November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Kyrgyzstan/Marsha Levine

Festival goers getting ready to go home

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Kyrgyzstan in Transition

Photographs and Essay ©
by Marsha Levine  

Kyrgyzstan, one of the post-Soviet, Central Asian states, is located in the heart of Asia. Landlocked, almost entirely mountainous, surrounded by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, Kyrgyzstan is not a place found on most Westerners’ mental maps. More’s the pity, not only because it is staggeringly beautiful and culturally rich but also because, as a state finding its way through the post-Soviet labyrinth, it is deeply thought provoking. But to do it justice we need to do more than to redraw the boundaries of our mental maps. In this short photo-essay I am attempting to challenge how we think about such faraway places.

 

BARSKOON DISCONNECTED

During autumn 2007, I visited Barskoon, a village on Lake Issyk-Kul, sitting astride the Silk Route in northern Kyrgyzstan. This particular trip was occasioned by an opportunity to see ‘traditional’ horse games – at the “At Chabysh” festival. Kyrgyz horse festivals, are similar to those held throughout Central and Inner Asia –  for example, the Mongolian Naadam. These events mainly comprise traditional sports, including horse games, wrestling, archery, as well as eagle hunting demonstrations along with traditional music performances, poetry recitations, and sales of craft goods and food.

During my week in Barskoon, I stayed at two guesthouses. My very basic Russian and occasional access to an interpreter allowed me to learn a little about my hosts who belonged to one extended family. Although the people of the Issyk-Kul region are mostly dependent upon agricultural activities, especially livestock husbandry, the adults in my host families had a rather wide range of jobs. One worked in a microcredit office. Another was a mine worker at the nearby Kumtor gold mine. His wife, formerly a school teacher, besides taking care of their children, now managed one of the guesthouses. With other local families they were very actively involved in the restoration and re-opening of the village kindergarten which had closed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the village does have electricity, indoor plumbing in Barskoon, as in the rest of rural Kyrgyzstan, is rare. Our hosts kept poultry and horses in their yards, rather than flowers. The village streets were tidy but unpaved. The houses were clean and well cared for. The children I saw seemed to be bright and healthy. For all our cultural ignorance, our hosts treated us with kind hospitality. However, there was another side to all this and, ever since that visit, I have been trying to reconcile what I saw with what I heard.

My fellow guests, all Europeans, were also in Barskoon for the horse festival. Most seemed to have been involved in development work in Kyrgyzstan for a number of years. Some worked for international NGOs or were University academics.

From the discussion at dinner, it quickly became clear that, remote as Barskoon seemed to be, it is locked into the world economy – and into the new ‘Great Game’, with East and West jockeying for power and resources. Moreover, surrounded by the breathtaking majesty of the Tien Shan mountains, life here in Barskoon is very harsh for its rural population – and much harsher in villages off the tourist track. I discovered in 2007 that Kyrgyzstan, besides being one of the world’s poorest countries, is on a major route for narcotics trafficked from Afghanistan to China, Russia and Europe, and that both government corruption and ‘clan’ politics ensured that international aid didn’t always reach its intended destination. The picture my fellow guests presented was wholly negative and I had the sense that, as far as they were concerned, the Kyrgyzstani people were subjects rather than individuals.

The western media exploit and exaggerate the distance between the contradictory pictures of Kyrgyzstan. On the one hand, a quick search on the internet throws up a faltering education system, high unemployment, high adult and infant mortality rates, child poverty and failure to thrive, bride abduction, organised crime, ethnic disputes, human rights and press freedom issues, electoral corruption, ethnic tension, environmental degradation, fears of religious fundamentalism and so on.

On the other hand, aside from a very few tourists, most Westerners’ only experience of Central Asia is through the medium of television programmes presented by attractive young Westerners, usually celebrities, who know little about the cultures on display, but who can show off their riding skills. The rural people – with their felt tents and livestock – dress up and, against the vastness of the steppe and mountains, perform for the cameras. It’s all very picturesque and the locals could, for the most part, be living in the Middle Ages. The pictures presented are not entirely false but they are so exceedingly superficial as to be grossly misleading, portraying a passive, static society, disconnected from history and living in the past.

