Everything is looted, spoiled, despoiled /
Death flickering his black wing, /
Anguish, hunger—then why this /
Lightness overlaying everything?
— Anna Akhmatova, trans. D. M. Thomas.
I went to Karaganda with my colleague Lia and her friend Grace this week. Grace is visiting from England for the week; “I’ve dragged her all over, except Astana,” Lia says to me, laughing as Grace snaps a few pictures of the Bayterek. “It’s not really fair.” This morning we meet outside the train station, crisp and bright, the morning sun slanting across the temirzholi and avtovokzal signs. Taxi, taxi, several standing men say, clutched in small circles around gray and blue vans.
“Myi troyom,” Lia announces to the clustered drivers, blustering up in a headscarf and leather jacket. High-heeled leather boots wrap her calves; she’s lived in Kazakhstan for several years and converses comfortably in Russian.
It’s a two-hour trip to Karaganda, a center for mining as well as the city nearest to the old Soviet gulags in Kazakhstan. To get there, we’re looking for three seats in a hired car, but they only have one or two places left – or five. But a hired car never leaves until it’s full; it’s important to time these things well. “2000 each,” a man offers for a large van, but it comes with at least a 15-minute wait. “Nyet, nyet” Lia shakes her head, “nada s’chas.” We need it now. I begin to speak in Kazakh; the driver knocks the price down to 1500 ($10) each for the two-hour drive.
But Lia’s not inclined to wait. She chases down another driver who asks for 2500 each and promises to leave right away. Young and taut, he wears a woolen cap and leather jacket. We agree. So driving down through Astana at high speed, we cut to the highways at the south edge of town; he thrums along the road to Karaganda. Weaving in and out of traffic, the driver cuts just between a truck and the oncoming truck, a rush of redbrown at our swerving side. Lia dozes peacefully with her jacket over her head: Grace and I sit stiffly and watch the traffic with wide eyes.
“It’s best to look away,” I murmur. Grace nervously faces the windshield from the middle seat, and looks for a seat belt, taking mine. “We’ll make it there in two hours,” I add, “that’s the virtue of a car. But you don’t have to worry about dying on the road… that’s the virtue of a train.” She smiles thinly. In front of us, a trendy girl in a checked scarf takes a video of the roadside on her iPhone, white headphones dangling from her ears.
As we hit the countryside, the autumn landscape flattens into wide plains of large-headed wild grains, except for small patches of “river,” narrow ponds tucked into dips in the land. Signs announce small towns 5km off the road. We dodge cars crossing into our lane on the ‘bad’ stretch of road. The space is immense.
As we approach Temirtau, the driver gets into an anger-match with another guy, necks tensing, hard stares from car to car. He stares down the road as they race around the soft-sided semi-trucks; one has signage in German and the other promises Good Food in English. Our boy pushes past the other car, driving at 140 km per hour until we’re well out of sight.
Temirtau’s name means “iron mountain” in Kazakh, and some 20-40 km before Karaganda we see it on the road, smokestacks rising above the low city. Gorod metallurgikov: a concrete sign announces the City of Metallurgy.
“The children live here,” Lia tells me. The rich children at our school? I’m surprised. “No, no, the parents have a house here, they own the factories,” she corrects me. We trade jelly-chocolate biscuits and Sprite.
As we arrive into Karaganda, a city of half a million people, a sign advertises the airport; a later driver tells us that they have international flights, as well as flights from local airlines like Air Astana (and the infamous SCAT airlines, which crashed outside of Almaty last year).
The afternoon light shines brightly as we are deposited by the unmarked taxis at the train station. Lia asks the price to Dolinka, the former administrative center of the Karaganda gulag.
“5000, one way,” an older man says. “5000, oi, too much,” Lia protests, her voice rising. “It’s far,” he insists. They settle on 8000 ($55) there and back, and he’ll wait for us while we tour the museum.
This driver, Dulat, wears a woolen vest under his jacket, and a small cap. Lia sits beside him. He tells us that he only speak Russian; 90% of people in Karaganda speak Russian. “It’s because of the Soviets,” he says. He had a Kazakh father and a Russian mother, and wants to know our ethnicity. Well, Lia’s English and I’m American.
“But it’s the same in America,” I add. “People with us are mixed too.” I mention Obama.
“Your Obama got elected and he’s not a real American,” Dulat says.
“His father’s African and his mother’s American. He’s real,” I say.
“But he wasn’t born there!” Dulat insists.
We burst out laughing. “Yes, he was born in Hawaii,” I say.
“Really,” he says, in jest or serious, “that’s why America killed that president in the middle east.”
Which one? I’m thinking: bin Laden, Hussein… “Hussein?”
“No, Qaddafi,” Dulat tells us. “He knew the secret, Obama’s secret about where he was born.”
20 km out from Karaganda is the small town of Dolinka, where low white buildings hide behind wooden fences, sporting peaked roofs and faded green trim. We later learn that these were the type of buildings that the young guards and workers lived in. A woman stands by the bus stop, waiting for a ride into town.
As we drive into the town, Dulat points out an enclosure of broad white walls, which hide a modern-day prison. Around the corner is the bright white museum, once the central administrative building of a prison camp stretching for 6500 square miles (1.7 million hectares, similar in size to all of Kuwait); it’s recently been remodeled. They’ve done weird things to advertise it like a night in the gulag (here).
