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

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Eight Takes on March 8

Today, on March 8, yet another national holiday is being celebrated in Kyrgyzstan: International Women’s Day. It’s an important day, like it is in many former Soviet countries. Here are eight thoughts prompted by March 8 in Bishkek, told largely through 2013 photographs.

1.) Cake and Carnations instead of Bread and Roses

It was the day of flowers, of red roses and carnations. By the end of the work day, women left office buildings with bouquets of flowers. My university organized a reception to honor its female employees, a flower for each included. Colleagues, cab drivers, store clerks: all congratulated on International Women’s Day. Flowers in abundance, also on street corners and at markets. Sold out of buckets and pots.






Then there were the decorated cakes:


Many cakes…


How many? Vanloads of cakes…

2.) Eight in Bloom (and in Color)

In Ala-Too Square, colorful variations on a number. Make your pick (out of eight options, of course):








The eighth 8, off Ala-Too Square:

3.) What Women Want (Or Not)

In Ala-Too Square, vendors sold the “matching” accessories. Perfume, toiletries, stuff.


4.) March 8 Makes for Strange Encounters (Or: How to Meet a Princess on International Women’s Day)

Expect the unexpected on national holidays in Bishkek. Meet Princess Fiona in Ala-Too Square. She stands out from the crowd, really.


You can even shake hands with her. Not into Shrek? There are other curious creatures to meet and greet. No reason to be shy:

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5.) Wired: The Hardware of Visual Effects

A look behind the cardboards of Ala-Too Square:


Wood&wire for special effects:


6.) Fried Chicken and Fanta are for Girls

A special offer on March 8 by Coca-Cola and Begemot, with congratulations. Decorated with flowers, of course, because it’s all about women on March 8. Begemot is the popular fast food chain in Bishkek; you can spot the food stands from far away because of their distinct design (red and white stripes) and the lines of waiting customers. The local equivalent of McDonald’s in the absence of western corporate chains: burgers, fries, and soda. Only on March 8: buy fried chicken and get a Fanta for free! Does this mean burgers and Coke are for guys?


7.) The Party is On (Kyrgyz Hospitality)

The jolliest moment of March 8: at Dordoi market, in passing, a spontaneous invitation to eat, drink, and be merry in cheerful company. In the narrow and freezing shopping aisles, between stacked containers filled with goods from China, a sumptuous buffet and the generous offer -no, insistence- to dig in. Salads, meats, bread, pickles, chocolate, champagne, and cognac, spread on newspapers. And, in Kyrgyz fashion, many toasts. Here’s to you, friendly people, for including us strangers in your impromptu celebration.



8.) What it’s all about. And what it takes (Or: Women’s Rights and Courage)

March 8, told through a recent experience of feminist activists in Bishkek. A different use of public space; very different from the colorful spectacle in Ala-Too Square. A different story of March 8. One without photographs. Beyond the photogenic scenario that consists of sweet cakes, pretty plastic flowers, red hearts, and elaborate cardboard congratulations described above, an ugly and violent reality is lurking:

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Cupids of Bishkek

Love it or hate it, you can’t escape it: Valentine’s Day. Not even in Kyrgyzstan. I was curious about February 14 in Bishkek, having lived in the U.S.  -Valentine’s Day HQ- for many years, where I felt helplessly swept away by the merciless annual tidal wave of heart-shaped candy, red roses, endless Hallmark card aisles, coupons for romantic dinners for two, herds of stuffed animals, and all kinds of objects made in the shape of a heart. Consumption ad absurdum, feeding a gigantic industry in the compulsory name of love, all dipped in red and pink.

A year ago in Bishkek, Valentine’s Day took place on a smaller scale, but it’s an up and coming commercialized day. The good thing about Valentine’s Day is that it doesn’t sneak up on you and hit you over the head out of nowhere. There is a gradual build-up to it that allows you to brace yourself for the final onslaught. So, too, in Bishkek, days before February 14, street vendors sold red roses wrapped in cellophane. Heart-heavy ads filled the stores, cafes, and movie theaters. Beware of Bishkek’s cupids preying on you:


On Valentine’s Day, cocktails are for lovers:


More hungry for chocolate cake than for love? At the French Bakery, cake (Brownies, Three-Chocolate, and Sachertorte) is for chocoholics. Let them eat cake, too:


On the actual day, dressed-up young men with gigantic bouquets of flowers were hurrying to meet their dates. Couples were strolling through town, showcasing the symbolic markers of love: red balloons, stuffed animals, and flowers. The usual sights on Valentine’s Day.