ORIENTALISM

Although neither of these perspectives is entirely false, both are powerfully biased by the media: television, newspapers, and, increasingly, the internet. Taken together, the pictures they paint are so contradictory that it is sometimes hard to believe that they could be referring to the same place. There is little or no attempt to be even-handed or objective. So, why should this be the case? Why should it be such hard work to find information about Kyrgyzstan that does not portray its people either as villains, hapless victims, or quaintly lost in the Middle Ages? I take the view that, consciously or unconsciously, these pictures are designed to serve various economic and political agendas.

In 1980 Edward Said wrote:

“From at least the end of the eighteenth century until our own day, modern Occidental reactions to Islam have been dominated by a type of thinking that may still be called Orientalist. The general basis of Orientalist thought is an imaginative geography dividing the world into two unequal parts, the larger and “different” one called the Orient, the other, also known as our world, called the Occident or the West…. Insofar as Islam has always been seen as belonging to the Orient, its particular fate within the general structure of Orientalism has been to be looked at with a very special hostility and fear.” [http://www.thenation.com/article/islam-through-western-eyes#]

Although Said’s main focus was on western Asia, his words are relevant to Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general – including the West’s misjudgement of the nature of Central Asian Islam in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact is, it suits the economic, political and military interests of the western great powers to see the people in this part of the world as backward, incompetent and corrupt. History is brushed aside, no need to understand the situation on the ground or even to talk to the people. All you need to do is to apply the standard template –  dating from the early 19th century –  to 21st century Kyrgyzstan, for example, and that is enough. Well, of course, it is not enough. That old Orientalist model was never meant to reflect the reality of the East. Its purpose was to justify the domination and exploitation of the East by the great powers of the time.

When you read this, you might well say: well, that’s a bit over the top. But I don’t think so. My evidence is the disconnection between what I saw and experienced during my short visit to Barskoon in 2007 and what I heard from the local people, as opposed to what I have read and seen in the media – particularly on the internet (in newspapers, internet articles and features, books, papers in academic journals and so on) since then. The world I experienced – as portrayed in my photographs – was quite different from the world I have observed in the media and also, apparently, from that experienced by some of the other Western visitors in Barskoon – even when we were sitting in the same room.

It is not easy to get accurate, up-to-date information about Kyrgyzstan: what with language difficulties, our flawed education systems, and problems obtaining access to information during the transition from the Soviet era to the present –  not to mention judgement calls on the reliability of available sources. Moreover, although some useful work has been produced by western scholars, much of the most interesting research has been published by young Central Asian academics, who have benefited from their first-hand knowledge of their country, its people and its past, coupled with the more open education systems they have been exposed to since independence – both in Central Asia and abroad.

