Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Most Religious Chicken in Kyrgyzstan

Is here apparently.I particularly like the mix of old world superstition and modern technology, the chicken’s squawking being recorded on a mobile phone.

But it got me thinking about the nature of religion in Kyrgyzstan, and specifically in Bishkek. People naturally assume that it’s a Muslim country (probably because it sounds a bit like Afghanistan and Pakistan) and they would be right. You see, nominally Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country. It’s written in their passports in case anyone was in any doubt. Yet, if you came here you wouldn’t have the faintest idea that was the case. You can walk around Bishkek for hours and not see a mosque. In fact, you’re more likely to see a Russian Orthodox Church despite Russians making up only a small percentage of the population. No one seems the slightest bit interested in talking about religion – in fact the only Kyrgyz who ever wanted to convert me was a born-again Christian taxi driver. This was a far cry from when I was living in Morocco – within minutes of talking to someone, the subject of religion would come up.

It’s odd really, because since the fall of Communism, the former Soviet states have gotten religion in a big, big way. I lived in Poland, Lithuania, Croatia and Serbia and the churches were always packed on Sunday and there were plenty of people trying to stop you in the street in the name of Jehovah, God or the Reverend Moon. Now, this resurgence was due to the years of repression where they couldn’t worship (and perfectly understandable), so it’s odd that the same fervor didn’t seem to take hold in Kyrgyzstan.

I think the reason is that in essence Kyrgyz people are not defined by their religion or social system but by their nomadic history. For hundreds and hundreds of years they moved around, living in Yurts and living off the land. Things that I think of as typically Kyrgyz date back to that time: the national dishes (mutton and more mutton!), a deep love of nature, sports based on horse riding, a stoic acceptance of what life throws at them, a raft of superstitions to keep out evil spirits, even the way that the crouch instead of sitting by the side of the road have less to do with Islam or Communism and more to do with a time when survival depended on hunting skills and an understanding of nature.

I actually think their nomadic background has had a positive effect on their character: it makes them more tolerant, unhurried, not so quick to judge. Many some other Muslim countries around them could learn something from that.


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