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Love and Hate

October 6, 2010

I’m sitting with my host mother in our living room, and for once I am bestowed the honor of Remote Controller. Marina lost her job in the spring, so she spends most of her days watching television, rolling out dumplings in the kitchen to the morning news or lounging on the couch in her pajamas. We’re in Kyrgyzstan, but from our television intake we may as well be in the land of Putin. We watch Russian health shows, Russian stand-up, Soviet movies, and dubbed-over American rom-coms, but nary a Kyrgyz production. So when I get the remote, I flip through the channels until a familiar sound catches my attention. A traditional Kyrgyz folk song hums over the airwaves, accompanied by the Kyrgyz version of Americana – shots of snow-covered mountains, alpine pastures, and smoking yurts. I’m instantly drawn in, but as soon as I have stopped my surfing I see a knee bobbing in the corner of my eye. Marina is growing restless. She clicks her tongue and rolls her eyes.

I oblige when she asks for the remote, and the Kyrgyz music gives way to Russian pop. She is indignant that she had to listen to that garbage for the briefest of moments. Something is muttered in Russian which, as usual, I don’t understand, and then Marina delves into her English vocabulary. She does this only when she really wants to make a point. “Kyrgyz are stupid!” she declares. I’m a more than a little taken aback, but I think I chuckle politely. I probably should just ignore it, but I tell her that, well, I have quite a few Kyrgyz friends and they are all absolutely capable. First she laughs, finding it funny that I have friends. Then she continues: “Maybe twenty percent of Kyrgyz are okay. The rest of them are stupid! And…how do you say?….lazy!” I sink into my chair, shut my mouth and sigh.




Walking downtown, Danil and I pass the charred shell of an office building. “The revolution,” he explains. The building next door is spotted with bulletholes. In April, an angry crowd of disaffected Kyrgyz assembled outside their version of the White House, demanding the resignation of President Bakiyev. He fled to Belarus, but not before his snipers mowed down dozens of protesters from atop his compound. At least 85 people died. I asked Danil if he was there. He tells me he was across the border in Almaty, watching it all unfold on television. “But if I could, I would’ve been there. On the roof. Bam bam bam. Fucking Kyrgyz motherfuckers!” He’s laughing as he shoots them all with his fingers. I put on a grin but feel bad about it.


I’m taking a nap one evening, lightly sleeping after a long day at school. I wake up to Danil standing over my bed. He’s holds out a half-empty beer. “Drink it!” he says. “I don’t like it. I want wheat beer!,” his wheat’s ‘h’ before the ‘w’ like they’re taught in school. “Hweat beer!” I’m groggy but feel bad staying in bed. “Let’s go find some hweat beer!” I agree, and down the leftovers of his offering.

We drive around with his friends, dropping in on different markets and barking out ‘hweeeeeeeeeeat!’ The girls giggle from behind the checkstands but tell us they haven’t any. We decide the search is futile and settle on the closest approximation, some hwiiite beers from Germany. Outside, it is growing dark, and we stand under concrete Kruschyovkas sipping our brews. I spend most of my time listening to them curse at each other in Russian, trying to decipher the words in between the swears. The beer tastes like piss. I learn how to proclaim this in Russian and repeat the foreign phrase four times with feeling, to snickers all around.

The lull of a Bishkek night settles over our foulmouthed exchange, and through the silence a call rings out. Over a scratchy P.A. a man is softly chanting Arabic, beckoning us to pray to his god. Far from the Middle East, nobody here understands these words. Yet they are sung with such conviction and melismatic intensity that I can admire their beauty, if not their sentiment. The notes echo over the neighborhood and tempt me to meditation, but the moment is broken by snickering renewed. Danil’s friends spit on the ground and sport a look of digust. I hear something about ‘see-fer.’ Danil explains – “They say we should blow it up with C-4. You understand? Blow it all up.” I ask him if he means the mosque. He frowns. “You know, the Muslim church.” His face flashes with recognition. “Yes. The Musilimans. We should blow em all up.” The laughter rings on as the prayer call disappears into the night.


Later on, Danil told me that he wouldn’t be surprised if President Obama quit his job and turned to crime. “It can happen. They are all animals. It’s in their blood.” We argued for a long time before I grew flustered and escaped to my room.

After a while, Dasha tapped on the door and poked her head in. “We don’t all think like him,” she pleaded, and paused to think of something more to say. “I read that before you can love others…you must love yourself. My brother can’t do that.” I sat sullenly, trying to feel for him. I thought about his mother, too, and how she lives in a world of white people on television, avoiding the world outside. It must be hard to be a Russian in a land of others. It is not their land. It is not their music. It is not their prayer. But they have nowhere to go.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Palmer permalink
    October 10, 2010 8:25 am

    This was a really great post. I’m trying to think of a way to bring your experiences up in my Muslim Lit. class, because this kind of “Muslim others” thing is all I’ve been reading/learning about recently. Do you know if the racist sentiments work both ways – do the Kyrgyz resent Russians/white folk?

  2. October 15, 2010 8:35 pm

    Interesting. At least among “my crowd” in Almaty I saw little of this hostility between Kazakh and Russian- even some interracial couples. Of course they were united by common interests and were in some cases “intellectuals” but it is not that far away, geographically or culturally. Better government? More prosperity?

    I think Shakula may be a bit disdainful of Kazakhs though.

    • October 17, 2010 2:12 pm

      I do think the economic situation goes along way in explaining any ethnic resentment in Kyrgyzstan. Everybody is jobless and looking for somebody to blame. Kazakhstan, too, has more of a multi-ethnic history. The Kazkakh government has played this up, I think, and I think this goes along way towards their openness to multiculturalism. When I lived there, I heard a lot of people tell me how Kazakhstan is a nation of nations. In Kyrgyzstan it’s much more “Kyrgyzstan is for the Kyrgyz”

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