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Kyrgyzstan

[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2866_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]40A view of lake Issyk-Kul
An autumnal view of lake Issyk-Kul with the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains in the background.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2871_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]30Horses and cattle grazing along the road to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan)
Horses and cattle grazing along the road from Bishkek to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan). The Tien Shan mountains are in the background.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2878_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]30The road from Bishkek to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan)
A beautiful autumn day on the road from Bishkek to Barskoon (Kyrgyzstan). Following one branch of the ancient Silk Route, this road is in the Issyk-Kul lake basin. The Tien Shan mountains are in the background.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071102-2927_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20An elderly Kyrgyz gentleman at the Barskoon horse festival
This elderly Krygyz gentleman is a spectator at the horse festival in Barskoon (near Lake Issyk-Kul). Most of the spectators are locals - men, women and children. However, there are a few visitors, mostly NGO workers.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071101-2860_tobarskoonissykkul.jpg]30Lady tending her roadside shop (Kyrgyzstan)
This Kyrgyzstani lady is minding her small shop. It is located next to lake Issyk-Kul, alongside the road that runs from Bishkek to Barskoon.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071102-2930_barskoonissykkul-ed2.jpg]30Kyrgyz boys and donkeys at the Barskoon horse festival
These Kyrgyz boys and their donkeys are spectators at a horse festival in Barskoon village next to Lake Issyk Kul. Besides horse races and games, the festival has eagle hunting displays, traditional music, epic poetry, crafts and food.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071102-2942_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Kyrgyz horsemen at the Barskoon horse festival
Horsemen at the Barskoon horse festival. Lake Issyk-Kul is behind them and in the background the Terskoy Alatau (Tien Shan) mountains, capped with glaciers and clouds.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071104-3003_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Riders at the Barskoon Horse Festival (Kyrgyzstan)
These riders are getting ready for the next horse race of the day in Barskoon next to Lake Issyk-Kul. The snow-capped Tien Shan mountains provide a majestic backdrop for the race.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071104-3088_barskoonissykkul.jpg]10Kyrgyz rider picking up coins from the ground
This Kyrgyz rider has just snatched a weight wrapped in red cloth from the ground and then threw it into the air. This traditional sport is called Tyin Enmei.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3231_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Owner making sure his horse gets home safely from Barskoon
This horse is being taken home on a trailor, pulled by a 4-wheel drive vehicle, after the Barskoon horse games. He is carefully wrapped in felt for protection against potholed roads.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3238_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20A view of the Tien Shan mountains from Barskoon village, on the shore of lake Issyk-Kul (Kyrgyzstan)
Barskoon village is located on the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, just north of the snow-capped Terskoy Alatau mountains, a branch of the Tien Shan range. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, but the widespread poverty is a huge challenge.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3259_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Autumn in Barskoon (Issyk-Kul Oblast, Kyrgyzstan)
Two girls are sitting in a Barskoon village lane having a chat. It's a sunny autumn day - almost Idyllic. But, poverty is a real issue in Kyrgyzstan. How much can natural beauty be a consolation?
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3293_barskoonissykkul.jpg]20Kyrgyz boy with male turkey (in Barskoon)
This young Kyrgyz boy is posing the family turkey to help me get a good photo. We are in the yard of his family guesthouse in Barskoon, on the south shore of lake Issyk-Kul.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kyrgyzstan/thumbs/thumbs_071105-3305_barskoonissykkul.jpg]40The Barskoon family whose house I stayed in.
This Barskoon family lets rooms in their house to visitors. The wife was a teacher and is now helping other local families to refurbish the local elementary school. Her husband works for a local mining company.

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HISTORY

Sitting, as it does, on the Silk Route, the region we now call Kyrgyzstan has always been subject to change – social, political, economic and religious. The most reliable historical (that is, written) records for this region, dating at least as far back as the as the 2nd century BC, depict a world in flux. Between the 6th century and the 20th century AD, the various peoples living in what is now Kyrgyzstan were subject, on occasion, to Turkic, Uighur, Mongol, Kazakh, Kalmyk, Manchu, Uzbek, Russian, Soviet and finally Kyrgyzstani rule. This is all very complicated, partly because of the highly mobile populations inhabiting this region over the past couple of millennia – at least.

Kyrgyzstan, as a geographical entity with fixed borders, did not exist until the 1920s, but the Kyrgyz people, as an ethnic and political entity did exist – in some sense. That is, people whose first language was Kyrgyz, whose customs are identified as Kyrgyz and who regarded themselves and their community as Kyrgyz, have lived within these borders for a considerable period of time. It is often said that the Kyrgyz people originally came from the Yenisei river region of south Siberia. This could be true, but what of the earlier inhabitants of this region, not to mention travellers and settlers following the ancient Silk Route. The history of Kyrgyzstan is both rich and complex; however, during the era of Russian and Soviet hegemony, it was impossible to carry out uncensored historical and archaeological research there. Since independence, a new generation of historians (including young Kyrgyzstani scholars) is finally able to explore the historical and archaeological sources (see Tchoroev 2002). Exciting new work is already coming out of this region.

