like something is underway,” Kasiet said.

Thursday, the 23rd, is the Muslim holiday Navruz. It’s a national holiday and a day off work. The next day, Friday, is the one year anniversary of the revolution, which should make for an interesting weekend.

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