Lia snaps pictures of a black dog on the marble steps; Grace intently captures the whole panorama of garden, fountain, facade. The museum is closed for lunch, so Dulat takes us to the town cafeteria, which offers cold chicken pre-plated with grains, small plates of salad, a pile of unwashed dishes. We order sweet creamy cakes, and cups of hot tea with a gray film hovering in them.
Over tea and cakes, Dulat asks our ages. Lia, Grace, and I are all single and over 25, old enough to be a kari kiz (old maid) in Kazakhstan.
“So why aren’t you married?” he says.
“I’m trying!” Lia responds. “I’m looking for one.”
Dulat promises her that there are more men in Karaganda than in Astana, what with all the mining. “So four to one?” Lia turns to me, doubtful. She says there are five times the women as men in Kazakhstan, and 10 to 1 in the capital city.
“Why so few men?” I ask. “Was it the Great War?” [WWII]
“Cancer. And alcoholism, and car accidents,” she responds. Knowing how young men drive, I believe it.
When we come back, the tour has already started in Russian. “You’re late,” the guard accuses. “We don’t want the tour. We can’t speak Russian,” we tell him in Russian.
A girl is assigned to mind us, and watches Grace anxiously until she puts her camera away. We walk through rooms with neatly displayed photos, and scans of old prison documents. One group is ahead of us, but we’re mostly alone. The museum is well-designed, the best I’ve seen here, and I hope Kazakhstan will develop more such museums to cover other periods in their history.
[[Spoiler alert: take a trip to Karaganda yourself; the notes below are for my friends who will never get there or otherwise learn much about the gulags in Kazakhstan…]]
As we look at the small signs in three languages, we learn that the building was the old administrative center for the Karlag, as the work camp (Rus=”lager”) at Karaganda was called. The town of Dolinka was the administrative center for the dozen provinces that made up the camp, each with its own industries—cattle and sheep and horses, a pig farm, women forced to milk (“registration of the milk,” one picture reads, as women line up before an official with their large pails of milk). The male and female prisoners dug root vegetables, cabbages and melons, meeting quotas for each type of metallurgy, factory output, production of coal and grains and millet and wheat. Forced labor was a major contributor to the success of Soviet Russia: over 18 million people passed through the gulags, as Applebaum notes in her book; over one million came through Karlag as prisoners at some point; millions more were not imprisoned, but merely exiled to Kazakhstan.
Karaganda oblast always exceeded its quotas, at 117%, 134%, the sign boasts. But of course.
The first rooms tell of the famine, with enlarged pictures of bare boys with bloated bellies, men laid out to die in carts, beggars struggling for food. From 1932-1934 the famine was at its worst. It seems that after the Soviets took over the Kazakh provinces, they took herds and land for their own purposes. There were protests. Some Kazakhs killed their own animals to avoid having them seized. Hunger spread across the steppe, as Kindler covers so well here. (An elderly Kazakh woman named Nŭrziya tells her story here: it’s worth a read.) Over one million Kazakhs died; half the survivors fled to other lands.
And a few years later, the first shipment of Chechens arrived, 40 trains with cattle cars containing 25,000 people who were poured out onto the steppe with nothing in their hands. As the museum takes care to highlight, some Kazakhs helped them survive.
Men were shipped to Karlag to work; women were often shipped to separate camps, such as the Alzhir camp near Astana. In one year, the sign reads, 650 pregnant mothers were sent to the camps. Children came too, and died in large numbers, buried in their own separate cemetery. Imprisoned mothers could keep their children with them until the age of four, at which point they were sent to orphanages for ‘reeducation.’ A portrait shows boys and girls in a row waiting to be sent away. Mothers wrote letters pleading for their children’s care; the boys and girls were raised until the age of 15 and then sent out into the world to work.
After this introduction, the girl leads us into the basement. The rooms darken.
It’s all designed for emotional impact (the music is sad in every room except the one about women and children?). The stairwell walls are covered in a plaster of hands and fists, barbed wire twined into the hands. To our right, a room.
Go in, the guidegirl gestures.
We look in, and startle. A man, a real man, seems to be staring back at us. His eyes are wide and pale; we expect him to speak. The room a strong glow of red and brown, an isolation chamber with heavy metal doors.
We back away; the next room has a man in a pit, heavy metal grate above his folded body. The wax men look as though they would speak. In solitary confinement, the sign reads, prisoners were given 300 grams of bread per day plus a hot mug of water; every three days a reduced hot meal.
Other basement rooms contain replicas of a barracks with narrow wooded boards as bunkbeds; a kindly Kazakh waxman at the table with tin dishware. A library has a pastewood card catalog, drawers askew. An infirmary holds narrow metal beds, elderly waxwoman stretched out to sleep, her neck thrown back. Syringes rest in the cupboards, metal implements waiting beside puffed metal flasks.
In the science lab, a man has been brought in to work calculating crop gains among the vials and tubes. “At least they could do work they liked,” Lia says. The waxman seems intent on his work; Lia almost touches his shoulder as she looks over his notebook, below.
Then the interrogation room, with uniformed man at the desk and another clenching keys behind an empty seat. On the wall a photo: a handsome young officer with a cigarette in his lips. This is not a man you could reason with.