It is important to acknowledge that Kyrgyzstan is still a multi-ethnic country. About 52% of the population is Kyrgyz and 20% Uzbek, with other minority groups including: Tatars, Dungans, Kazakhs, Uighurs, and Tajiks, as well as Russians, Ukrainians and Germans. Each of these groups has its own story, but all of these stories are somehow connected. Many are connected with the Soviet era, but not all. Such diversity, as well we all know, is a huge challenge whether we are talking about New York, Northern Ireland or Central Asia. In this essay I am focusing primarily on the mostly Kyrgyz Issyk-Kul region.

RELIGION

Even a brief glance at the religious history of Kyrgyzstan reveals a similarly complex picture. The earliest religious practices were animist or shamanist. There is plentiful archaeological and historical evidence that other religions – such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam – later travelled the Silk Route across Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, and into China. And Soviet atheism followed. Islam was adopted in stages. The Sunni tradition of the Hanafi school, a relatively moderate, tolerant form of Islam, was taken up earliest and with most conviction, by the settled people of south-western Kyrgyzstan (circa 8th to 15th centuries). During the 12th to the 19th centuries the nomadic pastoralists in the mountainous regions of northern Kyrgyzstan were gradually converted to Sufism, a relatively moderate and mystical form of Islam. Sufism appealed to the nomads because of its generally non-dogmatic, tolerant and syncretic approach, permitting incorporation of non-Islamic religious practices – from animism, shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. As for some of the more remote parts of northern Kyrgyzstan, Islam was scarcely adopted when it was banned by the Bolsheviks in the early 20th century. Since declaring its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been undergoing an Islamic revival under its own terms, reviving Sufi – and other Islamic – traditions that it protected underground throughout the Soviet period.

Sufism is incompatible with the Wahhabi fundamentalism so feared by the West. The expectation that Kyrgyz Muslims would be vulnerable to fundamentalist Islam is something akin to ‘reds under the beds’ paranoia – mostly referable to the Western penchant for backing the wrong – and worst possible – political horse and then being caught off-guard – and terribly surprised – when it all goes wrong. Afghanistan being, of course, the perfect case in point (Williams 2003).

As Botoiarova points out: “Radicalization of Islam, if it ever takes place, will not be because of outside influence, but will be the result of discontent with economic hardships and inability of authorities to build a just society with democratic principles” (Botoiarova 2005, p 102). In spite of all the very real social, economic and political challenges faced by Kyrgyzstan, conditions there are not conducive to fundamentalist Islam.

HERDING DURING THE SOVIET ERA

So, why has Kyrgyzstan’s transition from ‘communism’ to ‘democracy’ been such hard work? As usual, history holds most of the answers. During the 19th century, Tsarist Russia brutally conquered and colonised Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan. The nomadic and semi-nomadic herders were forced off their lands, which were expropriated for settlement by Russian peasants. The herders’ attempts to regain access to their pasturelands were put down with great brutality. These conflicts continued into the Communist era when they were met with forced settlement, expropriation of herds, exile, cultural and religious repression, imprisonment, famine, starvation and so on – a familiar scenario accompanying the policies of collectivisation and de-kulakisation throughout the Soviet empire, especially during the 1930s.

The Soviet economic model was never sustainable for Kyrgyzstan, where extensive livestock husbandry (horses, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, yaks) has been the most important subsistence activity for hundreds or even thousands of years. Kyrgyzstan covers 191,800 sq km, most of which is mountainous; over 94% is higher than 1000 m above sea level; the average altitude is about 2630 metres. About 56% of the total area is agricultural land, of which about 87% is pastureland (Kerven et al, 2011). About 49% of the total area of Kyrgyzstan is used for grazing. In order to maximise the productivity of both herds and pasturage, herders must move their livestock seasonally –  in steps, from the lowlands in winter to the high mountain meadows in summer. This kind of extensive livestock husbandry is incompatible with a permanently settled way of life.

