In CA Once Again

I’m currently in Bishkek, reconnecting with some of my bazaar contacts at Dordoi and planning a short trip to Osh and Jalalabad (and possibly Naryn and Batken) in the coming weeks. One of my informants has an uncle who wanted to open his own regional bazaar in Batken that would serve the corridor into northern Tajikistan. I want to see how that venture has developed and what more I can learn from the people involved.

At the end of October, I will transfer my base of operations to Kashgar in Northwest China and see how the Chinese export firms function to supply the bazaars of Kyrgyzstan. It’s an exciting time, and I always feel like I don’t have enough of it. Glad to be back in the field though.

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Wrapping Up Summer Recess; Back on the Road Soon

Although my time in the US was intended to only last 6-8 weeks, I have remained in the Western hemisphere for the entire summer. The reasons are primarily financial and I have wanted to return earlier, but luckily September will mark my return to Central Asia and fieldwork. In the mean time, I have been working to take advantage of being on this side of globe by visiting libraries, making professional contacts, consulting with faculty, and visiting family.

In mid-September, I plan on being back in Kyrgyzstan for a month and then heading to Kashgar, China for the next stage of the project, where I will be working with Chinese export firms sending goods across the Northwest border.

Before leaving the US, I plan on taking advantage of Central Asian and Islamic Rare Book Collection at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. It contains the personal libraries of Richard N. Frye, Karl H. Menge, and Karl Jettmar. In preparation for the re-expedition, I am also gearing up steam on the blog. Happy late summer days.

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After wrapping up my initial research period in the south of Kyrgyzstan, I managed to return to Bishkek for a few days to reconnect with some friends and colleagues. There, I met with a few more informants before making a long trip westward, over my old homes and on to the Pacific coast of the United States. Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology and presented my work on the repercussions from the Osh Events at a double panel devoted to research on refugees and displacement.

Now I’m back in Philadelphia, where I am working on two papers for publication, and preparing for another conference in Europe. I will get back to Central Asia sometime in mid-May, and am looking forward to being there when all the ice has melted, and people are on jailoo, or in yurts in the mountains for summer pastures.

By means of both the conferences, meeting with the professors and students at UPenn, and through publication, I am glad to connect and communicate my findings with the scholarly community. At the same time, I am maintaining my relationships in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, learning from and sharing ideas with them. This has led me to reflect on the way that trans-local actors disseminate information to groups in different places, and how ideas circulate between small and large scale communities. While there has been extensive analysis of the media in anthropology, particularly film/television and social media on the internet, I am less aware of studies of a globalized word-of-mouth transmission of information. Outside of Appadurai’s initial musings on globalization, most of the work on these matters have focused on virtual communities or diasporas, not frequently-flying nodes of information. Please leave me some references in the comments if you know of any people working on this, as it’s inherently interesting given the nature of recent scholarship.

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A Lady and Fellows with Bellows

On March 9, I was lucky enough to catch the last performance of the Osh Philarmonia’s special International Women’s Day concert, which featured traditional Kyrgyz songs accompanied by accordions. When I was living in Kyrgyzstan in 1999-2000 studying Kyrgyz folk music, my research focused on traditional, pre-Soviet era, instruments. I was largely unaware of the аккордеон ырлар (accordion song) genre.

The concert featured six men and one woman on accordion, most of them singing while playing. Additionally, there were three singers who rocked the stage with ear-splitting electronic accompaniment over the loud speakers. One of the singers was National Artist of Kyrgyzstan, Salamat Sydykova, whose voice and komuz performances I recorded on a portable 4-track during my first year in Bishkek.

Below is a video I took during the show that features Altynai Narbaeva and Janybek Batybekov. Altynai, which translates to Golden Moon, is a well known star of this type of music. Janybek, while not as popular, certainly has his chops. If I had a better connection, I would upload more performances, but for now, this will have to suffice.

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Money Lending in Jalal-Abad

As a break from Osh, I ventured to the the city of Jalal-Abad for the last few days, where I have been spending my days with money lenders in the local bazaar. I wanted to come to Jalal-Abad to get some information for my upcoming presentation on the situation of Uighurs Uzbeks after the summer conflict. Most of the damage took place in J-A and Osh, and visiting the cities has allowed me to see the damage and assess the social tensions first hand. I’ve been interviewing representatives from international organizations involved in the post-conflict humanitarian response as well as leaders of local NGOs.

