There are perks and disadvantages of walking to work in the morning on Chui Street, past the White House (the Parliament) and Ala-Too Square (Bishkek’s central square). Chui is one of Bishkek’s main traffic arteries, and during the morning and afternoon rush hours, cars, Mashrutkas, and buses mercilessly compete for every inch of road space. When to cross Chui Street in the morning is a strategic decision and a matter of timing. If my walk to work coincides with the President driving to work to the White House, when all car and foot traffic is halted for his motorcade, things can take some time. Similarly, if foreign dignitaries and delegations are in town, all one can do while waiting to cross Chui is to look for the black, shiny cars with little, colored flags fluttering in the wind and hope they will finally rush by. I like walking to work and back home on Chui because the center of Bishkek is the city’s political pulse: demonstrations and rallies frequently take place in front of the White House and official events organized by the city, the state, or by political groups on the adjacent Ala-Too Square. As public space, it is contested and, as the past has shown, embattled space. It’s symbolic national space. It’s here where landmark buildings, monuments, and memorials are located. It’s here where revolutions took place. Where an increased police presence registers moments of tension. Where national holidays are being celebrated. And some newly invented commemorative days, too. Like National Flag Day, on March 4.
That Monday, a quite spectacular and unusual sight on Chui: hundreds of young men (and where were the women?) of high school and college age were wearing Kalpaks and carrying large Kyrgyz flags. Kalpaks are as Kyrgyz as lakhman, the national dish, or as shyrdaks, the traditional felt carpets made by Kyrgyz women, or as the yurt. They are the traditional white felt hats, often embroidered with ornaments, worn by men, and they are a daily sight in Bishkek: men in suits on their way to work wear them as much, and as proudly, as old men from the countryside, teenagers, and little boys. On Monday, the young men had gathered in large groups on Chui and were walking from two directions toward Ala-Too Square for an event that started around noon.
And Ala-Too Square was getting ready, with a stage, giant loudspeakers, camera teams, and all.
And, the photographers had set up shop, too: for a souvenir snapshot, featuring flag, heart, doves, and flowers. Every event at Ala-Too Square becomes an elaborate photo op, with themed backdrop boards and an odd assembly of over-the-top props and accessories: toys, animals, fake flower arrangements, collages with the date prominently displayed. Depending on the occasion (Independence Day and other public holidays, Valentine’s Day, International Women’s Day), Ala-Too Square transforms into a marketplace of photo ops, often with more than a dozen sets to choose from. The days when the photo op becomes a photo op.
The event was organized by the Ministry of Labor, Migration, and Youth. No one I asked about Flag Day, though, knew about its existence. But at Ala-Too Square, one could witness its performance. Flag Day came with a full program, with a popular television moderator in a traditional Kyrgyz dress and speeches by officials.
There were, above all, performances by Kyrgyz pop singers, and one by an old man who, sitting on a chair, recited, in a dramatic and passionate if not fierce tone (at times hard to separate), parts of the epic Manas poem. To my ears, unaccustomed to this oral tradition, it sounded like a song. Only after the event, when I described the performance to a student, did I learn that the man was reciting the Manas poem. The Kyrgyz people revere these storytellers, the manaschis, for their artful mastery of this sheer endless text. All this took place under the statue of Manas.
I don’t speak and understand Kyrgyz. But I have noticed, in general, that living in a country and not knowing the language makes me listen harder. And better. My ears have become acutely attuned to intonations, to nuances, because I rely so much on that social radar system in daily interactions with people. Being unable to interpret things around me in their larger historical, political, and cultural contexts, listening to how things are being said often remains the only meaning-making strategy to cling to. There was a moment at Ala-Too Square, last Monday, of what resembled a pledge of allegiance, when the crowd of young people chanted in response to the prompt given in a speech on stage. And, most importantly, I identified three recurring words: patriotism, Kyrgyzstan, and Kalpak. My take-away message.
Most ethnic Russians in Kyrgyzstan don’t speak Kyrgyz. But the Kyrgyz language, Kyrgyz history, and Kyrgyz literature, along with “Manas Studies,” have become required staples of the state-mandated school and university curricula in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is in the process of seeking, and creating, its Kyrgyz identity. And that’s exactly what took place on Monday at Ala-Too Square. A performance of nationalism. A performance of Kyrgyz identity. Or rather, a performance that illustrated the quest for it, expressed -made visible and audible- through the markers of national identity: flags and other symbolic objects (Kalpaks), language (Kyrgyz), songs, and epic poems. The elements for constructing a larger story about the past, the present, and the future. Woven into a narrative, they are the reminders of who we are and who we want to be, where we are coming from, and of what binds us together as a people. At Ala-Too Square that day, a demonstration of the complicated relationship between history, memory, myth, tradition, and national identity. That’s why I love to walk to work and back home on Chui Street, past the White House and Ala-Too Square. Always something new to learn. But that’s not the only place to learn about national identity formation. It takes shape in many places, including the candy aisle of supermarkets. One of my most favorite places to roam in countries that I don’t know. It was here, at the Narodni store, where I found another version of Manas: chocolate in bright yellow, green, pink, and blue Manas wrappers that tell a story in pictures. The same story that the manaschi told at Ala-Too Square by reciting the Manas poem. The story of a national hero; the story that the Kyrgyz people tell of themselves. Because not only grown-ups need reminders of a shared past; children do, too.
For the complete set of photographs of Flag Day, click on this link:
The spectacle of Flag Day last Monday reminded me of another event that took place at Ala-Too Square last fall, on November 7. As Americans were waking up to a second term of the Obama presidency, Kyrgyzstan was celebrating a national holiday: the Day of the October Socialist Revolution. Flowers and wreaths were left at the giant bronze feet of the 2010 revolutionary fighters.
And the Ata Meken (Fatherland) Party held an event at Ala-Too Square. As always, I stumbled into it by coincidence. And I stayed to listen and watch: the visuals displayed in bright colors on the LED screen, to the soundtrack of Kyrgyz pop singers wearing red ribbons. The symbolic images of the Kyrgyz nation in grainy resolution: a man wearing a Kalpak riding on a horse, fierce warriors, the Manas figure, a military parade, modern city images, and nature. The Kyrgyz nation in pixels:
No rest for Bishkek’s Kalpak-wearing youth, though. A day after Flag Day was Kalpak Day. On March 5. And again, an official event took place at Ala-Too Square. Sadly, I missed it (the point of walking to work is to stay there for a while, after all). But on my way home, Ala-Too was still crowded with young people, playing volleyball and other games, or just hanging out. By that time, most young men had taken off their Kalpaks.