A room for photographing, where a prisoner sits, hands fallen into his lap. At the end of the hallway, a waxman faces a brick wall, hands behind his back and dark red wounds in the bricks around him.
“Were they shot here?” Lia asks.
“Not in the building,” the guidegirl says. “They were shot outside in the summer, but indoors in the winter.”
“No,” she shakes her head, “this was the administration building.”
“Did the prisoners ever come here?”
“Of course not,” she says, “they were elsewhere.”
Up to the highest floor again, lightness. A cove displays artwork by a prisoner named Pavel Rechenskii. The Holy Spirit of the Karlag, one reads, a kind ghost hovering over the camps. The path to hell, another is written.
A cattle car has been tucked into one room, a scattering of suitcases by its side. Forty people were sent out in one railroad car, the size of a marshrutka van. It recalls the book Between Shades of Gray, about a Lithuanian girl sent with her family to Siberia, hovering between death and life in the far north. The author, Ruta Sepetys, interviewed survivors and the results are stunning, award-winning:
A chart on the wall shows the communities who were sent by Stalin to their exile: Germans, Chechens, Tatars, Koreans, Iranians. Families, writers, scientists, politicians: anyone a crazed dictator could find reason to fear. (Another book to read: Dancing Under the Red Star, about a young American named Margaret in the gulags. I find it striking how both Nŭrziya, above, and Margaret survived through faith, in Allah and God respectively.)
This imprisonment, this multiethnic exile, is the source of Kazakhstan’s proud interethnic harmony: 130 nations living together in one land.
Above, a broad room with quiet green walls and a fine wooden desk. By curtains fluttering at the window, a man stands. He looks out over the village, wax hands in the pockets of his untucked uniform. Commander, contemplating. A painting on the other wall shows generals laughing and working; displays in the first rooms showed pretty 1940s girls with their boyfriends, the workers who staffed the camps.
And a final room, brightly lit, gives us the easy narrative of modern Kazakhstan: the harmonious meetings of world religious leaders. Peace. Books. Productivity. Alga. Forward.
Dulat takes us back to Karaganda, past the empty quarries cut into the ground. We cross the road to Aktas where gold has been found and will soon be mined. “It’s just lying in the ground right now,” he says, as if we could pick it up. There’s a factory with dark foothills of coal. Dulat tells us it’s good to be a miner.
“But it’s dark!” Lia protests.
“What do you mean?” Dulat says, looking at Lia. “It’s light, with electricity below ground, and also railroads.” We’re not sure what to believe.
Along the road, there’s a major factory owned by some Indian, one who bought all the coal mines in England. He now owns part of Kazakhstan, too. “Indians, Americans, Chinese, they all come and take,” Dulat says. Wealthy men own this land.
The Kazakh girls I know can’t decide if they’re proud of their mineral wealth, or aggrieved at the big men who carry it all away.
It’s a perfect fall day, and Karaganda appears a lovely city. I’d heard it was grim, an industrial city with pollution, heavy metals, cold dark winters. It may be true, but today the thin trees shine with the sun’s pale yellow, a boy and girl kiss beneath the statue of Soviet workers, and the fresh air lightens our lives. The shops at Tsum are stocked with glittering goods, and families duck in and out of Interfood for fried chicken pelmeni. It feels restful, inhabited. People seem happier here.
We have a coffee – this is how I tour the world – and walk back to the train station. Another man drives us back to Astana, but twenty minutes after leaving Karaganda, his phone rings. Ketip bara jatirmin, he says, you’re too late. I already left on the road to Astana. Tomorrow, yah, I’ll bring the refrigerator.
As we pull into Astana’s center, the bright moon reflects off the giant egg five stories tall that comprises the state archive. For a moment, light glances sharply from one particular panel. We look up, in surprise. There, light–then darkness. We could almost glimpse the lamp of a solitary historian, alone in his room, crafting the story of Kazakhstan late into the night.
I recently wrote about a Kazakh wedding for my American readers, but part of my goal was to also cover a Real American wedding. Three months after the Kazakh wedding, I attended a family wedding in America.
American marriages are usually a “love match.” After dating an assortment of partners, Rob and Elise each moved separately to Texas for work. I’ll use their real names… because their weddings pics are already all over the internet. Both are from the same town in Ohio, had common friends, but didn’t meet until she came to his workplace in Austin one day to change her cell phone.
They began dating, and after a few months Rob traveled back to Ohio to visit Elise’s father and ask for her hand in marriage before proposing.
“I know something you don’t know!” Her father said he wanted to tell his daughter, but refrained. Rob proposed to Elise and she accepted; they announced their engagement in the traditional 2000s way: a change of Facebook status and an Instagram photo of the ring.
This was followed by a series of outdoors engagement photos showing the couple looking adorably in love, in casual dress.
One photo was used on the “Save the Date” cards which were sent out to family and friends. These are sent prior to the official invitation to the wedding and food reception. A website was set up. And Rob and Elise spent months planning for the wedding; with the help of Elise’s family, they paid for photographers, flowers, drinks; food; an outdoor ceremony at a local vineyard.
They also go to get the ‘marriage license’ from the courthouse, which you do before the ceremony itself. Usually, at a ceremony a pastor marries two young people, if their families are even vaguely religious. At this wedding, my father is officiating the wedding of his own son. It’s a bit odd, but dad worked as a Christian pastor off and on for years.
