Monday, August 21, 2006

Sheker - Chingis Aitmatov's birthplace

August 7, 2006

I had planned to take the bus today to Sheker, Kok-Sai’s neighboring village and the birthplace of Chingis Aitmatov. But Zheksen insisted on finding me a car, seating me a neighbor’s white Mosvich that needed to be pushed by three people to start.

Zheksen and his family had signed up with the tourism development program some time ago, and had even held a seminar at his house. But I was his first international tourist. He was so enthusiastic and so eager to please – going out and buying bottled water, asking if it was OK that he was telling me about the region’s history (his trainers had told him not to bother tourists with information unless they ask for it). In accordance with the official prices, set by the organization, I paid him 640 som for the lodging, food and horse trip, about $15. He earns 700 som a month in his position at the local school. I could see the benefit that attracting more tourists would bring him and I was glad to participate in such a good program.

By 8:30 a.m., I was on Kulipa Kazieva’s doorstop, the coordinator of the program in Sheker. She also lives without a phone and I wasn’t able to phone her in advance. But she had an official Community Based Tourism guesthouse sign on her home and had welcomed tourists several times before. So she got right to business.

Her family had been in the midst of frying bursaki, small squares of bread. They planned to bring them to the memorial ceremony being held today for her daughter-in-law’s deceased father. She quickly changed her clothes, while I waited in the courtyard, where colorful flowers sprouted from the garden.

“This is the guide,” she said, pointing to a younger woman who walked down the street with her. I learned this woman’s name was Medina, she was 30 years old, and was Kulipa’s daughter-in-law. Kulipa brought her along because Medina knew Russian well, Kulipa didn’t.

I planned to stay in Sheker until lunch, then continue onward. I was a bit doubtful how I could stay occupied in the village for half a day and it almost seemed funny to me how these little places are trying so hard to make themselves attractive to visitors. But I ended up enjoying a very nice tour. The theme was Chingis Aitmatov and the time he spent there. But in the end, I got a better picture of general life in the village itself and a detailed glimpse at the life of someone near my age – Medina.

We started out at the house, or the plot, where Chengis Aitmatov was born. That house had been torn down. An elderly woman with a giant chest and a pained walk greeted us and invited us to sit in the shade of a tree, together with her young grandson. She was a distant relative of Aitmatov’s, through her husband, and I was urged to ply her with questions.

Having read only one of Aitmatov’s books, and not fully understanding it since I read it in Russian, I felt ill prepared. However, I asked what I could think of, and found out that his father was shot as a revolutionary in Stalin’s repression of 1937.

“Was he really a revolutionary?” I asked.

They looked at me questioningly.

“Many innocent people were shot at that time,” I said. I just happen to be reading Anne Applebaum’s fantastic volume about the Gulug right now and am well versed in the repression years.

“Oh yes,” Zina seemed to remember. “No, he wasn’t a real revolutionary, he was just caught in their company. He was traveling back here when they were arrested.”

When I asked the relative which book is her favorite, she seemed at a loss for words.

“I haven’t been able to read for two years,” she said. “Problems with my health. So I only know the older books.”

“Which of those do you like best?” I asked, looking for reading suggestions.

“Jamilya,” she said. The one I’ve read. Then she looked at Medina for help and Medina named some of his other books – A Day Lasts a Hundred Years, Face to Face, Cranes Fly Early.

We next visited the Chingis Aitmatov museum, a 3-room collection of photos and documents in the otherwise abandoned cultural house. It was interesting for me to put photos to the names, of Chingis, his parents, and even the characters of his books, several of whom were actual residents of Sheker village. I was shown where one of the characters, still living, lives. And I saw the cave where another character, who received die, hid out after stealing cattle.

It surprised me that Aitmov could have his father shot by the government, grow up the son of an enemy of the state, and then succeed as a writer in the Soviet Union. When I saw his certificate, honoring him as a Worker’s Hero of the Soviet Union, I wondered if he was truly proud of it.

These days Aitmatov lives in Luxembourg. “They admire him a lot there,” a villager told me, when I asked why he was there. But they repeated over and over again that he’d soon be returning to Bishkek. “His health requires it.” “He’s already old and feels it’s time to come home.” As though they’d be offended if he were to spend his final years elsewhere.

The mother-in-law disappeared as she went to find a car. This left Medina and I alone and Medina seemed much more free to talk. She told me she was from Kok-Sai and that she came to Sheker because of marriage. I asked how she and her husband met, knowing what the answer would be.

“We have a tradition here of stealing wives,” she said, and it was clear.

