Two Kyrgyz Women by Marinka Franulovic - HTML preview

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Part I

1.

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

58

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

59

what you have. But if you have nothing, then you know that you have

nothing.

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

else’s family.

***

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

60

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

parents.

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

61

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

bloody hands.

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.

62

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

Soviet monuments.

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,

including myself.

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

63

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

my family.

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,

64

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

65

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.

66

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

Moscow wholeheartedly.

***

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

67

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

to cook.

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

whole week.

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

68

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

69

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.

k

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

70

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

orchestra.

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

and smoke

and

from

smoke

meat

from

and

meat

fat.

and

This

fat.

is

This called

is

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.

71

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.

2.

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

chachyn jyidy

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

different vegetables.

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

72

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

73

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

of tradition.

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.

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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

75

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

me away.

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

76

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

praised.

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

77

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

poor yourself.

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

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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.

79

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

small bones.

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

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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

81

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

82

future possibilities, but he did not bring home any more money than

before.

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,

after all?

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

closed.

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

his wife.

83

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

her life.

84

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.

85

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.