Thursday, February 24, 2011

Big V/Culture, part II

I1.) Big V

Big V is an ethnic Russian from Osh. He has a serious mustache, the likes of which one rarely sees in the West these days. He has one of those Russian complexions that looks like baked brick all year round– Americans might know it as a John-Wayney complexion, or maybe not. He smokes a lot and coughs more. When I first met him he was smoking slims in an effort to cut down. Now he just smokes lights. He served in the Soviet special forces, but says very little about that time of his life. He says very little about most things.

Big V isn't particularly big, physically. Russian men, I find, tend to be lean and hungry, unless they're fat, in which case they're not lean and hungry.  Big V eats hungrily but not much. Big V can tell when honey has been interfered with, and when it's raw, and he can tell you which honey to buy and which not to buy, but he doesn't eat much honey himself. His grandfather was a beekeeper in Osh, and he says he overdosed as a child.

When we stopped at Dyadya Vasya's on the way back from Osh, he bought some propolis to make a cream for his granddaughter. She has a burn on her hand that she got when she was younger.  They went to Moscow a few months ago and took her to the doctor. The doctor asked what had taken them so long, and said that the burn would have been very treatable and was now very serious.  The doctor gave them some cream. They brought it home to Bishkek, where there couldn't find a doctor who knew what to do with it.

When I first met Big V, two summers ago, I didn't know he was from Osh. "Did you grow up in Kyrgyzstan?" I asked him. "Yes," he said, "I'm one of the lucky ones." How wonderful, I thought. I wasn't familiar yet with his irony. Almost everything Big V says is ironic and sincere, simultaneously.  Big V said it was too bad I wouldn't have time to go down south, where life was calmer and the fruit was better. D told me that Big V went to Moscow sometimes and thought it was okay, but no place to live. Big V said that in order to be normal, people needed mountains. D said he didn't know a single Russian in Kyrgyzstan who wanted to live in Russia. They said they didn't feel comfortable in Moscow– and I guess the Russians who are left don't feel they have anywhere to go but Moscow.

During pheasant hunting season, Big V always brings some big pheasants for D. I picture D plucking them himself, throwing the feathers out the kitchen window and watching them flutter down onto the heads of people coming out of the stairwell.  Big V was excited when D and I arranged a trip to the Chong-Kemin valley that summer: He would go hunting before driving back to Bishkek.  D asked how he hunted the pheasants. "You know," he said, using the formal "you"– he and D always use the formal "you" with one another– "I just chase after them and strangle them." D says that even though he considers Big V a very good friend, he sticks to the formal "you" so as not to cause others whom he addresses with the formal "you" to wonder why they're not the friendly "you." E is a formal "you," because she's a mother and tells D not to wear his old corduroys, anywhere, and also because she's a secretary and calling her the friendly "you" could send the message that he views her as personally subordinate instead of merely professionally subordinate. Small V is the friendly "you," because he's unambiguously small. Small V isn't really small, physically. But he has big, wide eyes, and always buys his mother that garishly patterned discounted housecoat she asked for, and when an official fancies a shakedown, he heads straight over to Small V. Big V says "Listen, Small V, no one is going to get arrested." Small V told us that. Small V has a big head with a big brain, and likes to say smart and nice things, many of them about Big V.

2.) Culture, Part 2

We were stopped at a checkpoint on the road to the inn at Chong Kemin. The man in the booth asked D if he was going up into the mountains. Yes, tomorrow, D replied. "I think maybe I will go with you," said Mr. Checkpoint. His Russian was strained.  The next day we were introduced to him as Akylbek, our guide. He and his sidekick, a tiny 12-year-old named Aybolot, spoke little. We all spoke little. They rode Lucky and Apollo, while D and I walked. Aybolot was such a good rider that he could stretch out and go to sleep on Lucky, and Lucky would keep on doing just what Aybolot wanted in the meantime. In the evening Akylbek made dinner. He gave me and D enormous portions while he and Akylbek shared a single bowl. Didn't he want some of ours? we asked. He was fine, he said, he was used to harsh conditions. Over dinner, he told us the park's long-horned goats were threatened by Chinese poachers who were killing them for the powder in their horns, which is thought to have magic powers. I had trouble speaking Russian to him. I felt he was nervous speaking Russian, so I became downright stuttering. It was getting dark, and even colder. Weren't they going to pitch their tent, we asked. They'd just sleep in the open, they said. It got windy. They dumped out the contents of their tent sack. They circled the pieces thoughtfully. They did so for about ten minutes. Did they want help? we asked. D and I set it up for them. It rained that night and the tents shifted a few feet with the wind.

On the second day we lost D just before lunch. He had been hanging back watching some buzzards. I had pulled ahead of him in an effort to catch up with our guides, who were far ahead on the horses. The three of us sat down at our lunch spot, a small volcanic lake, and waited. We waited half an hour. Akylbek got on Apollo and went looking. Ten minutes later he returned empty-handed. It started raining and the air got icy. "How are we going to find him now?" asked Akylbek? Maybe he went to look at the other lake? "Why would he have stayed there," I asked, "when it was obvious we weren't there? He would have turned back by now." Everything Akylbek said was suddenly sounding ridiculous, insulting. He galloped away again, then returned, shouting to us from atop Apollo. "How on earth are we going to find him now? What's going to happen to us now? What's going to happen to us? What misfortune!" "Why are you saying this to me?" I yelled. He galloped off in a frenzy. I ran back and forth across the top of the hill shouting over and over, in every direction, "Da-a-ad!" I sat down on the grass and sobbed. Aybolot came and put his arms around me.  "Let's pitch the tent?" he said. "Why?" I said. The rain got harder. I agreed to pitch the tent. We didn't need the stakes, I insisted. We lugged all the bags, then ourselves, inside. The tent shook in the wind. It was deafening. I went out and put the stakes in. Aybolot and I started going through the bags. We drank some water and ate some of the sweets that Lucky had been lugging for us. Then we found Akylbek's wool floormats, wrapped ourselves in them, and shivered. Every so often a drop of rain would strike one of the tent's cross bars with a thud, and I would poke my head out, thinking someone was outside. After a while I sank back into the far side of the tent. I thought about the phone call to my sister and mother, telling them D was dead. I thought about how D would never know his granddaughter. Did Aybolot have a father? I asked. And a mother? He did, as well as two brothers. I was going to search myself, I decided. I started packing a bag with D's first aid gear, which he'd ill-advisedly loaded onto Apollo in the morning. I packed his phone, water purification tablets, and all of his dry clothes "What are you doing?" Aybolot asked. His voice was a little nervous. "Just in case, " I replied. "Wait," he said. He flung himself across the tent and stuck his head out. "It looks like they're coming!" I looked out. A horse was plodding towards us, up the hill. Akylbek was on it. I looked for a body stretched across the horse behind him. The horse got closer. D was seated behind Akylbek. I dashed over to them, sobbing.  I grabbed my father and hugged him. "I'm also about to cry," said Akylbek, "I thought we weren't going to find him already." When the rain started, D had jumped into a fir tree for shelter. Akylbek had missed him the first time he went by, but had heard his voice when he'd gone back to check, in a last-ditch effort.

