Monday, January 29, 2007

Rabbit and an Eye in the Sky

Last week I met my friend Natasha, a cancer doctor, for dinner. I hadn’t seen her in five months. In that time, she’d finished her Ph.D., a 10 year task. While she’s done with the work, she won’t officially be a Ph.D. until she gets the signed documents back from Moscow.

“That could take a year,” she said.

She shared with me the secret places where she spends time with her lover, Vladimir. Every weeknight after work, they walk on a tree-lined sidewalk on the edge of the city. It runs along a major road. Across the street rise tall apartment buildings in a dense residential area. On the other side, is a narrow strip of cafes, hotels, casinos and a church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with red neon glittering signs. Behind them, the white peaks of the mountain range rose up in a beautiful skyline.

While the upper-floor residents of the apartment buildings probably enjoyed a wonderful view of the mountains, I asked why there weren’t tall buildings, or residences on the side of the street closer to the mountains.

“It’s a park on that side, so building is not permitted,” she said.

As we walked, the sky colored and then darkened around the white mountains, a beautiful site. When it became dark, she took me to her and Vladimir’s favorite café. It looked like a standard wooden, a-frame building, with some twinkling lights out front. But inside, it was surprising warm and pleasant, with a stone fireplace, animal skins on the walls, and male waiters in black uniforms with folded white towels.

Rabbit was the house specialty and Natasha always orders grilled lamb ribs. They also had a menu of almost 200 cocktails. We sat across from the bar and I found it fascinating to watch the bartender make layered drinks – drinks in which each element remained separate from the others – looking like layers of colored sand. I asked him how he did it and he said it was a secret. After I took pictures and asked several questions, he made Natasha and I each a layered, non-alcoholic cocktail as a gift.

The waiter instructed us how to drink. We had to put the glass to our lips, and drink it slowly, but without pause.

“Over a period of 45 seconds they told us.”

By doing so, we tasted the first layer of juice, which slowly flowed into the second flavor, then the third and the fourth.

When we walked out into the darkened sky, I noticed the full moon rising over the mountains. Natasha pointed out the bulleye, the natural wonder in which the moon was surrounded by a perfect circle of black sky, then a circle of clouds.

Natasha had teared up at the thought of me leaving. “So many people are going,” she said. “And I have fewer and fewer people to talk to.” She said that only eight people out of her high school class of 24 remained in the country. As we walked down the street to meet Vladimir, where they frequently rendez-vous in secret, the eye looking down at us from the sky seemed to tell us that everything would be alright.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Wait for Me

On the rare occasions on which I watch TV, I’m happiest if I happen to come across the Russian program Zhdi Menya (Wait for Me). This was a program I also liked watching years ago in Siberia. Then, when my Russian skills were less developed, it was one of the only programs I could halfway understand – that and Posledni Geroi (the Last Hero), the Russian version of Survivor.

People from across the former Soviet Union, and sometimes even Germany, the U.S., Africa, and other places where people had connections with those in Russia come to find people they lost. Unlike U.S. talk shows that often feature people from the outliers of society, the people on Wait for Me span the range of society – with children in orphanages, grandmothers, and everything in between looking for lost parents, children, relatives, friends, first loves. The host has been the same calm, avuncular, middle-aged man for the past several years, who inspires trust and hope in the viewers.

Over the years, they seem to have built quite a database. And sometimes they are able to pair people up just by receiving letters from both of them. But more often, they either get tips from viewers after showing the stories, or they go to quite a bit of work to locate the lost person, then reunite them on the show.

Tonight, three adult children came on the show looking for their lost father. Almost ten years ago, he went to Moscow to look for work. He sent a letter saying he loved and missed them, then they never heard anything again. The daughter especially seemed heartbroken at having lost her father.

“He misses you too,” the host said, as the daughter took a sharp inhale at the sign that contact had been made with him.

Wait for Me showed a video-clip of her father. They found him in a small village, eking by on doing odd jobs. He barely had any teeth left. He said that his daughter had needed $1000 to go to Israel to work. So he’d taken a loan at 10% (monthly?) interest. The sum owed kept building up, so he went to Moscow to look for work to pay it off. He was cheated and deceived there. Feeling unable to return without the money, he lived I this village, pained with loneliness at living almost ten years without family.

