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by Robert Rosenberg


The Montreal Review, January 2011


Talgat Asyrankulov

"I Bow Low to the East, but Look to the West" (2008
Photos on silk, 4 bifrontal images
200 x 100 cm each) by Talgat Asyrankulov.




From downstairs, the inevitable knocking on my door. 9:00 pm on a school night. What are the possibilities? Anarbek, manager of the milkless milk factory, inviting me to watch porn movies at his house? ("I have 150 of them.") Some drunk stumbling through the snow across Karl Marx Street , who has taken it upon himself to learn English - tonight, in one sitting, no effort involved? Nurgazi, my undernourished twelve year-old neighbor, come to crouch in my house and watch the American grade papers for three hours?

"Wobert! Wobert!" the voice calls, vaguely familiar. A snowball hits my second story window.

You can only be a prisoner in your home for so long. I head downstairs to the door.

It's my other neighbor, Abdigul. "Come, be my guest!" he demands in Kyrgyz. I consider declining; but at this point, eighteen months into my Peace Corps service, I know it's no use. Would he even listen to me if I did?

I scramble around my home with Abdigul watching from my doorway. I brush my tangled hair, now fully six or seven months out of control, and slide from sweats into a pair of jeans. Abdigul reminds me to put a decent shirt on, and I thank him for the reminder. I grab a heavy bag full of apples, which I was given as a gift last week, to recycle as a present. Very Kyrgyz of me. And then I walk what seems the many light-years through space and time and falling snow, to the next door of my townhouse.

"Come in. Come in," my host beckons. I begin taking off my shoes. "Come in. Come in." My left shoe is not yet off. "Come in. Come in," Abdigul intones, as I'm undoing the lace of my right shoe. We make our way through the kitchen, into the extension Abdigul built himself from sun-dried mud bricks just last year, my first summer in the village. "Come in, come in." It's as if he senses my reluctance, despite the smile I am attempting with practiced effort to lock on my face. I know what I'm in for. The door swings open ("Come in!") and I'm greeted by the following scene:

The room is small, maybe eight yards by three. And uncomfortably warm - heated by a great metal pot of sheep intestines steaming on a home-made cement hotplate. Music blares scratchily out of a large Chinese boom-box, which rests on a massive television set. The song is a Kyrgyz attempt (in English) at rap: Hello Kyrgyz Boy! How are you today, sir! Hello Kyrgyz Boy! You forever gentleman!

Two couples are slow dancing to this cacophony. In itself this is quite a feat, because most of the floor is covered by a plastic table cloth, set up with the usual rainbow of breads, walnuts, jams, tea cups, and vodka bottles. The two couples are a sight. There is a massive squinty-eyed Schwarzenneger-esque crew-cutted character, whose name I will learn is Almaz ("Diamond"). He is stepping on the toes of a very pretty, very helpless, Kyrgyz girl with bobbed hair, whom I know as Abdigul's wife's little sister. She could be anywhere from 16 to 24 years old; I can't tell. Almaz is crushing her with his arms - a position not unlike what he would use were he attempting the Heimlich from the wrong end.


Hello Kyrgyz Boy! How are you today sir!

"Come in, come in."

The other couple is barely moving. He, with a row of four front gold teeth and a somewhat stylish ski-vest. She, with spiked hair and smudged lipstick in a long one-piece homemade dress. These two are smooching, which I find surprising, and take as a sign that the drinking has begun.

Nurila, Abdigul's wife, is standing at the metal pot, stirring the guts. The most amazing thing about the whole scene is that at the far wall, practically under the feet of the dancers, barely a few feet from the source of the music, Nurila's two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son are sleeping, like little deaf cherubs.

I'm in for a long night, I think, sliding down against the wall near the baby. I watch the dancers until the song ends, and they too sit on the floor.

"Eat salad!" everyone yells at me at once, in chorus, as if it were a signal, or a practical joke. They're pointing to what they call an "American Salad": cubed potatoes, mayonnaise, peas, and pickles. I've never seen anything like it in America.

