About the skies over Bishkek. And life on the ground.

Official Business and Christmas in August

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Last week and this week, lots of official business taking place in Bishkek.

Last week, Bishkek hosted the summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (CCTS). This Friday, Independence Day! The state is in action, and it shows. How?

Getting to work in the morning takes much longer. You have to be patient. Last week, during the summit, massive police presence along Bishkek’s main roads. Police cars with sirens and blaring loudspeakers speeding past me. And, the same procedure repeating itself: as I tried to cross the street with the signal turning green, looking left and right (repeat. repeat again. then, be very quick. but never without looking again. and again), I noticed the unimaginable: no car to be seen. The street had been completely cleared, in no time. And then the policeman yelled at me to step back from the edge of the sidewalk. I think that’s what he was saying, although all I understood was “tam! tam!” (tam means “there”). And I am glad I was sent to second row: he quickly took my spot, in his crisp white shirt, and performed a perfect military salute as the shiny black motorcade zoomed by.

Let’s not forget about the shiny blue tractors, though, because they, too, got a lot of attention this week (and, yes, they, too, blocked the street). On what I was told used to be one of Bishkek’s former parade boulevards, a parade of brand new tractors from Belarus, perfectly lined up for an official ceremony. Instead of the public demonstration of military might, a demonstration of bilateral economic cooperation. The Times They Are A-Changin’ in Bishkek.

But most importantly, the city is getting ready for Independence Day this Friday. Workers are busy dressing up Bishkek: putting up banners and flags at Ala-Too Square, the city center, and the staging ground for all the festivities and performances tomorrow. Last-minute rehearsals were under way this morning:

And they work hard, up in the air:

At street level, workers are tending the public grounds and sweeping the streets with long straw brooms. And they are flooding some (Bad days for wearing sandals in Bishkek. You see a lot of women trying to jump from dry patch to dry patch [good luck] as they are crossing the streets).

And, the first people ready to celebrate have arrived, with balloons and flags and all dressed up:

As Bishkek prepares to celebrate the events of the year 1991, it remembers the dead of the 2010 Revolution. Wreaths have been put up next to the plaques inscribed with their names. The plaques are attached to the fence surrounding the White House (yes, there are many White Houses in the world), which is the seat of the parliament and the president’s offices. Right next to it is the new monument dedicated to those killed during the demonstrations.

Historical memory runs deep in this city. And some of it seems compressed into a few days in August: manifested in the display of national emblems and in spectacles, in rituals following state protocol, in quiet acts of commemoration, etched into the city’s built environment, and in objects placed into children’s hands. In all the manifestations that are part of, and hold together, a slippery national narrative and identity. And I haven’t even mentioned the 2005 Revolution (the so-called “Tulip Revolution”). Or the ethnic clashes of June 2010 in Osh, a city in the south, close to the Uzbek border. The fact that I asked a friend, naively, if the wreaths outside the White House were for the hundreds of victims of the horrible violence and destruction in Osh reveals that I don’t understand how historical memory, with its inherent amnesias, unfolds, and contracts, in Kyrgyzstan. And I have only touched on events of the recent years, and of the past few decades. Going back to 1991 only. To the year when a country broke free and became the Kyrgyz Republic. The year when a city called Frunze became the city of Bishkek. Though when you book a flight to Bishkek, you are still going to FRU. The politics of naming and renaming, and the politics of memory. So complicated, yet in plain sight when I look at the electronic luggage tag still attached to my suitcase. The past is persistent. And resilient. Refuses to be shed and discarded like an old object that no one wants any longer.

Other than the official state business, everything is business as usual in Bishkek. People enjoy eating ice cream in the park. Kids enjoy jumping in the inflatable castles. (Bishkek is kiddie castle kingdom). And I am, foolishly, tempted to think, for one split second, as I was walking in the park the other day, that things look predictably familiar after less than three weeks. Almost boring. Until – wait – WHAT?

Christmas Paradise?! In August?! In the park next door?! Ach, Bishkek, do you always have to confuse me? But that’s what makes life with you so interesting. And thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. Because for some tiny person, bouncing up and down on air under Bishkek’s blindingly blue summer sky, laughing uncontrollably and screaming with joy, this is paradise. Might almost feel like Christmas. In August.

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