“We paid back the debt a long time ago,” the daughter said through tears, after seeing the video. “You don’t owe anything. You should have just come home.”

Then they brought her father out live to greet his three children, all but one son in tears.

“Will you go home now?” the host asked the father.


And they handed him a free ticket to Moldova. The father and daughter thanked him profusely.

An elderly woman in the audience with carefully coiffed hair stoically told the story of how she was arrested, interrogated and sentenced to hard labor for anti-Stalin school activities. She was not even 16 years old. She spent six years in the taiga, working in the cold, enduring “unimaginable things.” She recalled how they jumped with joy and danced around a cedar tree upon hearing of Stalin’s death. And waited for a long time with hope for an eventual release.

She wanted to find the three other young girls she’d been incarcerated with. Wait for me found them and showed two videos, one from Poland and one from somewhere else. Then they brought out an elderly woman who they’d invited from Lithuania. She had also been one of the group. This was the first time they’d seen each other in fifty years.

The woman looking for her friends crossed herself, then went onstage, taking herself out of her daughter’s grip.

“Oh, what a beautiful girl you were,” she cried upon embracing her former friend. “We were just girls. And now we’re old.” She talked constantly as the Lithuanian cried. “Don’t cry,” she continued. “We lived. That’s the important thing.”

She was right. They lived through the horrors in which millions upon millions died, no less than 2.7 million, according to The Gulag by Anne Applebaum, most likely a multiple of that. Even the host, immune to these kind of reunions, wiped a tear from his eye. Here were reminders of the horrible past, the past so many Russian participated in, yet prefer to deny, to forgot. Here, amongst the comparative wealth, prosperity and development, were reminders of the horror and the madness.

Amidst all the stories of pain and loss, there are enough reunions and redemptions to give people hope, to make them feel good. And that’s why I like the show. I like learning about other’s lives. And I like seeing them cry true tears of joy.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A sleepover

It’s not often I get to have sleepovers these days, as well as the late night heart-to-heart among girls that usually accompanies them.

When I stay at Nigora’s house, I sleep in the guest bedroom and she sleeps with her family in a separate part of the house. But here, she slept on the fold-out in my living room. We were enclosed in a small space, with plenty of time to talk.

As she reclined on the sofa, she told me again how she hadn’t wanted to marry.

“My father didn’t pressure me to marry,” she said. “He said as long as I married by 30, it was fine by him. But when I was 25, he said he and my mother would probably die soon. It was his duty to marry me. But if I didn’t marry soon, he probably wouldn’t be there for the wedding.”

Because of that, she married. And sure enough, her parents died within the year.

She’d told me that she didn’t want to marry, and both she and Shavkat said that she didn’t want to marry him. Shavkat said her rejection spurred him on, made him more determined that he would marry her. The way they tell it now, they make it sound like a joke. But listening to Nigora tell it as she lay on the couch, she truly didn’t want to be with him.

“I didn’t like him,” she said. “And honestly, at the beginning, I really wanted to run away.”

When I asked why, she said it was uncomfortable to be with someone she hardly knew. And, she added, his family lived more poorly than hers did.

“They never had food or money for the next day. They didn’t plan ahead. And that’s how my life has become.”

Six months later, Shavkat’s mother had appendicitis. While the doctors were
sewing her up after the operation, they sewed a large vein to the appendix. Later, when she coughed or sneezed, it ruptured and she died. She left several children who still needed to be married off, a responsibility and an expense that Shavkat assumed.

Her death made Nigora feel sorry for Shavkat and convinced her to stay. “Over time we got used to each other,” she said. “And we even learned to love each other.”

She said it as though it might be the case, even his love for her comes through clearly in his speech and actions.

“Now there is no running away from this man,” she said. “I have three sons with him.”

She was pleased to see that Shavkat is genuinely supportive of her going to America. She feared he might be jealous or upset. But instead he is happy for her and proud of her, announcing it to all the neighborhood before it was even certain.

“For him to be truly happy for me, that makes me feel good,” she said. “He passed a big test.” And she drew a plus sign in the air, his good grade.

Things worked out in the end. She and Shavkat built a life together, a life that is better than average in Osh. They’ve raised educated, polite, promising sons. While they don’t live luxuriously, neither do they lack for any essentials.