There are no introductions at a Kyrgyz function. It's rude to talk to or ask questions of your guest until he has sufficiently stuffed himself. So I sit there and eat American salad (this after I had finished off a pot of stir-fry not one hour ago), while my hosts watch me for any minor indiscretion, such as putting my fork down. Asan, the four-year-old boy, wakes up, and tears around the room until Abdigul gives him the apples I had brought. He proceeds to take single bites out of most of them, with both parents watching on approvingly. In a gesture of kindness such as only children can make, he leaves a half-eaten apple on the pillow for his baby sister. "For Aida," he tells me, "when she wakes up."


The vodka is poured. I have worked up a Zen-like acceptance about this whole guesting experience; trying not to fight it every minute, as I did last year. Bakyt, the gold-toothed one, makes the first toast: "Let there be goodness. Let there be togetherness. Let there be health." It would be a beautiful toast, if I didn't know what followed.

The eyes of the room turn to me, and everyone screams together, "Wobert, apak al!" Robert, drink it down to the bottom.

I apak alam. I can do this. I've survived nearly two years of these experiences, in houses across the mountains and deserts of Central Asia . The vodka, homemade somewhere in the village, burns its way down to my stomach.

We talk for a while. I discover that Almaz, the muscled-one, doesn't drink, and I am immediately overwhelmed by respect for him. He's a sportsmyen, he explains. And Bakyt is also a sincerely pleasant guy, speaking slowly so I can understand, asking me questions, but in no way overbearing. Lira, the younger sister, sits across the 'table' sneaking shy glances at me. Mira sprawls out, her head in Bakyt's lap. Nurila explains that Mira, who is a nurse, finished an all-night shift yesterday. That is why she is exhausted, and suddenly sleeping. I ask Bakyt (rudely, I guess) if this woman in his lap is his wife. Yes, they were just married one month ago. This explains the smooching. I ask, jokingly, if they went on a honeymoon. Bakyt replies to this ridiculous question (nobody has the money to go on a honeymoon) by joking that he went to America , and then to Rio . Laughter all around. Then, assuming a mock-serious air, Bakyt says that he and Mira spent their honeymoon in a yurt, with the sheep, up in the mountains. He lets out a huge laugh, and we are all in great spirits.

"Come dance!" everyone yells. Nobody stands. Mira opens one eye.

They say come dance but what they really mean is Robert, dance for us - alone. I've never been much of a dancer; but they want me to get up and show them how Americans groove. Me. They've heard and seen that Americans are terrific dancers. Every single one of us - a Fred Astaire, a Michael Jackson.

"I'm not dancing alone," I explain. They all look at young Lira. She blushes, stands, and flees the room. "Let's all dance," I suggest. They like this idea, even if it's less entertaining than a private demonstration.

We dance, between the spread of food, the boiling intestines, and the sleeping baby. I've grown to like dancing in Kyrgyzstan . I no longer care about making an immense fool of myself; and, in all modesty, even I am a better dancer than anyone in the village. They barely even move. Plus dancing, I've found, is a welcome break from the hours and hours of sitting cross-legged, swigging vodka.

They start slowly, I swing around tamely, they watch me closely, and suddenly they're flailing around in jerky seizures. I've never seen this kind of dancing before; and I realize, to my horror, that they are trying to imitate me. We hop around to a fun Kyrgyz pop song (there are only four or five) playing at ear-splitting volume. Then Bakyt rewinds the tape, and we dance to it again. Then he rewinds the tape, and we dance to it a third time. Almaz takes up most of the room. When he lifts his massive arms, squinting and shaking his head to the music, we all scatter out of the way. Bakyt goes to rewind the tape again, but I ask him to let it play.

We dance to another, different song. They are all singing and clapping randomly in that endearing rhythm-less way people in the village can. Nurila comes in from the kitchen, and joins us. During one song she looks up at me and says, "I haven't danced for many, many years." She's only 28. This simple statement brings on a deep rush of sympathy in me for the plight, the suffering, of these honest, good-natured people, my neighbors.