I later asked her how it happened. Her now husband had met her once and decided to steal her. He came with a friend in a car. The wife of Medina’s brother said they just wanted to get acquainted and asked Medina to meet them. When she got in the car, they stole her.

I asked how she felt. “Of course, I was crying and was scared. I didn’t want to get married. But because this family was almost relatives, my parents didn’t even come.” She was sentenced to accept her fate.

“Could you have said no?”

“Yes, but then everyone would have cried and been very upset. We have a saying, ‘A rock should lie where it falls.’”

I asked if she was upset that her sister-in-law had deceived her. This sister-in-law later received a $25 gift from the future husband’s parents during the marriage celebration.

“I don’t know,” she said and paused. She did seem to be. “It’s been twelve years now. I already have four children.”

She told me that a few years ago, she was walking back from a concert in the evening with a friend of hers. They were walking arm-in-arm and when a car approached them slowly from behind, they tightened their grip.

A group of several men jumped out. One of them held Medina while the rest threw Medina’s friend into the car.

“She was grasping my hand, holding me so tight,” Medina said. “She didn’t want to let go.”

“And you were left alone on the road at night?” I asked.

“No, there were some little girls with us.”

“What happened? Did she marry him?”

“Yes, but he ended up dying three years later, from choking on his vomit when drinking. She’s now in Bishkek with her son.”

And she told me about the times when local women feel such desperation they can’t find any way out but death.

“If she doesn’t want to live with the man and her parents refuse to take her back, there is nothing for her to do but kill herself. She’ll either hang herself or drink vinegar to die.”

“Has it happened in this village?” I asked.

“Not here, but it happened in a neighboring village. Luckily she didn’t die. They got her to the hospital in time. Afterwards, her parents took her back and she’s now a successful businesswoman in Bishkek.”

When a neighbor drove by in a rather nice car, I asked what kind of job he had. She said he was a farmer, but his sister lives in Turkey and sends money. “She’s 32 years old and works there, supports the whole family. She’s not married.

“She was also stolen a few years ago,” she added. At the time, she’d been working in Bishkek and had come back to visit her family. A neighbor stole her and she wanted to refuse.

“Her brother, the man now driving the car, showed up, with instructions from his parents that he was not to force her to stay there. He came and said his parents wanted her freed. Everyone got on their knees and cried.”

Medina told me about the wedding night, during which the husband’s sister sits outside the bedroom door and listens to all that happens within.

“What is she supposed to be listening for?” I asked.

“That the husband is pleased that his wife is a virgin.”

The next morning, they show the sheet to the husband’s parents. If there is blood, they announce the goodness of their new daughter-in-law and give money. Then they wash the sheet and hang it outside.

“And if there is not blood?” I asked.

“It depends. If the husband knows about it, knows she’s that type of girl, and is OK with it, then the parents don’t mind. Maybe they already slept together before marriage. But if the husband didn’t know, then it’s a problem.”

“What if he stole a stranger and his new wife was in love with someone else?”

“Sometimes they’ll hide it and forget about it. Other times, they’ll send her home.”

Medina led me down a country road, with bean fields spreading out into the distance, and the snowy peaks of Manas and Chingis rising before us. She took me into the cemetery grounds to see the cave where a character had hidden out. We climbed a fence, waded through a river, and walked through a bean field to Chingis’ old schoolgrounds, where there is now a sculpture garden. She showed me a mineral spring in a farmer’s homestead and pointed out three mosque – one over a century old, another one built more recently, and the central, shiny one, built recently with foreign (probably Saudi Arabian) funds.

She told me that in the past three or four years, people have become noticeably more religious, with small boys now being sent to the mosque.

I asked what she will do if ten years from now, her daughter (now in the 4th grade) were to be stolen.

“Maybe our culture will have changed by then,” she said. “Maybe men will ask women to marry them. It would be a shame though, with her just having finished her studies. Maybe I’ll just have to send her right away to Bishkek.”

She clearly didn’t want her daughter to be stolen as she was and she could tell this to an itinerant foreigner. But should it happen, I think she’d likely have to put on a happy face and accept the tradition. She had, so why shouldn’t her daughter? She couldn’t fight the system on her own. But in the meantime, she could hope that society would change.


Vilkje said...

If you read about Jamilya and Danyjar you will understand why the story is popular among women as well...

Harshi said...

I enjoyed almost all the short stories and novels of those I've read. My favourite is 'The first Teacher' (I read it in my native language i.e. Sinhalese its called'Guru Geethaya)carrying characters of Altheenai and Duishen (Sorry about the spellings)