“I’ve never experienced true love,” Nigora ruminated out loud, “the kind that makes you want to drop anything for that person.” She seemed a little regretful, as though that magical moment so often portrayed in books and in media had passed her by, thereby making her life a little less full.

Nigora is coming to America!

Nigora has spent the past few days at my apartment in her quest for a tourist visa to America. And on Friday she received it. It’s a nice-looking visa with her photo on it, as well as commentary that she plans to attend a wedding and stay for two weeks.

“Do they only write that on my visa?” she asked, “or on everyone’s?”

“I suppose it’s in case the police pick you up shoplifting in California,” I said. “When they take you to the station, then they’d ask why you are in California instead of Minnesota and what happened to the wedding you said you were attending.”

She laughed in her high-pitched, girlish voice.

“I’m probably going to be the only American (person with an American visa) shuttling dishes across the Uzbek/Kyrgyz border,” she said.

“Do you think you’ll have problems?” I asked.

“Well, U.S. relations with Uzbekistan aren’t very good right now,” she said. “Maybe they will think I’m a spy or something.”

But it’s a risk she’s willing to take. “I can always try to get across the border without a passport,” she said. She did just that last week, after receiving her shiny, new Kyrgyz international passport, that cost her $150. She wanted to keep it looking new, to not mess it up with stamps.

“When you cross the border, they don’t even look at what kind of passport you have,” she said. “They just stick a stamp in there.” So instead of letting them soil her newest acquisition, she just snuck across the border.

On her way back to Kyrgyzstan, a border agent caught her and called her over.

“He figured I was smuggling gold across the border and he wanted to catch me,” she said. “So he asked to see my bags.” She didn’t even realize that he thought she was transporting gold. And she had nothing in her bags but snacks for the road.

“He asked how I could be crossing the border and have nothing with me. I didn’t tell him I’d given my dishes to someone else to take across the border. I could see the person who had taken my goods had already gotten through and they were waiting for me. I told him I was in a hurry and he finally let me go.”

She laughed. “Then he saw me cross over and retrieve my dishes.”

“You didn’t get in trouble?” I asked.

“No, I was already across, so I was safe. Plus, transporting small quantities like
I do isn’t a problem.”

“Won’t he remember you next time?” I asked.

“No, they rotate all the time.”

I accompanied Nigora to the U.S. embassy for her 9 a.m. appointment. She’d bought a new dress for the occasion, a navy blue velvet that left its gold sparkles all over my apartment floor and even in the corner of Nigora’s eyes, making it look like she was alternately twinkling or tearing up.

Several other people had 9 a.m. appointments. One was an attractive young couple. The male, from Tashkent, was a Master’s student at Northern Illinois University. He met his new wife, a Kyrgyz from Osh, online. Now he wanted her to get a visa in order to join him.

“I’ve been in the U.S. since I was 18 and have already grown used to life there,” he told me in perfect English.

His pretty new wife looked nervous. “She’s afraid they won’t give her a visa,” he said. I was impressed at the state of the world’s communications when an Uzbek in Illinois can meet a Kyrgyz in Osh over the internet and later marry. They seemed like the type of hardworking, well-meaning people that could be a valuable addition to the U.S. population. I hoped her application would be approved.

Everyone waiting out in the snow outside the well-fortified compound looked nervous. After showing one’s passport to a security guard in an enclosed booth, people were let through the first metal gate one by one. They had to go alone. And no bags were allowed. But there is no place to leave the bags, other than with relatives willing to stand out in the snow, or in a car.

Even in her new attire, and leaving off the scarf she usually wears, Nigora looked less modern and worldly than the other people in line. According to my Kyrgyz boss, Maria, that is probably why she was easily approved.

Nigora later told me about going through the second security checkpoint.

“They told me I had to turn off my cell phone,” she said. “And I tried to, but it wouldn’t turn off. I told them I didn’t know how.” She laughed. “Then the woman who checked me told me that I had to push the door handle to the left to get through the next door. They must have figured that if I didn’t even know how to turn off a cell phone, I couldn’t manage to open a door. However, I was grateful. Because it was my first time and I really didn’t know how to open the door.”