A slow song comes on. Mira and Bakyt, Abdigul and Nurila couple off. I go to sit down, but of course they won't let me. Almaz fetches Lira, pretty little Lira. I'm surprised at her lack of struggle: she enters the room and eagerly steps over to me. I never know how to do this here. In the past, Kyrgyz women (the teachers at my school, say) have instructed me that I must slow dance with one hand on the middle of the back, the other held out to the side, so that the woman can place her hand gently atop mine. Dancing, barely touching, very Muslim. But in this case, the two other couples look like Americans, holding each other tight. Lira grabs me around the waist, but I am embarrassed, and reposition her hands so that we are as far from each other as possible. We rotate in circles, like a skewer over a fire. The song is interminable. With Lira's small light palm inside it, my hand begins to sweat. She notices my awkwardness, but neither of us holds the other's eyes. Sometimes I laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. Sometimes we look at each other and smile and look away. Lira has fabulous great big Asian eyes and heavy cheeks. So stupid, this sexual tension with someone who might be 17 years old. When the song is over, I thank Lira, and she bows to me, like something out of a Tolstoy novel.

We sit and talk and eat and shoot vodka. Someone has turned on the television, which I hate. Soon, one of the women objects, and shuts it off. I barely have time to thank her in my mind when they all look at me and yell, "Wobert, sing!"

I tell them, in admittedly rude Kyrgyz, that as the guest I refuse to sing first. Reluctantly they accept this. So the men get together and sing, garbling and butchering the words to a pleasant Kyrgyz folk song. Then they look back at me. Someone passes me a cup, filled with scraps from the table. Tradition says if I don't sing I must drink it.

I bring down the house with a voice-cracking version of Silent Night, which I sing in English and partly in Russian (My 8 th graders recently helped me with the translation.) Mira and Lira are in hysterics at my lousy voice, which embarrasses me, but screw it. Then they chant sour-a-nam, which literally means "I will bow in circles around you!" or, in other words: "Sing us another song!" Bakyt suggests I sing something more upbeat. Silent Night was, perhaps, too mellow after three bottles of vodka. I rally with a rousing version of Jingle Bells, accompanied by their support on the chorus - amazing, considering it is the first time, to my knowledge, they've heard it. They all join in together:

Oh! Jungly beelz, jungly beelz

Jungly af ze fay.

Incredible. I pass the cup to Mira, because she was laughing at me. She avoids singing, lamely, by pretending to pass out. Just like them: torture the guest, but don't do anything unpleasant themselves. Bakyt thanks me for singing. He says it is so much more interesting to hear an American sing in person than on the television. I bet it is.

Now Aida, the baby, wakes up. She is almost two (she was just a few months when I first arrived) but she is still breast feeding. She cries for her mother. Nurila, sitting opposite me, takes her baby, lifts her shirt, and starts feeding. This doesn't faze anyone else, but I, for one, can't look at her as she is talking to me. But if I turn in the other direction, I face directly at Lira, who keeps blushing when our eyes meet. For long minutes I stare at the bottle of vodka, in the center of the floor, slowly growing emptier and emptier.

At about one-o'clock in the morning they bring out the besh-barmak. Cold greasy noodles with large hunks of warm sheep guts. I don't even flinch. I down handful after handful of the gunk, with stoic pride. I can do this. I'm a veteran. More shots. I make a toast in Kyrgyz, which pleases my hosts because it's not in Russian. ("Azamat!" Good boy!) The men take a break to go smoke in the snow and use the outhouse. I find myself alone in the room with the three women: Lira staring, Nurila breast feeding, Mira sprawled passed-out on the floor. I've got to get out of here.

At two in the morning, Nurila breaks out another bottle. I tell everyone that I won't drink anymore, because I have classes at 8:00, journals to grade, tests to administer.

No one acknowledges this. Abdigul opens the bottle, pours me a shot. He knows that I know that it's an insult to leave a table when a bottle is even partially full.

Conversation moves to a discussion of ethnicity. They want to know my background. I explain what I can of my mixed European blood, and jokingly they start calling me a mutt. We talk about Kyrgyz tribes, which are akin to Indian tribes. The Kyrgyz, I'm told, try not to marry outside of their tribes. I ask why, if that's so, everyone suggests I marry a Kyrgyz woman. They say, oh, that's different, that's fine, because you're American. The rule is not to intermarry among Kyrgyz tribes. It seems to me some ridiculous equation of global status and pure materialism: American = rich = good husband. They make some more jokes about me being a mutt. The jokes grow old.