D had some chocolate. It stuck to his mouth. He drank some water. He changed into dry clothes. The sun had come out. Akylbek's heavy wool coat was soaked through. Didn't he want to change? we asked. He was fine, he said smiling – his jacket was Soviet-army issue, impenetrable. D and I walked in a pair as Akylbek and Aybolot led us along the lake. We found a dry spot beneath some trees that was warm in the afternoon sun. Akylbek cooked dinner as D and I sat by the fire, speaking to each other in English. Akylbek passed us our dinners and then retreated to his tent to eat with Aybolot. While bringing D back to safety on his horse, Akylbek had somehow given rise to a narrative whereby I was the brains of the rescue operation. I wasn't quite sure how to disabuse D, or whether I wanted to. Having first refused to pitch the tent, then refused to stake it, and then pictured D's funeral before I had even packed a rescue kit, it was nice to discover that I was, after all, a hero. 

The next day was the day of our descent. Our itinerary had said we were arriving at Tam Chi. We managed to establish, with some difficultly, that Akylbek had never heard of Tam Chi. Didn't we want to go to Balykchi? We looked at the map. Balykchi was some 40 kilometers from Tam Chi. "Amazing!" D said. "The man has no idea where we are going!" I hmmmed in response. We had never established whether Akylbek understood any English; in any case, I feared that D's tone made his attitude quite obvious.  We cleared our final peak, and a bright blue sea spread across the horizon. This was Issyk Kul. "There's the lake," Akylbek told me, after it had been visible for some minutes. "Do you see the lake? It's there, see?" I told him I did indeed see the lake. We said goodbye to Akylbek and Aybolot at the base of a red canyon. "I apologize if something was not quite right," he told D. I got them to write their addresses in my journal. "Thank you for finding my father!" I said.  Akylbek said he was also relieved to have found him. They rode off.  "What a fool," I remember D saying. To be fair, I'm sure D's actual comment was somewhat more virtuous.

We were out of water. Rushing streams had criss-crossed our entire route, and we saw no reason to think this would change. Then in the last hour things suddenly turned irony and arid. D managed to get a phone signal and called E, telling her that we were on some dirt road or another just below a canyon that was near a canyon, a canyon, and a canyon, somewhere on the northern bank of Issyk-Kul, which is 113 miles long. We sat down and prepared for a long wait. I started planning mentally for the 8-mile walk to the lake, where we could procure water if nothing else. It was highly doable, I said.

We started videotaping ourselves discussing our probable strandedness. As we were taping, a red four-wheel drive appeared in the distance, snaking its way gingerly towards us. "Miracle of miracles!" I cried. D was visibly moved. "He really is in a class by himself," he exclaimed as Big V rounded the final bend. V parked about twenty feet from us and stepped out of the car, grinning. "Welcome!" he called. He explained that there were two drivable roads on that stretch of the northern bank, and he had made a lucky guess. "Who were these idiot guides you had?" he asked, sputtering with laughter.  "What was our guide's name?" D asked me.  "Akylbek," I said. Akylbek is a very common name. "Akylbek," Big V repeated. He shook his head.

Tam Chi was a nostalgic Soviet-style resort, full of plastic palm trees, bleached blond women in skin tight jeans, food stalls run by women in sweatpants and house slippers, and men offering to photograph you next to their donkeys. I had planned to swim, but the lakeside was so littered that I didn't want to take my shoes off, let alone go in the water.  A large camel knelt at the water line, hobbled.  Next to her a baby camel wailed plaintively.  We really should have gone to the south shore of the lake, Big V told us.

We drove back towards Bishkek along the south shore. It was empty other than the odd Soviet sanatorium tucked discreetly back into the rocks. The orange rocks formed a brilliant contrast with the bright blue of the water. I went for a swim at a muddy little inlet alongside some cows. "It was so warm," I told Big V when I came out. "Of course it was," he said, with a joyful snicker. "It's very shallow here, that's why it's warm. And the cows probably don't hurt either."

