Two Kyrgyz Women by Marinka Franulovic - HTML preview
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My name is Gulnara. You can call me Gulia. If you try to type my
name on an English keyboard it will be marked as a mistake, or it will
be changed to “gulag.” This is what the foreign woman who writes
this story told me. I do not use a computer and I do not speak English,
although I had learned couple of English words out of necessity in the
short time when I was forced to work in Dubai as a prostitute.
It was more than six months ago, but I am still very uncomfortable
and embarrassed to talk about this. The women at the IOM shelter
told me that I should be careful of what I say to my family about what
happened to me in Dubai. They also told me that my family would
never be able to understand what happened to me. That is why I would
be much better off if I keep quiet about the whole thing.
“Why challenge their Kyrgyz prejudices and beliefs?” they asked me.
Their lives were already complicated enough. But, I could not stay
quiet. It is just not me. I told everything to them, and I want to tell
everything to the whole world. When it comes to my family, I have to
say that I now pay the price for my honesty. I am an honest person and
I think that in life, people have to be honest and follow their intuition.
I try to follow mine. I want many people to know my story. I want to
show how unpredictable and absurd life can suddenly become. Also,
I hope that my story may help someone else who blindly believes
others, even if they are members of their own family.
For us Kyrgyz, much of our life is about respecting our parents, and
what our family tells us to do. Some people call it tradition, because
you have to behave according to your position in the family. There are
certain ways how a husband should treat his wife, and how parents
should honor their ancestors and treat their children. The relationships
in a family should be based on trust and respect and never on
humiliation, dishonesty, and neglect. I never questioned this; I took it
for granted. I love history and I think that tradition helps us to preserve
our culture and sense of history. This is the good side of tradition.
I am an educated person thanks to my beloved father. I was his little
girl, whom he held as carefully as you hold a precious little pearl in
your palm. I was born after my three older brothers, and they treated
me with love and admiration; always ready to protect me no matter
what. That is why I felt special. Among the four men – my father and
three brothers – I grew up feeling like a little queen. This feeling was
shaken, and I was deeply saddened and incapable of comprehending
what it meant when my dear father and brothers whispered that some
day I was not going to belong to them any more. They said I was going
to be a daughter of somebody else’s parents and a sister of different
brothers when I get married.
Later on, they started telling me openly that daughters do not belong
to their parents; they are raised to belong to their husband’s family.
I cried and always told them that this is not going to be my terrible
destiny. I was not going to marry, because I wanted to stay with them
all my life. “Silly girl,” they laughed at me, “of course you will marry.
All girls should get married!”
Fortunately, this terrible fate of mine, which soon came true, did not
change my father’s attitude toward me. He still loved me, and he
explained that this was how things should be for women. They marry
and leave their parents to live with another family. This marriage
unites two families with strong ties forever, bringing kudanyn jamanyn
suu kechiret (if one family faces hardships, they can always count on
the other family to help).
My father was always the center of my family. If anyone needed
advice or comfort, he was there to talk to and help. If everything in
the family is how it should be, then you do not realize that something
wonderful is going on. When you have everything, you do not know
what you have. But if you have nothing, then you know that you have
Everyone in my family always spoke loudly about their wishes, their
opinions, and their hopes. It was not that we did not have our fights
now and then. Of course we had those too, especially among three
competitive brothers, who each wanted to win all the games or eat
the best piece of meat. But my father was always there to put them in
their place and make peace. My mother was there to make sure that
everything in the house and in the garden was in order so that we all
ate well, slept well, and took good care of each other.
In our society, and in my family, everyone knew their place. The eldest
brother and his wife is supposed to take care of his parents when they
grow old and sick. The youngest and his family is supposed to stay
and take care of the family land. I was to be there only temporarily
until I got married and became someone’s wife and a part of someone
My father was a forester in the Chui Province of northern Kyrgyzstan,
where we all come from. The Chui River is clean and beautiful and
surrounded by bare red mountains, behind which are brown mountains
topped with snow. Although bare as a bald man, our mountains change
their colors like leaves on a tree. High mountain peaks, hung like a
decorative curtain, surround the Chui Valley.
Down in the fertile valley is Tokmok, the city where I lived most
of my married life and where I live today. There is nothing special
about Tokmok. While it is not as big and as important as Bishkek, it
is not too small, either. Tokmok is not like some villages where you
immediately know every person, cat, and dog on the street or the
owners of every passing car.
When I was little we did not live in Tokmok. My father had to travel
from one place to another as part of his job. He managed a wide
territory in the Chui province, where he looked after rare forests,
individual trees, low bushes, and animals. Sometimes, he would bring
home injured animals and nurse them for days. There were deer that
could not walk and pheasants with broken wings. I remember them all.
My father was a well respected man. He was the first one in the village
to get a Zhiguli, an affordable Soviet-made car, in 1972, before I was
born. My mother boasts even today that the first couple of months
after our father brought this car home from Bishkek crowds of people
always came to see it. When my father drove his car to remote villages,
people used to follow it with their horses. They were interested to see
the car’s engine, door locks, headlights, tires, and tubes. They were
curious to knock on it and hear how it sounded. And they wanted to
find out if it could go faster than a galloping horse. My father thought
it was his obligation to show them the positive direction in which the
Soviet Kyrgyz Republic was heading.
My father was a Soviet man. He taught my three brothers and me
that there was no better country in the world to live in. We did not
have reason to think differently. Most of your life, different people tell
you different things. You listen to them, and you agree. You learn to
believe them because they are older and they want you to do well. I
believed not only what my mother and father said, but also what they
were telling us at school and at the summer camps for communist
youth. I was a good student in school and I was a good daughter to my
My best childhood memories are of the Soviet summer camps. What
fun we had there! The water of Lake Issyk Kul was warm by the end
of June and perfect for swimming. For us Kyrgyz, Lake Issyk Kul is
the most special place in the world. We go there when we are happy,
we go there when we are sad. Being in nature is good for anybody’s
mood. Our people say that you can sense the power of God’s
mightiness in the mountains, but I think that you can feel his openness
and wisdom standing by this blue salty lake.
