Kazakh literature — Nomads to Globalists

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Kazakh literature

Kazakhstan, the last Republic to secede from the Soviet Union, located in Central Asia, has been the subject of conquest for centuries. Its borders and a single, set, cultural and ethnic identity, unaffiliated and not undermined by any overlying power have only been established in the last few decades. Its people speak the Turkic Kazakhstani language, and its economy is based on energy and mineral exports, its geographic wealth making it the most prosperous of Central Asian nations. It has had a single president since its independence from the USSR: Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power for over 27 years and has been characterised as authoritarian, abusing human rights, diminishing political opposition, and recently passing policies reducing individual rights.

Kazakhstan has had a long, over thousand-year history of oral storytelling spanning from Chinese records of Turkic tribes in the region during the 6th century to bards telling heroic legends, with a few tales being passed down into modern, written form, such as The Book of Dede Korkut, stories created during the 9th century and recorded by Turkish authors during the 16th century.

Most prose, poetry and written Kazakh works have been created in the second half of the 19th century. A preeminent role in the development of this modern, penned Kazakhstani literature has been attributed to Abai Qunanbaiuly, taking on contemporary themes of Russian colonialism while doing much to preserve Kazakh folk culture. Writing has become a widespread activity only during the last century in the country, with many overlapping themes occurring in works made during both Soviet and post-Soviet periods; nonetheless, traditional Kazakh storytelling and literary culture have not been forgotten.

It is a difficult prospect attempting to find works of Kazakhstani literature not focusing within the bounds of Soviet and post-Soviet era realism; despite a rich tradition of oral storytelling and culture and identity prominent in most Steppe people, the region has had little experience with independence, but rather century-old histories of colonialism. Hence much of what Kazakhstan can claim as theirs has already been long attributed to the Russians, Mongols, Ottomans or Persians. A truly broad perspective into the region’s long history unfortunately diminished by factors far out of its control, and hence little interest towards it from the literary scene abroad.

Perhaps a consequence of this complication, following reminiscent governmental tendencies from those of Soviet administration, Kazakhstan’s authorities readily censor anything any books or newspapers or magazines tunnelling dissenting voices, objecting to the government and its policies, unconventional religious views, and other such individual freedoms in the widespread media. Amendments adopted in 2014 have given authorities the right to cut internet and mobile phone access without judicial review; a further testament to the reduction of individual rights in the country. The effects this has on the writing of Kazakhstani authors offer an interesting perspective on the lives and views of people living in the country, such as in how many themes are portrayed and refined, much like how its recent post-Soviet history has. (The government was quick in their attempt to ban Borat in the country, to the humorous reception by its citizens).

Nonetheless, through thorough searching and careful investigation, some small goldmine of short stories and poems can be found, hiding obscurely under unassuming and seemingly bland web titles. Exploring writing citing such personally intriguing varieties of historical perspectives and insights into the lives of people finding themselves in such different time periods is something very much inspiring.

The Nanny — Aigul Kemelbayeva

Perhaps it is the dark realism of the circumstances, the place and the time, truly making one feels like but a disposable cog in some struggling, underdeveloped social apparatus, a speck whose own world and all of the injustices of that world mean so much yet the world they are in is itself so ruthless and unforgiving and tormenting that is so inspiring about The Nanny. Finding oneself in such a grey and empty world, being treated like that tiny joint in the seemingly great social machine, makes any yearning and conscious mind only yearn for more. Imagination is inspired by boredom, and some form of boredom is the state one finds themselves upon understanding the realities of their world and the futility of their actions and ambitions. The circumstances of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia emphasise these realities to anyone living within them; nothing one does will ever fulfil, nothing one does will ever amount to anything substantial, you are trapped in a grey and empty world, whatever person you are, whatever ambitions and creed you follow will not lead you anywhere, and you will die ultimately forgotten, replaced by another cog, your small apartment for which you worked for will be given to another person facing your same realities, and happiness or imagination does not matter to anyone but yourself. The fictional Nanny’s writing will not only be forgotten by time, but they likely will never be realised at all; not in any substantial way, that will mark her presence in history at all. It does not matter. What matters is the world-changing, and the world does not care about your noble spirit and Kazakh traditions and instincts and problems that it gives you as it changes. So here, have some bluish notes to temporarily heal those wounds of yours that the world and its change has inflicted. Perhaps they will subdue you into that essential, unaffiliated and therefore effective cog that the social machine of the world that is so desperately needed.