It's all but impossible to end these nights on a good note. I brace myself. And then it comes: the inevitable, but necessary, insult.

They're pressing me to do another vodka shot. After Almaz's fourth or fifth toast of the night, I barely touch my vodka. "Drink!" everyone yells. "No!" I finally say, my hand over the glass of vodka. The twisting of faces, the collapsing of smiles. And like that, the night is over.

Unfortunately, my generous hosts now think they have insulted me with the mutt jokes. That could be the only conceivable reason why I won't drink more. That it's 2:30 in the morning on a Wednesday doesn't occur to anyone. As I stand to make my exit, Abdigul and Nurila beg me to stay one more hour, just one, telling me that today was their 5 th wedding anniversary. That was the occasion for the party. How can I leave them, on such a happy day?

Now I'm ashamed. "But why didn't you tell me this earlier?" I ask.

"How could we tell you?" Abdigul says, with typical Kyrgyz modesty. The old, throw yourself a party, but don't tell anybody the reason thing. I've been fooled again.

I make a final toast to their happiness, finish the glass, and slink towards the door.

Abdigul stumbles behind me, through the front of the house, outside into the billowing Central Asian snow, calling "You're not insulted, are you Wobert? You're not insulted?"

"No, Abdigul. But it's late."

He takes my arm at the elbow. "But you are not insulted?"

"I am not insulted."

He asks me again, clenching my elbow harder, a desperate plea, and I reassure him one last time. Only with this, will he let me go.

My half of the townhouse is cold, empty. Upstairs, the morning's ungraded student journals lay scattered across the table. On the floor mat, back in my sweats, I listen for whatever music might make its way from the other side of the wall. Jungly Beelz? Kyrgyz Boy? But there's only an unsettling silence, against the patter of snow on the roof.


Robert Rosenberg is the author of the novel This Is Not Civilization (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). The novel was a BookSense pick, a Powells #1 Staff Pick of the year, and was selected as the 2010 Alaska Book of the Year through the Ford Foundation's 'Difficult Dialogues' initiative. His fiction and reviews have recently appeared in Witness, West Branch, The Miami Herald, and The Moscow Times. Last year he was awarded a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches Creative Writing at Bucknell University.


Photo by Talgat Asyrankulov.

Talgat Asyrankulov, born in 1962, is a set designer, painter, theater director, and screenwriter. In 1989 - the time of Michail Gorbatchev's Perestroika and the breakup of the Soviet Union - he completed his studies at the Art Faculty of the VGIK, the State Institute for Cinematography in Moscow. He worked as a set designer for renowned films like Sel'Kinshek (Swing) by the director Aktan Abdykalykov (1993) and Schiza by the director Gulshat Omarova (2003).

"In his photo series I Bow to the East - I Look to the West, Talgat Asyrankulov captures four phases of a movement and a particular gesture. It begins with a position of prayer and ends with the artist standing on his head. Top and bottom, east and west, belief and skepticism. But this is not about an antagonism of warring orientations. There are far more variants tearing the author apart. One can consider this work as the portrait of a person who does not want to make a final choice and who makes fun of the situation. A symbol for mass confusion, the world turned upside down. The gesture is suggestive: It leaves room for different interpretations. This variety of facets characterizes an entire generation. Talgat Asyrankulov's work can be interpreted as the portrait of a generation that was formed in the USSR.

Many members of this generation hailed the democratic changes enthusiastically and actively participated in destroying the totalitarian Communist system. But they could not change themselves: They had, it turned out, internalized the "Soviet lifestyle" and it dominates their thinking to this day. In the 70-year history of the USSR, people learned to live with the contradiction between official propaganda and real life. They are used to this split consciousness, and they reproduce this habit even years later in an example of "multipolar identity". This is a generation for which everything was clear when they were 30, but now that they are 50, nothing is clear. And instead of getting upset about the situation, they make fun of it..." read more

-- Gamal Bokonbaev


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