So, every summer, together with all three of my brothers, I went
to Lake Issyk Kul, where the international summer camps were
organized. They were crowded with children from all over the country,
and even from China and Cuba. I remember a dark Cuban boy who
spoke funny Russian, and I remember a shy Chinese girl who could
not say anything and only smiled. We all proudly wore the same red
scarf around our necks and pioneer hats on our heads. We also all sang
the same songs about revolution and the progress of our country, and
together we were moved by their powerful sounding words. There in
the camps, they taught us only good things - how to be better students
and how to help each other to be better people.
My mother was a midwife, and it was a good thing that she was.
Thanks to my father’s job, we moved frequently and lived in many
villages all over northern Kyrgyzstan. Our frequent relocation did not
affect my mother’s work. The women in the provinces were delivering
not only in Tokmok Hospital, but also in their houses, and my mother
was there to help. Midwifery is the only joyful job that comes with
Apart from midwifery, my mother worked the land. She was never
embarrassed to dip her hands into the soil, and thanks to this, we
always had fresh fruits and vegetables. Because we moved so much
my mother planted her carefully saved dried seeds in many different
gardens, and the land returned her trust with a bounty of gifts.
Although my mother was educated in the Soviet time and worked in
hospitals with doctors and nurses, she never told me anything about
the changes that started happening to my body. I did not even expect
them. She did not learn anything about this from her parents, and she
believed that she did not have to explain anything to me either.
In our society parents are like Gods. We admire them and we respect
them, but we do not talk to them about our bodies, a functional and
common vessel. When we do have questions, we are expected to
discuss these private issues with our jenge (sisters, female cousins, or
wives of our brothers). If one of my older brothers would soon marry,
his wife would then belong to our family, and she would become my
jeng e, who would tell me whatever I would want to know.
My mother learned about my first period only after she found all our
kitchen towels hanging outside to dry. She said nothing about it, but
she brought me softer and more comfortable cotton napkins, the same
ones she also used and washed for the same purpose.
I was fourteen years old and a diligent and popular student in my class
when my teacher suggested that I sign up for an international summer
exchange program. My father was happy about this idea. He explained
that the purpose of this student exchange was to give the children from
one Soviet republic the chance to see how children from other Soviet
republics lived. This helped the different nations of the Soviet Union
understand each other better and appreciate each other’s cultures.
I was flattered and excited, as much as my family was, when an
invitation came to spend a summer with a family in Baku, Azerbaijan.
The trip was free. The ticket was given to me by my schoolteacher,
and I flew to Azerbaijan on an airplane. Baku was an old city where
people did not live much differently than we did. I spent three weeks
with a very nice Azeri family. They showed me the city’s parks and
The summer in Baku was hot, even hotter than summer in Kyrgyzstan,
and their markets were full of sweet white grapes, similar to our
grapes from Osh. Every week, the Azeri family gathered around their
kitchen table and made grape jam. At that time of year if you do not
preserve it, it rots quickly. I helped them pick grapes from the vines
and to squeeze out the ripe sticky juice. They cooked the liquid with
sugar for hours, and this made their kitchen hot like a sugary sauna.
The pot was huge, and we all helped mix the boiling liquid. Finally we
all enjoyed the warm grape jam, which was sweeter than honey. When
I came back home, I made the same jam for my family. That was my
summer in Baku when I was fourteen.
I remember this period of my life as a time filled with all kinds of
celebrations. First of all, my older brother got married. Weddings
hold a special place in our culture. We take them very seriously. My
father always used to say that they exist to unite two different families
into one big family, and this is why they are so important. The bride
was brought to my family with a white scarf on her head and she was
introduced to all of us in our home, where she now belonged. She
showed us respect by giving a deep bow to all members of my family,
My mother was blissful. She welcomed her by saying that it was an
honor to have a new daughter in our family. To celebrate this union
between our families, we threw a big wedding. My father did not want
to skimp. After all, his oldest son was getting married. The bride’s
family prepared the sep (bed covers and other necessities which
daughter normally brings to her new family for her future life in the
new house). My father gave a generous kalyng to her parents as both
families killed sheep and a horse to eat. Now I finally had a jenge in
After my brother’s wedding, his wife soon became pregnant with her
first child, to everyone’s delight. They decided to move to Bishkek
where my brother got a job, and they rented an apartment. We
celebrated the birth of his first child by giving a toi (a family gathering
with lots of food and invited guests). It is also about exchange. All
relatives come, usually inviting each other freely. No official invitation
is needed. If it is known that a toi will be held, everyone brings money
and presents. Then, we take note of who brought what, and how much
money each person gave.
In my family, it was my mother’s job to keep record of all money and
presents given to us for weddings and funerals in her old notebook.
Her mother taught her this and we call it jardam. It is very important
because if a member from the other family gets into trouble, we have
to give this money back to them. It must be no less than what they had
given to us, or they will be offended. Family is important for Kyrgyz.
We may not be rich, but we will always gather to collect money to
celebrate our special occasions properly.
My father got an apartment in Tokmok, where his last job was.
He was assigned to take care of the land surrounding a government
guesthouse, a place where Bishkek government officials could bring
their guests to hunt. My father needed to make sure that the park was
well maintained, and that the guest hunters would not leave without
an animal trophy. The job was important to him and for us, because it
meant we wouldn’t have to move anymore. So we settled in Tokmok.
While the parents of my Kyrgyz girlfriends talked about arranging
marriages for their young daughters, my father thought about sending
me to the University. Of course, he wanted me to get married too,
but in the first place he wanted me to get an education. Most of
all, he dreamt that one day I would become a technical engineer.
Unfortunately, he passed away when I was twenty, never knowing
that, for good or for bad, I would never become what he wanted me
to be. Instead, I graduated with a degree in Economics. If I had the
opportunity to choose again, I would have studied biology. I love
nature - animals, insects, plants, lakes, and mountains. I love it all as
much as my father did.
I remember the day when I went with my father to Bishkek in his
aging Zhiguli . We were delivering my entrance documents to the
Technological University, where he wanted me to study. It was early
October 1993, the day was beautiful, and I was happy simply for being
a young and pretty girl with an opportunity ahead. My body was like
the stalk of a young tulip, straight and ready to bloom.
