Manas, memory, and the making of the Kyrgyz national myth

“Truth is not necessarily fact, and fact not necessarily truth” (Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

The plane ride into a new country makes for a good opportunity to brush up on a bit of local knowledge. For some, that’ll mean drowsily browsing through a handful of helpful phrases on the red-eye shift before a dawn landing. For others, it’ll be a quick peruse through the sites, sounds and tastes proposed by a guide book. For those inclined to the culturally refined, it may even mean a dig into the nation’s house author — every Russia has a Dostoyevsky just as every Nigeria has a Soyinka. Yet, looking at the little orange puffs of the oil fields in the dark expanses on a night-time flight over northern Kazakhstan, I didn’t want to turn on the light for fear of disturbing the gentle chorus of snores from the seats around me. Instead, I found myself listening to Harvest by Neil Young, and pondering whether I was the first to do so in this situation. (I probably wasn’t, but I imagine I’m safely embedded in the first ten).

As such, my ignorance on arrival is somewhat justifiable. As I was to find out, a dive into the Epic of Manas would have served me a better education on the country I was entering. At 500,000 lines though, the Kyrgyz epic poem is no Aeroflot flick — indeed, it is one of the longest epic poems in the world. All the same, Manas is a dynamic, indeed living document on Kyrgyz history — and a touchstone for Kyrgyz identity. So much so, that there exists a special role in society for the bards who perform and pass on the story of Manas, the manaschi.

As an account of the past, it is an “absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history”… yet this is why it is so damn interesting

Why then, is the story of Manas so important? As a story, it follows the lives of three generations of Kyrgyz leaders: Manas, the skilled horsemen who throws off the yoke of Uighur domination to return his people to their mountainous homeland; and his son and grandson — also respectable warriors. This might be fascinating in its own right, but it does little to justify Manas’s pre-eminence among other stellar tales by Kyrgyz authors.

As an account of the past, it has been described by VV Bartol’d as an ‘absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history’ — its age is unknowable (although it was likely transplanted, and hence frozen, in writing during the eighteenth century), and it concerns events that occurred between 995AD and 1800AD (albeit, most likely closer to the latter), and its account of these events muddles them considerably. Yet it is this last point that makes it so damn interesting; how can the fluidity of a myth mould and be moulded to the malleable memory narratives of a changing society, and hence tinker, support, and challenge national identity? Just as individuals build their identities on the string of memories that fit their stories, so too does a country. By this process of self-shaping, a nation can look to the past to define its future. As William Faulkner posits, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past”.

The Kyrygz composer, Abdylas Maldybaev, here pictured on a Kyrgyz 1 som note, based his first opera, Ai-Churek, on the Epic of Manas.

Here stems an antagonism between historicity; the eurocentric ideal of history as a linear account of verifiable events in a fixed and static past; and narrative, with its focus less on what actually happened, and more on what should have happened. The former approach treats our present reality as a moment created by, but ultimately cut off from, the past. Narrative, on the other hand, is a fluid story that seeks to explain and guide the present. Narratives compete and constantly adapt. Perhaps the most apt example of this is the historic treatment of the Bible — selective interpretations have justified everything from the Jewish pogroms of Russia to the liberation theology of Latin America.

From these two approaches to the past, it’s no surprise that the European world sanctifies written text — but Central Asians have long feared the potential loss of oral traditions, and the living flexibility that comes with them. In The Uses and Abuses of History, Nietzsche decried static monolithic accounts of history, and instead favoured memory as a dynamic and critical exercise: memory makes us, and as such, we should work to make memory.

How does this relate to the Epic of Manas?

Enough theory. How does this relate to the Epic of Manas? To explain this, we should look to the differences between Manas the man and Manas the myth. Sometime during the the 1920s and 1930s, Manas’s apparent tribe ceased to be the Nogay people and became the Kyrgyz. This highlights the importance of establishing an ethnic link around the time that Kyrgyzstan was organising its place as a state in the USSR.

