Exchange with Africa

Although the idea of the Silk Road is a persistent metaphor for the deep historical roots of globalization some recent scholarship, such as Enseng Ho’s The Graves of Tarim, show that that cultural and economic exchange between Asia and Africa has been vibrant for centuries.

In the same spirit, I have been transported to Cote d’Ivoire for a few weeks to observe the upcoming presidential elections with The Carter Center. I am currently in the former capital, Abidjan, which is still the country’s economic and cultural center. Although I am staying next to a palm covered beach, my days are spent in a crash course of trainings about the post-colonial history, the recent civil war, as well as Ivorian constitutional and procedural election laws.

It is exciting to take part in the first elections to follow the signing of the Accord de Ouagadougou in 2007. Later today, I will find out to which region I am being deployed.

Yesterday evening, on my first night in the country, I saw evidence of Japanese, Korean, French, and American multinational corporations’ activities in Abidjan. If I have the time, I will see if I can find a market (effectively a bazaar) so I can compare the items available with those in Central Asia.

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NYTimes Caught Silk Road Fever

An article was published in the times today extolling the wonders of Xinjiang, the most northwestern province of China and where I will be in mid-to-late 2011 for my fieldwork. I am sure that the article will achieve its goal of making would-be travelers wish they too could trek across the Taklamakan Desert. While I congratulate the author (and also long for next summer when I too will have the opportunity to visit Uyghurstan), I can’t help but wish it had something more to say about how people there see things.

He offhandedly mentions that there are ethnic tensions and that the Chinese government only took full control of the region in 1949. What he fails to mention is that the type of repression and discrimination against Uyghurs in Xinjiang is arguably more severe than that which has taken place in Tibet. By invoking the fear of militant Islam, the Chinese government justifies its arrest of peaceful human rights activists (such as Rebiya Kadeer) that advocate for the equality of Uyghur citizens.

When reading the article, I also found myself wanting to know how he was seen. As a welcome guest whose tourist money aided the economy? A foreign devil on the silk road? A Mandarin speaking guy from the south? What kinds of connections did he make, and how does the opening of Xinjiang to Han Chinese and foreigners alike change people’s concepts of self and future?

I know, I know – it’s a silly travel piece. What should I expect? Not everything can be anthropology.

Plus, enjoy the good pictures. They are highly reminiscent of other Central Asian cities.

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Not so Osh-ome

During the days when I was in the southern city of Osh last week with J.A., my photographer friend, we attempted to find media outlets that would be interested in seeing and reading about the ways that Osh is coping in the wake of the June Events (violent inter-ethnic clashes). We felt that it was particularly interesting, and pertinent to the wider global community since the elections were an opportunity both to move towards  peaceful, democratic reconciliation or in the direction of further violence.

I sent a brief article proposal to my friends who work in media, trying to see if they had any suggestions on how to pitch the story to a magazine. I am not a journalist, so I was admittedly going into the endeavor blindly.

The proposal was this, followed by a brief bios of J.A. and me:

Article proposal: Osh Portrait, Enduring Uncertainty

Project: An article of 5,000-7,000 words and a photo essay.

Background: In April of this year, a popular revolution took place in Kyrgyzstan The president was forced out of office and parliament dissolved. Two months later, ethnopoliticial violence broke out in the south of the country between Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs. During this unrest, which has come to be known as the June Events, several thousand people were killed and crowds set fire to buildings in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Coming at the heels of this turmoil, elections will be held to form the first post-revolutionary parliament on Sunday, October 10.

Main narrative: By weaving together the personal stories of 8-10 people from various segments of society with the history of the Fergana Valley and recent political developments, this piece will paint a picture of contemporary social life in this critically important region of Central Asia. The article will contextualize recent incidents while illuminating people’s hopes and fears along with their views on government and community. In addition, there is a significant possibility that there will be further violence during the election period, which we will be able to document.

We spent our days in the bazaars and burned, destroyed neighborhoods where pogroms had taken place. J.A. documented rebuilding efforts, the hesitant optimism that had begun to show on people’s faces, and quiet fearful glances while I heard terrible stories of families fleeing from renegade troops and rumors of secret mass killings, litanies of blame and acute expressions of gratitude. In the evenings, we would check our email to see if there was someone who would be interested, someone who wanted to publish what we were gathering. Every day was the same – no answer. It became a joke between us. Each night when I signed on line he called out “Nobody cares about Kyrgyzstan, right?” “No one at all,” I intoned in reply.