We got back to Bishkek. A few days later we met with the Moscow bureau chief for an American newspaper. With him was the paper's Bishkek stringer, and a Muscovite cameraman whom I had apparently met when I was a toddler.  We met for dinner at Jalalabad, a Kyrgyz restaurant that, people have since told me, serves Uzbek food by default, as there is no such thing as Kyrgyz food.  Did I like Bishkek, the bureau chief asked. I loved it, I said, its courtyards felt just like the Moscow I remembered as a child. The cameraman's eyes softened. "Have you heard that Maksim is dead?" said the stringer. D stiffened. "What?" Just hours ago D had been giving his standard lecture on the steps Maksim was taking to prepare to inherit the presidency. The bureau chief asked whether Maksim had not died several times within the last year. Who would have been behind it, he asked. D grinned conspiratorially: There weren't really a lot of options– it had to be his uncle Janysh, famous for having human fingers delivered in suitcases to his political opponents via processionals of uniformed men.  "This will really change things," said D, his eyes aglow.  He couldn't  really be dead, the bureau chief insisted. D got out his phone. There was silence at the table.  D greeted the person on the other end in a jocular tone. "Is the boss free to meet next week?" Negotiations were conducted, concluded. "Well?" said the bureau chief? "Well," said D, "Either he's dead, or I'm having lunch with him on Monday." "Or both?" I suggested. D did have lunch with him on Monday, and he was alive, much to my disappointment.  D and the stringer gave the bureau chief, at the latter's prompting, the standard talk on the north-south divide in Kyrgyz politics: Bakiev was from the south, he and his family portrayed themselves as the voice of the southern Kyrgyz, of a historically marginalized and neglected people. Such a position was seen as implicitly hostile to the Uzbek population, which dominated the Ferghana valley both numerically and economically. The conversation then shifted west to Uzbekistan itself: Didn't Uzbeks in general see themselves as the core of Central Asia, the bureau chief asked. Oh yes, said his stringer: "The heart of culture in Central Asia! It's such nonsense. The heart of human rights violations in Central Asia!" D concurred that Uzbekistan was, of course, "pretty tacky" in a great many dimensions.  And of course the Tajiks were fond of reminding the Uzbeks furiously that Bukhara and Samarkand were Tajik cities; that the Tajiks had been settled while the Uzbeks were still pillaging on horseback.  Rahmon had been known to remark that when Karimov's regime fell, he would of course have to protect his people in Uzbekistan. In short, the Ferghana valley was overdue for an explosion on one, or all, of three sides.

The bureau chief asked what Dushanbe was like. Oh, it was so much nicer than Bishkek, the stringer said;  I should really try to go. "The people in Tajikistan are very exotic, very Asian– not Asian like us, they have these dramatic eyes," said the young Kyrgyz woman, who had dramatic eyes. Kyrgyzstan was kind of blah by comparison, she said. 

By the next time D came to Philadelphia, Bakiev had fallen, D, if a rather heady message from the 8th of April can be believed, had drunk champagne in the charred ruins of the general prosecutor's office, and Max had fled to London. V's daughter, however, was spending a lot of time in Russia. D said Big V saw "the writing on the wall," and knew she was probably leaving Kyrgyzstan. Her husband–the father of her one-year-old– had recently dropped dead. He was in his late twenties, healthy as far as anyone knew, and one day on his way home from work he just had a heart attack and died. "Is she looking after the kid by herself now?" M asked.  No, D said, the baby was living with Big V and his wife. "You know, it's the old Russian style," he said. It was clear V's daughter had to leave, said D– there was nothing for her in Kyrgyzstan, "and she doesn't like the Kyrgyz." Her husband had been Kyrgyz, but she didn't have much in common with her in-laws. This was the first time I'd heard anyone– outside of Russia, that is– speak as though disdain for Kyrgyz on the part of other Kyrgyzstani groups were not only commonplace, but needed no explanation.

In the first days after I came back last month, I was amazed at how much my perceptions of the country seemed to have shifted. It was hard, I said to D, not to let June color my impressions of strangers. He agreed: "Whereas before, I might have thought, oh, now she looks like an interesting babulya, now I think, ah, look at her elbowing people out of her way. The new master race." Among the conversations I overheard on the street, the ones consisting mainly of  "blyat" and "yob" stuck most in my mind. A few bizarre-seeming comments from D also stuck with me. On my first day, he suggested that many of our neighbors were "not quite feeble-minded, but just on the edge." In an interview with a visiting master's student, he said that the June attacks were carried out mostly by youth with "the bare minimum of education and reasoning." Kyrgyz people had barely any brain activity, he seemed to say – they were barely conscious. Having recently traveled for 48 hours across 11 time zones, I, in fact, was barely conscious. People and words took on a fuzzy, menacing quality. Awkwardly worded statements and isolated observations had a way of seeming definitive.

A few weeks back now, on the road to Osh, Big V mentioned that his daughter was applying for Russian citizenship. She was also applying her daughter, whose hand now needed an operation. "So, it looks like that's it," he sighed.  And his other relatives in Osh? D asked. His parents had started the process of changing citizenship. And some cousins, and some neighbors, and some friends. "So, yeah, it looks like that's it. They're all leaving." He said this with only the barest trace of laughter. Once we'd had some time to look around in Osh, we asked Big V how things seemed to him: "Awful. The streets are all empty. You can hardly see any Uzbeks anywhere." He said he'd heard a guy on the street saying  " 'What are Uzbeks still doing here? They should have been gone by now.' I wanted to go up and say, you know, what you're saying is really maddening to me, but I think it's pointless."

On our last night the four of us– Small V, D, Big V, and I– sat at the kitchen table in our guest house drinking Kyrgyzstan brand cognac which, I announced, I much preferred to Hennessy. "Next there's going to be a cleansing from within," says Small V, his eyes glinting in that way journalists' eyes do when they drink: "Who's the most Kyrgyz of the Kyrgyz." Somehow we started talking about Issyk-Kul. "In Soviet times, there were at least some procedures you had to follow," Big V said. "For example, it was forbidden to build 200 metres from the shore." Now people were building right up to the banks of even the southern shore. "No one needs anything now," he said, as in, nothing is sacred. Bishkek was the same way– the shade trees in Ataturk, for example, were being cleared for parking lots. "I saw how Osh died, right before my eyes," said Big V, "and now the same thing is happening in Bishkek." He spoke of a familiar process that hardly needs articulating: The collapse of the social safety net had left a void, and an economy based on quick and destructive ways of making money had moved in to fill it. 

