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Bookish Bishkek

December 29, 2010

The first time I went to the National Library of Kyrgyzstan, they told me the president was going to be there. The week before, my friends had run into her at an ice skating rink. Will even held her hand. It’s a small country. These things happen. So here was my chance to meet the prez herself! She used to be the ambassador to the US, and apparently has impeccable English. “Hello, Rosa!” I would say to her, like old friends. “Dennis Keen. I came all the way from America to make your acquaintance.” She would grab my arm and we would skip off into the bookshelves. To get ready, I took out my camera and dictaphone to blend in with the other journalists swarming about. They weren’t letting anybody else into the library, so I did my best to look like I belonged there. We waited and waited, but Rosa never came. A fundraiser for the library was low on her list of priorities, it seemed. Somebody from the ministry of culture showed up and read from a script. People in pearls sat and nodded. I left.

The next time, there were still no presidents there, or anybody else for that matter. A concrete building full of books ranked low on the Kyrgyz youth’s list of hangout hotspots. The only people around were oldies with gold teeth, sitting in corners, reading Soviet books from the golden days. Abay and I went up to the rare book room and peeked around. There was a cabinet full of miniature books from each of the Soviet republics. I’ve seen these a lot elsewhere too – it must have been some Soviet fad. Maybe Stalin thought they were cute. In another cabinet, we spied a black and white photo of eagle hunters from the 1920s. They all worse sheepskin coats and stood in front of a yurt, an intimidating crowd of giant eagles and rough-looking men. We asked the librarian about it and she shrugged. “Do you want it?” She took it out and gave it to us with a smile. I pocketed it happily.


We saw another eagle hunter in the cabinet, too, staring out from a dusty blue book. It looked like it was fifty years old, but it was printed in 1992. It had page after page of pure research gold, Abay told me – eagle hunter’s stories, techniques, legends, the whole shebang. To me, though, it was useless. It was printed in Kyrgyz, and it read like gibberish. Abay asked for a copy, but was told it was the only one in the country. “We do have a digital version, though” they said. “Do you have a flash drive?” The US embassy had paid for a book scanner – thanks guys! She gave us the file and we paid her three dollars –  she asked for it sheepishly. The librarians here make less than a hundred dollars a month. I didn’t mind pitching in.

This week, we came back to dig around some more. The place is really stuck in the stone age. Most of the collection in hidden in back rooms, retrievable only by staff who are bored out of their minds, drinking tea at dusty desks. To find what you want, you have to pore over drawers full of notecards, frayed and stained from years of shuffling. Many of them are handwritten and nearly indecipherable. We managed to make a few finds, with the help of our underpaid friends. One was a treatise from 1929 on falconry in Kazakhstan. I tried not to drool all over it. Another one was a book on Central Asian hunting in general. There was chart after chart of ancient data, collected for the tsar, precisely laying out the game that was caught. In 1899, three tigers were caught in Bishkek. Now, they were all gone. I understood why when, at the end of the book, we found a poster of hand-drawn animals. In one corner, some fearsome creatures were crowded together, with Russian text above. A wolf, a tiger, and a snow leopard grinned their fangs at the reader. I asked Abay what the Russian meant. “Animals to eliminate.”


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Josh permalink
    January 1, 2011 9:58 pm

    Poor snow leopards… they’re pretty.


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

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