Eventually a few people did give me some feedback. (Thank you – I am humbly appreciative for all of it.) According to people I heard from, the main thrust of any story about Kyrgyzstan in the Western media ought to be “Why should we care about this?” Also, the story should be kept to under 1000 words, because Kyrgyzstan just doesn’t loom large in people’s minds in the English language media. This saddened me because this short “Why should we care?” article has been written hundreds of times over the last several years. Even last week Tom Daschle wrote one of these pieces for the Washington Post. I kept thinking, “How many times can readers consume the same superficial article about this far off country without stopping to wonder what people here feel and think about their political situation?”

I am still trying to find an outlet that might be interested in publishing our work. If that time ever comes, I will link to J.A.’s great photos. If not, I will try to get him to let me post them here, along with a version of the article. Until that time, I guess I have to resign myself to the fact that most people do not care about Osh. But for those that do, keep checking the blog.

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Buzkashi or Blue Wolf (Otherwise Known as Goat-Carcass-Polo)

While the more civic minded residents of Bishkek went to Ala-Too Square to obverse patriotic festivities during the morning of Independence Day, myself and other local sports enthusiasts gathered at the Hippodrome to see the lively Central Asian sport of көкбөрү [kökbörü] (translated as “blue wolf” in Kyrgyz, but known in English as buzkashi).

The premise of the sport is rather simple, and closely resembles polo. However, there are no mallets and instead of using a ball, a headless goat is swiftly delivered into goals on either side of the field.

Players use all their energy to wrestle the goat from the other team and swiftly gallop towards their goal. While the game is short on strategy, it relies heavily on skilled horsemanship. The reason why this is such a popular sport goes back to the pre-Soviet history of the Kyrgyz people. Before becoming Soviet citizens, most Kyrgyzs were nomadic herders who moved with the seasons to better grazing pastures. Kökbörü was one of several summer games that showcased the chops of the lifelong horseback riders. Today, in addition to being an swift adrenalin boost, watching the games gives people the opportunity to take pride in their cultural history.

While it may initially seem unusual for people not from Central Asia, is it really much more strange than rugby? American football? Curling? Long live the world of variety in sport!

кбөрү
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Did somebody say party?

Despite the dreary rain signaling the end of the summer in the Chui Valley, the people of Kyrgyzstan are anxious and hopeful this week. The reason for so much worry and excitement is that on Sunday October 10, a new parliament will be elected. As the winners of the race will comprise the first new government after the April revolution, the stakes feel exceptionally high. In a referendum this summer championed by acting president Roza Otunbaeva, Kyrgyz voters approved changes to the constitution that would move the bulk of power away from the executive branch and into the hands of parliament. The idea behind the changes was to prevent abuse of power by the president and his or her family, of the kind that was endemic to the regimes of both former heads of state, Akaev and Bakiev.

In the democratic fervor that has characterized the revolution, a wide variety of parties are taking part in this year’s elections. In fact 29 parties registered according to Kyrgyz law, and all will appear on Sunday’s ballot. As Mirajidin Arynov points out on neweurasia, most parties in Kyrgyzstan rely on selling the public their main candidates rather than developing a comprehensive ideological platform. From some of the rallies I attended, I can attest that many of the promises that politicians put forth are unrealistic and populist. In a both absurd and telling gesture, the slogan for the Green Party is simply “Against all!”

For the election day, I will be with a photo journalist friend in Osh, the southern city that was wracked by ethnopolitical violence in June. We are hoping that everything surrounding the election will go smoothly, but if there are any irregularities it is important that scholars and journalists are present to document what takes place. In addition, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is sending over 200 election observers across the country to monitor what happens in polling stations and at ballot counting centers. Their report on the freedom and fairness of the election should be released roughly 24 hours after polling stations close. I participated in their election observation mission in Tajikistan earlier this year, and believe they have tested and objective methodologies for observation and monitoring of election activities.

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Bishkek Street Art: Graffiti and Freedom of Speech

One feature that has always stood out to me, as an American, about post-Soviet Central Asian cities is the lack of a culture of street art. The presence of quasi-anonymous public art gives voice to the thoughts and feelings of people who do not see themselves represented in the wider media and public culture. It also serves as a way to critique political power and broadly held assumptions about institutions and whom they really serve. (See the website of British artist Banksy.)

Before this trip to Bishkek, the most interesting street art that I had seen in the region was in Kazakhstan. In Almaty, I came across a graffiti-esque rendering of Ablai-Khan, copied from the 100 Tenge bank note painted on the concrete walls of a dry canal.  Given this previous dearth of street art, I was awed and surprised to see this picture on a wall in Oak Park on my first day in Bishkek:

"Слишком много слухов" translates to "too many rumors."

When I asked people here what the picture was referring to, I was told that these types of images began appearing during the tense weeks leading up to the April revolution. The text coming out of the goose’s beak reads “Too many rumors.” We can understand this as commentary on the fact that there has been a general lack of transparency and secrecy within the small, elite circles that constitute both political and economic power in Kyrgyzstan.