I knew that my father had told everyone at the guesthouse that he
was not going to come that day because he was taking his daughter
to the Technological University. I knew how proud he was when he
said this to his colleagues. He gave up of whatever else he needed to
do that day, and he devoted the entire day only to me. I knew how
this trip was important to him, how much attention I was being given,
and I was as excited as a little girl. I wanted to take advantage of his
attention and talk to him, but my father was continuously interrupting
me. He only wanted to listen to the news on the radio.
I remember my thoughts about how lucky I was to be moving to
Bishkek. Most of my friends from secondary school did not continue
their education, but ended up married instead. Some of them chose
their husband and married happily, but for others, their parents
arranged the marriages. The unluckier ones were stolen, and agreed to
stay with a man they did not like at all. I knew how privileged I was to
continue my education in the country’s capital.
Before we went on this trip to Bishkek, my father did everything to
ensure my admission to the university. Although this was not the most
prestigious university, especially for young women mainly because
it was technical, my father wanted to be sure that I would not have
any problems getting in. Maybe it was just to show off, but he wanted
to give a healthy cow as a present to someone at the university, who
may be helpful if anything went wrong. But the cow needed to be
transported from another village, so the talks about my admission to
the Technological University turned into talks about how to transport
my grandmother’s cow.
It was not an easy time for those who lived in the villages, but it was
even harder for people who lived in the cities. The store shelves were
empty like neat army beds. Food coupons appeared and we had to
wait in line for basic items. The university staff needed to eat too. You
cannot teach science and technology and think about planting beetroot.
My mother had time for that on our village farm, but university
professors did not.
It was perfect in the car, not too hot and not too cold. And it was a
perfect October’s day, which I remember like it was yesterday. There
are days we remember all our lives, and for me, this was it. My
father washed his car for this trip, and he wore a clean, well-ironed
shirt. Most of the time, however, he looked worried. While my father
listened to the news on the radio, I watched the last remaining melon
sellers standing on both sides of the road. The green and yellow
melons were stacked in heaps. The merchants’ stands were going to
be packed up soon, and they would move back to Uzbekistan and
Tajikistan, where they all came from.
I wanted to buy a few melons for our relatives in Bishkek; we were
going to stay with them for two days, and the melons by the road were
cheaper than the ones in the city. Suddenly, my father said, “Listen
to the news.” So I listened. They talked about the Russian military
forces that supported Yeltsin, and they talked about tanks around the
White House. They mentioned a fire in downtown Moscow and some
important buildings burning. The voice on the radio was much more
excited than it usually was. I could not understand what was really
going on. I was not familiar with most of the names they talked about.
But, I felt that it might had been something serious and important
again, something more important than our trip to Bishkek for my
admission at the Technological University.
But was it? The excited voice from the car radio, and the facial
expression of my father, reminded me of another event which
happened two years ago - the breakup of the Soviet Union.
That was in 1991 and my father listened to the news with even stronger
seriousness and anxiety. He repeated many times: “No, such a country
cannot disappear simply like that! The communist party will never
allow it to happen”. At that time too, I tried to guess the importance
of the event, but I was not able to understand why my father took it
so emotionally. After all, countries are not people – who cares if they
disappear? But, my father did not think like that. The country in which
he grew up and lived all his life was his motherland, the values of that
country were his own values, and my father was upset as if his real
mother was about to die.
This time, however, the news was talking about the riots in Russia.
“Parliamentarian crisis”, my father explained. Although Russia was
now a foreign country to us, my father was still taking the news from
Unlike before, perhaps because we had our own country – the Kyrgyz
Republic – I noticed that people around me started to discuss politics.
The president told us on television that we should all be proud to have
our own nation. Gradually, we all started to be more proud of it. We all
liked the national flag featuring a red background with a tunduk, the
crowning frame of a yurt, in the middle. We all liked our new national
anthem. We also increasingly found that we loved our national games,
from Chuko to Er’Kese, and our national instruments like the komuz,
the legends of the hunter Kambar
the legends of the hunter
and musician Muratali Kurenkeye v.
Personally, I did not care too much for these new national passions. I
was busy with my studies and with my new life in Bishkek. I lived in
an apartment with my relatives. I helped them with the housework, and
I studied as hard as I could. I took my first exams at the Technological
University, but I did not enjoy preparing for them. Every morning, I
was going to lectures in the cold university rooms, heated only with
our breath and young bodies.
Most of the students were mainly Russian men, who spoke about
nothing else but leaving Kyrgyzstan, or more precisely, leaving
Kyrgyzstan as soon as they could. My father called this trend a
catastrophe with an unknown outcome. But who could think about
catastrophes if you were young and beautiful? And, I was both at that
time. I loved Bishkek movie theaters and Erkindik Park, where you
could have an ice-cream and walk with your friends all day long. I
discovered the independence of movement that a big city allows with
its spacious sidewalks and big bazaars. I did not have this before in
Tokmok, where there was always something to do for the family, either
in Tokmok or in my grandparents’ village nearby. Relatives visited us,
and then we visited them. There were always dishes to wash and meals
I especially adored winters in Bishkek. In my first year after my
university lectures finished, I often went walking along the snowy
Bishkek streets and boulevards. The streets of Sovietskaya, Kievskaya
and Prospekt Mira were most beautiful when covered with snow. I
went home to Tokmok every weekend, and never traveled empty-
handed. Some products in Bishkek were cheaper than in Tokmok, so I
brought them to my family. Coming back, my bags were full of fresh
sour cream and cottage cheese from our cows, and fresh vegetables
and fruits from my mother’s garden. When placed on the apartment
windowsill the cottage cheese and sour cream could stay fresh for the
I think that everybody at that time survived by bartering. After the
Soviet factories closed and many people were left without jobs, they
needed to change their qualifications in order to survive. The country’s
best engineers, those who did not move to Russia or elsewhere,
became taxi drivers, women doctors became beauticians, teachers
became peddlers in the bazaars, and ballerinas became waitresses.
Everyone traded something. Old ladies in Bishkek stood all day on
the street selling their indoor cacti and tropical violets. An old World
War II veteran, whom I knew from television, was selling his medals
for bravery, along with apples and strawberries. On weekends, all city
bazaars were crowded with ordinary people selling whatever they
could: samovars, crystal glasses, ceramics and violins.