Although the Soviet state, in the name of ideology, had been willing to kill millions of its own people; eventually it had to face the fact that, if it were to meet any economic targets at all, the Kyrgyz (and other Central Asian) herders forced onto collectivised farms would have to be allowed to return to some kind of semi-nomadic lifestyle. That is, while maintaining their permanent winter quarters in the lowlands, throughout the rest of the year they would move their herds in search of fresh grazing. It was not a return to their pre-Tsarist lifestyle, but they did succeed in rescuing the dysfunctional Soviet system from itself – demonstrating the herders resilience and adaptability once again (Kerven et al, 2012).

THE TRANSITION

Finally in 1991, dragged down by its failed economic model, the Soviet state collapsed economically and politically. The resulting economic chaos and hardship extended throughout the Empire, except of course for the gangsters and ‘oligarchs’, whose wealth is, even now, hidden in tax shelters throughout the world. I bring this up because we – in the West – do not have entirely clean hands in this further economic disaster. The mass privatization of the USSR’s resources was supported by influential economists from Harvard, MIT, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other internationally important economic institutions (Hamm et al, 2012). It has led to hardship for many and untoward wealth for a few. It has resulted in a new Russian state, mostly known for its corruption, inequality, intolerance and poor human rights record.

Botoiarova (2005, 167-8) describes how the privatization process operated in Kyrgyzstan:

“After budgetary subsidies from Moscow were cut, Kyrgyzstan, which was heavily dependent on center [sic], was severely affected by economic crisis, with inflation reaching 1,200 percent in 1993…. Mass and rapid privatization and ‘shock therapy’ were perceived as the pillars for alleviating the country’s economic crisis. In 1991 the government announced a comprehensive privatization program…. Although, Kyrgyzstan’s privatization program is generally regarded as the most progressive in Central Asia, the implementation of the privatization process was complicated by the weak normative and legal bases and by difficulties in pricing since most of the privatized entities were sold well below value, often at symbolic prices.”

Little wonder then that Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the world.

THE NEW ORIENTALISM

My purpose in visiting Kyrgyzstan was to photograph local herders, horses and their way of life. Nothing more. However, in the week I was there I was struck by the disconnection between what I saw and what I heard. True to Orientalist form, Kyrgyzstan was portrayed as a threat, as quaint and exotic, or as a resource to exploit. In Barskoon itself, I stumbled across two examples of the new Orientalism in relation to the Kumtor Gold mine and the “At Chabysh” horse festival itself.

Kumtor Gold Mine

During my short visit in Barskoon I heard nothing about the Kumtor open-pit mine, in spite of its being the world’s second largest gold mine and its situation near the village. However innumerable references popped up as soon as I started researching this essay. Although I only have space here for the briefest outline of a long-running story, I think that even a short discussion of Kumtor is relevant to the basic premise of this piece.

Because the mine, owned and run by a Kyrgyz (Kyrgyzaltyn)-Canadian (Cameco Corporation) syndicate, generates up to 10% of Kyrgyzstan’s GNP, it is seen by some as vital to the country’s economy. However, even a brief look at its history begs innumerable questions about its Canadian management and international backers – including, for example, the World Bank Group, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the Canadian Export Development Corporation (EDC).  More generally, it focuses attention on the role and ethics of international corporations in the development (and exploitation) of the world’s poorest countries.

The Kumtor gold mine is located on the permafrost and in an area of active glaciers, about 4000-4400 m above sea level in the seismically active Tien Shan mountains, a region believed to be especially sensitive to global climate change. It is also close to the sources of the Naryn – Syr-Darya river system which provides fresh drinking and irrigation water to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The mine is located within the area of the UNESCO Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve and adjacent to the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve. The location of Kumtor is so inaccessible and so ecologically sensitive that it’s a wonder that anyone could have ever thought it reasonable to dig an enormous open-pit mine there. However, in such a poor country the temptation to engage in risky behaviour can be very difficult to resist.

