Thursday, August 31, 2006

A toi

August 29, 2006

Last night I attended a toi, held in honor of Gulnara’s son’s one-year birthday. It was held at the same café as his 40-day birthday toi, held just under a year ago. There were slightly fewer guests at this one – but I’d seen many of the guests three times – first at Gulnara and Shamil’s wedding, then at the first toi, and then last night.

When I arrived, I saw Ravil wearing a kalpak, shiny black boots, and a Kyrgyz vest and pants, bordered in gold embroidery. He was sitting, in all places, in a white motorized car. Older boys commandeered the car, driving him around the floor of the hall as if a raja on his way to worship. Clearly he was the little prince of the party and the only grandchild on both sides of the family.

Gulnara sat me at a table and I was surrounded by many familiar faces, all of whom seem to be actively working on the population of Kyrgyzstan. I sat across from a woman expecting a baby in September. When she left, a couple expecting a child in November took her place. And the young woman next to me dandled her five-month old baby.

A woman wearing a frilly bright yellow blouse and a black embroidered Kyrgyz robe served as the emcee. They went through the same procedures as at all weddings and tois – people were called up to the microphone in groups, they presented their wishes and congratulations in long speeches, gave their gift, and sometimes led the group in a song or dance.

Except for Russian couple across from me, everyone else in attendance was Kyrgyz, and for a few hours, I floated in a sea of non-understanding. I didn’t mind though, as the faces were friendly and people were having fun.

Some time into the toi, I noticed a dialogue that seemed to turning biting.

“It’s not discrimination!” a severe-looking Kyrgyz woman, with glasses and an egg-shaped face said to Stella, the Russian across from me.

Stella had asked why all of the congratulations and gifts were being presented to Gulnara, Shamil, and Shamil’s mother. Gulnara’s parents sat in a corner of the room, far from the well-wishers.

“It’s their grandchild too,” Stella said. “Why don’t they have a right to congratulations?”

“They have a right,” the Kyrgyz woman said. “But it’s a voluntary matter. If they wanted to receive the congratulations they could go up there.”

“It’s because the husband’s parents are higher. They are more important,” the Kyrgyz woman’s husband interjected, with a smile and a look of pride.

“Then it’s discrimination,” Stella said.

“No it’s not!” the Kyrgyz woman insisted.

It was a first time I’d heard a local, albeit of another ethnicity, challenge openly the gender discrimination, a slight to Gulnara’s parents that I hadn’t even noticed. We learned that Shamil’s family paid most of the expenses associated with the toi, and so they also received the presents.

“Then I guess you have it good,” Stella addressed the young woman next to me. “You have two daughters, so you get rid of them at marriage and then you are done.”

True, she’ll have almost no more expenses. But she’ll also have no security, since if her daughters follow tradition, they will be expected to serve and to financially support only the husband’s parents. The built in system of expectations – that a daughter is only an expense and a son is a form of social security – drives the strong desire to have sons.

The most interesting part of the toi, and something I hadn’t seen before, was the running. Gulnara had urged me to hurry to the toi after work.

“Don’t be late because we’re going to run!”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

And she told me to wait and see.

At the appropriate time, all of the guests filed out onto the street. There they made a starting and a finish line. Ravil stood at the finish line in his Kyrgyz finery. Only then did a notice a piece of string that tied his ankles together.

All of the young boys assembled for a race. At the mark, then ran toward Ravil. Gulnara’s father opened his wallet wide, giving the winner 100 som ($2.50). Shamil’s mother handed out prizes to the other participants. Then a relative cut the string binding Ravil’s legs and the first and second prize winners each took one of his hands, leading him on a walk. This was symbolic of him beginning his path of life. From this point, he can walk, he received the blessing and the assistance of the fastest runners, and from now on, he can only move forward.

The young girls raced next, with the winner receiving 50 som (half the amount the boy winner received). Then came the adult women. I participated and came in third or fourth place.

“For your participation!” one of Gulnara’s uncles said as he handed me 200 som ($5). Shamil’s mother gave me a towel. Then came the adult men, the old ladies, and then the old men. The winner among the old men received the biggest prize of all.

Traffic on the sidestreet had to stop while races were underway and I watched the drivers smile when they saw the normally non-athletic guests running in dress shoes down the middle of the road. It was a fun and enjoyable tradition to experience.

August 27, 2006 the beauty of Bishkek
August 27, 2006

Last week, after my Naryn/Tash Rabat/Son-Kul adventure, I spent several days on Issyk-Kul attending a conference. Tourists packed the northern shore. This was a record year for tourism in Kyrgyzstan and the effect was particularly seen on Issyk-Kul.

“For the first time ever, I saw private home put up ‘no vacancy’ signs,” my Kyrgyz colleague Maria told me.

Those connected with tourism raked in the cash during the short three-month season. Even in Bishkek, the Issyk-Kul influence is felt.

“Where is everyone?” I asked a market vendor yesterday. There were hardly any buyers for a Saturday afternoon.

“They are all at Issyk-Kul,” she said.

Within the next two weeks, the season will die down, school will begin, and people will return from vacation. Then the country will get back to work and to preparing for fall weddings.

Yesterday, while I was shopping at my local market, the beauty caught my breath. The colorful piles of tomatoes, green and red peppers, purple eggplant, yellow peaches, green apples, purple and green grapes, mounds of green onions and spices, fluffy heads of lettuce, round and oblong melons, red strawberries and the standard gold, brown and orange of the onions, potatoes, and carrots shimmered in a rainbow of color. I saw the full abundance that the Kyrgyz soil could produce and I felt awe, especially when I recognized this is only the beginning.

In the coming months, the wooden stands will remain stocked with beautiful, shining piles of fruits and vegetables. And amidst such a bounty, I understood why so many families plan weddings and other large celebrations for the fall. With the cattle fattened after months on the jailoo, and the fields dripping with produce, the locals are only taking advantage of their riches.

As I prepare to leave on an extended trip, I look at Bishkek more carefully. I notice the ad for Inexim bank over a bus stand on Chui prospect, the first advertisement of its kind. I see the Turkish department store/supermarket/movie theater that opened, bringing modern shopping to Kyrgyzstan. I see the wide-screen TV playing on a central street, broadcasting a program on butterflies. I joined those leaning against the railing and looked up at the advanced technology. I see the salaries rising due to competition for smart, educated young people. And even when my electricity most annoyingly goes out, and I have to spend my evening in candlelight, I appreciate how I can prop my door open with a shoe and not worry about criminals coming in. For those who are employed, Bishkek is a beautiful, safe, comfortable, green, modern and very pleasant place to live. Of course, I still love Osh. But I think this city is growing on me.

In my dark apartment, I try to imagine myself in Managua one week from now. It seems so far, so distant, and so foreign. I try to imagine myself speaking to locals, maneuvering the streets, sleeping in a Nicaraguan bed, eating local food. And I just can’t see it.

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