Wait for the wheel (IV): Downward is heavenward

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“And through it all she seems secure that downward is heavenward…”

-“Afternoon With The Axolotls” by Hum

It was a late July night just beneath the mountains around Karakol, and my insides were grinding with food poisoning. My skin seeped with hot sweat while my arms and legs shivered as though I had been bathed in freezing snow, and my skull thundered. My Kyrgyz compatriots first force-fed me modern medicine and then gave me a large dose of ancient shamanism. They laid me down in the törof a yurt, wrapped me in shïrdak rugs, and lifting my head, had me drink an entire chainik of green tea. Then all save one, their baqshï, the shaman, exited.

A middle-aged man with a gravely voice, weathered skin, and deep eyes, he leaned over me and, gripping my hands and gently compressing my forehead, began to chant a prayer in Kyrgyz. He invoked the name of the Kyrgyz nation’s ancestor-leader, Manas, and he called upon the cosmos and the divine creator Himself. I remember feeling somehow both inside and outside my pain, almost as though it were a kind of searing pleasure, an embodiedness so intense that I was disembodied. Most of all, I remember feeling cared for. Western medicine can often be so sterile, heartless; this ancient method, by contrast, was so warm, attentive. And it was sublime. I managed to whisper, “Sonun” — “Beautiful” — to my chanting compatriot. I could sense him smile in reply, and he gently rubbed my forehead. I thought to myself, If I die, this is a wonderful way to leave this world.

Continue reading “Wait for the wheel (IV): Downward is heavenward”

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First snow, first birthday

220px-National_emblem_of_Kyrgyzstan.svgToday was my sixth birthday far from home, but my first in Kyrgyzstan. To celebrate, Bishkek has donned a cloak of the winter’s first snow. Above is a crystal blue sky, and everywhere wet white co-mingling with lingering autumnal golds and crimsons. I can see why the Kyrgyz made көк (blue, but “асмандай”, sky-like or azure) and ак (white, but “кардай”, snow-like and brilliantly pure) the colors of their national seal, and why it appears so often in their various оймолор (symbolic tribal patterns).

I decided not to spend the day just “about myself”, so I shared the morning talking ideas and the future of Kyrgyzstan with two very interesting philosophy students (one of whom, like me, doubles as a journalist!); then I shared the early afternoon with a wonderful woman in blue strolling Erkendik boulevard, and then the late afternoon via Skype with a dear colleague; and then finally, I shared the evening with Begenas Sartov* over a bowl of Uighur-style лагман. [Update: And then my roommates surprised me with an early morning birthday cake!]

Ah, to my readers who’ve never been here: it’s hard to describe just how beautiful the day has been, not just externally, with the crisp, chilled air and the gentle, mountainous colors, but also internally, with the calm, cool breezes of the soul, and the good company of friends and noble ideas. I want some of you, in America, in Belgium, in Britain, in Italy, and everywhere else, to come here, even for just a day, to see with your own eyes why, at least in this very moment, I’m so glad that the Divine has led me here.

* Sartov was the Kyrgyz people’s first science fiction author [he was the Kyrgyz people’s first successful science fiction author; the crown of first-ever Kyrgyz science fiction author apparently rests upon the head of one Kusein or Kuseyin Esenkojoev**], who explored the interaction between tradition and modernity in his work. He is famous here for penning the novella, Мамыры Гулдөн Маалда, about a Soviet-educated shepherd and an extraterrestrial who are both vying for possession of a mystical flower in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The novella has been recently translated into English as When the Edelweiss Flowers Flourish, although I think the proper name of the flower in Kyrgyz is actually, “ой-кайндан”, [the proper name is indeed мамыры гул] a flow which the characters often refer to as, “тоо мамыры” (“soul of the mountain”).

** To learn more about Kyrgyz science fiction, check out this blog post (in original Russian or translated through Google).

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.