At this time, my family in Tokmok did not have much to live on either.
My father had not been paid since independence. My mother’s salary
was so miserable that she thought of giving up midwifery. At least my
two older brothers were already married and my parents did not have
to take care of them any longer. My older brother lived in Bishkek and
I visited him on weekends. My middle brother was in Tokmok with his
young wife of eighteen and the youngest one stayed with my parents
on our family land. My parents now shared the little income they had
with me, hoping that one day I would work to help them. Even with
our simple life and its shortcomings, we were still a happy family.
After all, there was very little you needed to buy in the store if you
had fertile land, as we did.
Then, one day, my father had to go to the hospital in Bishkek. His
doctor in Tokmok sent him to the capital because he thought that the
doctors there could better treat his heart problem. I visited my father
in the hospital every day. He always asked me details about my exams
and kept encouraging me to finish my school year as fast as I could. I
did not have the heart to tell him how much I struggled and disliked
the subjects I needed to learn. I knew for some reason unknown to me
that he wanted me to graduate from the Technological University, and
I always tried to make him happy by telling him that everything was
going well. He was a good father and I was his good daughter, who
never wanted to challenge his beliefs or disappoint him in his visions
and plans. After all, unity of family, trust, and respect were certainly
much more important than our individual wishes and whims.
My father was 53 years old when he went to the Bishkek hospital for
what we thought was a minor health problem. None of us, and no one
on Earth, could have expected that in two weeks, he would be dead.
They say that we are never prepared for our parents’ death, which was
certainly true for me. His death was sudden, and it occurred because
of a doctor’s mistake. That was the time when everybody talked about
how the best doctors had left for countries where their skills were
more appreciated and better paid. The doctors who remained working
in our Kyrgyz hospitals were those with nowhere to go. They were
paid around 20 dollars a month. With that money at the time, you
could buy no more than two bags of potatoes. Maybe this was why the
doctors treated people as if they were potatoes as well.
They later explained to my brothers and me, using medical terms we
could not understand, that my father died because his heart problems
had been misdiagnosed in Tokmok, and he was treated with the wrong
medication in Bishkek. This was why my father died. My brother
covered his body with a white cotton blanket, and he placed his body
in the back of the old
old Zhiguli with the backseats lowered. Only a few
days before, my father had driven this car by himself. Now he was
lying in the very same place where he used to put wounded deer and
mountain goats that he rescued.
My father’s early death shook my family deeply. He used to say that in
one’s life there are both kabak and kash, (good and bad), and a person
must be ready for each at any moment. My father was an open man,
and we knew that he had made his kerez (last will). He told us many
times how everything should be after his death and what each of us
would inherit from him.
Knowing his attitude, my brothers acted confidently. They knew
surprisingly well what they were expected to do. I, however, was not
ready for this at all. I never had someone so close to me die before
then, and I needed to learn how to cope with my despair. I knew how
much my help was needed for his funeral, but I was also frightened by
the responsibility which was now mine as his daughter.
When my brothers brought his body to our village, they parked his
car near the yurt to make it easier to move him inside. My father was
brought into the funeral yurt, assembled near our village house on a
plain wooden board. His body was wrapped in a white cotton blanket,
and his face was left uncovered. He looked like an enormous cocoon,
with no chance to be a butterfly ever again. His black hair was neatly
combed, and his expression was still; his spirit was elsewhere, not with
us any more. The picture of my father as a young handsome soldier in
uniform stood at the entrance. The funeral yurt had a little black flag
placed on the tunduk to signal the death of a middle-aged man.
My mother sat inside the yurt, her long hair let down for a ritual called
chachin jaigan. She cried loudly from the bottom of her heart, and
her screams of desperation instantly pulled out my own, which waited
eagerly to be released. Her dearest husband and my beloved father was
dead. Bent toward the yurt’s woolen side, with her long gray hair on
her shoulders, my 48 year-old mother looked as if she had aged ten
years in one day.
Like my older brothers, I was astonished at how well my mother knew
exactly what was expected of her to do, and what was appropriate
to say. For my father’s funeral all of our relatives were involved
with individual tasks. There was no excuse for not coming, and their
contribution was as important as the role of each instrument in an
A funeral brings the best qualities out of our people. Young listen
to the old, and if any conflict had existed before, it would not be
discussed. My mother warned me that any conflict or bitterness shown
at my father’s funeral would mean only disrespect toward him, and
anyone showing this should be sent away. Fortunately, there was no
such person. The correctness of my mother’s behavior made me realize
once again how young and inexperienced I was. While I was unable
to act rationally in these moments, my mother was either bursting
with despair for her loss one moment, or acting perfectly rationally, if
needed, the next moment. People from the village, and all other people
who knew him, approached and expressed their condolences to her.
I helped my mother with some things, too. She asked me to collect my
father’s clothes for the ritual called mucho. I took all the work pants
he wore each day, his shirts, socks, shoes, and the one suit he had for
special occasions and washed them carefully. Each piece of clothing
brought back memories. We hung them in the yurt near his body. The
clothes would later be given to my brothers and male relatives. My
father’s body had to rest in the yurt for three days. During the day, first
my mother and then my father’s sister and I sat near my father’s body
and took turns crying.
Sorrow stopped only for meals. It is customary that the spirit of the
dead should be fed with the food of mortals, especially with the smell
arbaktar. The special food
prepared for this occasion must be eaten without leaving any leftovers.
Animals must be killed for the funeral feasts, and the more you kill,
the more respect you show to the departed relative and his soul.
For my father’s soul we killed several sheep and a horse, and we
prepared the dignifying funeral my father deserved.
The last day we made ash, a ritual which shows that the time of
mourning has come to an end. It was time for the men to take my
father from the yurt and bring him to the cemetery. After three long
days of funeral, we were tired and needed to rest, just as the soul of
my dearest father needed to rest above in heaven.
