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.

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