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The future civilization has already arisen; we are its agents here in the past

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Things are moving quickly in Bishkek. In a single day, I already have several potential living spaces, including one for a measly approximately $37 per month (a fantastic place; the only problem is it’s practically in the foothills of the Ala-Too, far from the downtown where most of my daily work will be). The long-term visa is a situation that still needs some ironing out. Yet, although some anxiety simmers down in the depths, for the most part the foundations are calm. Something inside of me is saying, This should work, and even if it doesn’t, results per se were never the real point.

The city is even more energetic than what I remember from when I was last here, two years ago. A vortex of car traffic punctuated by pedestrian kamikazes; cracked pavement, or just no pavement at all, surging with plant life and petulant stone; orange and brown dust kicked up in the air; violet and turquoise neon lights bedecking chaikhana after chaikhana; sleek grey social-realist buildings, slowly crumbling or freshly renovated; the ubiquitous scent of burning metal, mountain, and chai — I feel as though I’ve found myself a character in what should prove to be a very interesting, and hopefully meaningful, science fiction film.

And speaking of science fiction, a strange time traveler-like feeling began to creep up on me in recent months about my and my friends’ various vocations as Bahá’ís, journalists, human rights activists, teachers, hacktivists, rogues, and the like. Somehow, being in this young, boisterous Asian republic, surrounded by all the hyper-ideological Soviet-era architecture — the living ruins of one of the great, failed grand discourses — have given me the words to describe it.

How often have we felt that we are fighting, even resisting, as though we were some lunatic minority bestriding the fringe of history, struggling to make a better world? How often have we felt that the horizon is dim, and our lot is merely to be stoic the face of human self-defeat? In fact, it’s totally the wrong way of viewing things.

Continue reading “The future civilization has already arisen; we are its agents here in the past”

Kyrgyzstan versus Belgium [perpetually updated]

2010706-kyrgyzstan-april-coup We find comparison lists all the time on the Internet, but I never thought to make one of my own. Well, it’s been almost one month since my relocation to Kyrgyzstan, and I figured, Why not try my own hand at it? And so, without further ado, here’s a comparison between Kyrgyzstan and another obscure society I happen to know somewhat well… Belgium!

BelgiumThis is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek and decidedly not spiritually-inclined list, so take it as you will. It may or may not always induce a chuckle, especially at the start. And indeed, recognizing that, to a large degree, this is an exercisn id stereotyping; and moreover recognizing that, as an American, I’m a visitor to both of these societies, I welcome any additions, corrections, rejoinders, etc. So, please leave a comment at the end of this post.

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Justice and the facts in Kyrgyzstan

As Managing Editor of neweurasia, I want to take a moment to address something that’s been concerning me throughout the crisis in Southern Kyrgyzstan, namely, the conflation of speculation with fact, ultimately and especially regarding the issue of blame and the problem of evil.  To begin with, this is what the international journalistic community thinks it knows and only that: as affirmed by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, it appears that gangs of masked men attacked, in an organized and premeditated fashion, Uzbek and Kyrgyz targets in Osh.

That’s all we know right now.  Even the Commissioner is unsure as to these gangs’ intentions, although it’s more than reasonable to conclude they were seeking to provoke a reaction.  More importantly, we don’t know who they are.  There is no smoking gun — yet.  In its place there are a lot of theories buzzing around, everything ranging from Russian special forces to secret agents of the Bakiyev network.  But these are only theories at the moment.  Until we have hard evidence, e.g., a confession, one that meets international standards of propriety, we do not know what was the plan behind these attacks.

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Kyrgyzbelgiastan

I’ve been following the tragic events in Southern Kyrgyzstan all weekend and coordinating neweurasia‘s English coverage.   It took me a while to re-establish contact with our team in Osh and Jalalabad, at least one of whom appeared to be hiding in his house.  The videos have been heartbreaking: entire neighborhoods burned down.

The whole disaster has cast a dim light back onto the society in which I currently find myself, Belgium.  This country also has long standing difficulties between its two major constituent ethnicities, and it has has just undergone an election in which apparent separatists emerged triumphant. Many of my friends here are alarmed by the results and fear for the future of their nation.

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