Snapshots from Bishkek

… And Down Will Come Baby, Cradle and All:

Snapshots from Bishkek and the Central Asian Women Writer’s Conference

June 24-28, 2005

by Ren Powell
In the marketplace the old women sit with their baskets of raspberries. A cardboard box full of chicks for sale. Kyrgyz newspapers and Russian bodice-ripper paperbacks. Plastic shoes, polyester bras, thongs and T-shirts made in China. Round loaves of bread and burlap bags filled with spices. A young woman in jeans is washing glasses in a bucket filled with soapy water. On a card table next to her are two bright blue coolers filled with Tan and Shoro. These coolers are ubiquitous on Bishkek’s street corners, and Samat, a private English teacher who has agreed to be my guide while I wander through his city, insists on buying me a glass of each.  Shoro is a thick, grain-based drink that you can buy with or without carbonation. Even without carbonation, the slightly fermented barley packs a bitter punch. «Full of vitamins,» says Samat. Yeah, it tastes good for you. Tan is made of milk and supposedly cures hangovers. The same bite of fermentation. I drain both glasses so as not to offend, but they leave me feeling bloated, as though I’d eaten a huge meal. Since Kyrgyzstan’s current unemployment rate is near 51%[1], I wonder if these drinks aren’t meals for many of the locals.

Five days is a short time to begin to form an image of a country and its people; there is what I can observe and there is what I am told. But even two women who live on the same street will have different views of their own culture, and most people anywhere in the world will make a statement about their country at noon only to contradict themselves a dozen times before midnight. With that said:

Through a Wide Angle Lens
In late February, when I first began making plans to come to Kyrgyzstan to take part in a conference of women writers sponsored by PEN International, everyone I talked to asked, «Where?»—but after the 24th of March, most of my colleagues had heard of the poor, former Soviet country in turmoil. The Spring Revolution made headlines even in Norway. Encouraged by the revolutions in the Ukraine and Georgia, thousands of people had traveled from the south of Kyrgyzstan to Bishkek in order to support Bakiyev in overthrowing President Akaev. Not a shot was fired in the capital city, but the hungry and homeless crowd rioted: fists, sticks and rocks. Store fronts were shattered and shops were looted. Even now, in June, some of the windows around the Kyrgyz «White House» and the town square of Ala-Too are still boarded with plywood.  According to Samat, most of Bakiyev’s supporters have remained in Bishkek. Maybe these are the men I see everywhere in parked cars midday, sleeping in the backseats or squatting on the ground around the Ladas and Moscowvitches, smoking and talking. Our taxi passes the land management building where whole families are gathered on the lawn, waiting, hoping to be given a parcel of land. Most of these people probably arrived in March, although internal migration has been on the rise in the country for some time now.

Bishkek itself, a city of 1 million, appears to me like a favored child once decked out in braids and ribbons let run wild. In most areas birch saplings spread unchecked and weeds have pushed through the concrete and asphalt. Along the main road to Manas Airport cattle and donkeys occasionally meander across the four lanes. The country gained its independence in 1991, ratifying its constitution in 1993. The Kyrgyz struggle for economic and social stability hasn’t been easy and after the Spring Revolution many of the programs set into motion by President Akaev have been abandoned.

Samat points out one of the old libraries, now rented out as office space. Across the street is the parliament building, which faces the Lenin museum. Unlike many former Soviet states the Kyrgyz people haven’t torn down the old monuments and Lenin seems to be mocking us all, his great arm lifted, finger pointing to the feral hedges.  Passing through the city park, like a miniature version of Copenhagen’s downtown Tivoli, coming up to the back fence of the White House, we see guards sleeping in the shade of trees, IPod headphones in their ears. The shady square next to the White House is filled with tents: green for the military boys, blue for the police force. No one seems to be carrying a gun, but they are prepared with riot gear for another uprising. A young man in uniform turns from his girlfriend to shout at me for taking a picture. He wants to know what magazine I’m representing. I’m frightened, ready to hand over my camera, but Samat laughs, teasing the soldier for chatting with his girlfriend instead of working. We walk on.