As I explored the city further, I found more examples of street art, often obliquely critiquing capitalist values of unfettered accumulation.

Sell out, sell youself

Escape

Not only are these works politically engaged, they are also executed with superior skill and exist in dialogue with the global street art that appears in other cities around the world. The artists or group that signs these works calls him/her/them-selve(s) “Dope.” As I move deeper into the local art world (I will be DJing some events at the Б’Art Contemporary Art Center here in Bishkek), I hope to meet Dope in person and learn more about the background behind these art interventions.

I will leave you, dear reader, with this image imploring us to move beyond what we think are our limits, what we are told are the boundaries of possibility.

Reaching Space

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A New Independence Day

On August 31, 1991 the Supreme Soviet (roughly the equivalent of parliament during the Soviet Union) voted to make the Kyrgyz Republic an independent country. Since then, the day has been commemorated with parades and other various patriotic fanfare in Ala-Too Square. Think of the political showmanship that takes place on Red Square in Moscow, and scale it down to Kyrgyzstan.

This year for Independence Day, I forewent the daytime ceremonies to attend the national buzkashi championship. (A post on that coming later.) However, late in the evening, I made it to Ala-Too to see if people were still out and reveling in an independent spirit. To my surprise, there were literally thousands of people – families with children, groups of young people, pensioners – strolling through the center, chatting with friends in parks, and avoiding the spray of the huge fountains. Unfortunately, my video camera was not charged so I was unable to capture the expanse of the crowd.

What really struck me about the scene was the fact that people really seemed to inhabit this official space as though it belonged to them, as though they were claiming their own right to the city. The concept of the right to the city was first articulated by Henri Lefebvre who proposed that urban space need not be merely organized around economic utility, which was its original purpose. Lefebvre maintains that the city landscape carries the latent potential for re-imagination and creative use its residents, that they have the power to implement their own visions of social and spatial relations. For a succinct exploration of this idea, see this article.

As I watched the throngs happily filling Ala-Too Square, it struck me as unusual that people were not being corralled into designated paths and observation areas. From my experience in formerly Soviet republics, I have come to expect strict limitations on where and how people are allowed to move through public and private spaces, particularly when large crowds have gathered. But here I was – surrounded by perhaps 10,000 people who were taking ownership of the public arena. People have come to claim their right to freedom of speech and movement. It reminded me of the popular revolutions that took place in the self-same square, in 2005 and again in April of this year. As a Westerner, I have positive associations with ideas of democratic uprising, associations that are not shared by many Bishkek residents.

While discussing the Independence Day events and crowds with local acquaintances, I discovered that for many of them the day brought about fears of unrest, of chaos and the destruction of property. Large crowds, particularly those with a nationalist bent, forebode coups d’état along with the danger and destruction that invariably follow. Indeed, Lefebvre states that it is specifically in public space that the interests of capital and private property come into conflict with popular/populist demands for greater participation in political and economic life.

As an anthropologist, I try to sit with all of these perspectives and see the how various political interests position themselves within the newly established governmental framework. I am waiting to see what kinds of new opportunities will arise for communication, interaction, and justice within public discourse in the wake of the April revolution. Please join me in my wishes for peaceful resolutions to the lingering problems as I contemplate the new kinds of independence Kyrgyzstan experiences in 2010.

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The First Day of School…

September 1 marks the first day of school for children all across Kyrgyzstan. To distinguish this day, parents dress children in their nicest clothes. The uniform colors are black and white for everyone, boys in black suits and girls in black skirts with white shirts or aprons. Anyone familiar with Soviet school uniforms will recognize the audacious bows that crown the heads of little girls, signaling the beginning of September. For examples of  be-bowed children in Kyrgyzstan see this and this. Children often bring their teachers flowers to commemorate the day. In general, it is a happy time, heavy with the delicious promise of things to come.

As I left the university where I am a research fellow, I watched some kids around the age of 12 or 13 rip off their uniforms and jump into the big fountains in the park with joyous abandon. Given the late August heat, I was somewhat jealous that decorum forbid me from doing the same.

After the violence and unrest in Southern Kyrgyzstan in June, tensions remain high between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyzs. Thankfully, some film makers took the opportunity of celebrating the new school year to address the issue and advocate for peaceful reconciliation.

(Thanks to my friend Pilar, a devoted advocate against injustice throughout Central and South Asia, for bringing this video to my attention.)

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10 Years and 2 Revolutions Later…

The Statue of Freedom, looking south on Ala Too Square.

The Statue of Freedom, looking south on Ala Too Square.

