Kazakh Traditions Through Kim’s Eyes

Kazakh Superstitions

Mukhamet Shayakhmetov wrote in his book “The Silent Steppe” (p. 241) that Kazakhs are superstitious.  My friend Kim confirmed that information by telling me some of the superstitions she has encountered while living in Kazakhstan over a decade.  Kim, her husband and children used to live in a Kazakh village the first half of their stay and so she knows much about real Kazakh living.  Very different from the big city life of Almaty which is really NOT Kazakh from looking at the outside veneer.


One superstition Kim knew of was in keeping one’s home clear of evil spirits, the Kazakhs would collect a kind of holy grass from the mountains to burn it and shake the smoke around the house.  Another was to keep the home immaculately clean before going to bed at night.  A messy place would only invite unwelcome evil spirits to come lodge during the night.  (to my mind, nothing superstitious about that!!!) However, another way Kazakhs warded off evil spirits was to put a knife under the “besik” or swinging bed.  Kim also told me that a specific, significant bone from an animal would be picked clean and hung on the wall.  She admitted she didn’t know much about that tradition but she knew there were many other Kazakh superstitions.


Kazakh Life Events in the Home vs. American Mobility

Naturally Kim’s orientation is around the home being a mother of four children so she has observed that for Kazakhs, life events are very important such as birth, circumcision, weddings and death. Even though the Kazakhs come from a nomadic tradition, their homes in a yurt were the center of their universe.   That is why I suppose “leaving on a jet plane” for lands faraway holds little significance for Kazakhs.  However, for us Americans who come from a land of immigrants, a major life event for us is departing for lands unknown. Kazakhstan

is still very much an uncharted land of the unknown for many of us westerners.  

I recall when teaching at a university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 15 years ago, my Krygyz dean did NOT understand about jetlag messing up one’s sleep cycle.  Why couldn’t the Americans disembark from the plane and jump right in to teach the hour after we arrived?  My illustrious Kyrgyz dean painfully understood jetlag once she visited the U.S.

but not until several years after she observed Americans dragging around the university the first week.

Kim reiterated that Kazakh life events were very important and that their form of Islam does not take place in a mosque but rather in the home.  She had witnessed first hand how women memorialize a deceased loved one with their amazing musical abilities while they improvise a song of grief.  Such as when Mukhamet wrote in his book about his mother who very eloquently made a mournful improvisation after the loss of a dear family member.  According to Kim, for her it was haunting but beautiful to hear the Kazakh women’s strains of music in their improvised songs of grief.


Children Need to Memorize Kazakh Proverbs
Back in the
U.S. we used to have the saying, “Children should be seen and not heard.”  That is back when the U.S was more of an agrarian society and there were many children sitting around a farm family table. It was only fitting and proper that children be seen at the dinner table and the adults were the ones to do all the talking.  This tradition fits along with Kazakhs where their young children were encouraged to sit and listen to the older and wiser members of the family.  Early on the Kazakhs were expected to listen and learn, really listen to the stories told orally and commit them to memory.  It was also the duty of adults 40 years old and older to use proverbs that they had memorized to explain life lessons to the children.


Again my experience teaching for a year and half in a Kyrgyz university 15 years ago showed the Kyrgyz students picked up the English language quickly despite the lack of any western style textbooks simply because the young people were good at memorizing and listening to intonation patterns.  That is essentially what language learning is all about, listening, imitating and memorizing.  I observed that oral skills prevailed in learning English for the Central Asians but understandably not written skills which requires certainly more reading.


That reminds me of something else Kim told me about some of her Kazakh helpers who have no concept of putting books away on a bookshelf.  Since all knowledge was committed to memory and living in a yurt and moving from place to place according to the season, Kazakhs owned no books.  Therefore, her Kazakh helpers will typically put books back upside down or binding cover to the inside and not facing out so you can read the title.  I suppose when westerners grow up from kindergarten on with access to libraries, you don’t realize that those without books or libraries would even care how to “properly” place a book on its shelf. 


Forbidden Subjects Among Kazakhs

What is taboo in general talk among Kazakhs?  Obviously money is not, nor the lack of it.  The borrowing of money is okay too.  However, nothing regarding the home and its personal affairs is allowed such as if a parent is having trouble with a child or if a husband is beating his wife.  All those topics are verboten outside the family.  Kim told me about a young bride who was getting initiated into her new family and having to serve her in-laws.  If the father-in-law was not happy with the way she served him tea, he could beat her.  That is why it is said the bride wears braids because once married she has no time to even fix her hair.  So busy is the young woman learning all the family traditions in her new home under the tutelage of her mother-in-law.  Kim said there is even a tradition she heard about where the in-laws wash each other’s clothes to show their solidarity with each other.  However, it is the bride who must suffer and keep all this pain to herself especially if she is married into a domineering family.


Neighbors and Mutual Indebtedness

Kim also related how being one’s neighbor in Kazakhstan is very important.  She told me about her neighbor in Almaty who had a goat.  When Kim’s youngest daughter was born and wasn’t gaining much weight, her Kazakh neighbor took it upon herself to daily bring goat’s milk for the baby to plump up.  Kim wanted to pay her neighbor money but the woman would have nothing to do with payment.  All she wanted from Kim was a promise of “insurance” that if anything happened to her goat, Kim would pay for the vet’s bill.  This reminded me of when I lived in China where the Chinese try to build “guanxi.” Where you are mutually indebted to another person, they can exact a favor from you on their own terms if they have done something for you earlier.  Money is totally out of the picture, it is a “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” approach.


Some cultural afterthoughts

Of course, Kim and I talked about many other things as we sat on top of the Kok Tobe hill the other day.  Such as men are the only ones now to greet each other with “assalai magaleikum!” and the response in kind is “Aleikum assalaam.”  Also, how important it is for men to find others born in the same year as they were born, called kordas or something like that.  As if Kazakh men who share the same birth year are blood brothers.


One last thing that Kim told me and I’ve personally observed in my university setting is that the Kazakh people need someone to blame for their misfortunes.  This is because for them as Muslims, Allah cannot be blamed.  An example Kim gave was when a family had 7 girls and 3 boys and one of the boys died.  The death was attributed to a Russian who had just moved into the neighborhood and supposedly gave the boy the “evil eye.”  Someone else, outside of the clan, is to be held responsible for any sadness visited upon the family.  We talked of many other things but I wanted to document those things I remembered most vividly from Kim’s own experiences in this culture and land of Kazakhstan, a place we want to know and love.

1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    sandrar said,

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: