Kyrgyzstan, Ferguson, riots, walnuts, Uzbekistan, Eisenhower, Soviet Union, Bishkek, Osh, Twitter & James Baldwin.
Kyrgyzstan, Ferguson, riots, walnuts, Uzbekistan, Eisenhower, Soviet Union, Bishkek, Osh, Twitter & James Baldwin.
I spent two days after the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury decision glued to Twitter, watching images of blocked highways and angry Americans of all colors, the din of protests captured on Vine. Two words, one Kyrgyz, one Russian, battled in my head: Kyrgyz’s тынч, or silent air; and Russian’s возбуждение, fury, agitation, ferment, coming in from others far away.
When I finally left my apartment Wednesday afternoon, after a wordless morning looking at my screens, I opened the building’s metal door onto a field of utter, icy silence. No one was in the courtyard or walking around the mess of small streets that run between our identical buildings. The roads, frozen over with dirty ice, blended in with the concrete walls.
Reading in fits and starts from a bad PDF, I was partway through James Baldwin’s novel Another Country. It is a beautiful book, full of blues lyrics and sex, focusing on an interracial circle of friends in New York in the 1950s. Describing one of them is a line that captures how I had felt all that morning: “She was in a strange, unnamable state, neither rage nor tears but close to both.” With “F*** CNN!” still ringing my ears, the outside world felt as though I had poured cold water onto a sizzling pan, a strange aural cleansing.
A few days later, my friends still tweeting from throngs at Times Square and Flatbush Ave. and FDR Drive, I boarded a thirty-five minute flight from Bishkek to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s “southern capital.” Osh has twice been the site of violent ethnic clashes between members of its Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations: once in 1990, and once in 2010.
A few days later, my friends still tweeting from throngs at Times Square and Flatbush Ave. and FDR Drive, I boarded a thirty-five minute flight from Bishkek to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s “southern capital.”
The term “ethnic clash” here is complicated by the young country’s Soviet past. Before the Soviet era, the people living in the Osh region referred to themselves as “Kipchaks,” an ethnicity long intermingled with the Kyrgyz and many other now stateless or erased ethnicities. Dividing up its Turkestan territory, the Soviet Union initiated a process of ethnogenesis that divided these people into Kyrgyz and Uzbek, based on language spoken and status as sedentary or nomadic. About half of the population of Kyrgyzstan’s southern oblasts (provinces) now identifies as Uzbek.
Though synthetic, these ethnic distinctions are by now quite solid, and are accessorized with Soviet-determined “national dishes,” “national dress,” “national dance,” etc. In Kyrgyzstan I have been asked many times about my national dress and national dishes, and been at a loss for a comprehensible and diplomatic way to explain that there is no pattern of cloth or single meal that all Americans claim as part of our identity.
But beyond the felted ornaments and the plov, the fabricated borders have also given rise to prejudices and hostility born of little more than the capability to call someone something “else.” This strange desire to be pitted against another is what was inflamed in the region’s riots.
The 1990 riots began as a conflict over the redistribution of land of a predominantly Uzbek collective farm. They tallied a death toll somewhere between three hundred and one thousand, as well as a count of five thousand other crimes: assault, pillaging, rape. Anthropologist Valery Tishkov writes that some perpetrators of rape moved their victims from place to place, sometimes for more than twenty-fours hours in the backs of trucks, as “a peculiar form of imprisonment.” Anthropologist Nienke van der Heide writes that “young Kyrgyz on horseback were trying to demonstrate their strength and superiority by lifting up an opponent by his legs and smashing him down on the ground—exactly the way the legendary Kyrgyz heroes supposedly overpowered their enemies. ‘We have read about it a lot, but this is the first time it’s been possible to try it out for ourselves!’ they said.”
I read landscapes like I read books, and it has long seemed to me that the American highway system is due to become our battleground.
After landing in Osh, I headed for the автовокзал (bus depot) and found a minibus headed for Arslanbob, a village of 14,000 in the mountains, four hours up the highway.
