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?”.