What I find bizarre, though, is that years of experience in Christian ministry isn’t enough to allow you to marry someone in a private ceremony in America. Instead, what you need is a piece of paper that the government recognizes. A religious ordination. And the requirements vary by state, but each state ‘controls’ the individual marriages of any human beings in their territory.
So dad goes online to the Universal Life Church, where for $8, anyone in America can get a piece of paper ordaining them as a ‘minister’ (religious title) and letting them marry others in a way that the government recognizes… This certification by the Universal Life Church online brings jokes and snickers from my aunts and uncles: “You better check your certificates, Rob!”
Both families traveled from Ohio. The day before the wedding, those in the wedding party (bride, groom, parents, bridesmaids, groomsmen) run through a rehearsal of the wedding at the site. Afterwards, the extended family gathers for a rehearsal dinner.
We drive long winding roads and halt frequently in the Austin traffic, skirting the edge of town until we come to a small country road. We drive past the Salt Lick restaurant, but Dad tells us by phone to turn back; go to the Salt Lick BBQ and drive to the back of the parking lot.
The family still sleeps in three cabins along the lakes. Back inside, I pull off my coat and wake Nen up. We make coffee and walk to get bagels and cake from Mom’s cabin. My young cousin, Leah*, brushes her luxuriant long hair, full past the length of her slim waist. My teen brother, Nathan*, has slicked his hair to the side. My preteen sister hasn’t bothered to brush hers.
After one o’clock, we quickly begin preparing for the wedding. My brother Chip is long-gone, setting up for the outdoor wedding at a local winery. His girlfriend irons her pleated pink dress. Nen sews up the back of her dress and adds a mustard-colored sweater and heels; I iron my silk skirt. We run to our cars; I ride with my mother’s parents to the wedding, angular redbrick houses sprouting between the trees.
As Grandpa drives, Grandma chatters about the upcoming wedding. “Rob and Elise have a wedding planner,” she says. “Your mom is very impressed. The wedding planner is very organized, ‘don’t worry about this, this is the only job you have to do, and what you have to do.’” I listen, sticky hard-edged Jolly Rancher in my mouth.
We’ve got a Friday wedding, which is a bit unusual. “There was a three year waiting list for Saturday weddings,” Grandma explains.
“It sure isn’t for the trees, there are no trees here,” Grandpa wrinkles his face at the Texas landscape.
“Well, it’s a winery, they don’t come for the trees,” Grandma corrects him, looking down at the MapQuest directions.
I ask Grandma about wedding traditions in America. She tells me that the groom pays for the rehearsal dinner, but the bride pays for the food at the wedding, and the wedding itself. The groom should pay for the flowers and of course the bride’s wedding ring. Grandma tells me that the day before, my parents paid for the food, but my brother bought the alcohol.
I ask about traditions for the wedding, and she repeats that there is usually a bachelor party for the groom and his friends, before the wedding. It’s possible the maid of honor will have a shower for the gals. “Different areas have different customs, like a particular church will have things they do, but they have scads and scads of magazines, that tell you what to do,” Grandma tells me.
We arriving just before 4pm, the sun slanting across chairs laid out on the vineyard lawn. On the other side of the gravel driveway, up on the lawn by the Duchman Winery, peach-clothed tables are being laid with citrus water and strawberry lemonade. The catering staff gather the drinks and serve the guests from little trays.
Family wanders around, girls in short dresses with heels, women with sparkling shirts, old women with carefully pressed hair and bright lipstick. My father and Elise’s mother walk around entertaining and chatting with people; aunts give everyone hugs; my mother and aunt play the cello and violin from beneath the trees, as the audience begins to assemble.
We sit on wooden chairs decked with flowers in glass jars; glass bottles shine in the afternoon sun, hanging from the trees overlooking a field. The sun is bright on our shoulders as we wait; Elise’s family hold the bulletins over their heads to block the sun. My family makes jokes and ducks away from the photographers.
Eventually the wedding planner calls everyone together. We sit in seats, in rows: The bride’s family is on the left of the aisle, the groom’s family to the right. A DJ puts on music and the wedding party walks up the aisle in our familiar ritual: bridesmaids and groomsmen, hand in hand; parents and grandparents led to the front. Then Dad and Rob wait for the bride:
My father is a past minister and current computer programmer by trade, but leads the ceremony. Online ordination certificate in hand, he asks, who gives this woman to be Rob’s wife?
“I do,” Elise’s father says, and hugs his daughter before letting her go.
Elise stands and holds Rob’s hands, nervously. They listen to my father’s sermon:
marriage is hard, you’re taking it on faith, you’re making a promise to all of us, and we’ll help you. Your relationship is a representation of God’s relationship to his people; Rob, you are to love your wife, and show that love, and put her first; Elise, you are to submit to and respect your husband; both of you are to submit to and love each other. This is the difficult thing.
Then Dad asks if they pledge this marriage in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth, as long as you both shall live, and they say I do.
They read individualized vows they have written for each other – I promise to love you, to avoid complacency, to trust in you, to put you first. These are becoming more popular with young Americans who want tradition, but some of their own thoughts inserted into the ceremony as well.