The most captivating tweet of the hundreds of Ferguson missives I had scanned that week said, “Tonight’s the night that shutting down a freeway became a common protest tactic.” I read landscapes like I read books, and it has long seemed to me that the American highway system is due to become our battleground: the Interstates, conceived by Eisenhower for defense purposes, are responsible for an inordinate number of the ills and divisions of American society. They enabled suburban sprawl and the carbon emissions and white flight that came with it; they sliced through inner cities, ruining the complex ecologies of neighborhoods in cities from New Haven to Oakland and everywhere in between; they made traffic and road rage; they made us stop investing in public transportation.
It is already a mainstay of Kyrgyz riots to go for the highway. The 2010 ethnic clashes began when hundreds of residents of an Uzbek enclave in Kyrgyzstan blockaded the highway to Uzbekistan, demanding greater security after several of their cars had been vandalized. When the tensions became violent, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks flocked to Osh, Jalal-Abad, and other towns to take sides and attack each others’ neighborhoods, with killings, tortures, looting and fires. The death toll rose to over one hundred people.
Arslanbob is ninety percent Uzbek (it is also notable for being the birthplace of walnuts), and so my childlike Kyrgyz had to be transformed into baby Uzbek. The languages are very similar, though Uzbek, from Persian influence, lacks the vowel harmony that distinguishes most Turkic languages. The first person I addressed was a three-year-old girl in the backseat of the car that was giving my friend and me a ride to our homestay. “Кандайсың?” (How are you?) I asked in Kyrgyz, a vowel off the Uzbek. “якшы,” (Good.) she whispered back, the Uzbek one consonant away from Kyrgyz’s жакшы.
We stayed in the guesthouse of a family of teachers: the father a teacher of English and Persian; one daughter a teacher of Kyrgyz and another of Uzbek literature. The local schools are Uzbek; the youngest daughter did not know Russian or Kyrgyz, but was studying English every day after school. Sitting on the floor around a low table of kasha, tea and walnuts, the father described, speaking Russian: “Uzbek has had influences from Arabic, Persian, Russian, now English. We have many influences, therefore we have a rich language.”
Then he began to talk about America, and took me by surprise. “Forty years ago,” he said, “Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream that we will be equal.'” He held his hands up so that the tips of his fingers touched, and repeated the word: “равные.”
“Forty years ago,” he said, “Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream that we will be equal.'” He held his hands up so that the tips of his fingers touched, and repeated the word: “равные.”
In the room it was cold but cozy. I was leaning against the wood-fired stove. I looked at the snow-covered yard outside. I zipped up my coat and thought of the violence and sadness burning over that very goal at that very moment in America, nodded, zipped up my coat, and thought about what to say.
“Yes,” I finally said, “but we still have larger problems than we know how to solve. We are trying.”
The next day my friend and I snowshoed through the ancient walnut forest, which grows wild on the side of the mountains. We reached a panoramic point and looked out over Arslanbob and its valley, which is a place apart: mountainous, fertile for special forests, blanketed in white even when the rest of the nearby towns are snowless.
As we walked home there were children sledding in the streets and donkeys standing dead-still under overhangs. We passed an old man in traditional dress—a long brown robe tied at the waist with a green silk scarf—walking in the street with a tiny black lamb. Snow started to fall. Not what anyone pictures when they think of Uzbekistan, I thought.
Back at our guesthouse we napped on the floor by the stove; drank tea and ate walnuts all evening. The snow didn’t stop until the morning of our departure, two nights and two feet later. I have trouble sleeping generally; add in all the tea that you drink in Central Asia, and I only sleep every other night. Wakeful in Arslanbob I started reading to Another Country.
In a novel that feels like it takes place exclusively in its characters’ interiors—describing their relationships, sexual desires, interior strife—I was surprised to find that the walls of their personal worlds were penetrated by the presence of the police. On the very first page, from the mind of the drummer Rufus, Baldwin writes: “to remember the streets of Harlem, the boys on the stoops, the girls behind the stairs and on the roofs, the white policeman who taught him how to hate…”
A hundred pages later, Baldwin writes the inverse (white) view of policemen, from the point of view of Cass, a white woman who “had never had to deal with a policeman in her life, and it had never entered her mind to feel menaced by one. Policemen were neither friends nor enemies; they were part of the landscape…and if a policeman…seemed to forget his place, it was easy enough to make him remember it. Easy enough if one’s own place was more secure than his, and if one represented, or could bring to bear, a power greater than his own.”