The people of Barskoon have personal experience of those risks. In 1998 a truck driving up the valley to the mine overturned, spilling approximately 1.7 tonnes of sodium cyanide into the Barskoon River which empties into Lake Issyk-Kul. The villagers downstream were only notified about the accident 5 hours after it took place and only then because the Russian border guards ordered the company to do so. All the details and statistics connected with the accident are a matter of dispute (Moran 2011, Norlan 2000, Prizma 2012). The most reliable sources suggest that at least four people died in the short term and more later. Over 2500 people were poisoned, of which 850 were hospitalised. Additionally, more than 5500 Barskoon villagers were relocated; crops and tourism revenues were lost.

There have been other accidents connected with Kumtor, but uncovering any details is very difficult. Leaving that aside, the day to day running of the mine results in the release of many dangerous pollutants into the environment and has had a negative impact upon the immediate area, including local glaciers, rivers and lakes. Although Kumtor has had some positive impacts on the local communities – especially as regards employment – in Kyrgyzstan hostility towards the mine is widespread, many people feeling strongly that the Canada based company profits too much from it and cares too little about the health, welfare and environment of the local people (Dzyubenko 2013). Under pressure from the Kyrgyzstani people, with support from various NGOs, in recent years Kumtor has made an effort to behave in a more transparent, socially responsible way. Nevertheless, insufficient funds have been put aside for decommissioning the mine once it is no longer economic to work. Given the geological history of the region and the consequences of climate change, the mine will continue to pose serious risks to the environment into the unforeseeable future.

“At Chabysh” Horse Festival

My second experience of the Orientalist mindset in Barskoon was in connection with the “At Chabysh” horse festival itself. It wasn’t until I had arrived in Bishkek that I realised that the festival was not being organised by the Kyrgyz community where it was being held. Nor was it taking place in the context of Kyrgyz traditions. Horse games are one way in which the Kyrgyz culture celebrates its identity. They are closely connected with life cycle events such as marriage, anniversaries and death. But not at Barskoon in 2007, or in various other locations since then.

The Barskoon festival was organised by the ‘Kyrgyz Ate Foundation’, founded and directed by a well connected French horsewoman-journalist, Jacqueline Ripart, with funding from, for example, the French Embassy, the Aga Khan Foundation, the Christensen Fund (USA), and the Kyrgyz government. Interestingly her name is the only one mentioned on the ‘Kyrgyz Ate’ Foundation website: http://www.atchabysh.org/index.php/lang-en/archivesmenu.html. It credits her with the rehabilitation of traditional horse games, the identification of the true Kyrgyz horse and the revival of Kyrgyz horse breeding. The stated objectives of the ‘Kyrgyz Ate Foundation’ are: “a comprehensive program aimed at preserving and rehabilitating the Kyrgyz horse breed and promoting enhancement of sports and tourism (in particular ecotourism) sectors, and handicraft industry” [http://www.asia-plus.tj/en/news/murgab-district-gorno-badakhshan-host-international-horse-festival].

I was informed that local men felt shamed and insulted that, Ripart, a foreign woman, had taken control of their traditional celebrations. She reinvented the rules to fit her Western conception of the way the horse games should be held. She even decided which of the horses were sufficiently ‘Kyrgyz’ to be allowed to participate in the games. Her lack of sensitivity to the feelings of the local people was simply breathtaking.

The Kyrgyz people have been, of course, holding horse games for hundreds if not thousands of years and, in spite of misguided Soviet attempts to improve local breeds, the Kyrgyz horses are not in any danger of extinction. Though some of their traditional tasks have been taken over by motorised vehicles, horses are still used in everyday life for transport as well as for their milk, meat, hides and hair. Some herding tasks can only be carried out on horseback. Every rural Kyrgyz child rides as if they were born on a horse’s back. Maybe they were. These horses, or rather ponies, are intelligent, sure footed and famous for their endurance. They do not need to be rescued by Ripart.