“Then by the power invested in me by God, and this community — and I suppose I am supposed to say the State of Texas – I now pronounce you man and wife,” my father ends.
The couple kiss. They are introduced, her name now folded into his, as “Mr and Mrs. Rob …”
And they walk down the aisle as we toss dried lavender petals at their hair.
Next there are pictures, of families, the couple, the wedding party:
Then we’re brought inside the winery’s main hall, milling around to examine the cupcakes and tiramisu on the dessert table; the pale flowers nestled among books and candles on our tables, and the pictures of Rob and Elise hung up on clothespins.
And Elise’s father, an eloquent lawyer, stands and speaks about his long-ago dream when Elise was born, praying for Rob and his parents, that Rob would be raised to know God and prepared for his daughter. It’s a miracle, the family repeats, that you had so many opportunities to meet in Ohio, but never met till you both came to Austin.
Together, Rob and Elise cut the cake, feeding slivers to each other.
Then the dances: Elise with her father, Rob with his mother, the focus of the crowd’s attention. After this, everyone is permitted to dance together; the DJ takes requests for music:
Around 10:15 the music ends, and the two mothers begin to gather the table displays and hand out flowers to the guests. As we leave, the guests line up with heavy sparklers in our hands, long metal rods with gunpowder caked on them. They sparkle and flare fire as Rob and Elise walk in between them, one last shot for the photographers:
We stop at the grocery store for more drinks, before going home and falling asleep.
So what of this wedding? I know more of the American wedding ‘script’ than I do of the Kazakh, and of course there are variations here. Traditionally:
The next day, Rob and Elise show up to our house, tired and dressed casually. We lounge around the rented cabins and talk. I learn that the wedding was probably twice as expensive as the one in Kazakhstan; in addition, the couple was given enough money for a short honeymoon in Europe. Umm.. and best of all, I got to give my grandpa a present: a picture I painted of her while living in Kazakhstan, copied from a photo that’s 50 years old.
That, of course, would not have been possible without the help of my amazing Kazakh painting teacher, Gaukhar )))))
I’m not sure how to end this, so I’ll just note: there you go… a wedding in America.
While taking language classes during the summer of 2012, I scored an invite to a Real Kazakh Wedding. This was exciting, because a few years ago in Mongolia our research team interrupted huddled marriage negotiations in one highland yurt to ask marginally relevant questions about citizenship. And we were invited into a six-hour wedding’s eve party in another town. And I first visited Kazakhstan over ten years ago. But somehow I’ve previously missed out on the actual wedding itself.
My understanding is that Kazakh marriage negotiations used to involve discussion and gifts passed back and forth between the two families, a gift of earrings to the new bride, a payment to the bride’s family on the part of the groom, and perhaps some livestock changing hands. This was followed by receptions for both families; at times, both religious and civil leaders have been involved.
But the urban families I interact with now live in a city of well over a million people, with many professional residents having studied abroad and speaking in three or four languages. My host mom, Gula*, is solidly middle class, with a job in the arts, relatives living in Turkey and others studying abroad in the United States.
The wedding itself was scheduled for a Wednesday evening in late June in the large southern city if Almaty. This means that 10 relatives joined our tiny apartment the preceding Sunday.
We gather early on the day of the wedding. When the relatives sit down for cucumber salad, chicken, potatoes, and tea, Mama Gula’s sister Orazgul* tells me that the bride, who I’ll call Almagul, is paying $500 to rent a dress for the day, and almost $100 for the veil. It’s another $500 (80K tenge) to rent a limousine for five hours, and they’ve rented a restaurant hall to seat for 170 people.
I comment that weddings often cost $10K in the US. Orazgul seems to think these young people are paying something similar. But the couple doesn’t have steady employment, so I’m not sure who’s paying the bills. This is wedding season; there were dozens of fluffy brides and entourages, high-heeled and glossy-dressed, gliding across the wet Panfilov Park today.
But our Kazakh uilenu toi (wedding feast) is at five o’clock. I’m told no one will actually get there for several hours. We all do our hair in the narrow hallway of the flat:
We leave our flat at half to seven, and it’s after seven when the bride and groom arrive. I count fourteen tables with twelve seats each, covered in bottles of juice, cognac, vodka, and cola; four types of salat; traditional baursak and modern rolls; strips of horse meat and horse sausage; raw fish in pink and white; and a scattering of candy. No one sits until the couple arrives; instead, Mama Gula’s young relatives, Meruert* and Ariana* and I walk around to the back of the faux-marble palace in the evening heat, and take glamour shots of ourselves.
It’s cool when we step back into the hall; mothers and aunts sit on chairs ringing the large hall, while the men and boys squint in the late afternoon sun out front.
When the wedding couple arrive, the MC takes over. He invites everyone to cluster around, and everyone claps their hands. The bride’s eyes are traditionally downcast, under a fine veil with creamy lace embroidery. The groom (I’ll call him Nurjol) looks around freely, wearing a tux-lite with a white rutched shirt underneath.
The dombira player begins with the bet-ashar, someone holding a microphone up to his dombira to improve the acoustics. Bet-ashar means that the bride’s veil is lifted, revealing her face.
Next, groups of relatives are called out by name to give money, each person giving $3-15 (500-2000 tenge) into a common pot.