I had written a letter in support of Nigora, and she’d come prepared with a complete folder of applications – showing she was leaving behind her children, her husband, her home and her work – enough social and material capital to ensure that she’d be back. They must have believed her, because she was only asked a few quick questions, then approved.

“When he told me to come back the next day at 3, I didn’t understand that meant I’d been approved,” she said. “I should have realized that he took my passport in order to put the visa in it. But I asked him, ‘Have you made a decision yet?”

The Kyrgyz girl had been sent away due to a problem with one of her documents. She’d have to come back. And a Russian woman in line with Nigora was approved. She’d come to the U.S. once before – to visit family or friends there. But she worked as a nanny during her visit, earning $400 a week. Now she wants to come work for another spell, then plans to return to Kyrgyzstan. I doubt she told the officer that she plans to work. However, she seemed to be another example of a hardworking, well-meaning person.

Plenty of people are envious of Nigora’s success.

“I’ve heard it’s very hard to get a U.S. visa,” our well-off office manager said. My friend Zhenya, whose mother lives in New York, said outright that she was very envious. Zhenya has been turned down for a visa herself. She said I was Mother Theresa to give Nigora such an opportunity. And I could see the wheels click in her head, thinking that maybe if I wrote a letter in support of her, she’d increase her chances. And several people on Nigora’s street also unsuccessfully applied.

Nigora was shocked to hear that the interview cost $100. “So those who are rejected still have to pay the $100?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s probably a way of limiting the people who come to those who are most serious.”

“My poor neighbors,” she said.

While plenty of well-meaning people are unfortunately rejected, and thus add to the image of the U.S. as an unwelcoming place, both Zhenya and Nigora’s Uzbek neighbors had intentions of staying for the long term. Zhenya will probably get there eventually. Her mother recently got a green card. And once she gets citizenship she’ll begin the process of trying to bring over her daughter and grandson. But in hopes of speeding up the process, Vika applied this year for the green card lottery.

She’s certain she’s going to win it this year because I helped her fill out the forms.

“That doesn’t make a difference,” I told her.

“I know. But I feel like you touched it and your involvement is going to make it happen.” I’d hate for her to be let down because of me.

Zhenya’s mother’s risk paid off in the end, but at the cost of having almost no interaction with her only grandson and almost completely missing his childhood.

So Nigora is set. At age 48, she’ll cross the ocean for the first time. She’ll see the ocean for the first time. And I hope she’ll collect memories that will last her a lifetime. I hope that I can open my country and my home to her in a way that approximates the hospitality she offered me in Osh.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A new Krygyz film

Yesterday evening I attended a screening of Birds of Paradise, a new Kyrgyz film about border issues, drug trade and life near Jalalabat. It’s only the third film I’ve seen where Kyrgyzstan has been the setting.

The first was Beshkempir, a Soviet film that made Kyrgyzstan seem primitive and dirty, where kids rolled around in mud and played with animals. Then recently, there was Sunduk Predkov, a Kyrgyz/French effort about a Kyrgyz man living in Paris who brings his French fiancée home to meet his family. That film played the distinctive elements of Kyrgyz life a little over the top. However, the scenery was beautiful. And it offered at least a partially accurate representation of the life and culture, especially the emphasis on marrying within the ethnicity.

This film, about a young, female journalism student who goes to the border to document the issues there and falls in with a comic gang of smugglers, was not as good as Sunduk Predkov. It felt roughly strung together. The acting was sometimes weak. And the character development was not very deep. But it did feature the famous ostrich farm, located just outside Bishkek. These birds, that sell for $5,000 (and the eggs for $50-100 each) were the Birds of Paradise. And truly, for that kind of money, the potential income is a type of paradise. And the farmer who thought about raising ostriches in Kyrgyzstan definitely a unique and creative person.

Best of all, almost the entire cast was there are the packed screening. Before the performance I saw all the faces lined up across the stage that I’d later see on screen – including an Ethiopian with perfect Russian who has made Kyrgyzstan his home. And while seeing them on screen, I knew they were with me in the small auditorium of the Dom Kino (Movie House).

The female lead said she searches on the internet obsessively, in English and Russian, for news of the film’s success. That hope, that effort, and that pride in their work was what I liked best about the film.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

death of the pilgrims

Yesterday I flew to Osh for a short visit. Upon landing at the Osh airport, I waited outside, as usual, for my luggage. And I saw many people, adult men, women, elderly, crying.