Young boy riding a Kyrgyz pony
Young boy riding a Kyrgyz pony

Reducing the games to an entertainment meant to attract tourists, alienates them from their cultural significance. Such an important change in cultural meaning should not be in the power of foreigners. We are back in the realm of Orientalism here. What Ripart’s actions, if not her intentions, say is that she knows what is right for the Kyrgyz better than they do themselves. That is, of course, nonsense. Her financial backing and social/political connections are what have qualified her to take the central position in the organisation of a quintessentially Kyrgyz event.

CONCLUSION

Both the corporate values of the Kumtor mine operators and the misappropriation of  the Kyrgyz cultural heritage by the “At Chabysh” horse festival organisers are examples of modern Orientalism. The environmental damage resulting from gold mining is quite bad enough, but the misappropriation of cultural resources is no less destructive and raises serious questions about how people with little knowledge of, or respect for, Central Asian cultures can end up in positions of power within these cultures – as in the case of the horse festival and even more strangely the Kyrgyz horse itself.

I have concluded from my research for this essay that Orientalism, as described by Edward Said, still holds sway over most Westerners’ thinking. Said’s work focused on the Near East and Islam, but is much more widely applicable – for example, to Asia and Africa.

Finally, I would like to quote a passage from Said’s Orientalism, in which he reflects upon a comment from the Didascalicon by Hugo of St. Victor:

“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land.” The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance (Said, 1978, p 259).

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Of course, I take full responsibility for all the views I have expressed in this essay. But, I would like to acknowledge help and advice given to me most particularly by: Guljan Kudabaeva, Wendy Lawson and Jarkyn Samanchina. I am very grateful to the Aigine Cultural Research Center for its help with the logistics of my visit to Kyrgyzstan, and to my hosts in Barskoon for their kind hospitality.

 

About the author:

 

Marsha Levine with a  Kyrgyzstani journalist at Barskoon.
Marsha Levine with a Kyrgyzstani journalist at the horse festival. 

Marsha Levine’s formal training was in Archaeology (Cambridge, UK) and Anthropology (Barnard/Columbia, NY). However, her research has always been intensely interdisciplinary and has drawn upon zoology, ethology, ecology, history, geography, biochemistry, palaeopathology, etc. With the lifting of the Iron Curtain, her geographic focus shifted to central Eurasia, Siberia and China. Throughout most of her working life she was a researcher at Cambridge University, studying the impact of the horse on human culture and history in the past. However, the contemporary picture has become more and more central to her interests. And, while photography used to play an important role supporting her research, now the tables are turned and the research supports her photography.  For more photos and links, see http://www.mlevinephotos.co.uk.

 

SELECTED READINGS

Ludmila Akmatova & Jumamedel Imankulov, 2010 “Conservation and Management of Cultural Heritage Sites on the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan”. Agnew, N., ed. Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Conservation of Grotto Sites, Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang, People’s Republic of China, June 28-July 3, 2004. Getty Publications. Pages 133-178. http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/pdf/2nd_silkroad4.pdf]

Ashymov, D., 2003. The Religious Faith of the Kyrgyz. Religion, State & Society, 31(2), 133-8. [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09637490308277]

Botoiarova, Nuska. “Islamic Fundamentalism In Post-Soviet Uzbekistan And Kyrgyzstan: Real Or Imagined Threat.” PhD diss., Middle EastTechnicalUniversity, 2005. [http://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12606058/index.pdf\]

Cassidy, R., 2009. The horse, the Kyrgyz horse and the ‘Kyrgyz horse’. Anthropology Today, 25(1), 12 – 5. [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8322.2009.00641.x/pdf]