Moreover, although it was widely agreed that the events described in the epic took place  only about 400 years earlier, in 1995 the new Kyrgyz government hosted mass celebrations of Manas’s thousandth anniversary. No doubt linked intrinsically with the collapse of the USSR four years earlier, this disparity between dates emphasises the need in Kyrgyzstan to establish deep historical roots; the legitimacy to hold together a brand new nation state.

Finally, beyond being an adept ruler and a skillful warrior, Manas fought off neighbouring societies to establish the independence of what is now Kyrgyzstan. A powerful counter-narrative to historic occupying powers (indeed, the USSR suppressed circulation of the Epic of Manas on account of its apparent ‘bourgeois-nationalism’), it now acts as a defiant symbol for a free Kyrgyzstan — a nation with a nomadic past and an independent future. Every major town and city is pillared with images, statues, accounts and museums that revel in Manas. Even the flag invokes Manas — its forty rays represent the forty tribes united under Manas. It is through these symbols that interpretations of the past form the identity of the present, and set the course of the future.

The Epic of Manas, even in English translation, is by no means light reading for a airline journey into Kyrgyzstan. Yet a quick dive into the history of the epic could explain why, four hours by plane from Moscow, one might find oneself touching down amidst the last of the winter snow on a chilly March morning at Manas International AirportBishkek.

The main terminal building at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

The only tourists in Bishkek

Ironic travel, Central Asia, and earning a place on the map.

The cultural clout of the famous ‘International Brigade’ during the Spanish civil war won, and continues to win, a romantic niche in the sentiments of young artists and activists. In 1961 the (then) young Canadian author, Leonard Cohen, saw in the anti-imperialist fight of the nascent post-revolutionary Cuba a chance to fulfil his internationalist duties as an artist. With little haste, he grew out a beard, bought some khakis, and boarded the next boat to Havana. But rather than valiantly battling the boats of United Fruit at the Bay of Pigs, Cohen quickly found himself an unwanted accessory to the streets of Havana — eventually penning the mournful poem The Only Tourist in Havana. Finally, an embarrassing diplomatic telephone call from his mother warranted his return to Quebec.

It was an odd link, but mingling with the characters in the ex-pat hangouts of Bishkek, Cohen’s words weighed somewhat heavy in my mind as I slowly came to the realisation that, in the middle of March, we may well be the only people actually holidaying in a city whose architecture Lonely Planet charmingly described as ‘forgettable’. Among the myriad people we met, it seemed that we were the only tourists in Bishkek.

A track leads to Issyk-Kul, a Kyrgyz landmark and endorheic lake, which sits beneath the Tian Shan mountain range.

But this by no means brought the feelings of lonely melancholy burdening Cohen. We were in a part of the map of which an awareness is quite literally absent from the minds of most of our compatriots. This provided an enormous sense of freedom and discovery. Kyrgyzstan, as with most corners of Central Asia, remains unjustly unknown in Europe. Hence here we turn to the meta-narrative of the article; the purpose of the forum, to build a time-neglected bridge between these two worlds. This certainly isn’t an argument for cultural globalisation, manifest in a desire for a Hilton, Starbucks, and McDonald’s on every street corner from Astana to Osh — neither is it an attempt to weave further cobwebs of stereotypical narratives surrounding self-acclaimed ‘deep travel’ in the ’stans’. Rather, this is an ode to unfortunate unknown — what you make of it is up to you.

First, we have to ask ourselves why, along with her ’sister stans’, does Kyrgyzstan remain unknown? Why is it that, in moments of silence, the radical astonishment one has at the thought of actually being there (let’s go ahead and call these moments Kyrgyzstential crises) creeps up and leaves you nervously giggling?

We can turn first to politics and the hangover of the Cold War. Most of the Central Asian republics only gained independence from the USSR in the early 1990s — thousands of years of history had been subsumed in a couple of centuries of Russian rule: not only had the alphabet become Cyrillic and the city design Soviet, but the area had been effectively off limits to those west of the Berlin wall. Consequently, the countries of Central Asia have only had a handful of years to imprint themselves on the international consciousness, and some have had little agency in fashioning that imprint (take the free ticket the ‘orient unknown’ element has granted shows from The Ambassadors through to Borat, or the go-to stories about the amusing lives of certain dictators).