The segregation of relationships to the police is so divisive and important it cannot be ignored, Baldwin indicates, by any book that deals with race. “For all policemen were bright enough to know who they were working for, and they were not working, anywhere in the world, for the powerless.”
With a last breakfast of buttery walnuts and sour cherry jam, we headed for Osh, where that night I would finish Another Country in an unheated, keyless hotel room for which we paid $8.75 apiece and where I traded a wave and a wink with a prostitute. The highway there, belying the region’s tense past, is punctuated with signs wishing its travelers “ак жол,” the Kyrgyz equivalent of “bon voyage.” The road wound its way across the rolls of the steppe, dusted with new snow, and took on an image born from the second meaning of “ак,” which is “white.”
With a last breakfast of buttery walnuts and sour cherry jam, we headed for Osh, where that night I would finish Another Country in an unheated, keyless hotel room for which we paid $8.75 apiece and where I traded a wave and a wink with a prostitute.
I pictured what the region had looked like during the riots: the young men congregating from all over, on horses and in beaten-up cars, bringing whatever weapons they could muster. Here, too, the police knew who they were working for. A Human Rights Watch report cited accounts of officers in uniform firing automatic weapons while shouting anti-Uzbek slurs. “You think they don’t have real bullets in those guns? Let me tell you…those cats are for real, they shoot people!” says Baldwin. Some Kyrgyz acquaintances later in the winter told me rumors about snipers and special forces, military men shooting from the rooftops of Osh in what is reported to be a civilian encounter.
In Osh, my friend and I climbed Suleiman Mount, an Islamic and pre-Islamic sacred mountain, from the top of which one can overlook the whole city and beyond. “I think Osh is Salt Lake to Bishkek’s Denver,” I said, pointing to the mountains on three sides of the city and the rocks’ red tone.
“What?” she asked, not understanding the analogy. “It’s impossible to separate landscape from culture. Or maybe you can, but I can’t.” For a moment I considered whether I should be offended, having my observation so casually deflected. But hers was the lesson of the week. Eisenhower’s Interstates and deadly confrontations over the distribution of farmland is proof that landscape and culture are indivisible: culture is a part of landscape and landscape is a part of culture. Both must be paid attention. For me, given to thinking of land and tempted so often to try to do so in isolation, this is imperative to remember. The imperative also stands for my friends and fellow citizens who are inclined to the flipside. I want America—and the world—to get better, to move toward justice, but that will require an utter reimagining, from so many angles.
I wrote this essay in several long, focused sittings in the days after I returned from the south. A day after finishing a draft, I was searching for an article about Soviet-era sheep overgrazing written by Chingiz Aitmatov, Kyrgyzstan’s most famous literary figure. My searches didn’t turn up what I was looking for, but they did tell me that Aitmatov had organized something called The Issyk-Kul Forum, which brought humanitarian and artistic leaders from around the world to Kyrgyzstan to discuss peacemaking efforts.
I scanned the Russian Wikipedia page but did not recognize the names of any of the participants. I clicked on the next hit, a link to a Google books scan. Amidst the hyperlinks beneath the text I saw “James Baldwin.” I jumped out of my chair and did the next search standing. “James Baldwin Kyrgyzstan.” Suddenly, there it was, a photograph of Baldwin and Aitmatov, together at Issyk-Kul, bundled up in overcoats, smiling, contemplating peace under the Kyrgyz sky.
Caroline Tracey grew up in Colorado. Since graduating from college with a degree in Russian literature, she has lived in California and Kyrgyzstan, where she was a 2014-15 Fulbright fellow researching attitudes toward land and the environment, and working on a novel about land speculation. Her writing has been published in [PANK], The Cossack, and the High Country News.
Lead Photo by Sunriesodyssey