“Do you have this in your country?” The girls keep checking in with me. Usually, we have something similar; in this case, Americans often pay to dance with the bride or groom.
The bride and groom exchange rings, then sit at a podium. They often stand when addressed. There are cycles of toasts and dancing; family groups dance forward to wish the couple and the new in-laws a bright future, then everyone gathers together on the floor for a dance.
Among this dancing and toasting, chicken and appetizers are served, followed by beshbarmak (lamb and noodles), plates of manti (steamed dumplings), and then desert. We eat over four courses of food from 7pm until 1:30am, when the party winds down.
Two hired dancing girls parade in peacock costumes; other relatives take turns singing, including a sassy girl in a short blue-green skirt, and sausy Meruert in her shimmering sequins, a tightly curved dress.
She’s got it, baby she’s got it… Meruert sings, swinging her hips by the soundboard and speakers. I’m your fire, I’m your Venus, your desire.
Couples begin to dance as Meruert sings, but one couple takes the show, putting on the most sexual dance I’ve ever seen in Kazakhstan. A curvy blonde Kazakh in baby-blue dress locks hips with a slim older man. They go at it, dancing with each other, shaking their hips and her chest, hips back and forth, forward and back, dancing high and low, close and far. It’s the most explicit show of sexual desire I’ve ever seen from adults in Kazakhstan.
Some of the mothers and a few men hoot in delight; other faces are carefully polite. I scan the crowd, who seems to be enjoying this. I assume the couple are freshly married, but the next day the woman in blue is the talk of our flat. It’s a shame (uyat), she shouldn’t have done it, one mother says over tea. You’re only young once, another laughs.
There are other acts: male guests are given clown pants, and women are given balloons to fill the pants, in a giant relay race. Then, seven young men are given boxers to wear over their dress pants. They dance around in a game of musical chairs, while the music plays. When it stops, they scramble to pull the party boxers down and sit on a set of low basins as if going to the pot, to the hoots and cheers of the audience. The guys all compete eagerly; they’re given small prizes at the end.
The hit of the evening, though, is when four hired acrobats flip on Boney M’s Ra-ra-rasputin and do a break-dance acrobatics show, spinning on their hands, twisting their legs over their shoulders, and vaulting in the air, shirts falling down to reveal their slim muscled chests. The guests hoot and throw 500-tenge notes on a lunch tray on the floor:
Finally—finally—the cake is cut around 11:30pm, followed by dancing. Everyone at our tables dances except for a pregnant woman. Children wander on the dance floor, even around the guest acts. Baby Alia* takes the floor in her long pink dress and white fur jacket. Four years old, she wiggles her hands in the hair, runs to the other end of the long dance floor, and then back, her curly Turkish-Kazakh hair bouncing in its white headband.
The bride and groom dance with the audience, and shy twelve-year old Alina, with splotches on her face, dances with little Alia and the bride, three sizes of white under the pink and green scatter-lights.
At the end of the party, favors (called toi bastar) are given out, in the form of a bag or box set on each table. Girls at our table eagerly hand out the contents: a shirt, some scarves, a handkerchief, a coin purse, two scull-caps, and bags of crackers and hard candies. I’m handed a pale scarf still in plastic-wrap from China.
At half past one in the morning, then, we’re told to take all the leftovers home – don’t waste anything! Grocery sacks are handed to each table and the well-dressed aunties pour dumplings and shanks of meat and salad and bread all together in bags. The cousins shake the juice boxes to check their contents, and reach for anything left at other unsuspecting tables.
As the guests leave, Aruana begins to pulls down the balloons. (I assume the catering staff do this, but she wants a picture with the balloons!) The bride sits at our table, smiling but tired. She and her new husband have been eloquently blessed and lectured all evening, with wishes to God for their health and happiness, and admonitions falling particularly on the bride.
“His happiness now rests in you,” she’s told. She has the power and the responsibility for the relationship, and for his life.
This seems heavy to me, and even now a woman from the groom’s side walks up to lecture the bride. Beri kizdin kolinda bar, she says. It’s all in the girl’s hands. This strange new relation tells the new bride that her husband is from a good family, and points out each of the relatives. The girl nods, looks down, and smiles.
I ask Auntie Orazgul a bit crossly why it’s in the woman’s hands. She smiles and replies, sebebi eilda sheitan kop (because women have many devils). She tells me it’s easy for a woman to go astray, and important to speak tetti (sweetly) and act for the husband’s good. Hmm… I may not be ready for this yet.
A car is free for us at three in the morning. At home, we quickly empty the cupboards of blankets and bedrolls. In spite of my protests, there are six people to the floor and I in a bed all to myself.
The next day, we all rise late and disgruntled. Meruert plays with baby Alia, and I wander into the kitchen to learn that teenage Ariana paid $20 (2800t) to have her hair done; the women fuss that this is a bit much for a teenage girl. The family assesses the wedding over tea: it cost 120,000 ($800) for food, dancers, and catering at the hall. (That’s a month’s wage for most young professionals in the city, or established managers in the provinces). It cost 96,000 ($640) for the mashina, a five-hour limo rental.
We prepare and eat the leftover salads, you know, those ones that were out for ten hours un-refrigerated yesterday. I’m still full, but the meats are recycled in a stew; the dumplings we scooped off the tables are also re-heated. We all lounge around the house together, relatives coming and leaving, until the warm Almaty evening falls.