Analysts often make the point that ethnicity was a tool used in planning the attacks in June, not the cause of the attacks.  People whose careers depended on drug smuggling and systemic theft saw latent ethnic divisions as something to be manipulated, in order to increase their "earning potential." When I came here two years ago, I wanted to believe I had found an unlikely island of sanity: A country whose nomadic customs had allowed it to deal successfully with the mess of forced resettlement; that could eagerly absorb new influences, knowing that it was more than the sum of its parts. I wanted to think that someone could say "Our strongest tradition is hospitality" without appearing to minimize her nation's importance or her own; that such a person could be viewed not as an apologist for prospective invaders, but as an example for, literally, the whole world.  Clearly this was too much to hope for. The Soviet Union drew clumsy lines, in the form of improvised ethnic narratives and borders that failed to correspond to these narratives.  Divisions were manufactured even as official policy insisted they did not exist. It had taken its map, carved and stabbed at it, and then slapped a veneer of "friendship among nations" on top. The gloss washed off easily, but the divisions beneath have proven highly marketable in the post-Soviet world.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Culture, part I

E was one of the first people I met here in 2009. "She's a real sweetie," D had told me beforehand. This was unusual; he'd often been homicidal towards OMs in the past. He mentioned she'd recently left an abusive husband and that her mother was pressuring her to get married again. She had been dating Bolot for several months, "whom everyone," D said, "agrees is a waste of space."

E made tea for the two of us and we sat down in the office kitchen. She asked the standard new- acquaintance questions.  Her Russian was gentle, clear, and unusually high-pitched; sort of crystally, I thought. (E inspires trite, pseudo-romantic imagery.) I mentioned my sister was pregnant and she smiled; D had told her. Was it a boy or a girl, did we know? A girl, I said. She beamed: "Girls are so much better!" She had a ten-year-old son. I explained that my Kindergarten boys in Philadelphia were sometimes simpler to work with – my girls often seemed unnaturally aware of their own attractiveness, and it made me sad. She nodded and told me about a friend of hers who'd moved to London and started dressing her eight-year-old in heels and miniskirts. Little Kyrgyz girls, she said, were usually "better taken care of."  I said I had noticed; that little girls here looked so innocent and brave and classically beautiful. I naturally felt silly having said this.

I asked if she spoke good Kyrgyz. She said not really, that she really didn't like it. It was very crude; it hadn't developed since the Soviet Union took hold. She said her husband had been from the country. People there made a big deal about speaking authentic Kyrgyz, only they didn't agree on what was authentic. People made up rules as they went along, she said, and then insisted their made-up rules were part of a timeless tradition. People would label others as "half bloods" or fake Kyrgyz, on the ground that features of their speech  differed from their own. She described what seemed a classic situation of people desperate to belong to a cohesive unit, who then define this unit so narrowly that only they can fit.

She went on to suggest that rural areas were big on made-up customs in general. She cited bride-kidnapping, stating that it had never been a deliberate and celebrated custom. She said it had previously been condoned in select situations, like when parents wouldn't allow a couple to marry. Now kidnapping-rapes were labeled patriotic acts. I remarked that I was familiar with some parallel sorts of phenomenons in Russia. She walked me to a fruit stand down the road and we continued to talk. She was about eight years older than me, but seemed about twenty years more grown-up.

Bishkek seemed full of soft-spoken, gentle people. As I made a point of saying when I got back to Philadelphia, I didn't hear a single person yell at a child while I was here.  Little girls had the bravest, most placid faces I'd ever seen. Even older boys held their mothers' hands as they walked around the city. Language and ethnic identity seemed to be a source of zero anxiety. To my ears everyone spoke a crystally, precise, slangless Russian, like that of E. The categories "Asian" and "white" hardly seemed to apply, just as, when I was a child, they hadn't seemed to apply in Moscow outside the walls of the Anglo-American school. We were all points on a glorious Eurasian continuum. One might think Bishkek, or Frunze, as it used to be called, had been developed as a show city to embody the Soviet concepts of child-centeredness and "friendship among nations."

While Big V was on vacation, we would take taxis to and from the office. D would almost always ask our driver for his take on the upcoming elections. That elections were meaningless here was a standard response. Several public sector employees, who, as they explained, were obligated to vote in groups with their colleagues, responded resignedly but thoughtfully, "I have to vote for the one who's going to win."

 One night, our driver segued from the elections into one of those "national character" discussions. "The Kyrgyz, we can't be anything," he said. It was clear, I thought, that our interlocutor was not saying this was a bad thing: We can't be just one thing, he meant; our identity can't be pinned down.  "We can't be serious Muslims, or Christians, or warriors, or anything. We're just nomads. Now, the Caucasians, that's a warlike people." This last statement was trite and old, but his previous words left me with a joyous feeling: Despite what E had said, Kyrgyzstan was a nation of people whose identity was so strong as to transcend permanent living space; to transcend destructive and rigid patterns of thinking that had paralyzed other nations– patterns whereby culture derived its meaning through holding itself up in opposition to that which was "foreign." It really was the "druzhby narodov nadyozhny oplot" –the reliable fortress of friendship among nations– sung about in the Soviet Anthem (in Russian, of course).

E stayed at the office for most of the month.  D explained she had an aversion to places outside Bishkek. Small V, meanwhile, was in exile in Almaty, having been picked up down south shortly after D's report on corruption was published. It was just me, D, and Big V on our trips to the countryside. I didn't see much of E until my last night, when she had a going-away party for me. Here I finally met Bolot, along with a few of his colleagues. Also present was lovely S, D's intern and mentee. E had requested we say nothing of the party to Big V. As D explained, there was some tension between him and Bolot.

Seated at a large table that E had decked out with a feast of banquet-like proportions, Bolot, with some difficultly, prevailed upon D to kick off the toasts. D toasted E and her hospitality. Next, one by one, Bolot and his friends toasted my stay in Kyrgyzstan, and wished me bright and happy memories of the country. After the first of the three such speeches, I lifted my glass to get it out of the way of one of the dishes. Bolot reacted swiftly: "Excuse me, if you don't mind the men will toast first." I explained that I was in fact not gearing up for a toast but simply moving my wine.