He who counts Gold, die of Hunger — Traditional Kazakh fable

It is an interesting coincidence that two unrelated and seemingly unassuming and obscure tales that I have looked at both contain some similar message; in one being a minor sentence spoken by a character, yet one that holds some degree of significance, and in the other it is the single main message of the entire story. “I’m wasteful by nature because there is nothing more humiliating than counting change.” Is said by the Nanny, and so overlap is made present with the moral of He who counts Gold, die of Hunger; not to look for “easy” money which is not obtained through honest commitment and hard work, and to create one’s own luck by these same means. Hence, honest work leads onto honest spending; as much as Sagat dislikes counting his own change, or whatever change he has at all, the Nanny likewise hates the feeling of scarcity and acting as if poor. Yet she perhaps embraced the message of the second story, for she put in honest commitment unlike Sagat, and that was what brought her that temporary prosperity. Although perhaps, as suggested by Sagat, it is merely that one, the simple human instinct of hating the feeling of having little and being poor that drives one into work, and that work coincidentally ought to be honest for full repayment. In that case, what value does money have at all, if it is merely to fulfil our satisfaction, and does the work required to do so simply convince of into doing “honest” work, which we agree to do because of our urge of the supposed necessity for fulfilment? The world works differently to the magic in Sagat’s tale. In the very least, the story gives us insight into the mentalities and revered traditions and perspectives within the Kazakh culture, like this tale, in particular, is popular in many children’s books; its lessons are clearly relevant in the Kazakhstani perspective and culture, even though The Nanny shows us how futile those values and lessons out in the real world, and especially the changing world of The Nanny.

Summer — Abai Qunanbaiuly

When summer in the mountains gains its peak, 

 When gaily blooming flowers begin to fade, 

 When nomads from the sunshine refuge seek 

 Beside a rapid river, in a glade, 

 Then in the grassy meadows here and there 

 The salutatory neighing can be heard 

 Of varicoloured stallion and mare. 

 Quiet, shoulder-deep in water stands the herd; 

 The grown-up horses wave their silky tails, 

 Lazily shooing off some irksome pest, 

 While frisky colts go frolicking about 

 Upsetting elder horses, at their rest. 

 The geese fly honking through the cloudless skies. 

 The ducks skim noiselessly across the river, 

 The girls set up the felt tents, slim and spry, 

 As coy and full of merriment as ever. 

 Returning from his flocks, pleased with his ride, 

 Again in the aul appears the bai. 

 His horse goes on with an unhurried stride, 

 He sits and smiles upon it, hat awry. 

 Surrounding the saba in a close ring, 

 Sipping their heady beverage — kumyss, 

 Old men sit by a yurta, gossiping yurta 

 And chuckling at quips rarely amiss. 

 Incited by the servants comes a lad 

 To beg the cook, his mother, for some meat. 

 Beneath an awning, gay and richly clad 

 The bais on gorgeous carpets take their seats. 

 And sip their tea, engaged in leisured talk. 

 One speaks, while others listen and admire 

 His eloquence and wit. Towards them walks 

 A bent old man bereft of strength and fire. 

 He shouts at shepards not to raise the dust 

 Aiming to win the favor of the bais. 

 And yet in vain he raises such a fuss — 

They sit and never even turn their eyes.

There, tucking up the hems of their chapans, 

 Leisurely swaying in their saddles as they trot 

 From nightly grazing come the young chabans 

 Whipping their lusty steeds god knows for what. 

 A long way off from the aul’s last tents 

 With movement and excitement getting warm, 

 On horseback, too, the bai’s son and his friends 

 Enjoy a falcon hunt. The bird’s in splendid form 

 At one quick spurt such falcons catch and bring 

 Crashing to earth the great, unwieldy geese. 

 Meanwhile that bent old maan, unlucky thing, 

 The toady that had nigh gone hoarse to plea 

 The haughty bais, unnoticed, watches on, 

 And sighs for sorrow that his time is gone.

A classic Kazakh poem by a classic, and historically renowned Kazakh author, as discussed previously. Very long, but nonetheless extraordinarily capable of bringing across the beauty of the nomadic lifestyle, of the grace of the never-ending landscape and of the untamed nature and the elegance of the experience of riding a horse in the openness of the steppe; like in some heavenly Garden of Eden, one can truly be free. Freedom separates the nomadic life as something of immense beauty; I would say it is important to acknowledge that these Steppe people did not have any entertainment, no phones and not even any books, and so the wonder of that life of freedom is made even more significant in the lives of these people.

A Flower — Ardakh Nurgaz

I planted a flower, to offer to the sun

The burning sun

Always accompanying loneliness

Darkness flying away, like birds;

Drinking the brilliance of the sun to my heart’s content

I feel my heart is beating violently

Tightening, and loosening up

Like a candle, just lit;

Flowers of wave rushing to the other shore

The sun offered to the flower

Its own never-fading colours

My heart also opens, the way the petal of a flower does

Vividly fresh, like a drop of blood.