The last time I lived in Kyrgyzstan was in 1999-2000 while I was conducting research for my undergrad thesis at Hampshire College*. The 1990s was a really horrible time for people living in the former Soviet Union. Currencies were devalued to the point where they became effectively worthless. There was a severe lack of goods. Transportation and basic infrastructure like water, gas, and electricity functioned sporadically, if at all. Even today, it can be hard for people here to talk about that time. The kind of physical need coupled with the mental anguish caused by humiliation and uncertainty about the future produced a suffering that still goes largely unacknowledged in the West.

During that time, the first president of the Kyrgyz Republic, Askar Akayev, was still in power, ten years after first being elected. Although it had become apparent by 1999 that his government was corrupt and siphoning money from donor organizations, those in power were able to quell any resistance. Things were just beginning to get better following the horrible times ushered in by perestroika.

In 2005, the Akayev presidency came to an abrupt end when huge crowds of protesters who had been camping in the main plaza, Ala Too Square, stormed the White House (the name of presidential residence in Kyrgyzstan) and forced him from power. Coming at the heels of the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, this coup d’état became known as the Tulip Revolution. In the days that followed, Kurmanbek Bakiyev took power with promises of reform. However, in the subsequent years his regime proved to be as corrupt as that of Akayev. In early April of this year, another popular revolution took place in Kyrgyzstan. This time Bakiyev was forced out of power, and a referendum has been held to amend the constitution so that Kyrgyzstan has a parliamentary form of government rather than one where power is concentrated in the hands of the president.

Cobbled together gate at the White House, Bishkek.

Cobbled together gate at the White House, Bishkek. One of the last signs of the revolution in April. Gate being repaired today, 28 August, 2010.

Another upsetting development, which is at the fore of everyone’s mind in Kyrgyzstan, is the ethnic violence that broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents of the country’s second largest city, Osh. Located in the fertile Ferghana Valley, Osh has traditionally been a city where people of various cultures and languages lived side by side. An important city on the Silk Road, the political situation has already affected trade, as the border has been closed between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan at the Osh crossing.

As I move through the streets, I notice the things that have changed in the years since I was last here. In general, the economy is better than it was ten years ago, and there is a sense of more stability despite the recent revolution and violence in the South. The formerly ubiquitous feeling of economic desperation has receded and a cautious hopefulness hangs in the air. People feel empowered to have public opinions that are contrary to state policy, a sign that free speech is gaining ground. (See an upcoming post on political street art.)

The Historical Museum on Ala Too Square

The Historical Museum on Ala Too Square.

Historical Museum, Statue of Freedom, and fountains, looking north on Ala Too Square.

Historical Museum, Statue of Freedom, and fountains, looking north on Ala Too Square.

*I’m currently working on a website to present the results of that project which focused on nationalism and folk music in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union. Expect a link in the coming weeks.

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The Greenest City in Asia

Bishkek has often billed itself as “the greenest city in Asia.” There is a lot of truth in the claim. The Soviet-style north-south, east-west grid of the city is punctuated by large, lush parks that intersect with government buildings, apartment blocks, and commercial zones. Most streets are lined with large oaks and fir trees. Official, austere squares are softened by massive flower beds. In some parks enormous copses of rose bushes rise up blooming in the late summer sun.

Rose bed in the Open Air Scupture Musuem in Oak Park

Rose bed in the Open Air Scupture Musuem in Oak Park

Togolok Moldo

Art student sketching near the Togolok Moldo Sculpture in the park bearing his name. Togolok Moldo was a famous poet, musician and manaschi (reciter of the national epic, Manas) in the early 20th century.

At the same time, some of the qualities that have recently been associated with “green,” such as environmental consciousness are still lacking. Air pollution in Bishkek is higher than recommended standards, often due to traffic and the lack of regulations for cars to have catalytic converters. Resources are inefficiently consumed because of the design of old Soviet-era infrastructure, and it is common to see litter in many parts of the city that are not surrounding the seats of government power.

Flower beds planted in Bishkek's central plaza, Ala Too Square.

Flower beds planted in Bishkek's central plaza, Ala Too Square.

Garden next to the parliament building.

Garden next to the parliament building.

All the same, the thriving plant life gives residents, me included, a sense of relief and calmness that is rare in cities of this size. The population is estimated to be over 1.25 million.

Child playing on a bungee trampoline in Erkindik (freedom) Park.

Child playing on a bungee trampoline in Erkindik (freedom) Park.

I am lucky enough to live and work in the center of the city. The American University of Central Asia (AUCA), where I am a fellow at the Social Research Center, is next to the parliament building and my flat is only a few blocks away. As a result I get to stroll through the Open Air Sculpture Museum in Oak Park on my way to the AUCA in the mornings.

Lion sculpture in the Open Air Sculpture Museum in Oak Park

Lion sculpture in the Open Air Sculpture Museum in Oak Park

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