When it did come my turn to toast, I toasted E and S, and the prospect that lovely and educated women like them would come to lead this country and other countries of the world. Bolot giggled, meeting my gaze with wide-eyed, good-natured amusement. "The women!" he chortled. I was glad he'd found my toast so witty. E refused to make a toast. She wasn't good at it, she said; it made her uncomfortable.

Bolot announced that they had prepared a game for me. E suggested they skip it. Bolot and friends insisted that it would be fun; it would teach me about their culture. The game, he explained, was a role-play of "a custom of ours"–  bride-kidnapping. He selected one of his friends to play my "beloved." The selected fellow and I were to go into another room while Bolot informed my father about our so-called elopement. After a few minutes, I was to compose a letter to my father to convince him to bless our marriage rather than disown me. The Beloved and I exited into E's bedroom.

We sat awkwardly on opposite sides of the bed. After a few minutes Bolot informed me that enough time had elapsed to make our relationship credible, and that I could start my letter. Did I have a love interest in real life? he asked. I could use his name in the letter. I wrote a letter informing my father that the two of us planned to have twelve children and to name them all Bolot. As D read it out loud, Bolot giggled, looking flattered and confused. Did D approve the marriage? he asked. "No," D replied, with a demonstratively tight-jawed smile. "This letter tells me that my daughter didn't really take to the theme." E announced she had borrowed a guitar from a friend. We played it and sang Soviet bard songs until we were sleepy.

For the final act, E brought us back to the table where I was presented with a woven bag, a white felt hat, and a necklace of chunky felt beads. E now addressed me with an informal toast: "Our strongest custom in Kyrgyzstan is hospitality," she said. She said she hoped they would have the opportunity to offer me hospitality in the future. 

E and I kissed goodbye. "Until next time," I said. S, one of the Bolot crew, and D and I all went out to hail a cab to share. Bolot followed us. A cab was located. As we started to pile in, Bolot asked to see D. After what seemed like ten minutes of conversing with Bolot in the stairwell, D joined us. "That just such a fucking bore!" he said, once the friend had been dropped off. "I don't know how many times I'm going to have to tell him, no, I really do not want to go into business with him!"

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Osh, part II

On our second day in Osh we met H the journalist. "Give her until at least 11," D said, as he and Small V were making plans to invite her out. Invite her for lunch, he instructed; she was more amenable when food was involved.

A meeting was arranged, at a restaurant called Meeting. We arrived on time. "Do you have a booth that's heated?" Small V asked, shivering. "This one is heated," said the waitress, who was in a fur coat. We ordered hot tea. H showed up about half an hour later. She was about six feet tall, wearing boot heels and tapered jeans that enhanced her broad midsection. She had a generous face with bright brown eyes, a large and pointy nose, and bleached blonde hair in a semi-mullet. She, V, and D ordered chicken shashlyki. I asked the waitress what vegetarian dishes they had, and selected the garden salad. "You'd better get the farmer's salad," H interjected. "The garden salad's not enough. So," she continued, "I have news. I've changed my ethnicity. Now I'm a Kyrgyz." She had been loath to switch over, since she is closest to her father, her Uzbek half. But he had encouraged her. "Daughter," he had said, "since you're going to stay here, change it, for god's sake." The passport authorities had traced her Kyrgyz blood back to her grandfather, and only then had she been allowed to re-register. She also mentioned she'd been picked up by the police after June, when she was still an Uzbek, and accused of aiding Uzbek fighters. "They said I was distributing weapons from my car. Can you imagine, from my car! I said, what, so I went against my own mother? They said, we've got it all on tape." She'd sat in the station for many hours. They'd then decided they had made a mistake, apologized, and had her sign a paper stating that she'd come to the police station of her own accord and did not hold them responsible for any wrongdoing.

The waitress brought the shashlyki and my farmer's salad. D asked if she'd spoken to the international investigation panelists. She responded that the international investigation into the pogroms had been "truly one sided." All their efforts were focused on uncovering atrocities against the Uzbeks, while everyone knew the Kyrgyz had also suffered. She had worked with them for one day and then quit. She said little of the parliamentary and national investigations, which are widely viewed as a joke. (The parliamentary investigation basically says the attacks aimed at annexing the country to Uzbekistan, then bringing in Obama's death panels.)

She got to telling us about a journalists' training conference she'd gone to in London. The attendees had been tasked with getting past a roadblock. All the other journalists – "polite, decent Englishmen and Iraqis"– had asked nicely, shown their press cards, and stressed the importance of the information they hoped to gather. She laid down 1000 pounds. She was the only one to get through. The others were horrified, she said. "They said, that's not accepted here. And I said, it's accepted; there's nowhere where people don't accept [bribes]. There are places where people don't give."

I had trouble keeping up with her conversation. She was huge. Her face was huge, her eyes were huge, the breadth of her experience and her cultural identities was huge. The skinny cigarettes she smoked looked ridiculous next to her huge mouth. Small V and I barely seemed to exist for her– we were on another scale altogether.

We left and drove to Suleyman To. We climbed up and looked down at the city. I  wondered whether the group of young men who'd been hollering at me and then overtaken us aggressively on the way up had done it out of sheer impulse, or to put us (me) in our place. I fumed slightly as I stared out over Osh.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Osh, part I

We got up at 5:30 the morning we left. Actually, D got up at 5:30 and I got up about 15 minutes before we had to walk out the door. As a direct result of lacking my supervision in the kitchen, D dropped one of the coffee pots on the floor and it stopped working. When Big V called to say he was outside, we were just getting to our huge mugs of coffee. We did our best to smash them at high speed, but ended up having to pour quite a bit down the sink.