I ask Samat to take me to a bookstore and he picks one belonging to the country’s largest chain. While I’ve already been told that a «publisher» in Kyrgyz is actually nothing more than a printer, all writers having to pay for their own publication or find sponsors, I now learn that writers are responsible for arranging distribution as well. The store is filled with Russian and French publications. A single shelf displays the books by local—that is, national—writers: about two dozen books taken on consignment, representing all genres.

Kyrgyzstan has a population of just over 5 million with two official languages: Kyrgyz and Russian. The literacy rate is 96% for women, 99% for men[2]. There are 11 years of mandatory schooling and three major universities. University enrollment is 51% female. There are, however, very few female professors[3].Whatever the country’s problems are—poverty, inadequate agricultural management, corruption, collapsed infrastructure—these are not uneducated people.

Where Her Stone is Thrown: The Conference[4]
We’ve been told this is the first time women writers from this region have come together to discuss issues that relate specifically to them. The conference was an initiative of Vera Tokombaeva, a journalist from Bishkek, who approached the Chair of the International PEN Women Writers Committee Judith Buckrich in 2003, and asked if PEN might be able to help organize such an event in Central Asia. Several of the women attending this conference have actually been living and writing in Bishkek without having ever spoken to one another. Other women are from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. They all want to discuss the difficulties of publication, the social censorship that results from gender inequality, and, well, they want to «network». I guess that’s where the five of us «Westerners» come in: from Australia, Switzerland, Finland and Norway. Our role here isn’t to teach or guide, but learn and establish professional relationships with our Central Asian colleagues.

The conference begins in an auditorium at the Arts Museum with a press conference and three short films: a black and white documentary of the Spring Revolution titled Crash Down from the 7th Floor; a quiet, scenic story of a young rural couple and the circumstances surrounding the birth of their first child, Tunguch (First Born); and a controversial documentary about Bride Kidnapping, directed by Petr Lom. The following day, the most intensive of the conference, this documentary comes up in discussion again and again.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the conference is the ambivalence these writers express regarding their roles as creative women in their society. Feminism as theory is not discussed and any inquiries in that vein result in general bewilderment. These women’s concerns are practical, urgent and often contrary.

It’s clear that women, married women, are traditionally subjugated by their husbands in this culture. One Kyrgyz proverb says that a girl stays where her stone is thrown. As depicted in the documentary, bride kidnapping is a long-standing tradition. Although technically illegal since 1994, it is still a relatively common practice, whether arranged through families, or as nearly random snatchings. One of the women says that, at this point, it is a priority just to get the word out that the practice is actually illegal. Technically, the kidnapper can be given a prison sentence as long as 5 years. However, the authorities only intervene when a formal complaint is made by the bride’s family.

Traditionally, the bridegroom picks out his intended and, enlisting the help of male relatives, kidnaps and takes her to his parents’ house. At that point the female relatives take over with persuasions and threats of curses should she refuse the boy. Once the girl crosses the threshold, her fate is sealed. She either stays, donning the white wedding veil and drinking from the marriage cup; or she leaves, accursed, her virtue henceforth in question and her prospects for a respectable marriage ruined. Social blackmail. While this documentary has been shown by the BBC, it has been banned from Kyrgyz television.

One of the women at the conference, a poet named Svetlana Suslova, says she is embarrassed by this documentary being shown at the conference, believing it portrays the Kyrgyz people as backward and ignorant, and misrepresents the modern Kyrgyz woman. Yet, two of the other women proceed to share their experiences of having been kidnapped: one refused to be married and is now a single mother, the other says she had been dating her boyfriend for two years when he took her to his brother’s house where his family told her they wanted her to stay. The former explains that she had known the boy vaguely, had had eye contact, but was not ready to marry. The latter describes her experience as romantic. I think about the English tradition of a man kneeling and unexpectedly proposing marriage. One doesn’t even have to take this to the extreme to see that this tradition also puts the woman in a passive position, not being expected to actively pursue a life partner, but to wait for a man to make an offer she can either refuse or accept. Today, perhaps, this kind of proposal is largely symbolic, only made after discussions and with a mutual understanding that a partnership has already been tacitly (or even formally) agreed upon. Yet, this latter woman’s kidnapping was also symbolic. Local traditions are rarely as singular as they first appear.

