Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Manas and the true story of 7 April: A trip to Bishkek

Manas on horseback killing a dragon, with his wife and adviser.

About a month after I had decided to move to Almaty last March, riots broke out in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  "Is that the country you're moving to?" my colleagues asked.  I explained to them that although the country I was moving to started with a K and ended with -stan, it was a completely different place.  What I did not tell them (although some figured it out on their own,) was that Almaty is less than 100 miles from Bishkek, where the internationally-broadcast riots began on the 7th of April.  The violence was over soon, and I never felt unsafe moving to Almaty, however close to a "violent uprising."

A memorial to those killed in the 7 April riots.
I was offered a spot on a group tour of Kyrgyzstan during my fall break, and I jumped at the opportunity.  Our guide met us at 7:00 in the morning the first Saturday of my fall break (yes, we get a whole week off school at the end of October) and drove us to the boarder.  We had to walk across, which is a bit of an adventure.  As I waited in line, I watched three stray dogs pass right under the car gate unobstructed.  It made me wish for a furry tail and no collar as I answered questions in Russian such as my real purpose for visiting Kyrgyzstan (yes, the officer knew I was a tourist, but why was I really going?).

My favorite thing in Bishkek was Manas.  Manas is the legendary Kyrgyz hero who united the tribes of Kyrgyzstan so they could better defend themselves against the Chinese and other invaders.  He lived somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries, before Islam became the dominant religion.  A statue of Manas statue depicted him on horseback fighting a dragon (to represent the Chinese).  To Manas's left was his teacher and adviser, the Merlin-type figure Bakai, and to his right is a statue of Kankay, Manas's Tajik wife.

Alatau Square, where the riots took place.
I'm fascinated by how prehistoric cultures knew to create rules to combat inbreeding, by requiring men and women to be from different places in order to get married.  Most of these rules would not be popular in modern feminist crowds, and Central Asia's strategy was no different.  The practice of "bride-napping", or kidnapping a bride, was how men obtained wives: they stole them from other tribes.  And yes, this practice still exists today in a less barbaric but nonetheless sexist way.  This was, according to the legend, how Manas married Kankay: he stole her from a Tajik tribe. 

The legend of Manas is written as an epic poem that was solely an oral tradition until the 20th century, when it was finally written down into over 10,000 rhyming lines.  In the National Museum in Bishkek there are tributes to the best Manas story-tellers, all of whom have the entire poem memorized.  Contests of who can recite the poem with the most emotion and drama are popular cultural events here.

Alongside the Manas storytelling exhibit, the National Museum also holds a room dedicated to the memory of those killed in the 7th of April riots.  The way the violence was depicted in the US media is very different from the stories I heard while in Bishkek.  So, between the language and cultural barriers, this is my understanding of what happened:

The week before the riots started last April, a sniper was running lose in the city.  The sniper alternately killed one Uzbek and one Kyrgyz.  There has always been tension between the two ethnicities, and each side thought the other was responsible.  Now the rumor is that the ex-president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, hired the sniper to instill fear and hatred in the people before the April elections. 

Democracy in Kyrgyzstan is slightly different from how it works in the US.  Although allegedly united by Manas, Kyrgyzstan was still a bunch of nomadic tribes until the Soviets forced them to be sedentary.  So of course everyone feels loyalty to those from their own tribe.  This makes general elections difficult: there are dozens of candidates for president, and the one who wins isn't necessarily the most popular, but the one who is from the biggest tribe.  Kyrgyzstan's government deals with this problem by not electing the person who holds the popular vote, but instead electing the one whose votes span the greatest area of the country. 

One thing most people in Kyrgyzstan agreed on, however, was that they needed to vote Kurmanbek Bakiev out of office, which they did.  People from all over the country staged an event where people walked into their local government buildings and "took over" to ensure that the election would be fair.  This wasn't hard since many of the police were supportive, and the "take-over" was easy.  At the same time, crowds gathered in Alatau Square to witness the transition in government.  What they hadn't expected was the snipers situated on the rooftops, who shot randomly into the crowd.  Of course riots would ensue. 

Known in Central Asia as relatively peaceful and complacent people, no one expected a violent uprising from the Kyrgyz people.  Immediately following the riots, the Kazakh government build a barbed-wire fence directly along the road on the Kyrgyz side of the river separating the two countries.  It was quite comical to see, although possibly extremely sad: the fence was build directly along the road, so businesses and buildings on the other side were cut off from Kyrgyzstan entirely.  They were cut off from Kazakhstan, too: the river paralleled the road, and on the Kyrgyz side was another fence.  One gas station looked like it had been in operation when the fence was built: there was still a newish-looking car parked in the lot.  I tried to ask the guide what happened to the people who lived on the other side of the fence now that they were cut off from all civilization.  He just shrugged and shook his head.

Following our trip through the burned buildings and memorials of the 7 April riots, the rest of the trip was peaceful and relaxing.  Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful country as well as a trip back in time.  There are as many people riding donkeys and horses on the roads outside the city as there are in cars.  I'll write more about it later, but this entry feels long enough.