Thursday, June 23, 2005

Having parties in Kyrgyzstan (host optional)

The other day, my girlfriend came back from a party celebrating her aunt’s birthday. She’d been gone quite a few hours, so I assumed it’d been quite a good one.

‘Did you enjoy it?’ I asked.

‘It was quite good,’ she replied, ‘though my aunt never turned up.’

I sensed a cultural difference here. It seems that the guest of honour is very much optional when it comes to parties in this neck of the woods.

I mention this because I have to undergo a Kyrgyz gathering in my honour in a few weeks time. To be more precise, it’s in honour of my new son, Lucas. After forty days, they always have a party to celebrate……well, his forty day birthday I suppose. I will honestly try to find out why this is at some point.

Now, much as I love my girlfriend’s family, I’m less than keen to go through with another one of these celebrations. You see, I already had one to celebrate…actually, I’m still a little hazy about what that one was in aid of. It was either my girlfriend’s pregnancy, our ‘marriage’, our general togetherness or my general wonderfulness. I’d like to think it was the last one, but I suspect it was one of the others. In fact, I think the main purpose was for the whole family to get a damn good look at this strange Englishmen who’d joined their clan. Certainly there were a lot of heads popping in and out of doorways whenever I walked down the corridor to go to the toilet.

Now, your average Kyrgyz party isn’t like the ones I remember from England. You know, you buy a crate load of beer, vaguely invite people round you know, make a desperate lunge for one of the ladies, get knocked back, get drunk and fall asleep on the sofa (you may also gather from this that I haven’t been to a party in England for quite a while).

If one word adequately sums up a Kyrgyz party then its mutton. This isn’t some fancy slang, by the way, just a literal description of what you are going to be eating for the 12 hours you are at the party (oh, that’s another thing: they are very, very long). You see, at any big celebration they have to kill a sheep in the guests’ honour, and then the rest of the time is spent eating the damn thing in a variety of unappetising dishes: boiled mutton with potatoes; boiled mutton with vegetables; boiled mutton with noodles; boiled mutton on the bone; sliced boiled mutton. You may begin to notice a recurring ‘boiled’ theme here.

And then there are the toasts. In some ways the endless raising of glasses and speeches are a blessing as they can often offer welcome respite from the mutton motif (and a chance to surreptitiously switch round plates with someone who’s eaten more than you). But they do go on, and after the 15th person telling you to have a fruitful, healthy life, it does begin to wear a bit. And of course this is all done in translation from Kyrgyz. My girlfriend dutifully explains what each toast wished me, though I began to suspect after the first couple she just started translating on a loop. And then there’s the huge, pregnant post-translation pause where everyone is staring at me and waiting for some kind of response. I always hoped that ‘thank you’ would just about cover it, but normally they want a bit more, presumably as penance for them having to make the toast in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, they are a great bunch of people: warm, friendly, bosom-clutching folk. I just don’t want to go to their parties very much. I look at it this way: if they came to England, I wouldn’t put them through a Morris Dancing marathon or force them to watch a five-day cricket test, so I hope they’ll cut me some slack regarding some of their traditions.

And if all else fails, they can have the party and I just won’t go…..hey, it’s optional.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Baghdad? No, Bishkek

“Oh God, not another revolution” I thought. Not, I hasten to add, because I thought it would only further destabilise the Kyrgyz economy, but because I wouldn’t get any holiday out of it. You see, during the ‘real’ Kyrgyz revolution on March 24th, they shut down the school where I work and I got five days off. But now, I’m on holiday anyhow and won’t benefit from any cancellation of lessons. Shit.

Ok, I better give a bit of back story on this one as this is my first post….

I’ve been working for two years now in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for the Soros Foundation. Many of my colleagues would like some pretty heavy quotes round the word ‘work’, but we’ll gloss that one for the moment. Kyrgyzstan, at least until recently, was the most laid-back and stable of the ‘stans’. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are police states with loony leaders; Tajikistan is desperately poor and very traditional; Kazakhstan is just a big load of nothing except steppes and oil; Afghanistan…well, you know about that one. If there was going to be political unrest anywhere, it wasn’t going to be Kyrgyzstan.