In Kyrgyzstan, a woman traditionally exerts her power and influence through childrearing. One woman proudly states, «It’s the woman’s responsibility to nurture the soul of the child». Asija Baigogina of Kazakhstan goes so far as to say that the children of women writers display a higher intelligence than other children. In all the discussion about men seeing women writers as a threat to their status as men, not one of the women expresses a wish to see men taking on a greater role in childrearing or homemaking. Put another way, it didn’t appear that these women were eager to relinquish the power they did have in family relationships. Motherhood seems to be an unspoken certainty of what they refer to as «The Feminine Life». Questions made by visiting PEN members about whether women could identify themselves as women independent of their roles as wives or mothers also seem to create confusion. (Granted, much confusion may be due to translation issues). However, when discussing a woman who was running for president, one of her supporters present at the conference clearly states that the candidate isn’t «a woman in the ordinary sense»: she is a widow.

The Feminine vs. The Creative
The phrase that emerges repeatedly through translation is «the feminine life», referring to housework, childrearing and other, familial responsibilities. This is set up against what they call «the creative life», writing poetry, prose, journalism etc. It seems these women really do see their femininity in terms traditional duties, and their creative urges as either gender neutral or masculine pursuits. When I, quite awkwardly, attempt to ask whether any of them see their writing as springing from the same feminine source of creative power as childbirth and childrearing, the room goes silent. The translator asks me to clarify: do I mean that my writing is driven by my libido? I decide to stop talking and just listen.

A Glass Ceiling Named Nancy Drew
Immediately before coming to Bishkek, I attended the PEN congress in Slovenia. One afternoon I met a man attending another conference at the same hotel. He was a moral philosopher teaching at a Florida university. I explained that I was with the Women Writers Committee of PEN, an organization working for free speech and literacy. The next morning at breakfast this philosopher asks my companion if she is also here for the Romance Writers’ Convention. I wanted to throw a book at him, something thick, like DeBeauvoir’s Second Sex, but I can’t say I was surprised. So, neither am I surprised to learn that the women in Kyrgyzstan are allowed to write detective novels and light romances with impunity. Provided there’s no sex in their romances.

Writing about sex, in novels or poetry, brings a woman author’s virtue into question. Married woman who write about sexual experiences are accused of having affairs. Svetlana Suslova is not joking when she says poetesses should never marry. She claims more than one talented poetess has turned out nothing but dribble after marrying. The women talk about how they censor themselves out of fear of being divorced or reviled by their children. If I weren’t committed to keeping my mouth shut, I’d assure them this isn’t a Kyrgyz or Central Asian phenomenon. Perhaps this isn’t even a gender issue. I will, however, grant that the risks of declaring this kind of independence are greater for these women than for me or my colleagues in Europe with greater economic possibilities, social mobility, and fewer genuine taboos.
«Judgment by Wolves»
In so many ways, «support network» is a disparaged term. The connotations are «new age», «pop-psych» and, arguably, gender-specific and patronizing. Still, when the moderator divides us into workgroups to discuss what practical steps should be taken in the future to help women writers in Central Asia, a «support network» is what comes to my mind. So many of these women are writing in complete isolation. They explain the immense social pressure, the «judgment by wolves» they endure from their communities. In Norway there is a saying that women are women’s worst enemies; according to Irina Kozlinskaja only 10% of Kyrgyz women believe that women should use political means to improve their situation. Even in this room we have a breadth of opinions: one woman says «We need to wait to act; this is a time for discussion»; the next tells us her sources say that more than 90% of Kyrgyz women are physically or emotionally abused by their husbands, that young women are committing suicide because of social censorship. Yet another defends the censorship of school textbooks when it comes to teaching teenagers about female reproductive anatomy. Irina Kozlinskaja says that they first need to determine whether women actually want gender equality. What is gender equality? I wonder. What will it be for them? And what are these women’s real expectations for themselves as writers?