“What’s going on?” I asked Malan.

“Did you hear about the bus crush in Saudi Arabia?” he asked. I had read that 22 Krygyz died in a bus accident while returning from Hajj, the trip to Mecca.


“Well, they were all from Osh and the surrounding regions. An empty plane flew out this morning to collect the injured and it will return this evening. These people are waiting for their family members to return.”

“I thought they’d banned buses traveling to Mecca this year,” I said. That was what he’d told me last time, when we walked through the airport crowded with people seeing off their relatives.

“They did. They flew to Dubai, then took a bus to Mecca from there,” he said.

He told me the bus was traveling from Mecca to Dubai at high speed. It hit another bus, also traveling at high speed head on. And then another vehicle hit the bus from the back.

“The bus in the middle was the one with the Kyrgyz pilgrims,” he said. That would mean that those seated in the front of the bus would be crushed in the first crash, and those at the back in the second, leaving only hope for passengers seated in the middle.

He told me that Saudi Arabia has a law that requires people who die there to be buried in Saudi Arabia.

“The Kyrgyz officials got the names of those who died and are injured. Then they quickly went around to visit the families in person to tell them the news and to get their written permission to allow their relatives to be buried in Saudi Arabia. They didn’t want the public to panic.”

The relatives requested that their lost ones be buried as close as possible to Mecca.

“Does this make anyone question their religion?” I asked. “They were in the process of a holy pilgrimage and so many died? Does it make them wonder why God would let that happen?”

“No,” he said. “People die going to Mecca every year. Last year several elderly people died because they couldn’t handle the long bus trip through the cold of Russia. Then people die due to being pressed by the crowds. It can even be considered a source of pride to die so close to Mecca.”

“These people don’t look very proud,” I said, as I watched a man in a baseball cap hug an older woman as fat tears dropped from his eyes.

“That woman in the hat..” Malan said. “She is saying, ‘Whenever I came before, she was always the one to greet and welcome me. Now there will be nobody to greet me.’ She lost her mother. And it seems she’s come back from Russia.”

Malan said they showed the list of the dead on TV. “Most of them were older, born in the 1940s and 50s. But I saw a woman born in 1972 and her husband.” He looked sober.

“This is going to stay with their relatives forever. Many young people who’ve managed to do well send their parents to Hajj. Some do it as a gift. Others do it as a way to achieve social standing. Even if their parents don’t really want to go, it’s hard for them to reject it. And know they must think to themselves that they sent their relatives to their deaths. If only they’d given them $2,000 cash instead and told them to do whatever they liked with it, they would have lived well. But in an effort to do something good, they instead killed their mothers and fathers. They will never be able to forget this.”

I could only start to imagine the profound regret they must feel, the if onlys, the what ifs, the blame - unfair but present nonetheless.

I was there at the Osh airport when people were departing for Mecca. It was festive – more people than I’d ever seen before at that little airport. Vendors had set up shashlik grills with little plastic tables and chairs. The smoke curled upwards and through the crowds of festive people dressed in black, encircling their relative about to make the biggest trip of his or her lifetime. They’d come back with sins forgiven, ready for heaven, ready to assume a place of respect in the local hierarchy. They couldn’t fathom that they might not return at all.

Monday, January 08, 2007

A weekend getaway

After two weeks of hectic wedding planning and family reunions, Mark and I finally escaped for a weekend. And what a wonderful place to escape. We found this cabin (Craig’s cabin) in the Pennsylvania woods, an isolated log cabin on 42 acres. We had stuffed deer and wild turkey on the walls, a screened in patio overlooking a mountain pond, and a fireplace. Twice a day, we went out to feed the trout and watched the circles made by their splashing expand and then disappear. Fantastic.

A weekend getaway

After two weeks of hectic wedding planning and family reunions, Mark and I finally escaped for a weekend. And what a wonderful place to escape. We found this cabin (Craig’s cabin) in the Pennsylvania woods, an isolated log cabin on 42 acres. We had stuffed deer and wild turkey on the walls, a screened in patio overlooking a mountain pond, and a fireplace. Twice a day, we went out to feed the trout and watched the circles made by their splashing expand and then disappear. Fantastic.