But it was. On March 24th a meagre little protest outside the main government building suddenly turned into a full-blown revolution. A couple of rocks thrown from the crowd and the small band of riot police guarding the parliament downed arms and walked off, whistling sheepishly as if to say, ‘me? A member of the army? No, I think you’ve got me confused with someone else.’ And that was it. The protestors swarmed inside and took over, all the corrupt politicians snuck out the back door and got the hell out of there and the reign of Askar Akaev, the man with the bushiest eyebrows in Central Asia, was over.

I missed the revolution. Actually, that’s not true. I live about 500 metres from the parliament building, but instead I was sat at home watching it all on CNN. Christ, I could open my window and hear it all going on, but, well, those rocks looked pretty sharp and I don’t see how my presence there would have helped. And those rocks looked pretty sharp. Half an hour or so after it was all over, me and my mate Tom felt suitably shamed at having sat through the whole thing and went out to have a look. We wandered round the parliament, talked to a few of the revolutionaries, gawked at the broken windows and watched as the masses torched a few of the sleek German cars left behind by the fleeing politicians. But we weren’t really part of it all. We took some pictures, but they largely involved us standing in front of abandoned tanks and pointing (in case anyone was in any doubt that the huge green armoured vehicle looming behind was, in fact, a tank). It was Revolutionary Tourism. Of course, since then I’ve significantly embellished the part I played on that day, and reading some of my emails you would think I went face to face with the baton-wielding police.

So, coming back to the start. A couple of days ago I was wandering past the parliament on the way to the shops, and saw a fairly large crowd gathered there. This is not unusual. Since the revolution there have been daily protests about something or other. Normally, you get about ten people standing around forlornly with a couple of placards and often they are protesting about several different things. But today the crowd was larger, so I hung around a bit with my camera to take a few shots.

And then it kicked off. A gradual swell of people got louder and louder, threw a few rocks, pushed at the gates and suddenly there were inside the compound. The army (who were clearly better prepared this time) pushed them back and started firing gas at the protestors. Everyone started running towards me, so I turned and legged it as the canisters came flying overhead. Puffs of smoke started to erupt behind me. Now, this was exciting…

This all went on for a bit. A crowd surge, a bit of argy-bargy, then the gas and running. I’ve got to give the police their due -they were much better organised this time. I suspect they’d been practising in-between taking bribes from drivers on the streets of Bishkek. I hung back a bit and watched it all. Clearly there was not going to be another revolution today. So, what was all this protesting business about? Well, apparently they were supporters of this candidate for president who wasn’t allowed to run because he didn’t happen to be Kyrgyz, but Kazakh. Now, this seems eminently fair to me. I mean, Kazakhstan is a different country, right? You can’t just become the president of whatever country you feel like. The protestors seemed on pretty thin ground as far as I could see.

I didn’t get this info from watching the news or reading the local paper. No, I got it from ‘guy in the crowd cadging cigarettes from me’. While I was watching the protest unfold, he came up to me and asked if I was a foreigner. I assumed he was one of the protestors, thought I was a journalist and wanted to put his side of the story. But he was more interested in the full packet of cigarettes in my pocket and reluctantly told me what was going on only if I gave him a cigarette every five minutes. He was a very cheap informant, though as it turns out not particularly accurate. The presidential candidate wasn’t in fact Kazakh, but a Kyrgyz citizen who happened to have Kazakh citizenship. Hardly Deep Throat.

The whole thing kind of fizzled out after about half an hour and the protestors sloped off to the bars for tea and beer and the police went back to sleeping in the nearby park. But hey, I got some nice pics out of it and some video footage. I was particularly impressed by one clip I took when running away from the gas canisters. It’s got that authentic, jerky, panicky feel reminiscent of Baghdad when a bomb’s gone off. But looking back at it later on my computer, I noticed that half of the people running away were laughing, clearly not impressed by the police’s efforts. Jesus. How can I convince people I was caught up in a war zone when they do that sort of thing?

Below are some of the pictures I took

Picture 1
Picture 2
Picture 3
Picture 4
Picture 5
Picture 6