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The Hunter with the Paintbrush

January 3, 2011

Hey all, sorry there hasn’t much bloggage lately! It turns out that even in Kyrgyzstan we have a holiday season. I’ve been told that some people’s e-mail subscriptions have cut out since I got the new .com domain name. If you want to be notified of my new posts by e-mail, leave a comment on this post and check the “Notify me of site updates” box. That should do the trick!


For two months, Mairamkul Asanaliev was a mystery to me. I had come across his work through simple serendipity, on a pirated CD of Kyrgyz folk music I had bought in a bazaar. Sifting through its contents on my computer, I found more than just the music I had bought it for. There were komuz tunes aplenty, but hidden amongst the mp3s was a strange hodgepodge of Kyrgyz cultural ephemera – nationalist music videos, Arabic calligraphy, seventy-year-old recordings of Kyrgyz bards reciting ancient sagas. I dug through the folders, surprised and intrigued. Hidden in the depths of this two-dollar disc was the most striking Kyrgyz art I had ever seen, jpg. after astonishing jpg. Lions fused into crocodiles with arms studded with emblems, and fine lines formed abstract patterns within eagle heads. Primitive imagery was mixed with psychedelia, mythology mixed with surreal abstraction. It all seemed to sing with hidden meaning, but I had no idea what it meant. One picture was a scanned poster, faded and scribbled on, and on it the artist had revealed his name, written in a runic font: Asanaliev Mairamkul Musabai Uulu.

For weeks after, I searched for more. English-language googles gave me nothing, but some Russian-language searches told me that this Mairamkul was a famous Kyrgyz designer. He had created the flag of Bishkek and it’s city seal, an abstracted snow leopard hunched beneath a castle. The emblem was everywhere, from newsstands to cop cars, but it was presented with anonymity. You would never know who made it. But now I knew, and the mystery grew. And then just as accidentally as I had found the art, I had found the artist. I was speaking with a colleague when she suggested I speak to some Kyrgyz scholars about my eagle hunting research. There is one man, she said, who knows a lot about these ancient traditions. You should meet him. His name is Mairamkul. “Mairamkul Asanaliev?”, I asked. Yes, she said, do you know him?


“Meet me by the eternal flame,” he told my translator Abay when we called. A few days later we found him there at the war memorial, short and dressed in a shabby suit, topped with a felt Kyrgyz kalpak embroidered with runes.  He had the shyness of an artist, with none of the boisterous bragosity that I see so often in other Kyrgyz men. Walking to a Chinese restaurant, he asked us if we recognized him. We had met this mystery man before, it seemed, at an eagle hunting festival in Talas, without even knowing it. It turns out that the hunter and the artist were one and the same. He was actually the leader of a hunting federation in Kyrgyzstan. My interests had come full circle. Perfect.

As I filled up his teacup in the back room of the Chinese place, Mairamkul gave me a book of his art. I stared at the designs, trying to decipher them. Around the book’s frame was a trail of symbols, and the artist pointed at them and spoke. “Holy letters,” he called them. One by one, he picked apart the runes, letting me in on their secret meanings. “See this one here? This is the earth and this is the heavens. This line between them? It is the connection between men and gods.” He had found the lines and spirals in old books, and each one had a story. I tried to ask who made them, when they were used, but the specifics didn’t seem important to him. They were just a part of a hazy Kyrgyz past, the realm of his ancestors, when men blended into myth and all was sacred. “Nowadays, people talk and talk but say nothing. Everything is senseless.  But back then,” he said “everything had meaning.”

He pointed to a drawing of his to explain. A man sat in meditation, flanked by lions and dragons. Behind him loomed an eagle, and on its feathers were forty symbols, every one a tribal marker. The man was Manas, a Kyrgyz hero who was said to have united these forty tribes and led them into the golden age of the Kyrgyz people. In Kyrgyzstan, he is ubiquitous – his statues grace the squares and his name is on the airport, the streets, the stores. “He is like a god,” said Mairamkul. Pointing to the hero’s face, he traced his finger along the curves of his moustache.  “See how it’s curled up at the end? Back then, this meant something. If your moustache curved up, it meant you were strong, and your health would not leave you. If it drooped down, you were weak. Your health was not good, and soon, maybe you would die.” He stared at me earnestly. Everything had meaning, he repeated. Even the shape of your ‘stache.


The mythology had no end. Stories built upon stories, and what seemed silly to me was deadly serious to the artist. He pointed to a spiraling rune and leapt into another tale. When they went into battle, Kyrgyz warriors used to put this on the forehead, he said, painted in red. They wore all black, and rode dark horses. When they were fighting the Greeks, the enemy saw them only as shadows, and the spirals became red eyes. Once defeated, they went back to Greece and spoke of one-eyed monsters, and they called them Cyclops. I tilted my eyebrows in disbelief, but Mairamkul kept going. The man and the horse seemed to be one, he said, and they called this beast a Minotaur. The stories were mixed up, the truths were jumbled, but the Kyrgyz were at the center of it all.

Most of these tales are gone now,  he said, lost to the ages. The Kyrgyz were a rich people, blessed by the wisdom of their forefathers. When the Russians came, though, it was all destroyed.  They wanted to take from us what defined us, Mairamkul told me, what made us special. So they found the people who knew the most about these things and they killed them. “I met one old man,” he said “named Hussein Karasoltov. He had no teeth. The Soviets had ripped them all out and then thrown him in jail. When I talked to him, he laughed. He laughed at the wonder of still being alive. Everybody else was killed.” According to Mairamkul, the plot was far-reaching. “If you even said the word Manas, wrote the word Manas, you were not safe.”

The stories of persecution piled up. Even dogs were exterminated. Mairamkul looked sad as he told about the taigans, the Kyrgyz breed that would accompany falconers on their hunts. He had some of these dogs himself at home – most hunters did. Before the coming of the Soviets, though, the dogs were even more plentiful, more pure, more glorious. They could catch a snow leopard, people said. But the Soviets wanted to eliminate them. The secret service had a list of dog-owners, and they went town-to-town, tracking them down. They would tell them that their dogs were sick, and they would give them injections. The needles were full of water. The dogs all died.

I listened to these stories with incredulity. What was I to believe? It seemed like seventy years of Sovietification had left the Kyrgyz people so bereft of any authentic understanding of themselves that they crafted fantasy worlds for themselves, convincing themselves of their own glory and victimization, where Kyrgyz defeated Greeks and the KGB killed their dogs.  I was reminded of a friend of Mairamkul’s I had met in Talas, who told me the Kyrgyz people invented the fork. For these scholars, nothing was worth fact-checking. Everything was possible, because the Kyrgyz nation was all and everything.

As we were leaving the restaurant, Mairamkul signed his book for me, writing my name in his very own font. He had taken runes and shaped them into Cyrillic, turning them and twisting them, old symbols coming alive again as they turned into the sounds of my name. Were these shapes really Kyrgyz? I didn’t know. Did the man on the cover ever really live, and did his moustache really have meaning? It didn’t matter to me. To Mairamkul, it all meant something, and to me, it was all beautiful. Whether by fact or fiction, the hunter’s art was inspired, and truth had nothing to do with it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Debbie permalink
    January 4, 2011 4:08 pm

    I, for one, am glad the Kyrgyz invented the fork.


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