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The Hunt for the Hunters

April 12, 2011

The country of Kyrgyzstan had been split in two, between North and South, and sometimes, it seemed, between the Pure and the Other. The South was overrun with Uzbeks, they said in the North – they called them Sarts, and it was a word that stung. In the sociocultural makeup of Central Asia, a Sart wasn’t any certain nationality, but a way of life. It meant you were settled. For the Kyrgyz people, ancient nomads of the mountains, there was nothing worse than a Sart –a Sart was a landowner, a trader, a swindler and enslaver. The rooted and the rootless were diametrically opposed, enemies for ages. They’d reduce each other to caricatures. “You no-good Sart,” a Kyrgyz would say “you’re nothing but a melon hawker.” “Well”, the Uzbek might reply “at least I’m not a horse-wrangler.”

Still, as much as the Northerners would like to think it was overrun with Uzbeks, the South was mainly Kyrgyz. But these weren’t real Kyrgyz, they’d protest – they’re Sarts in disguise! On holidays, we eat horse and they eat rice. Like the Uzbeks. When they say “good”, they don’t say jakshy, like us, they say yakshy. Like the Uzbeks. Sometimes, we can’t even understand what those Southerners are saying – speak Kyrgyz, dagnabbit, I ain’t a Sart.

The petty differences could be amusing, maybe, if they hadn’t brought mass murder to this country. In April of last year, the Northerners overthrew a Southern president and blood stained the streets of the capital. The vanquished president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled to his hometown and held court with his cousins, threatening civil war.  By June, the South was unhinged. Kyrgyz teenagers were decapitated. Uzbek men were burned alive. Horse wrangling Kyrgyz shepherds flooded in from the countryside and burned down Uzbek bazaars, melons and all. This was no longer a joke. This was war.

By the time I arrived in the country in the fall, the fighting had fizzled out and the country was on its feet again. A new constitution and a new congress, though, couldn’t banish the cultural divide. Political band-aids couldn’t heal a cultural wound. The country remained as split as ever. The evidence was everywhere I looked, and it showed up in my work.

For my falconry research, I went to nation-wide hunting festivals and watched delegations of hunters march in line, carrying their bird in one hand and a flag in the other. Talas, Chui, Issyk-Kul, Naryn, the banners read. The four northern provinces. The Southerners must have forgotten their flags, I thought, but soon I learned the truth – there weren’t any Southerners there at all. They weren’t invited. As far as the Northerners were concerned, there weren’t any falconers in the South and that was that.

There was a chasm in this country, and it ran right through the falconry community. I had little patience for it. This was a tradition, I knew, that was not limited to half a nation. A century ago, there wasn’t even a Kyrgyzstan to be divided – this was just the Central Asian Tien Shan, and men hunted with birds throughout. The Kyrgyz culture had its geographical nuances – rice here, horse there – but falconry was an exception. This was something that belonged to all people of Kyrgyzstan, north, south and in between. This was common cultural heritage. This was a tradition that could bring people together. Next year, the Southern hunters would be there in force, and their flags would fly with all the rest. For one day, in one arena, this country could be united.

My rhetoric could only go so far. We had to find the falconers first. So I got on a plane, and I flew over the divide. The hunt for the hunters had begun.



One Comment leave one →
  1. May 17, 2011 5:57 pm

    I am from Chile. My name is Sebastian Alarcon. It s very interesting that you write. Congratulations. Now you live in Kisguistan? Denis , you are fron USA? I will go in August to Bishkek, Song Kul, Osh , Batken/ It s no dangerous now in the South? Please answer me to

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