Choosing Kyrgyz

Big decisions have been made this week, ending my brief “landing” phase in Kyrgyzstan, and starting a new, experimental phase. I’ll be moving in with a very interesting group of students close to downtown Bishkek. Also, I have made the unorthodox choice to try my hand at Kyrgyz before Russian (I studied the latter almost two years ago, but can barely speak it at the moment).

Hopefully the move won’t entail more “student life”. Truth be told, although appearances probably suggest otherwise, I’ve never been a fan of the student’s existence. Yes, I enjoy the late evenings of conversations and being able to crash on a friend’s couch without worrying about annoying a spouse or being too loud after the children’s bedtime. However, I’ve never been keen about the material poverty and the mental tyrannies often inflicted by ideas, insecurities, and professors.

When I left Belgium, part of me finally hoped to return to living the young adult’s existence, of which I had much too brief a taste during my closing years in Philadelphia. An apartment full of upstarts, living in an upstart city, trying to do upstart things. Strange how those years still seem so near, and yet there is nearly half a decade between myself then and myself now. And strange how, in a way, I sort of had such an experience during my closing months in Leuven. Well, I will just have to see what transpires.

As for Kyrgyz, where do I start about that? The language issue, as I suppose it inevitably would be no matter what the context, is a real knot of issues. Like Belgium, Kyrgyzstan has a serious language crisis, so any decision a foreigner takes is bound to disappoint and consternate someone. I still remember how angrily some of my Flemish friends reacted when I decided to learn French, as well as how many of my expatriate friends rejected the utility of learning Flemish — “a farmer’s language” they called it.

I would like to ask my readers: if you were me, which would you choose to learn? Please answer this poll. And click “read more” to read the pros and cons as I understand them.

Professional: I would be the rare American to know this language, much less the Turkic languages as a whole, to which Kyrgyz opens the door. Clearly, this is a leg up. Or, rather, it would be if the rest of the planet, especially the West, actually cared about Central Asia. One can hear the sucking sound of the ever-growing vacuum as Western armies, development entities, and donor agencies flee Afghanistan and the broader region.

Yet, Russian remains the lingua franca throughout the former Soviet space. Kyrgyz may open the door to Kazakh, and to some extent Uzbek, Turkmen, even Turkish. However, each time I would still have to pass through that door, i.e., spend time getting to know the new language, its orthography, rules of ussage, etc.

Intellectual: As intrigued as I’ve always been by Russian culture, ultimately I’m still an Islam specialist. Additionally, perhaps it’s not for nothing that the experts I most respect and who influenced me at a crucial moment in my life — Matthew Cook and Patricia Crone — both started as Turkologists. And in general, the Turkic world is still basically overlooked in academic circles. It would be valuable to know what it has to offer the global conversation.

Yet, Russian simply possesses immensely more resources than Kyrgyz, such as Vasily Barthold and Lev Gumilev. I can’t depend upon Google Translator forever. Besides, many of the Central Asians themselves made the switch to Russian, such as Chingiz Aitmatov.

Strategic: It’s clear that Russian is slowly on the decline here. This is not a mono-ethnic country by any stretch of the imagination, but Bishkek is obviously a Russian island, and the Kyrgyz waters are beginning to flood in. Since I was last here two years ago, Kyrgyz has come to fill the signs on billboards and municipal buildings. I also learned from Belgium that when a colonial-era language finally falls, it can do so quickly. Among Flemish Belgians my age and younger, French is primarily a written language, whereas just one generation ago, full fluency was widespread.

Yet, it’s also clear that in Bishkek, the fall still has some decades to come. The casinos and small shops may be in Kyrgyz — as well as the sermons in the mosques and the conversations in the smoky rooms of Parliament — but the truly key businesses and industries are still operating in Russian. There is also a lot of anxiety over the future of the Russian-speaking minority, which includes both Slavs and Russified Central Asians, as well as the majority of expatriates. And in the simmering conflict between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, Russian offers a “neutral” space.

Personal: Oh boy, this is a bag of worms. There’s the desire to finally master a tongue besides English, the desire to be safe (since Kyrgyzstan’s thieves, both in and out of a police uniform, are less likely to bother a Kyrgyz-speaking foreigner), and also to some extent the desire to right what I did wrong in Belgium, namely, not learn Flemish (nor learn French well enough to speak).