A more modern work by a recent Kazakh poet, and himself a critic of modern Kazakh literature and poetry (On Modern Kazakh Poetry, 2010). This poem is certainly less directly focused on life within Kazakhstan and the traditional lifestyle and traditions, and doesn’t give us much insight into the country; nonetheless, the poem centres on the life of its author, and discusses, through extended metaphors and imagery, how inspiration and will drives us forward.

Unnamed — Jhalkiz Jhyrau

An insight into the noble, revered spirit of the Steppe people; this poem, in particular, is an example of the poetry preserved orally until the middle of the 19th century, and hence it indeed can be considered fairly representative of the artistic themes of poems of the time. It splendidly preserves Kazakh poetic traditions from the Khanate period, and the poem’s Islamic (mainly Sufi) associations were then typical of the poetry of Kazakh aristocracy; perhaps there is a suggestion that these tradition poems, and therefore perhaps some of the themes of nobility and the brave and free and nomadic spirit of the Kazakh people are in some way idealistic and representative of the aristocracy of that society wanted to see in their own people, and in themselves. The poem also provides an interesting merging of Muslim spirituality with the traditional glorification of the nomadic lifestyle and focus on the noble spirit of the people; Jhalkiz Jhyrau lived from 1465–1560, around the time that poet Doshambet Jhyrau travelled beyond the Steppe and to Istanbul and brought back with him an Islamic outlook in his poems that would remain represented in Kazakh poetry for the far future.

Unnamed — Abai Qunanbaiuly

Oh, Kazakhs, my poor people,

 you let your mustaches grow.

 Since you don’t distinguish good from evil,

 now you have blood on one cheek and grease

 on the other.

There is quite a bit of context needed to be aware of before reading this short text, particularly of its author; Abai Qunanbaiuly lived in a period where his traditionally nomadic lifestyle found itself under attack, with the influence of the Russian Empire and the introduction of Russian hegemony encouraging people to settle down in villages. Abai aimed to synthesize the two lives — settled and nomadic — and address the changes in Kazakh life while also forming a sort of Islamic humanism, answering to the new contradictions of material life in their new society with the Quran. He was both deeply influenced and criticizing of the Muslim texts, and coming from an educated background and being religiously influenced, he wanted to be part of a people engaged in learning, reading, creation of literature, and self-reflection; simultaneous love and disappointment of the Kazakh people is a constant characteristic of his writing. Following his own virtue, influenced by his deep connections with the Quran (“He who knows Shariah law well,” Abai comments, “cannot tell his friends from his enemies.”) creates the concept of the ideal Kazakhstani, faithful in the Quran, active in learning, progressive and flexible, and through his criticisms of the people (as in this poem) he tries to bring attention to how, in his own image, the person should be.

Swan — Kakimbek Salykov

The Swan, a white Tsarina,

I will open my secret to you.

I will sing your image in a song,

Like the image of a white-faced girl who is in love.

You are a balmy of the heart,

Direct your wings to me.

Come close to me and comfort your friend

Hugging with your white broad wings.

Written in 2005, this is certainly the most recent of any previously discussed poem and maybe a breath of fresh air over the prominent underlying themes of nobility and nomadic spirituality. This poem nonetheless presents an interesting parallel between many modern Kazakh poems; the personification of beauty as a swan. There is a wish to envelop the beauty of human aspiration within the beauty of the swan and the beauty of its movements. The author’s heart is overflown with joy upon seeing the opening of the swan’s wings and its poetry; the joy of being next to beautiful girls is the same as being next to the spreading white wings of the bird.

I certainly can say that I have been deeply engaged in this topic, and really appreciate the opportunity this task has given me to explore such a foreign and yet intriguing field for me. I was born near Kazakhstan, but I suppose it is more so the culture and image I have had of the region that has been motivating me and making this research so interesting. From the perspectives of Kazakh people during the nomadic Khanate period, under the Russian Empire and following the Soviet Union, there are a plethora of insights into the values and outlooks held by people of the region over many centuries, and the differences between this periods are truly fascinating. There is something I truly love about the beauty of the nomadic lifestyle, particularly as described by my first poem, Summer; such a sensation of natural peace and vivid freedom is rarely so well felt but is a persistent theme throughout many poems and stories, and that is something that makes me love them as much as I do. Throughout my research, many of the themes and contexts of what I have looked at have encouraged me to explore many smaller factors influencing the poems and writings, and how these are a factor in the country and in the bigger world; from censorship and reductions in individual rights made by Kazakhstan’s authorities, to the impact of Perestroika and Glasnost for writers in the former Soviet Union, to the history of Islam in Central Asia and the religious and artistic philosophies of Kazakhstan’s most renowned author, I have certainly learnt a great deal, and have enjoyed this project immensely.

There still remains one book I want to read, by a Kazakh author: The day lasts more than a hundred years by Chingiz Aitmatov seems like something I would thoroughly enjoy in my spare time, this interest sparked by the exploration and research conducted throughout this project.


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