After picking up Small V (no relation to Big V) we headed out of town through fields of pylons and fuzzy livestock who almost blended into the brown grass. Everything felt pale- the sleepy blue of the sky, the faded grass, the faded cottages we passed.

After a few hours we started climbing. In front of us the white slopes on either side of the pass rippled and bubbled into each other. I felt nauseous. At the peak I ran through some shardy, wind-driven snow to a rather well-used outhouse. The mixture of dramatic sensations the expedition entailed cured me of my nausea.

The bubbly slopes became craggy, and scattered with dark firs that spiked up from the slopes with commendable verticality. We stopped at a roadside restaurant in a dip between two slopes. Outside it was an imitation Swiss chalet; its interior was generically post-Soviet cozy- dark with pine benches and a tiny gas stove in the corner. We asked for dumplings; they didn't have any. Big V and D proceeded to go through their second, third, fourth choices on the menu before our waitress, a sincere-looking young woman with several gold teeth, explained that all they had was soup, and fried eggs with salami. We ordered four helping of fried eggs with no salami. They were delicious and fresh.

About fifteen minutes on from the restaurant we came to wooden shack with a red '90s VW parked outside. "Uncle Vasya!" Big V shouted. "Can I congratulate you?" A solid, elderly Russian guy in a big fur hat stepped out of the car: "Long time, no see!" He looked elated. His youngest daughter had bought him a car for New Years, he explained. He motioned for us to come out and join him, and opened up the trunk of his car to reveal a whole array of his legendary honey. He poured some bright pink liquid – his homemade raspberry wine – into plastic cups, as D and the Vs protested weakly. I scarfed down half a cup before taking a breath, and only then did I get the taste of raw alcohol. Dyadya Vasya started reading an excerpt from a dirty hardback called "Honey and its Healing Qualities." Big V's mouth flickered and he turned his face to the side. The basic gist was that honey makes you immortal. Given how good he looked, none of us were really in a position to question him. D and Vs made arrangements to buy some honey with royal jelly on our way back. Big D explained that I'd just arrived, and Dyadya Vasya handed me a jar of honey as a gift. He also gave us the raspberry wine for the car ride. I was the only one happy about this.

As we climbed back down the craggy pass lost its snow, lost its trees, and turned iron-red and rolling. Then it became the Fergana valley, flat, brown, and able to be driven through quickly, other than the odd abrupt stop to avoid hitting a cow standing in the middle of the road. I liked seeing all the donkeys- donkeys pulling boys in carts, donkeys carrying loads to the next village on their own, and donkeys just hanging out.

We drove through Uzgen. It felt large and slow and serious. Old Uzbek men in their long cloaks and bulky hats walked in pairs, apparently in silence. Even the crowd of people waiting at a bus stop looked contemplative. (Perhaps they were simply contemplating walking home, or who this person was staring at them from inside a 4x4.) There was no question when were nearing Osh. Torched houses appeared on either side. "This is one of the villages that starts sending people into Osh early on the morning of the 11th," D said. As we got nearer the torched cottages became more dense. Some were closer to piles of rubble; others were simply shells with four walls and a ring of black around the top. D explained, although it hardly needed explanation, that because the roofs were wooden and stored hay, they had gone up in flames like matchboxes.

The makhalla (Uzbek quarter) where we stayed was on Tashkent Street, where the damage was slight. Vitalii, an older Russian guy with dark coloring and light blue eyes, greeted D and Vs, who introduced him to me. Small V took immediate inventory of the bowls of honey and black currant jam set out on the kitchen table. I slept while he and D discussed the final touches to the report on the decay of infrastructure. Around 6:30 we headed over to the makhalla where O the lawyer lived. He greeted us with a toddler in his arms. The house was spacious, and in the process of a plasticky but relatively inoffensive "Western renovation." They had begun renovating before June, now the process was halted. I think there were several lots of rubble in the vicinity of their house, but those were such a typical sight that I may be mixing up locations. The IO officials present cheerfully eviscerated Osh's police force; O was downcast and spoke little: Uzbeks didn't want to leave their own quarters; work opportunities had all but disappeared. We asked about the mayor expanding his sphere of influence; O replied thoughtfully that he was doing so mainly in the area of "business." Everyone laughed. Small V and I drank tons of Bishkek brand cognac.

Big V ended up taking all the guests home, which meant piling six people in the back of the car. Small V appeared to have completely disappeared under the pile at one point, and we were relieved to finally make out the muffled sound of his voice. Back at the inn, D, Vs, and I said goodnight and went off to our rooms, a cozy little family.

Next day-delicious kasha, aladi, cream, and honey at the inn. Then coffee at the California Cafe, where the head chef, a pretty, middle-aged woman with one eye, greeted Big V and D as friends. Then to a local human rights organization. The head grimaced as he spoke, as if trying not to cry. Harassment of Uzbeks was rampant, he said. Pensioners taking care of their grandchildren were having drugs planted in their houses and getting tens of thousand of dollars- or more- extorted in order to have charges dropped. People, including relatives of his, had been illegally detained, beaten, and tortured. He opened his notebook to a laminated photo of a boy with his fingernails ripped out. On our way out to lunch we stopped by a major news agency that happened to be in the same building. A formal, intelligent-looking woman told us that the situation was stabilizing and things were getting better. That was about it. "She was clearly embarrassed," D said after we left.

After California Cafe part II we dropped by everyone's least favorite IO to talk to a political officer, a fast-talking and diligent American. His biggest concern was what was going to happen to vulnerable populations in a few months when all the donor money runs out. With dramatically increasing food prices, people would be turning to robbery and the Uzbeks, who don't feel comfortable going to the police, would be the targets. He said the mayor had toned down his ethnic cleansing rhetoric, was basically a stand-up guy as narcotraffickers go, and suggested the international community would be well-advised to cooperate with him.