My father’s death was like a landslide which left a huge stone
in the middle of a fertile land. My mother waited forty days after
his death to pull her hair back the way she wore it before. This is
jyid . Also, my mother stopped going anywhere beyond her
backyard. She quit her job at the Tokmok Hospital. The salary was too
low anyway. She moved from Tokmok to her grandparents’ village to
increase the number of cows and sheep and expand the garden area for
Gradually, with each passing day, everything in our family changed. I
started seeing my brothers much less than before. My middle brother
married unexpectedly fast, just a few months before my father died.
He married a girl from a poor and complicated family. That girl would
eventually change my life.
One day the girl’s family came to our door, and they asked to talk
to my parents. They claimed that my middle brother had dishonored
their 16-year-old Nurgul, and that he needed to marry her. My middle
brother, very young at the time, was not eager to rush into the marriage
that quickly. However, he needed to save the girl’s face and the dignity
of both families, so the wedding was arranged. My parents allowed
them to live in their apartment in Tokmok. Suddenly, there were fewer
reasons for family gatherings. Everyone started living separate lives
and having their own worries. My father, the center of our family, then
passed away and no one was there to replace him.
I slowed down my studies at the Technological University. There were
harder exams coming up during the second year, and I lost whatever
weak motivation I had. There were rumors among the students that it
was possible to buy good grades on exams if you had money to pay.
A new division was appearing in the country between those who
had money and those who did not. The new wealth of some students
became also visible to us at the university. They talked about studying
elsewhere, purchasing cars and traveling for fun. The others barely had
enough for food.
After my father’s death, I realized how much this degree was his
wish and not mine. Also, I discovered an all new student life I had not
known before. There were cafes with cakes and teas and discotheques
with loud music. It was now easy to find friends and acquaintances for
aimless walks and superficial chats. If you are a 20-year-old girl, not
much more than that is needed to make you happy.
Barely five months after my father’s death, I got married. My
sweetheart was a young student from the University of Economics
and just one year older than me. I fell in love with him at first sight.
His name was Bakyt. He was confident and tall, he spoke fast, and he
acted as if he owned the world. He was an Aries, and whatever I read
in horoscopes – for some reason, democracy in the country brought us
newspapers with all sorts of horoscopes – was all true. Energetic and
unpredictable, Bakyt seduced me with his confidence and the charming
attention he gave me. He had a good reputation at the university, and
I heard that he was also from Tokmok. Bakyt was from a good family.
He had an older brother, who was married, and a sister, but he lived
alone with his mother. His father had died when he was young, but his
mother was an educated person, and my future husband spoke about
her with much respect.
I dated Bakyt no more than two months before we married, and this
was enough time to fall in love with him. Our love story was simple
and ordinary. He had a good friend, who was interested in seeing my
girlfriend, but this did not work out. Instead, we started with glances,
conversations and jokes and, soon enough he promised to kidnap me.
It was all arranged in advance. I knew exactly the time and the place
when his relatives and friends were to come and get me with their car
and bring me to his apartment. My kidnapping, if you can call it that
way, was well organized and much more convenient for my family
than a regular wedding. The ceremony of a usual Kyrgyz wedding is
longer and much more expensive for both families, especially for the
bride’s side. First s ukoo saluu is performed, where the mother-in-law
takes off her earrings and puts them on the bride’s ears. Then, both
families have to set a wedding date, and the bride’s family has to start
cooking weeks in advance and buy presents for every member of the
groom’s family. This is all mandatory if you want to follow the rules
I called my mother from Bishkek to tell her that I was going to be
taken in marriage. Although my announcement was unexpected, she
said that she was going to prepare the village house appropriately for
this occasion. I knew that my mother had mixed feelings about my
wedding. I could see that she was certainly happy about it, but she also
knew that my father would have been happier if I had graduated from
the university before getting married.
My wedding happened relatively shortly after my father’s funeral.
But I was not his son, I was his daughter. Out of respect, a good son
should marry no less than one whole year after his father’s death. It is
believed that if he disobeys this, his family will be unhappy. But, for
some reason this does not apply to daughters.
I was glad that the tradition was on my side, because I was in love. I
wanted to marry Bakyt as fast as he wanted to marry me. My mother
was excited about the whole thing, and she called the wife of my older
brother to be with us for the important day, when Bakyt’s relatives
were to come to our home. The wife of my older brother, my jenge,
even came a day early to help my mother prepare our house for the
guests. She gave me much advice about what I was expected to do,
and how I needed to behave when they brought me to the house of
my in-laws. She showed me how I had to bow to the relatives of my
husband, and I remembered clearly how she had bowed to my parents
and to me. She repeated how I should show respect toward everyone
in his family, and how I should not address anyone from my groom’s
family by their names.
My mother and my jenge both used this opportunity to share stories
about their marriages, and even shared stories about some other people
they knew. Their memories brought additional excitement, and made
us all more impatient for Saturday, when Bakyt said that I was going
to be taken from my mother’s home and brought to his.
On Saturday, just as Bakyt had promised, his uncle came with his
older brother and two friends, to explain to my mother that the young
and decent man named Bakyt wanted to marry me. They were going
to take me to his home if I agreed, where I was going to be his wife.
Bakyt’s relatives were well dressed, respectful, and polite toward my
mother, and I could see that this treatment flattered her and instantly
made her appreciative. She realized quickly that these people came
from a good family.
My mother had cleaned the house from top to bottom, put on her best
clothes, and even replaced the old curtains with the embroidered ones.
But, she also tried hard to look unsatisfied and uncomfortable in their
presence. She complained: “That young impatient man could have let
Gulia’s father’s bones cool before he came to get my daughter!” Then,
she started crying to show them that she was sad and miserable for
losing me, her only daughter.
I knew that she cried purposely. Her aim was to show my groom’s
relatives that she cared for me, and that with my departure, she was
losing her most valuable and precious child. Although my mother
said what was expected of her in that moment, her words were the old
favorites of most Kyrgyz mothers when a family comes to get their
daughter for marriage, her words were still heartrending. I suddenly
thought of my father and his death, which had come too suddenly and
too soon. I thought how quickly my dear family had scattered. All of
this made me very sad.
Bakyt’s relatives knew what was appropriate to say as well. They tried
to assure my mother that Bakyt was the best groom for me and that she
should not mourn my leaving. I was leaving for good, and my future
husband was an educated man. Although he shared the misfortune of
losing his father early too, his mother would treat me like her favorite
daughter. Together, Bakyt and I would make a providential marriage.