But then there was the recurring spectacle of sight at Ala-Too Square. My favorite part of any holiday celebration in Bishkek is the display of the popular photo ops at Bishkek’s central square. On these days, public space transforms into a marketplace of photo motifs, often with more than a dozen different sets to choose from. It resembles a crowded fun fair without the rides. Instead, it attracts with a wild medley of bright colors and an eclectic mix (no match) of designs: themed cardboard decorated with hearts, doves, butterflies, cupids, swans, and plastic flower arrangements. Or a combination of all of the above. Against this backdrop, plastic cars and motorcycles, dolls in traditional clothing, rocking horses, and huge stuffed animals for children to sit on are carefully arranged for the perfect photograph. There’s a place for everyone in these photographs, for the toddlers as much as for the grandparents.


For those with butterflies in the stomach, butterflies in the heart:


For the more daring, Valentine’s Day at Ala-Too Square offers a probing preview of how it looks to stand under a wedding canopy:


Each set is a composition of its own. The markers of national and ethnic identity are never far from Ala-Too Square. Props also include the Kyrgyz flag and the komuz (the traditional Kyrgyz string instrument, similar to a guitar):



Part of the holiday displays are live animals. Fisher Price aesthetic with a county fair touch. On Valentine’s Day, not lovebirds, but pairs of doves and rabbits find themselves in a graceful though lifeless swan embrace:


Granted, it’s kitsch at its best, and it’s a commercial spectacle. But families love to have their photos taken on holidays in Bishkek. And they are serious about preserving the memories of a multigenerational trip to the capital city to participate in the celebrations. It’s a seriousness mirrored in photographic conventions: people look straight into the camera but usually don’t smile for these staged portraits, even though they are surrounded by a hilarious cast.

For the romantic couples who want to escape the crowded square, the Cinderella-inspired dream of a ride in a horse-drawn carriage may come true on February 14, even without a fairy godmother. Right at Ala-Too Square. No ol’ pumpkin carriage waiting for them in Bishkek:


No holiday celebration in Ala-Too Square without the street vendors selling the classic snacks (popcorn, pink&white cotton candy, and candy apples) and matching accessories, such as shiny foil balloons and teddy bears:





Sweets for sweethearts. Wasn’t there a whiff of something in the otherwise polluted Bishkek air? The smell of sugarcoated apples? Or was that the smell of plastic, the stuff the Valentine’s Day merchandise that flooded the bazaars and stores, is made of? Amidst this colorful tableau of larger-than-life swans, flowery hearts, white doves, and balloons with love messages from Barbie and Spiderman (P.S. I Love You) wrapped in sugary cotton candy clouds that is Ala-Too Square on Valentine’s Day, a Proustian moment of evoked memories of splendid 1980s disco nights.

Time for a public expression of affection for a city. Bishkek, when all the red hearts, balloons, and flowers are gone, and when you are back to your own grayish self: will you be mine?


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Remembering a Revolution

Work has caught up with me, and now it’s time for me to catch up with this blog. And to steal back some time. On this first day of June, 3,000 miles away from Bishkek, it’s time write about a weekend in April. And about how people in two cities in Kyrgyzstan remembered the events that changed the country’s history three years ago.

On April 7, people in Bishkek remembered the 2010 Revolution, which led to the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. At the White House, next to the memorial dedicated to those who died in the violence, people sat in front of the plaques inscribed with the names of the dead. They were sitting silently, some praying and crying, and some were hugging each other, sharing their grief. Some who walked by briefly stopped and paid tribute to those who had been killed.




New wreaths had been put up. People left flowers, bouquets and single red roses and carnations, at the White House fence and at the memorial.


By coincidence, I happened to be in the city of Talas the day before, on April 6. In the small, remote city in northwestern Kyrgyzstan, one of the country’s agricultural centers, where the 201o Revolution started exactly three years ago. From this small city, with a population of less than 35,000, cut off from the rest of the country by a massive mountain range, a revolution spread. Public events commemorating the revolution took place in Talas on April 6; many people, all dressed up, were out and about on the streets in the early morning. And lots of stories were told, that weekend. Of the extreme economic hardship that people endured; of persistent electricity outages; of skyrocketing utility costs; of the bitter knowledge of being cheated and abandoned by the corrupt government; of tensions rising in light of the increased visibility of government forces that had poured into the city in anticipation of an uprising. Of the breaking point, when people would not, could not, take it any longer. Of violence.

Here, too, a memorial reminds of the events of April 2010:





As I walked home from Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square that Sunday, April 7, away from the memory work, there was other work going on in the city. Public workers were busy with urban spring cleaning. They planted flowers:


They added a new coat of paint to the pedestrian crosswalk markings:


And workers built houses:


Bishkek on a Sunday, three years after a revolution.