After a sudden phone call last night, in which I was asked to speak Kazakh today in some sort of konkurs (competition), I’ve just walked away from Kazakhstan’s central bank with a wooden bowl for drinking koumiss (fermented mare’s milk), and a ceremonial plate of Astana, Kazakhstan, as below.
(Side note: are five clauses allowed in one sentence? Perhaps this is why people have trouble understanding me. Maybe it’s the digressions? Anyway, back to the main point.)
In America, I tend to get (and give) cards, sweets, coffee, and body lotion (why are women always given body-lotion?). In contrast, I’ve lived in Kazakhstan for a mere fraction of my life, but have received a variety of small gifts. In contrast to the body-wash-and-sparkly-card combo that I commonly get for a birthday in the US, I’ve had some of the following gifts in Kazakhstan:
Gifts in KZ
Overall, gifts feel different in Kazakhstan, and I’d suggest that’s because I’m in a different position. Today at the competition, I stood in line with embroidered-vest-bedecked guys and girls, sang a song, then gave a nice little speech on how I’d learned Kazakh and work with little kids every day and love the Kazakh language and isn’t it wonderful everyone’s so welcoming here? This all resulting in the aforementioned plate.
I wasn’t quite the guest of honor – that was the silver-haired New Yorker who teaches writing here in town. The speaker actually apologized mid-gifting (!) – you understand that age comes first, she said, handing me the plate, but of course we honor you for speaking Kazakh. Someone snaps a picture. But this honor thing – I have more as second-string to the silver-haired here, than I would ever have at home.
Stepping back again, I see two sides to the hospitality we experience here in Kazakhstan. The first is the way in which Kazakhs themselves experience their own nation – we’re a hospitable people, they say as they hand out gifts. 130 nationalities live together in peace here, the speaker says, celebrating and guilting people into trilingualism. We experience hospitality because it is valuable to our hosts to be hospitable, a part of who they say they are.
But we also experience hospitality from our own position, as I’ve suggested. The way in which hospitality is a social relation means that it changes in different contexts, whether when moving from country to country, or even from feast to feast and workplace to workplace. Hospitality involves all of us: the giver and the reciever, and of course the gift.
Maybe that hasn’t covered everything about gifts in Kazakhstan, but it’s been a bit of my experience as a foreign guest. For more cultural stuff on gifts, check out Cynthia Werner’s website at http://cynthiawerner.com/publications.html and scroll to the bottom for her articles on Kazakhs, feasting, and gift exchange. Also, obvs, there’s Marcel Mauss’ The Gift for a classic look at what gifts mean and do.
1. Some time ago.When I leave work, I see one of the maintenance men leaving, and catch a ride across town with him. We wait outside for his nephew to drive up, as the school and country flags whip back and forth on the flagpole.
“Once, you Americans were the enemy,” wrinkly-faced Bekbolat nods to me in Russian. “Fight the capitalist oppressor, give them no quarter! It was our duty,” he says, as a blue flag blows behind him in the cold wind.
“And we wanted to go fight in Afghanistan, to do our international duty” in the Soviet Army, he explains. (It reminds me of the documentary, The Last Soviet in Afghanistan.)
Bekbolat pauses. “My friend went and came back, his leg was gone. But I wanted to do it, to go.”
“And after he came back, you still wanted to go?” I ask.
“No, not now,” he shakes his head, “but then.”
Bekbolat’s nephew drives up, and we start across town. I learn that my colleague is in his early forties, the nephew in his late teens. Over ten years ago, they moved here from the old capital, Almaty. Bekbolat tells me that he learned a little English is school, but never needed it—it was the Soviet Union then.
“Then we needed German,” he says. “We saw the wall fall, east and west. During that time there was not rich or poor, and everyone had work. They had holidays, for one month we went to the sanatoria (resort). But now…” he says as his nephew peels the car around a corner, glass skyscrapers flying by.
In the news:
- NPR is running a week-long special on the topic of dumplings, which you might consider reading: http://www.npr.org/templates/archives/archive.php?thingId=209895130
- I’ve recently arrived back to Kazakhstan and starting another year of librarianing at a school — as well as taking graduate classes online myself!
- I’ve just moved hosting for this website, so some of my self-hosted images have disappeared. I’ll work on getting those back up as I have time!
As I’ve written about before, I get curious whenever a friend tells me they have a “great opportunity” for shakes, vitamins, candles, or dishware. Usually, it means they’ve joined a direct-selling company (also known as MLM, or multi-level marketing), one that recruits buyers and sellers through friendship networks, bringing the economy right into your backyard or living room.
So I’ve watched with interest as a college friend, “Lisa,” moved from filling out surveys and requesting freebies, to joining her mother, Teresa, in multi-level marketing ventures. A few years ago, my facebook feed grew peppered with their posts promoting weight-loss shakes, but recently, both women have been advertising inexpensive jewelry parties and sales.
I’d also like to write about people besides myself, and this seemed like an interesting story. So I caught up with Teresa Everly and her daughter last week at the Union County Fair in rural Ohio, where I found them selling bright $5 jewelry from a booth nestled between the local historical society, water distributor, and government Radon testing.