Then, they started showing gratitude to my mother by thanking her
many times for raising such a beautiful, well-educated, and well-
mannered daughter. After these compliments, my mother relaxed, the
room quieted, and then my mother signaled to my jenge to offer tea.
Over tea, they continued talking about our two families and how
fortunate it was that Bakyt and I would unite them. Afterward, my
jenge brought out vodka, and soon, everyone’s voices became noisier
and happier. Bakyt’s relatives put an envelope on the table, and my
mother knew that it was kalym, the traditional gift of money for taking
My mother accepted, and went to her room. My jenge gave me a
sign to leave, and within a minute, I was in the car heading toward
my husband’s home. My mother was left behind in the house alone. I
could not know if she was happy or sad, but I knew that I was leaving
my parents’ house forever.
When you make a fire in the hearth
Make it with no smoke, my daughter,
When you hear unpleasant words
Don’t pay attention and smile, my daughter.
If your father-in-law comes to visit,
Stand up and bow to him, my daughter.
If your mother stops by,
Hurry to help her, my daughter.
From the book: Kyrgyzstan My Motherland
Our people say that a daughter-in-law cannot be good on her own,
but the family that accepted her made her that way. So, I sat quietly
in the car with my husband’s family, and waited to arrive at my new
home. I wore simple but neat clothes. The sister of my older brother,
my jeng e, who went to the groom’s home with me, told me that maybe
I would be given new clothes in Bakyt’s house. It is customary to
give slippers and new attire to a bride when she comes to the groom’s
house. This includes a platok, a scarf worn over the head. As soon as
I got to Bakyt’s apartment, his sister and the wife of Bakyt’s older
brother showed me the room that would be ours. My jenge was led to
the living room, where festive food was offered to her, and where she
was introduced to Bakyt and his mother. Meanwhile, Bakyt’s sister put
the platok on my head, and then they threw handfuls of sweets at me.
It all happened fast. Children were brought in and they scrambled to
the floor to pick up the sweets. My new mother-in-law, or apa, also
entered the room. She looked much younger than my mother. It was
clear that she had always worked in an office, not outside on the land.
She wished me a warm welcome to her home, and she said that she
was glad that she was so blessed to have a new daughter in her family.
More relatives and neighbors came to congratulate us. Each woman
brought a scarf for me, and we hung them all on a string in the middle
of the living room. Men gave small change to the children. Everyone
looked happy and wished us a good marriage and many children.
People stayed in the apartment for many hours and much food was
offered, including tender sheep and horse meat, which everyone
I felt confused by all this sudden attention. I was surely flattered by the
interest, but I was also disturbed by everyone’s lack of reserve toward
me. After all, I was among complete strangers, yet they acted as if I
had been in the family for years. And I also knew that when I would
wake up the next day, I would be in Bakyt’s house, and that nothing
was ever going to be the same.
When the wedding ceremony finished, my wedding night lay ahead.
Bakyt and I had our own bedroom with a nicely covered double
bed carefully prepared for us. I lost my virginity that night. Bakyt’s
vigorous passion had been saved for this moment, and before I realized
what had happened, he fell deeply asleep, almost as if he had never
slept before. In the morning, he saw traces of blood on the sheet and
this pleased him. He said, “Thank you,” which meant thank you for
saving yourself for me.
Female relatives who had been waiting in the living room came into
our room. They laughed and made sweet jokes, and then they came
in to check the warm and wrinkled bedding from our wedding night.
Oh, how embarrassing it was to have them looking for signs of our
intimacy. When they found the blood, they were happy. They laughed
again, and made my husband proud by congratulating him many times
for the job well done. Then, my sister-in-law proudly took the sheets
to show to other relatives who were coming that morning. Later, she
hand-washed them, another tradition, and in turn my husband paid her
a few symbolic soms (Kyrgyz currency) .
Now, my husband and I were two married students. We went from
Tokmok back to Bishkek to rent our own apartment – this was the
freedom which marriage gave us. The apartment was small, simple and
modest, but for us it was a palace where we could live together as a
married couple. Bakyt did not need much time to convince me to give
up my studies at the Technological University, and enter the University
of Economics where he studied. The University of Economics was
more prestigious than the Technological University, and the courses
were easier. Its classes were about what everyone wanted to know
at that time: how to understand the new economy and how to earn
money. Bakyt and I could now study together. But, before we faced
our first academic exam together, we confronted a test of another kind;
I was pregnant.
Expecting our first child made me proud, and gave our young marriage
a new purpose. Bakyt was finishing his last year, and I knew that with
my new circumstances my own studies would have to wait. The first
months were painful and uncomfortable, so I stayed in bed until late in
the morning. I would get up to prepare our lunch. I tried to study in the
afternoons, and sometimes I could, but Bakyt was always telling me,
“Don’t bother! When I start working and when we get some money,
you will easily finish the university.”
We were supported by his mother’s money and by my mother’s
occasional vegetables and milk products. There was just enough
for rent and basic food which I tried to cook into tasty meals for
my husband. Everyone in the country was poor at that time, and if
everyone around you is poor, then you don’t feel so bad about being
I was glad that my mother had taught me to cook well. I was flattered
to watch my husband eating my food with pleasure and hearing his
compliments. After meals, he easily switched to talking about his
dream to open our own restaurant that would serve European and
Asian cuisine. Maybe this would be a good way for us to start earning
money. I usually only laughed at these dreams of his, but what I knew
well was that if you have cooking skills, you do not need more than a
few potatoes, carrots and cabbage to make a feast.
Everything I needed for a good meal could be bought on every street
corner in Bishkek, so I did not have to walk far to bazaars. There was
very little to buy in most stores, anyway. I had heard that some new
expensive supermarkets had just opened, selling luxurious foreign
products. At any rate, we were not able to afford such exclusive food.
Most of the time, Bakyt was a good husband to me. We were poor,
but humble. All the time we were in need of something, but we were
happy. We were in love. I think that this phase of our young marriage
was the happiest time of my life.