Let’s face it, Russian is a super-model, an impossibly gorgeous but nerve-wracking bitch. I’m told that Kyrgyz is like the proverbial tomboy, unappreciated by the guys, and you never would have anticipated how easy she was to get to know, nor so beautiful once you did. The Kyrgyz may be cruel to their own kind who’ve Russified and forgotten their “mother” tongue, but they’re very supportive of foreigners who make the attempt. By contrast, Russians tend to wonder why you’re bastardizing their language. And I know of stories in which foreigners got themselves out of tight spots simply by shouting, “Jok!” (“No!”)

Yet, being the only Anglophone/Turkophone in the room will surely prove to be a hassle for everyone, since even Central Asians themselves can easily slip back into Russian, especially when the discussion turns to ideas. I also expect many non-Kyrgyz will feel slighted. They may feel as though I’ve sided with the ultra-nationalists, i.e., that Kyrgyzstan is for the Kyrgyz only. This is a divided country, and as happened to me in Belgium, I will almost certainly experience the lack of unity intimately.

Spiritual: As a Bahá’í, I’m supposed to be geared toward the exigencies of a situation. But what are the exigencies here? Bishkek is a city rife with parallel dimensions: the expatriates and the Westernized liberal locals who orbit them; the university-educated Russophones out for status and security; and the Kyrgyz underclass pouring in from the countryside, hobbling together meager livelihoods and too often ending up laying in a drunken stupor on the sidewalk. In this situation, clearly the power and prosperity, at least in the medium-term, is with Russian.

Moreover, if I will be living in the downtown, realistically-speaking how often will I actually ever use Kyrgyz? I don’t know, but I doubt as much as if I were in one of the micro-districts, and certainly as if I were in a village or Osh. And if I were actually out there “in the wild”, then would I be perceived as a missionary and colonist? And I would love to visit the mosques of this country, but I first need a fixer, someone to let the believers know that this infidel means them no harm.


What does Bahá’u’lláh have to say about the matter? The core Bahá’í Writings were penned in Arabic and Persian, and although the latter had been a language of letters and courts for several centuries in Central Asia and beyond, the former still had the prestige of being the exalted language of the soul and the divine. Indeed, mastery of Arabic was much more of a status symbol than mastery of Persian, which was almost expected. The parallels between Russian and Kyrgyz, then, are striking. Indeed, even my fellow Baha’ís here in Bishkek have grave doubts about the viability of Kyrgyz as a language of inner, meaningful discourse.

Our Faith’s Prophet-Founder had to deal with the thorny task of responding to the complaints of both those who remained attached to the Arabic language as the tongue of exaltation, and those of a more proto-nationalistic bent who saw Arabic’s days as numbered. To the first group, Bahá’u’lláh quoted the Mathnaví:

Speak in the Persian tongue, though the Arab please thee more;
A lover hath many a tongue at his command.

To the latter group, He wrote:

Thou hast written concerning languages. Both Arabic and Persian are laudable. That which is desired of a language is that it convey the intent of the speaker, and either language can serve this purpose. And since in this day the Orb of divine knowledge hath risen in the firmament of Persia, that tongue deserveth every praise.

Somehow, that must be the real point: both (and in point of fact, all) languages are good. So, one way or another, I’m going to have to learn both Russian and Kyrgyz. But perhaps I will discover that the daystar of the divine is truly rising in Kyrgyz. The Muslim missionaries must be seeing glimmers of it, twinkling on the horizon, why else have they given their all to bring Islam to this language? So, I would like to see it too, if I can…


3 Replies to “Choosing Kyrgyz”

  1. Dear Chris, do not underestimate the rudimentary knowledge of Russian you have! A year at CLT means a solid foundation on which you can build your tower of Babylon! I am still encountered by people who ask me why I have not learned Flemish after 3 years of being here. I think they would have asked why I did not learn the more philosophically useful languages (German and French), had it been the case that I had learned Flemish!

  2. The Turkic languages in the Turkic countries open a lot more doors than does Russian in terms of professional interactions. When you speak in the Turkic languages in the countries of Central Asia, and the Caucasus people tend to be more inviting than when you speak Russian. The Turkic languages are also much more regular than Russian and so it takes less time to learn one–even less a second one. Afterwards you can learn Russian.

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