Politics goes hand-in-hand with geography. Whilst tourists are often happy to take the long flights out to tourist hotspots of the Thailand-Vietnam mould, the brute fact that countries like Kyrgyzstan are far away from highly-populated areas makes the trip out either an ordeal of connecting flights or one hell of a drive.

It’s, therefore, an esoteric rag-tag bunch that make it out. There are the lost business people, sent out by head offices to check on regional affairs, floating in flannel suits to the only establishments that sell a suitably safe Westernised cappuccino (thus negating the burgeoning local artisanal coffee scene) and wait for the return flight. There are of course the locals — amongst them a cosmopolitan youth with impeccable English and a penchant for the question, “How come you guys are in Kyrgyzstan? It’s not even the summer”.

Rope market at a village in Kyrgyzstan.

In addition to the locals, there are the culturally-local, say, Russians taking the trip to their summer house by Lake Song Kul, or undertaking a section of their studies. Then there are those dragged there by the winds of fate — to whom a job opportunity, a desire to escape, or even brute chance, has thrown an atypical parcel of land in what to most people is ’nowhere’. Marion, a young French woman, was a neat microcosm of this last category. After growing tired of teaching French in the UK, she cut up each country in the world, placed the names into a hat and pulled out Kyrgyzstan. True to form, she took up a post teaching English, and set out to pass two years in Bishkek.

Unavoidable (although notably absent in the final breaths of winter) are the infamous ‘adventurers’ — with Tibetan garms, fledgeling dreadlocks, and dreams of following the craggy mountains of the ‘Silk Road’ — they neatly pillar blogs with stories of adventures in the nomadic steppe of post-Sovietistan. It would be unfair to be so blindly acerbic to this latter band, they can be as sagacious as they are sanctimonious by way of travel. Finally, there is the small collection of travellers there on a similar premise to ours — an ironic journey into the unknown — a small attempt to make a facetious answer the question mark nestled south of Russia and west of China, if only because it is a question.

This is why we should be interested in taking the trip to Kyrgyzstan. I can’t help but indulge in subjective experience — as a comprehensive answer would require far more room for starry-eyed diatribes. Put simply, there are the possibilities for peregrinations in the present, and potential paths for forging a fascinating future. Chihoon, a Korean man who has spent his last six years in Bishkek, is perhaps the best embodiment of this mantra. He saw in Kyrgyzstan the opportunity to create a community hub based around good food (Korean chicken, and recently, a café), music, art and dance. In doing so, he has sought to enact a cultural movement from the ground-up, so as to prevent Kyrgyz city culture falling into the clutches of corporate hegemony — what he calls the Almaty-isation of Kyrgyzstan. The proceeds of his restaurant support local artists, entrepreneurs and performances. However, the open mic nights of a nascent international scene within Bishkek represents only a small portion of what Kyrgyzstan offers the traveller. As a beautiful country with rugged mountainous terrain, wildflowers in the high grassy jaloos, fascinating cultural quirks, and glassy Alpine lakes; Kyrgyzstan could cater to the taste of any tourist; especially in the reals of adventure travel.

Yet, to open up to the world, a number of steps will need to be taken — and a number of murky risks lay loathsome in the foreseeable future. Surprisingly, blowing away typical stereotypes need not be one of them; tourism may well thrive off the mysterious muddling of facts and fictions — and keeping the romance of the mountainous steppe alive, as in the novels of Chinghiz Aitmatov, may well pay dividends in bringing in wondering wanderlust travelers. A real threat will for the domestic ownership of ‘opening up’. If opening the doors to the world is to ostensibly benefit the people of Kyrgyzstan, then movements to accommodate the new trade — from horseback travel to alpine boating — should come from the people themselves, and not international conglomerates and foreign investors.

It’s cliché to expound the ‘hidden gems’ within central Asia — but as a sentiment it is also entirely just. One hopes that one day the question will shift from “how come you guys are in Kyrgyzstan?” to “so, when will you next be in Bishkek?”.