Bakyt was proud and thrilled with my pregnancy. He said that he
preferred to have a son for the firstborn, and that we were going to
have as many children as God wanted us to have. At that time, I had
already noticed that Bakyt was always excited to talk about the future.
While I could plan nothing more than what to cook for lunch the next
day, Bakyt made all kinds of plans, from how many sheep and horses
we needed to kill for our first child’s toi, to where we would build a
family house for our grandchildren.
But his plans were only for the thrill of the moment. I soon understood
that my 21-year-old husband would not be able to take on the
responsibilities of parenthood as quickly as I could. He was a young
man preoccupied with his colleagues, convinced that many of them
would help us in our future businesses. He was impatient to get his
diploma and to start working. He was also impatient to finally see his
first child. Why did my pregnancy have to last so long? To his delight,
both happened soon – he received his diploma and I delivered my first
child. Just as Bakyt had wanted, I delivered a son. We named him
Askar, after the president of the republic.
Askar was a pale and quiet baby, who slept more than he ate. Bakyt
often watched him in astonishment. He wondered if this small creature
would be capable of accomplishing all that he had already planned for
him. He rarely held him because he was afraid that he may break his
Bakyt was soon planning our son’s first toi in Tokmok. It was
important to gather all the relatives, including his older brother and
sister and my three brothers as well. He coordinated everything with
his mother, and they decided that the best thing for us was to move
back to Tokmok, where the rents were cheaper and where our parents
were close by to help with the baby. The beyshik (cradle) was prepared
for Askar forty days after his birth when my mother washed his
face with forty spoons of warm water. A child always needed to be
protected from evil spirits and envious eyes.
Bakyt’s mother opened an education center for adults that organized
sewing courses. Her job was going well and she started making good
connections with important people in Tokmok. She helped us rent a
space in the center of Tokmok, and following my husband’s plans,
which had to be scaled down, we opened a small eatery. Bakyt and his
mother took care of the administration and I cooked. The location was
perfect and with our new income we could finally afford better food to
eat, better clothes to wear, and an occasional night out for my husband
and his friends. But with my work in the diner and the small baby, I
was usually too busy to join in.
Askar grew fast and we made toi tusho kesuu for his first birthday. The
first toi of a child is an important family event. With toi, we celebrate
the first steps of our children. All our relatives and my husband’s
friends gathered to run with their legs tied by a black and white string
called ala jip. Black and white string symbolizes the battle between
light and dark, good and evil. According to Kyrgyz tradition, our life
consists of both happiness and sadness. A little child has to learn this,
and this prepares him for his life’s path.
Little Askar’s feet were tied with a thin thread, too, and he was kept
apart from the children of my older brothers and the others. Then, all
the adults and children ran toward Askar, as everyone else watched,
cheered and, most of all, laughed. The first one to reach Askar, and cut
the thread with a knife, was the winner. It is believed that after cutting
this thread, a child will be confident for the rest of his life and that all
roads will be open for him.
After my first son’s toi, I also had reason to celebrate. I managed to
graduate from the University of Economics and earn my diploma. I
was proud of this achievement and it gave me the self-confidence and
eagerness to join Bakyt in making exciting future plans.
But, it seemed that our small business was going too well for
someone’s taste. One day, an official letter arrived telling us that local
authorities needed our shop for official purposes. These purposes were
never specified. After we emptied the space and started worrying about
what to do next for a living, someone else reopened our diner.
The year was 2000 and the new century came as quietly as wild
deer approach a stream to drink. Askar Akayev, then the president,
proclaimed 2000 as the Year of Youth. He said the country needed to
offer new opportunities to its young because they were the future of
the country. He talked about the importance of youth in his speeches,
which Bakyt and I watched in the evenings on the television in our
rented apartment in Tokmok.
While sitting and listening to him, we realized that he was talking
about people like us - young educated Kyrgyz who needed good jobs
and a home to buy. After our eatery closed, we tried to find different
jobs in Tokmok, but nothing seemed to work out. Since both of us
were educated, we didn’t want to just accept the first job offered to us.
Bakyt said that we should move to Bishkek, where our president lived
and where we would be closer to his promises.
Before we could do anything, a terrible tragedy struck my husband’s
family. His older brother, just 30 years old at the time, died of cancer,
leaving behind his young wife and their three-year-old boy, Rustan.
The funeral was heartbreaking. We all wondered why God had taken
such a good, young man from us, leaving his young wife a widow and
his small son fatherless. The family agreed that it would be best for
the widow to remarry a man with two teenage children whose Russian
wife had run away to Novosibirsk. The man gave a marriage offer, and
the young widow left for her new family. Bakyt’s mother decided that
the small boy would live with us.
This boy was intelligent and strong. He was Askar’s age but stronger
than him, and when Bakyt took him from his mother and brought him
to our apartment, we suddenly had two sons instead of one.
So, in the promising “Year of Youth” our suddenly expanded family
moved back to Bishkek, where we rented a small studio apartment in
a Stalinka. The building was called Stalinka because it was built in
Stalin’s time. The place had one big room, including the kitchen. It
had one huge window with a view of the parking area. The rent was
the cheapest we could find. My husband said that it was good for the
beginning, until he found work, and then we would find a better place.
Fortunately, my husband got a job quickly. The “Year of Youth” was
his indeed, because instead of one job, he actually found two. For his
first job he gave lectures on economics to high school students, and
for the second job he distributed leaflets for Akayev’s presidential
campaign, which was about to start. The leaflets featured a color
picture of the president and parts of his speeches about how he wanted
to improve the country. The presidential campaign was short and
predictable; everyone knew that he would be president again.
Bakyt was full of optimism about teaching at the high school, and
the University of Economics promised him that he could eventually
teach some subjects there as well. He started coming home late, and
talked only about the people he met and spoke with. Suddenly, he
saw opportunities everywhere, and it seemed as if Akayev’s “Year of
Youth” was truly devoted only to him.