While chatting with customers and watching for light-fingered children, Teresa agreed to give an interview. “How’d you get involved with Paparazzi?” I ask. Teresa says she saw it on a website. She’d already been selling for a company that promoted weight-loss shakes, but “something was missing.” As she explained,
“You could see the results, I lost weight, but how could you sell [something costing] $99 every two weeks? … I signed four people up in two years – and I was working full time. And I felt guilty, especially if I knew that person was having a hard time. So we’d give more away [if] it could help people. But I started feeling like [the company] was charging too much – trying to make money more than to help people.”
Her husband wanted her to keep trying to sell this shake mix at $200 per month, but she looked at the rural economy and decided, “I’d pay $5 for this Paparazzi jewelry. Even people on a pension, or poor in this economy, for $5 they can look good.” So she selected Paparazzi Accessories, a two-year-old company based in the MLM capital of Utah (Why Utah? This news feature discusses some pros and cons). Teresa describes it as comparatively small: while Avon has 20,000 consultants in central Ohio alone, Paparazzi doesn’t have more than that across the whole country.
“So you see, it’s just taking off, that’s how I got so many people under me so quick. It’s a new idea, a great deal. I can sell that. My family can afford that.”
But why be selling this kind of thing at all? When I asked Teresa said direct marketing was especially important to her because she’d just had a stroke and needed to pay off medical debt. When she contacted a sponsor (person for whom she’d be indirectly working) to ask whether she could still do this work after a stroke, the woman was encouraging:
“’As long as you have the family support behind you’, she said. So I started that night. That was one year ago, and it’s really took off. I made my first rank within 30 days, and since then made 4 ranks, with 245 girls under me. I’ve been travelling, which I couldn’t afford to do anymore.”
As I understand it, this kind of downline (people beneath her in the multi-level hierarchy) is a really successful rate of growth. I suspect it reflects the newness of the company, as well as Teresa’s wide social networks and determination to invest her own profits and time in motivating the “girls” under her. Her daughter Lisa hasn’t been quite as happy with the product, so I know that not everyone has the same success. High levels of MLM success seem to depend on a mix of your own personality and connections, drive to succeed, and good timing in the market.
When I ask for details, I learn that Teresa takes home about half of each $5 item, plus a percentage of her downline’s sales. For this fair, she’s invested several thousand dollars in inventory and vendor fees, but seems to be recouping costs at a reasonable rate. More than that, she finds the work emotionally rewarding:
Two nights ago I was working, and a young couple came in with a stroller, had two twins between them. She looked at the necklaces, and looked back at him, and looked at the necklaces. And he said, “Go getcherself one,” you know, but she said “we promised not to spend money…” And he just said, “it’s only five dollars, go get ya one.” And she went out of here beaming. That did more for her health than any bag of shake mix.
“So where’s your future in this?” I ask, looking over the rows of bright necklaces, brooches, rings, and earrings, organized on their hooks by color scheme.
“It’s already changed our lives,” she says. “I had a series of five strokes, that left us in medical debt so bad. We had insurance but still, thousands were not covered. In one year, we paid off all our debt – not just the medical debt. So this year we hope to, for the first time, to become homeowners. I’m looking for – I want to stay home and be the class mom on trips.”
And she gives me her sales points: she can work from home, but also get out and be social. She’s been able to travel, but still be present for her daughter’s cheerleading and son’s soccer games. She reminds me that she’s been a single parent before, and adds, “Single parenting stinks! This way, I can start bringing in money to help my family, and be there with the kids.”
Finally, I ask what she’s learned through her MLM experiences.
Teresa says that before signing on, she read up on choosing an MLM company. She knew she wanted to look for a product she wanted to sell, one where, “If I went to a department store and saw it, would I pay that much money for it?”
I nod. This has been my reaction when new friends try to sell me $50 bottles of exotic fruit juice or $20 face powder: can’t I just get fruit juice and makeup at Walgreens?
But I can’t be too roused to righteous indignation by $5 jewelry, even if it is based on selling through friendship. This price is competitive with most low-end retailers, or making jewelry yourself. At this point, Teresa is proud of her trade, and sums up what she’s learned:
“You have to find that one item that you can get excited about. If you don’t have passion, you can’t sell. If you sell at a [price] point that’s really too high, it’s not doing you any good or your customers.”
To learn more, see https://www.facebook.com/PaparazziAccessoriesByTeresa, or more pictures of the fair here.
Growing up in rural Ohio, my siblings and I went every year to the county fair to show our sheep, goats, and chickens.
Although I preferred raising the dainty sheep that always weighed in as lightweights, I enjoyed the year my Angora goat placed first… for being the only angora. I also liked worked with the junior fair committee, assisting at shows and handing out awards to the riding contestants:
So I was curious to check out the county fair this past week, although it was a bit smaller than I’d remembered.
But it was good to catch up on the gossip: where old friend worked; how the police sergeant’s family was doing; who’s in school, or married, or has kids; who got stabbed during a fight last night; how some old man exposed himself; and which board members’ children were thieving from the exhibits (!). And I caught up with old friends:
And ate some ribbon fries and pulled pork, and took an interview… which I’m hoping to share with you shortly. In the meantime, I’ve posted a few more pictures below. What about you – do you have fond memories of fairs and festivals, or generally avoid them?*
*The leave a comment button seems to be at the top of posts on the blog… weird, I know.