Dadabaev, T., 2009. Trauma and Public Memory in Central Asia: Public responses to political violence of the state policies in Stalinist Era in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kyoto Bulletin of Islamic Area Studies, 3(1), 108-38. [http://www.asafas.kyoto-u.ac.jp/kias/1st_period/contents/pdf/kb3_1/08dadabaev.pdf]

Fitzherbert, A., (2005). Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profiles: Kyrgyzstan,  Crop and Grassland Service, Plant Production and Protection Division, United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, Rome. [http://www.fao.org/ag/agp/AGPC/doc/Counprof/Kyrgystan/kyrgi.htm]

Hamm, P., L. P. King & D. Stuckler, 2012. Mass Privatization, State Capacity, and Economic Growth in Post-Communist Countries. American Sociological Review, 77(2), 295-324. [http://asr.sagepub.com/content/77/2/295]

Jacquesson, S., 2010. Reforming pastoral land use in Kyrgyzstan: from clan and custom to self-government and tradition. Central Asian Survey, 29(1), 103-18. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02634931003765571]

Kerven, C., B. Steimann, C. Dear & L. Ashley, 2012. Researching the Future of Pastoralism in Central Asia’s Mountains: Examining Development Orthodoxies. Mountain Research and Development, 32(3), 368-77. [http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-12-00035.1]

For photos of the Kumtor gold mine: http://www.rferl.org/media/photogallery/24922315.html

Norlen, D. “The Kumtor Gold Mine: Spewing Toxics From On High”, Pacific Environment and ResourcesCenter, September 2000. [http://www.nodirtygold.org/pubs/200009%20PERC%20-%20Kumtor%20Gold%20Mine-Spilling%20toxics%20from%20on%20high.PDF]

Moran, R. E. “Kumtor Gold Facilities, Kyrgyzstan: Comments on Water, Environmental and Related Issues: September 2011”, [http://bankwatch.org/sites/default/files/Kumtor-MoranReport-31Jan2012.pdf]

Prizma, “Independent Assessment of the Parliamentary Commission Report, Final Report – 23 September 2012”. [http://www.kumtor.kg/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Prizma-Independent-Assessment-of-Parliamentary-Commission-Report_eng.pdf]

Dzyubenko, O. “Kyrgyzstan sets state of emergency to protect Centerra mine”, Reuters (May 31, 2013). [http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/31/us-kyrgyzstan-centerra-protests-idUSBRE94U0TQ20130531].

Said, E., 1978. Orientalism, London: Penguin.

Said, E. (1980) “Islam Through Western Eyes” from The Nation, Apr 26, 1980. [http://www.thenation.com/article/islam-through-western-eyes#]

Said, E. (2004) “In Memoriam: Edward W. Said (1935–2003): Orientalism Once More”, Development and Change 35(5): 869–879. Blackwell Publishing. [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7660.2004.00383.x/pdf]

Tchoroev, T., 2002. Historiography of Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34(2), 351-74. [http://www.jstor.org/stable/3879832?origin=JSTOR-pdf]

Schmidt, M., (2011). Central Asia’s Blue Pearl: The Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve in Kyrgyzstan, in Biosphere Reserves in the Mountains of the World, ed. Austrian MAB Committee (UNESCO). Vienna: AustrianAcademy of Sciences Press, 73-6. http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/SC/pdf/sc_mab_Mountains_Excellence_in_the_Clouds_EN.pdf]

Wani, M. Y. (2011) “Religious Customs, Tradition, and Shamanism in Pre-Soviet Kyrgyz Society”. January-March 2011, Journal Of Eurasian Studies, Vol III (1), 88-94. [http://www.federatio.org/joes.html]

Williams, B. G., 2003. Jihad and ethnicity in post-communist Eurasia. on the trail of transnational islamic holy warriors in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Chechnya and Kosovo. Global Review of Ethnopolitics, 2(3-4), 3-24.  [http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14718800308405141]

04 October 2013