At the same time, I was at home with two boys all day long; cooking,
washing and cleaning their diapers. This kind of work never shows
any result you can boast about at the end of the day. You cannot see in
the evening how much the children have grown since the morning. So,
when my husband came back home late, he saw nothing, either. He
never asked me about my days with the boys, and there was not really
much to talk about anyway. He only spoke about his successes and
future possibilities, but he did not bring home any more money than
Often, I thought about the fact that we had studied together, and
that I had the same diploma that he did. I was finding it hard to be a
housewife while my husband spoke as if there were job opportunities
everywhere. I promised myself that I would look for a job as soon as
the boys grew a bit older. I was tired of the loneliness and isolation of
motherhood. Sometimes, I brought the boys to a small park nearby.
The playground was littered with broken bottles, and I was afraid that
they might cut themselves. I treated both children equally and I noticed
that the adopted boy was stronger and more talkative than Askar. I had
enough time on my hands to question myself whether it was because
I had had all that nausea in my early pregnancy. Or was it because I
had missed so many meals running to the university? Running to what,
I did not know anyone in the neighborhood. Everyone seemed to mind
their own business. This is how it is in cities. I sometimes visited my
older brother and his wife. We would speak about our childhood, but
now we had our own children.
One day Bakyt came home happier than usual. He announced that he
was going to manage a project for a company funded by the West. He
said that he was going to be paid an advance and that we needed to
move to Tokmok where his project was to start. I shared his happiness,
although I did not know what the project was about. Bakyt had spoken
about so many before, and I could not know which one this might
be. He explained that it was an adult education project in Tokmok -
evening courses for those who had lost their jobs after the factories
Bakyt was very excited about this project. He knew professors from
the university in Bishkek, who would come to teach in Tokmok. His
mother was already teaching sewing and some other courses, and he
was going to extend what she had already started. While Bakyt spoke
eagerly, I watched him proudly. My husband was a young, energetic
and educated Kyrgyz man, who spoke very good Russian – and I was
This was the first time that the smell of money replaced the smell of
full diapers and boiled turnips in our small Stalinka apartment. But
it was not only that my husband had big news for me – I had news
for him, too. I was pregnant with my second child. So, it was truly
a blessing that we were going to have more money soon – we were
going to need it for all our children. When we moved back to Tokmok
this time, we were hopeful that very soon some of this money would
make it into our pockets.
It is true that money changes everything. First, we bought ourselves
a great apartment from a Russian military family in a hurry to leave
Kyrgyzstan for Russia. They had a beautiful three-room apartment
on the eighth floor in Tokmok’s city center. The apartment had two
balconies, and the building had a functional elevator. The price of
the apartment was $ 600. Today you may laugh at this price, but at
that time it was a normal price for an apartment. There were many
families, not only Russian, leaving Kyrgyzstan at that time, and they
were all rushing to sell their apartments. At the same time, very few
people were able to afford them. If your life is a long and hollow space
between meager daily meals, that is a lot of money for most Kyrgyz;
$600 at that time was a fortune, which we were very lucky to have had
in our hands.
Having a home and all the new things we bought pleased me.
Everything a young family needed to have, we suddenly had - a good
apartment to live in, a wide choice of food to eat, and a new child on
the way. We were finally a settled family. So, in spite of having two
boys around me all the time, and in spite of the difficulties related
to my pregnancy, I happily renovated the apartment myself. I peeled
away the faded flowered wallpaper left after the Russians took down
their wall carpets, and I painted the walls. I cut linoleum edges around
the toilet as precisely as if they were the sleeves of a wedding dress.
My mother came from the village to see the apartment and she liked it.
She was happy that we were now more like a proper family. I told her
about my wish to work as soon as I delivered my third child, and she
supported me. After all, she was a Soviet woman who had worked all
The price for this good life was that my husband was now very busy
and almost never at home. I knew that money did not grow on trees.
Someone needed to work for all we had, after all. So, I was still happy
with these new circumstances. Bakyt worked closely with his mother
now, and he traveled often between Tokmok and Bishkek. Since the
death of his older brother, his mother was even closer to him than
before, and she wanted him to be around her all the time.
Useful contacts through his mother’s work and Bakyt’s involvement in
the presidential election helped him get appointed to the Tokmok City
Council. The city council needed to resolve many important issues
for the city. In practice, however, it seemed as if its members acted
more in their own self-interest and enrichment. My husband now sat
among them, and he had the opportunity to take over a 50-year lease
for Tokmok’s city pool. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, when
public funding for upkeep dried up, the pool was closed. It was an
outdoor pool on a large piece of land, and it still had a few changing
rooms, showers, training rooms, and administrative offices.
Since it had been abandoned however, anything worth taking was
taken: tiles, electric outlets, metal pipes for showers, squatting toilets,
broken wires and even plants. In the end, only plain concrete remained.
Finally, and somewhat inexplicably, the city’s garbage started getting
deposited there. The city’s public pool had not only become a dumping
ground, but an attractive place for homeless people and drug-addicts.
My optimistic husband, however, did not see any of this when he
looked at this pool. Instead, he saw azure water in a renovated pool,
and people standing politely to pay an entrance fee. He saw lines of
multicolored tulips and linden trees, wooden benches and dashing
swimming coaches. There were much more attractive buildings in
Tokmok for the city officials to choose from, and no one was interested
in taking on this devastated pool except Bakyt.
Bakyt promptly arranged the trucks to take away the garbage. He
bought a metal fence to surround the property. He did not ask me
what I thought about investing in the pool, he was too mesmerized
by the golden opportunity. Anyway, his mother was always near
him if he needed advice - he did not find it important to ask me
anything. However, I wanted to participate in the decision-making.
My second pregnancy was going better than the first, and I was full of
energy. After the purchase of our apartment I felt more confident than
ever. We had our own walls, and I was a queen among them. My little
boys grew fast in front of my eyes, and I was free to put into the pots
of my kitchen whatever I wanted.
When my contractions started, I was in the apartment with the boys.
We were watching Russian programs on television. Bakyt was in
Bishkek, or maybe he was somewhere else. I asked my neighbor, an
elderly woman who lived in the next-door apartment, to take care of
my children until my mother-in-law came, and I left for the hospital.
My second delivery was much faster than the first. I gave a birth to
a daughter, who made clear she would be much noisier than my first
son. From her first moment, she was much different than Askar. Her
face was redder and she looked angry for having been pushed out from
my womb into the world. She was also impatient to have me close.
She wanted me to nurse her all the time.