From there it was off to the youth organization, where I was told they had great relations with the mayor, and that they didn't discuss ethnicity, because it simply created a sense of divide where there was none. After that, I talked to a sweet, slightly crestfallen-seeming dude at a sexual violence program. He basically said that their funds were being cut just as clients were opening up not only about sexual violence during the pogroms, but about about generational cycles of violence in their families.

We had an enormous dinner at the California Cafe, then stumbled home to bed with bloated stomachs.


My third/fourth/fifth days in Bishkek were the prettiest. A few centimeters of fresh snow fell, covering the patchy snow-soot solution that been on the ground when I arrived. The sky turned blue and the mountains hung clear and sharp above the city. Unfortunately I was inside most of those days, translating recommendations for the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which is to say that I was translating phrases like "create a proposal for the creation of proposals to propose changes to draft law 302.4 on the implementation of the CEDAW convention within the framework of the current proposal, including proposals connected to the organization of processes to ensure the provision of proposals to interested parties mentioned under the current proposal."

I went out running in the afternoons for fresh air, away from the mountains, towards Kazakhstan. By this time the horizon would be going slightly pink. Clouds of smoke from the Bishkek thermo-electric factory hung in the air, and mingled with the cozier puffs rising out of cottage chimneys. I felt like I was jogging in a smoky bar. I coughed up mucus with black specks; I stopped to watch the white herons in the icy creek and wondered how they stayed white.

As I was jogging home one of these days, a pair of ratty terriers jumped out from behind a gate, hurled themselves onto my calves, and bit me. I put on my best schoolteacher face and shouted at them very sternly, which, shockingly, did nothing other than attract a few confused stares. Then I turned and ran as fast as I could. Now I give that gate a wide berth when I run. Dog-human relations- one of VB's favorite topics- is on my mind rather often here. To my hypothetical Western visitor-adversary, dog-human relations here would be a testament to the inhumanity of post-Soviet culture. He would be horrified at the number of street dogs here. (Of course, it wouldn't be clear whether he was horrified by their plight, or horrified that he had to look at them- it never is.) He would have been horrified that D reproached me for not beating my terrier assailants with a stick. But check it out- while it's more or less acceptable to beat a dog here, it's also not uncommon for a hungry pensioner to give a good portion of her scant food supplies to a stray dog. (I say "her" not because women are nicer, but because they stand a better chance of making that far.) I get mad at hypothetical Westerner-adversary at this point. And then I naturally get mad at myself for getting mad about an exchange that, while it may resemble ones I've had, is still imaginary.

The first time I went running, I ended up on a fairly busy part of Jibek-Jolu. I got a few snowballs thrown at me by little boys, and a lot of "aren't you cold?"s. In most cases "aren't you cold" was delivered by a slightly slimy young man, but in one case it was a woman with her child, who stopped and waited until I passed in order to instruct me to wear a hat. I've always felt pretty warmly towards this sort of concern from strangers in this part of the world, but I do find myself asking to what degree the "aren't you cold?" of this woman, the "aren't you cold" of the sleazy guys, and the snowballs are all driven by a similar sentiment: You're upsetting the social order, and I'm not convinced you deserve my respect. (In a sideways way, this fits into the same category as the question of where the line is between the visitor's concern for the street dogs, and his sense that their mere visibility impinges on his quality of life. I say this in earnest; not as a a pathetic attempt to liken my social standing to that of a street dog.)

After those cold, clear days, we had a meltdown where it went up to +18 C. Every day since has been well above or just below freezing. Maybe I'm projecting, but no one seems to be enjoying the unseasonable warmth and the grime it brings with it. (Actually, it's very probable I'm engaging in some serious projection, given that the country's heating grid couldn't handle the cold weather last year and people froze. But that's a minor detail.)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dinner date

First week in Bishkek: Dinner with the tall son of a short woman. He looks a lot like his mom in the face- he even has the same hairstyle as her. He was about 20 minutes late, and DT was worried he wasn’t going to show. By the time he did, I’d just about finished the White Russian I’d ordered, which added to the surreal feel of it all. He speaks amazing English, is not only better spoken than most native speakers, but incredibly comfortable in the language. And very fond of American cliches. He asked D what he thought of his mother. “Is the message getting out?” D asked what message he meant. “Well, that she’s not corrupt?” D answered dicily. It was a given, he said, that she was not financially corrupt. But he was disappointed by the lack of a “clear, pointed statement” on the need to combat ethnic hatred. “Hasn’t she done that?” the son asked.

He said he couldn’t wait for 2012, when he would be able to breathe easily again. Described the workings of parliament as “absurdity after absurdity after absurdity.” Said that perhaps Kyrgyzstan wasn’t “the worst place in the world,” but that he wasn’t quite sure then what was. Discussed protest-related deaths in Thailand. “In Thailand! The nicest people in the world!” I looked at him and said that when I was here in June 2009, the Kyrgyz were “the nicest people I had ever met.” It was hard to read his reaction- perhaps it was pity at my naiveté, or an attempt to humor what suddenly seemed like a very condescending characterization of a people- or neither.

 Towards the end of the evening he looked at us and said: “What should I do?” What did he mean, we asked. “If you were me, what would you do?” He asked this in an expansive tone, despite having drunk nothing but tomato juice.

Friday, February 4, 2011


So, I tend to be dismissive of people who blog about their lives - I find it a little self-important. I'm particularly rude, at least in my head, about travel blogs. I feel peoples' tendency to overestimate the uniqueness of their own insights and experiences is magnified when they travel. I'm especially suspicious of almost anyone who writes in English about the former USSR, because they, of course, can't possibly "get it." I find myself viewing any observation such a person makes as cheesy, condescending, mean spirited– when of course the very same observation on my part would reflect nothing less than a finely honed eye for human behavior and an undying love for the place of my upbringing. Naturally, to my friends who had proper Russian upbringings, many of my observations, albeit the same ones they might make, are illegitimate. And so on and so on. I'm not convinced that anything other than sheer arrogance is motivating me to write this, but I may manage to convince myself as I go along.

