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Being a Beeznesmen

October 4, 2010

Though most of my waking hours lately have been devoted to language study, I do try to find time to organize my research project. After all, the reason why the lovely people at the Fulbright Program were so willing to throw money at my wild ideas is because they liked my research proposal. It was called “Kyrgyz Berkutchi and the Maintenance of Traditional Knowledge.”  Not only was it pretentious,  but it mistakenly used the Kazakh word for eagle hunter, berkutchi, instead of the Kyrgyz moniker bürkütchü. ‘Small diddly!’, you may say, but try telling a bürkütchü his nation’s diddly is small and he will sic his eagle on you.  I also learned in my Kyrgyz class that if I wanted to refer to eagle hunters, plural, I needed to say bürkütchülör, so I messed that up too. It’s kind of like writing a report on Alaskan fishermen and calling it ‘Behold, the Alaska Fish Man!’

Anyways, I wrote my proposal more than a year ago, sitting in a café in Ulaanbaatar, and now it’s my sworn duty to take that pie out of the sky and put it in the oven. For the first month in Bishkek, I promised, I would meet the various universities and organizations with whom I’d be working. So whenever I’m not trying to fit all those ümlauts in my mouth, I put on my stiffest shirt and go to meetings. As I’m headed out the door, I explain to my baffled host mother that “Сегодня, я не студент. Я бизнесмен.” Today I am not a student. I am a beeznesmen!

Yesterday, for example, I met up with Elmira Kuchumkulova from the University of Central Asia. UCA is a really neat school to work with, the first internationally-chartered university in the world. It’s financed by his royal highness the Aga Khan, a guy from Switzerland who is a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammad. The university will have three brand-new campuses in the mountains of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and they have recruited some first-rate scholars like Elmira,  who is one of the foremost experts on traditional Kyrgyz culture. At lunch, she told me about her project on Kyrgyz akyns – they are improvisational singers who some journalists have likened to freestyle rappers. While strumming a komuz, the akyns wax poetic on whatever is before their eyes (when performing for my friend Mark Humphrey, they sang somethink like ‘His glasses shine like the lights on a Benz’.) Perhaps most interestingly, they are not afraid to delve into the fractured world of Kyrgyz politics, and for this they have received strict warnings from the big shots up high.

Elmira is like my very own Kyrgyz encyclopedia. Over lagman and fried pelmeni she told me about the various entries she has on birds of prey and the hunting tradition. Dennis, did you know that some people string eagle claws from their rear-view mirrors to ward off evil? Or that there is a specific genre of funeral laments for eagle hunters? And that they have their own mausoleums, complete with eagle gravestones? Or that eagle hunting is often mentioned in Manas, an Kyrgyz saga half a million lines long that has been passed down orally for centuries ? No, I didn’t know that, but that’s freaking awesome!  Elmira also plays komuz and sings, and is doing a project on Kyrgyz paremiology. Sigh. My hero.

After an englightening lunch with my Kyrgyz sage, I walked over to the International University of Kyrgyzstan.  The ‘International’ part mostly means that they take in students from the neighboring ‘stans’ – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and the rest. Coming from the US, a country with no such suffix and quite a nice academic reputation, I am their golden boy. The first time I visited, they shuffled me into the vice president’s office and offered me two different translators. ‘We will find you hunters!’ said one. ‘We will find you an assistant!’ said the other. ‘Do you want an office?’ ‘You must meet our president!’ ‘He is a very important man in Kyrgyzstan. He has been to Antarctica! He has many friends in America! They are Mormons! He knows four apostles!’

That last part may have been a poor translation, or I just don’t know enough about esoteric Mormonism. But still, what a man! What a legend! So each time I’ve been to the school, I’ve been told to sit and wait – ‘The president wants to meet you!’. After an hour of sitting and waiting and following around an underling from office to office, I’m told the president won’t be able to make it. He’s a very busy man, you see. He’s very tired today. We hope you understand. ‘Can’t I just ask him about the penguins???’ I want to say.

Another day, I met Guljan, a researcher at the Aigine Center. Their group does a lot of work on traditional Kyrgyz religion. Last summer I helped edit some of their English translations of Kyrgyz health remedies – one involved grinding up a dried frog and another involved burying a dog skull on a Friday. It was some really intriguing stuff and I was excited to visit  their office. Guljan met me outside and took me in to their meeting room, where we sat down and chatted for a while. I’ve been friends with her on Facebook, so I asked her about her wedding. Strange how I can learn about these things from across the globe. It turns out her husband is an American who lived with her and her family as a Peace Corp volunteer when Guljan was very young, and waited for her to grow up so he could come back and take her hand in marriage. How romantic!

Last but not least, I met a nice girl named Eliza, who works for Kyrgyz National University.  She has an easy laugh and a genuine desire to help me with my project. She wanted me to teach some sort of class at her school, but Fulbright frowns on that kind of thing, and besides, that’s not really what I signed up for. Instead, we decided I would give a lecture on my research next week, and all the history and anthropology professors around town would be invited. I’m terrified.  Luckily, in Russian you don’t ‘give’ a lecture, you ‘read’ it. Okay, I can read. That’s  a little bit easier.

I went to Eliza’s school the other day to work out the details and meet some professors, but the classes were rather empty.  Eliza looked embarassed. It seemed that some politicians campaigning for the upcoming election stole the teachers away for the day to promise them everlasting love and support. Now that’s romantic.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2011 7:56 am

    Very recently I have discovered also the Aga Khan Development Foundation and his royal highness Aga Khan!! I had no idea about it. But I think -even the rare and unknown story behind this- they do a nice work in favour of development and cultural and social heritage.

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  1. Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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