It seems to me that, for some of these women, the grass isn’t just greener it’s jade and emerald on our side of the East/West divide. One of the women talked about how easy it would be to publish in Europe once they had translations of their work in English, German, or French. Yes, our opportunities for publishing are greater, but even for us it’s not easy. And interest in translations isn’t exactly burgeoning in the European and American markets. It may take much more discussion to form realistic expectations.

Seeing as how few of these women have reliable access to internet, their goals seem ambitious: organizing book exhibitions, political lobbying, televised round-table discussions, computer programs based on children’s literature, etc. But looking at and listening to these women, I don’t doubt they can accomplish whatever they set out to do collectively. The greatest hurdle may be establishing a community, finding a space and method for productive communication. We, as the visiting PEN members, agree that we aren’t there to make extravagant promises, but we can help them by sharing information about computer listservs and similar solutions, by making them aware of publication venues such as WordsWithoutBorders.org, and by offering moral support and solidarity.

A Panorama
On my last night in Bishkek, Samat tells me his student and friend Sergei wants to drive us around town. We won’t have to pay a taxi. His friend just wants to meet foreigners. It’s immediately obvious that Sergei is well-off as he pulls up in his big, black Mitsubishi. Sergei speaks Russian with eloquence, I’m sure, but his English is labor-intensive. And since my Russian is limited to «Cheers» and «Thank You», conversation is slow. I learn that Sergei is Maldivian, having emigrated with his family when he was 13. He is what they call a shuttle, someone who routinely travels to the United Arab Emirates to buy goods (tax free) and brings them home to sell. We were told the day before that immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when men were too demoralized to work, many women supported their families as shuttles. Sergei has two hotels and several stores, all of which were plundered on March 24th. He was away in the United Arab Emirates when he heard the news of the riots. The airport had closed and there was no way for him to get home for days. He smiles. Everything is going well, now, yes. «Ah, you’re a writer?» he says. He wants to know if I write detective stories.

Five of us are going to dinner: Sergei, Samat, the Chair of the Women Writers Committee Judith Buckrich, Kristin Schnider from Swiss German PEN and me. A little student café where we eat five kinds of salad and shish kebab. MTV is on silently in the corner of the room. Both Judith and Kristin are well-traveled, but I tell them this is as far off the beaten track as I’ve ever been; I’ve never been in a city without an Irish pub. «Ah,» says Samat, «you want to go to the Irish pub? We can take you there.»

Instead Sergei drives us all to a look-out point near a restaurant called the Panorama. He wants to show us Bishkek at night from above. The guidebook says Bishkek is the name of a butter churn, but Samat says it also means cradle. He speaks optimistically of the country, claiming to have rarely seen pregnant women in the city in the past; he says today he’s seen four. He thinks that means people have hope. Not only does the feminist in me react to his statement, I also remember what Leyli Kerova said at the conference about the increasing number infant corpses being found in the city.  Hope is a vital and precious commodity. I hope Samat is right.

Sergei has brought beer, wine and dried fish, which he nimbly rids of eyes and innards before handing over to us. The sun has set already, but we watch the remaining sunlight fade and the stars and the neon and electric lights of the casinos and discos take over. There are a dozen cars parked here. Four teenagers in the nearest car are playing a board game in the backseat. A family is packing up their picnic. A couple is sitting on the low concrete guardrail, their arms around each other. A small fire is burning at the edge of the city. Bishkek’s make-out point, I joke. «Yes,» laughs Sergei. «I only have one wife and am allowed three. I’ve kidnapped you all.» Since I’m married with two kids and my two colleagues are single, I’m sure I’m the one in the clear.

As we pile back into Sergei’s car to leave, the teenagers in the car beside us put away the board game and switch off the light to neck in relative privacy. It really is the same all over.

7/16/2005

[1] according to Irina Kozlinskaja: International PEN Women Writer’s Committee Conference in Central Asia

[2] http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/kg.html

[3] Irina Kozlinskaja: International PEN Women Writer’s Committee Conference in Central Asia

[4] A detailed report of the conference is being prepared by Kristin Schnider of Swiss German PEN. This essay is intended as a supplement to her official report, and is therefore not exhaustive regarding the presentations and discussions of the conference.