Posts tagged “The Silent Steppe”

Lost Malaysian Jet and Humpty Dumpty Politics

Let the mourning begin. The closure can now happen for all those families whose loved ones perished in the Indian Ocean with the Malaysian airliner tragedy. I can’t even begin to know or understand what the family members went through with the misinformation that was thrown their way. Twenty-six countries were involved in the search and rescue and maybe that is what muddled things in the first place due to language and cultural barriers. They were trying to use the latest in technology and pinning the blame on the pilot. I have a difficult time believing that a pilot would willfully take down hundreds of people on a suicide mission. Once they find the jet’s black box and the bodies, they will know what happened. Until then, the puzzles remain.

I get many comments still on what I wrote on this blog over five years ago. I just got a comment from a Voron who is Kazakh, teaching in Malaysia. He was saddened by my misperceptions of his great country of Kazakhstan. I responded that I must have been having a bad day, week, month, well year teaching at the university in Almaty. I saw things that were over-controlled and dealing with minute details to the fraction of points on how to grade composition papers. What was most galling to me was the composition teachers would assign nearly impossible writing assignments which made it easier for them to grade but made it very difficult for students to write. If these same teachers had done their own assignments they would have found out what a crazy assignment it really was. Some of these “English” teachers could not put a sentence together in English to save their soul. I am still angry about what I went through under that system that was still very Soviet in nature.

It is true what Voron wrote that I didn’t have a chance to really know and understand what is under the surface of the Kazakh culture. I have a very high respect for Kazakhstan and what they went through in their long and troubled history. In fact, when I write about what happened in Ukraine during the Holodomor (forced starvation period of 1932-33), I cannot neglect to try and educate people that Kazakhstan went through the same devastation. You only have to read “The Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin” by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, published in 2006 to know what the typical Kazakh survived during the purges.

That is how this blog got its name, “Kazakhnomad,” in honor of what Mukhamet wrote out in his ten years of seeing what Stalin was doing to his country and how it affected his family. Right now, the focus is on Ukraine and what Putin will do next. I would hazard to guess that Kazakhstan is very vulnerable right now in the northern area of Kazakhstan because Putin would use the same logic of saying that he needs to protect the Russian speakers from the Kazakhs. No different than what he is saying about going into eastern Ukraine to protect those of Russian ethnicity. I saw a joke something to the effect of a Russian in eastern Ukraine not speaking Russian anymore. How come? Well, he didn’t want Putin to come and save him from the Ukrainians. The Russians in Ukraine have more freedom than the Russians in Russia. Eventually what Putin is trying to do may implode on him. While all his troops are off to Estonia or Moldova, he will have unrest in his own capital.

For now, we just wait and see and try to puzzle out what remains of the former Soviet Union that Putin is trying to put back together. Probably no different than when the experts finally find the big pieces of the Malaysian jetliner. Only thing is that Putin is really Humpty Dumpty and “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

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“Great Patriotic War” According to Whom?

Great Patriots

On a wall of our hallowed halls of academia in Almaty, Kazakhstan are photos which depict “patriots” who served on the Front of the “Great Patriotic War.”  We, as westeners, know it simply as World War II and did not buy into the coinage of these words promoted by Stalin’s propaganda machine.  The root word in Russian for “Fatherland” seems interchangeable with “father” and “patriot.”

What seems a paradox to me is that Kazakhs have a deep and abiding love for their forefathers.  To be a good Kazakh means you know your ancestral line seven generations back and can recite their names.  (I’ve met some Kazakhs who are proud to know the names going back 11 generations.)   Anyway, I’ve been recently reading journal articles concerning the deportation of nationalities into Kazakhstan, thanks to Stalin’s edict.  Better felt as a “deportation dumpground” because of the mixture of Korean, Ukrainian, German, Russian into the different tribes of Kazakhs. 

Currently over 100 nationalities are represented in Kazakhstan but decades ago some of these were people who were yanked out of their homeland and forcefully “deposited” in Kazakhstan.  Unfortunately, many did not survive travelling to the steppes of Kazakhstan but thanks to the bigheartedness of the Kazakhs, others did. 

I am waiting for a sequel to the book by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov which would help explain how his Kazakh family had everything taken from them but yet he fought for the Soviet Union’s “Fatherland.”  Miraculously, he survived the Great Patriotic War.  His book in English(translated from the Russian book “Sudba” = Destiny) only covers how he and his family survived the starvation period of the 1930s and up to his fighting and returning home after the war when he was about age 21. 

That’s about the age of tomorrow’s graduates who have led a very sheltered life compared to Shayakhmetov.  At our auspicious occasion of watching nearly 500 graduates cross the stage, I’ll see many different nationalities represented.  I’ll be imagining the stories these young people have in their families which sadly are being silenced with the passage of time. What is the destiny of these young people?  I hope there are more young patriots like Shayakhmetov who will rise up and write for the rest of world to read what happened under a tyrannical government such as the former Soviet Union.  Not a TRUE Fatherland for patriots, that’s for sure. 

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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.

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