From far away, one could be forgiven for thinking the game was a localized version of polo (not that I’ve ever understood that game either). There are two teams of horseback riders, each looking to score in the other team’s goal, but instead of a ball, the horsemen have a headless sheep carcass. In fact the visual effect of a bloody sheep body being thrown around wears off quickly. The thing that catches your eye is that the horsemen have to grab it with their bare hands, which means their whole bodies are vulnerable to the thrashings of their team mates’ and opponents’ horses. The whole game ends up looking like rugby on horses with a bloody sheep thrown in for fun gradually manifesting itself into a more violent spectacle than anything we are used to in the West.
The game is nomadic strength in action and in Kyrgyzstan toughness is a supreme virtue. Vice is never questioned so long as it is masculine. This is a country where men’s ‘saunas’ are more ubiquitous than restaurants and wife- kidnapping is a firmly held local tradition. Wife kidnapping is not merely a Kyrgyz phenomena. It has existed at some point in every civilization in history. Wife kidnapping looks something like this: a girl is minding her own business when a man, sometimes a stranger, sometimes not, grabs her off the street. She is raped for several days before being brought back to her family at which point she must get married to avoid the shame of having lost her virginity.
It is brutal, primitive and cruel. And yet it is a tradition that lives on despite 75 years of Soviet repression. Even to some women it is thought of wistfully. A young woman once told me that in the villages, young girls dream of being kidnapped by a prince on a white horse and taken to a better life. The bizarre thing in Kyrgyzstan is that this is not just a practice of their forbearers, but a rising trend. As they see their traditional cultural eroded, first by communism and then by Westernism, Kyrgyz society is clutching at the straws of an outdated era just to keep its bearings.
While in most post-communist countries, societies tend to reach forward towards a notion, usually Western, of modernity, in Kyrgyzstan communism had been modernity. Without communism and the modern life enforced on it by the Soviet Union, part of Kyrgyzstan is instinctively reaching back towards a time when a horse was a man’s life partner and a wife was his beast of burden. In 2005, Kyrgyzstan was still a country struggling to justify its own viability. Nomadic forces, Islamic forces, Western forces and communist forces clash, intermingle and are blended creating exciting and sometimes disturbing outcomes. Living in this environment was a lot of things, but it was never boring. Life in Bishkek never let me grow complacent, with the unexpected always imminent, on the streets, in politics and in taxi cabs.
Text: Ben Kamarck
Images: Mircea Mocanu
Published in Issue 24 GlobalisAsian, 2008