My time with the money lenders has given me a lot of insight into the ways that people gain access to fast money, and their reasons for doing so. I have also learned more about the trade of gold and the quasi-legal market in official documents. Older women pawn their jewelry to get money for their local bazaar businesses while young men have been pawning their passports so they can buy elaborate presents for their girlfriends on International Women’s Day.

I hope to come back here in May and spend more time in the city, and get a better understanding of the business connections between here and Uzbekistan.

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Camera Shy

I will be the first to admit that I am camera shy when doing fieldwork. By camera shy, I don’t mean that I feel uncomfortable getting in front of a lens, but rather that I hesitate to pull out my camera when in a bazaar out of fear that it will make others feel on edge. I also prefer to blend in, to be unobtrusive. The way that I go about ethnography is by spending a lot of time milling about a place, then approaching people quietly to introduce myself and explain my project before inviting them to speak with me.

My looks help me do this pretty easily. I pass for a local Russian guy until I open my mouth. Even then, if my interlocutors are from a village or otherwise are not well-spoken in Russian I may still be mistaken for a guy from Bishkek. For people from the city that have been educated in Russian, my accent immediately marks me as a foreigner. Nevertheless, I feel more at ease when I bring little attention to myself, and I feel like it makes people more willing to share their stories with me.

For this reason, I usually don’t stop to take pictures of videos. There is also the habit in Central Asia of having posing in front of any open camera. This is quite nice under different circumstances, but when my goal is to be taken seriously and to show others that I take them seriously, hamming it up for a picture feels out of place. Such a scenario immediately positions our interpersonal understanding in an imbalanced way: outsider/insider, tourist/local, photographer/subject(object). It widens the space between us as individuals when I am trying to show that a deep mutual understanding and respect can be established.

For these reasons, I have not been uploading as many visuals to the blog. I realized yesterday that most people reading this may be unaware of what the bazaars I talk about look like. At this point, I am inured to the idea that the bazaars are exotic or unusual, and as such have lost some perspective of what it must be like for people interested in this topic who have not had the opportunity to visit Central Asia.

To that end, I am in the process of uploading a video that I took of a stroll through some of the alleyways of the Dordoi Bazaar in December. My camera shyness compelled me to keep the recorder next to my chest as a walked around, and that has resulted in a shakiness that obscures part of the video. Still, you should be able to get some idea of what it’s like to stroll through one of the bazaars where I do my research. You can see the endless series of stalls, set up in rows of shipping containers, selling everything from wigs to fur coats. You can see families with small children being dragged behind parents, and young workers horsing around. I filmed this in the early afternoon, when the bazaar is winding down for the day. In the morning, the crowds are too thick to be able to get any clear shots, unless I had held the recorder above all our heads, and made a spectacle of myself.

Another reason I have not uploaded video, is because of the low bandwidth available to me here. Even with a fast connection by local standards, this has taken 2.5 hours to upload. Enjoy, and excuse the bluriness.

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Holiday in Kara-Suu

Well, it isn’t a holiday for me. Today is International Women’s Day (Дорогие женщины, с праздником!), and I observed it by heading to the bazaar after congratulating the landlady at the guesthouse as well as the cooks and waitresses at the nearby cafe where I regularly enjoy cakes and coffee.

I had hoped to spend the afternoon explaining my project to the administrators at the Kara-Suu bazaar, and (ideally) getting to talk to them about the organization of the stalls and other material of interest for my dissertation. However, upon arriving I found that the office was close for the holiday but most of the stalls were still working. So I spent a few hours getting a lay of the land. When I visited Kara-Suu in October, I went on the cleaning day so that the only people there would be those who had come in for a quiet day of inventory taking or doing minor renovations to their container-shops. It was good, because I was able to find out some of their takes on the June Events and their effects on trade. However, it prevented me from seeing this sprawling bazaar, the second largest in Central Asia, in its full glory.

