Wednesday, June 28, 2006

In Memory of the Dead

June 20, 2006

Today I paid a short visit to a pominka, a memorial held 40-days after a death. Zhenya organized it in memory of her Turkish business partner, who died unexpectedly of an untreated ulcer.

She asked me to come to the store she shared with him sometime between 2 and 8 today. The shop, called Galaxy during Soviet times, still looked the same as when Hussein had been alive. On one side was the grocery section that he owned and managed, and has since been taken over by someone else. On the other side, Zhenya runs a shop selling dishes, cosmetics, toiletries and school supplies.

Behind the counter, in her section, Zhenya had set up a small table and chairs. She’d placed an order from a Turkish café near her house for lentil soup, rice rolled in grape leaves, yogurt, a dip made with sour cream, garlic and herbs, sesame-seed bread, and beet salad.

There were several visitors there besides myself – two middle aged men, a couple that lives across from Zhenya, and a younger couple. I never know how to act at such gatherings, so I started out quiet and sober, feeling a bit uncomfortable that I never actually met Hussein, though I heard a lot about him through Zhenya and I know he was important to her.

Zhenya had placed two photos of Hussein within view of us – as though he was looking at the people who had come to the meal in his honor. In one of the pictures, he stood in front of shelves of vodka and juice in his shop. He was wide-shouldered and serious, his lips pressed together.

I looked over at the shelves where vodka still stood. Did he know that the business wouldn’t work out? Or would he have been able to make it work? Was that uncertainty part of the stress that killed him?

“It’s not profitable enough here,” Zhenya told her guests. “This is a poor region with not many buyers, but a lot of competition. We are going to look for another place to move to.”

She told us that the store owner would rent out the premises to a sewing factory. “That will be profitable,” she told us. “They will have regular orders from Dordoi and this is a large and well-lighted space. And there is no competition around here, plus plenty of available workers.”

Zhenya is waiting for her assistant to return from Naryn to free her up so that she’ll have some time to look for a new space.

On Sunday, I celebrated Zhenya’s 34th birthday with her, her son, her neighbor, a friend, and two other children at Karisma, a Turkish restaurant. Because her birthday fell so close to Hussein’s pominka, she said she didn’t want any loud celebration.

“I wouldn’t have done anything at all if you hadn’t called me and asked about my birthday,” she told me.

She chose the café because of its quiet, park-side location and the fact that it didn’t usually play music. She was upset that I brought her a homemade chocolate cake and her neighbor brought her flowers. “I didn’t want a big celebration!” she insisted, and unsuccessfully tried to send the cake and the flowers home.

We had a quiet, but pleasant dinner, with lentil soup, iskander kebab, grilled meat skewers and Turkish bread.

Two weeks from now, the owners of the Turkish restaurant where Zhenya ordered the pominka food are packing up and returning to Turkey.

“They’ve been here three years and don’t see how one can earn a living in Kyrgyzstan,” Zhenya said.

But Zhenya just marked 34 years of making a life and a living in Kyrgyzstan. Hopefully her spirit and entrepreneurism will bring her many more.

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