Journal entry from 1/22 or 22.01:

I have made it to Bishkek, my promised land.
It is every bit as quiet as I remembered; every bit as free of distractions.
It also feels meaner. Much, much dirtier than I remember. I knew I was coming in winter; I knew it would be greyer and likely coated at times in only a thin dingy layer of snow- that part is no surprise. But the extent of the dinge is a bit of a shock. The day I came we walked past a set of evergreens that had an unhealthy greyness to them. I stopped and rubbed a cluster of needles with my fingers, and sure enough, a layer of black soot came off.
Peoples' faces look the way Muscovites' faces would on grimy winter days- either faintly anxious, or mildly pissed off. I forget that while people in the former USSR rarely complain about the weather, it affects peoples' personability very noticeably.
All this is not to say that the grass looks greener on the other side (i.e. in the US). It still looks greener here. Covered with a good layer of dust, yes, but still greener.

My flight to Moscow boarded late. Takeoff was further delayed by a drunk guy who, in fine Aeroflot tradition, tried to bring several large suitcases on board and acted insulted when he was asked to go back and check them. At this point he was confronted about his compromised sobriety. "You see, I'm really not a drinker at all," he insisted. "I haven't drunk for four whole months!" At some point in his exchange with the stewardesses, a wine bottle in the plastic bag he was carrying shattered, dripping purple on the floor. A tall, pretty West Indian member of airport staff showed up from somewhere. She escorted him off the plane with a big-sisterly gesture. "Support Putin," he called, as he disappeared from view.

I was seated across the aisle from a newborn and a toddler, and next to a chatty, unaccompanied six year-old. The stewardesses referred to the latter, who I believe was named Katya, as their heroine, and came around constantly to check she had enough to eat? drink? warm enough? why aren't you asleep? They'd also clearly unpacked some of her stuffed animals as soon as she boarded and arranged them with great care, only to have her ignore them completely.

I couldn't watch our descent into Moscow–that descent I fantasize about– the way I'd hoped, since I was seated in the middle of the plane. I got a few small glimpses of the sun glinting off the silver roofs of the cottages. It was 2 pm when we landed. "The temperature is -10 degrees and the weather is good," the captain announced. We stepped off the plane into a glistening land of white tiling, high ceilings, and all-glass walls. I looked around at my fellow travelers in dismay, half hoping to catch the eye of someone who could tell me what was going on- had Sheremetevo really forsaken its mission to be the world's most depressing airport? I went through transit security, where a young woman felt around my belt. "Skinny, skinny!" she said, pinching me affectionately. The babushka manning the x-ray belt asked me what the long canister in my backpack was (coffee), but cheerfully waved me through when I offered to show it to her. I lingered a bit in front of the glass wall, looking out at the wall of fir forest beyond the landing strips, and wondered if I should maybe buy into the whole Putin's Russia thing.

I marched towards the old terminal, hoping to find comfort in its 10-foot can-covered ceilings and impoverished soil color scheme. I felt cheated to find the coffee cans on the ceiling had been removed, and a fair amount of light was now streaming through. Light and all, it was now the "fuck you" terminal where those making connections to China and Central Asia were doomed to epic waits. With me in the waiting area was the family across the aisle from me on my JFK flight- the ones with the newborn girl, an adorable and singularly out-of-it looking boy toddler, and a ten-ish year old girl who appeared to be basically in charge of the operation. They were joined from Moscow by grandparents who took turns rocking and cooing to the womb-sick newborn. On the bench next to me was an American girl, her soul, by the looks of it, drained by the travel process, and a cheerful Kyrygz-American college kid who seemed to have adopted her.

The ten-hour wait went surprisingly quickly. In the months before my departure, I had pictured boarding as a triumphant occasion. Instead it was fast and unceremonious. The boarding announcements were resigned, matter-of-fact, and rather unclear, as if to give passengers who had lost their nerve– or fallen asleep on the departure lounge benches– the option of staying behind. I was seated behind the big family on this flight. At one point Dad stuck a diaper on the head of the toddler to make him look like he was wearing a crown. Otherwise, the flight was grim. After my July 2009 stay in Kyrgyzstan, the country had been synonymous for me with extreme gentleness, and with childhood memories of a quiet, sleepy Moscow. My first impression then had been that the people looked like throwbacks to the USSR circa 1990- solemn, characterful, and sincere. Perhaps it was that I had flown through the current Moscow and gotten a sense of physical health, kindness, and intelligence that had little to do with the congested cesspool of brainless commercialism and cultural chauvinism that it had morphed into in my memory– and Bishkek no longer seemed like a uniquely magical place.  But for whatever reason, people now looked to me like they were stuck, not in a time of fewer distractions and more sober values, but in situations of scant opportunities and poor health.

Also contributing to the flight’s grimness was my realization that I had no cash, and therefore no way to pay for my visa. Fortunately the customs officer, a wide-eyed young man, allowed me to leave my bags while I ran to the bank machine. I ran into my dad at the gate, who fronted me the money. After hearing reports of nasty customs officials in Bishkek, I got my visa with no trouble. [In general, I find that when traveling alone in the former USSR, i.e. not with my dad, who goes out of his way to be surly to officials, things seem to go remarkably smoothly for me. Of course there are notable exceptions, like the time a bad-tempered customs lady made preparations to throw me off a train in the dead of night, in winter, at the Ukrainian-Russian border. But it’s more fun to ignore these exceptions, as well as the obvious handiness of my color scheme, in favor of the narrative that I am simply beloved throughout the post-Soviet space.]

I came back out and met D and Big V, and we drove into town. The Turkish Airways flight from Istanbul hung in the sky in front of us, apparently having forgotten where to go. We stopped at the store for kefir, ryazhenka, tvorog, and other wonderful milk products I hadn’t seen for a while. At home we had yummy kasha with market honey. Full. Zzzzz.