Today, I wandered down the long alleyways of shipping containers, piled two high and fanning off in all directions behind the archway that marks the entrance to the vast marketplace. I found areas devoted to the things one sees in all bazaars in the region (curtains, clothing – divided into women’s, men’s, and children’s sections, shoes – with the same divisions, electronics, lamps, etc.). After getting turned around in the candy and cookies section of the bazaar (it’s huge!), I found myself in the back row of containers, where men sold coal from their containers, shoveling it into bags or truck beds, as the consumer wished. Following the coal section, I came across a sheepskin/pelt area of the bazaar, which I followed until I found a path leading back into the labyrinth of stalls. There, I came upon the bicycle repair section, and the antique sewing machine area!

Although this is mainly a wholesale marketplace, like Dordoi, it contains a higher percentage of retail outlets than its Bishkek equivalent. It is both smaller and more interesting, by virtue of the fact that is serves a wider variety of clientèle. Before leaving the south, I will return several more times and get a better idea of the layout, management structure, and supply chains.

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Backwater Cosmopolitan

Before this trip, the only time I had spent in Osh were the five days around the elections in October of last year. Although I have been reading about this city for over a decade, only now am I getting to know it on a personal level.

Osh has roughly five hundred thousand residents, less than half than that of Bishkek. The infrastructure here is crumbling, most things close at 9:00 pm, and while walking along the icy streets one often gets the feeling of being in an oversized village. At the same time, this is a city with a deep history whose roots reach across the region and south to Persia and India. Bishkek, meanwhile, was little more than a Russian military outpost just 150 years ago.

The day before I left Bishkek, I went to the national history (Lenin) museum on Ala-Too Square. I hadn’t visited it in over ten years. I was impressed with how it had been taken care of, and with many of the exhibits, even though they seem to not have changed since perestroika. Just today, I explored Osh’s main museum as well. While the collection in Osh is less extensive, it speaks to a long tradition of religious and cultural patrimony that often seems absent in the capital. I found myself wishing I could take some of the books on display back to my guesthouse for further reading.

In addition, Mt. Sulayman, a UNESCO world heritage site and holy mountain since ancient times, looms over the city looking like an enormous camel’s back. It’s easy to imagine the streets here filled with hawkers and pilgrims before the concrete houses and Soviet monuments remade the city in right angles.

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Sweating Out Fieldwork

After my last post, logistical matters kept me in Bishkek for a few more days, where I crashed with friends KR and CVM, enjoying their hospitality and homemade pizzas. I arrived in Osh three days ago and am staying at a humble and comfortable guesthouse that is part of the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association, a very successful tourism project initiated by Helvetas, a Swiss development NGO.

Since arriving, my adjustment was made smoother due to both the welcome presence of a friend from Bishkek who was here for a few days working on an EU project, and a new contact, EA, that I made through other friends. The new contact is working with the UN on issues that have come to the fore in the wake of the June Events.

Last night, I met up with EA and one of his pals here who has a stall in the local bazaar selling boots. After a few beers, we drove out to the edge of town to a lively chaikhana (teahouse, cafe), and pulled the car around to back. There, we found a private sauna that one can rent by the hour. The three of us proceeded to spend the next few hours alternately sweating out all the toxins of modern Kyrgyz living and watching Russian comedy shows over bowls of green tea. It made be feel like there is more to do in Osh than appears on the surface. Tonight, we may go to a ping-pong parlor, and this week I will visit my new boot selling buddy at his bazaar and learn more about his side of the business.

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Southern Discomfort

Tomorrow I head south to the city of Osh for a few weeks to do work in the Kara Suu bazaar, which supplies Uzbekistan with most of its Chinese-produced goods. I will also be spending my time revisiting the ethnically Uzbek neighborhoods in which I interviewed during the week of the parliamentary elections in October so as to gather more information for the paper I will be giving at the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology in late March. This research will plunge me back into the sad realities of continued discrimination and intimidation talking place in the Osh and Jalalabad oblasts following the June Events, a spate of violence that left hundred (perhaps thousands) dead and sparked continued ethnic tensions.

Today has been spent packing up my flat, realizing that I have acquired more things than I realized during the last six months in Bishkek, cleaning, planning, and catching up on correspondence. I will be glad to have a change of scenery and kick-start myself into some new ideas. All the same, I am harshly reminded of the hassle involved in constantly being on the move.

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