On my way home (by way of Delhi…woe), I have stopped over in the city of Almaty to visit my college friend Freeman, who works for the State Department in Kazakhstan. I know you almost certainly have no idea where Kazakhstan is, and that’s fine. It’s a former Soviet state that shares part of its eastern border with China and its southern border with Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Kazakh culture is heavily Russian with a mix of other influences from China and central Asia, and people are predominantly Muslim. There’s also a significant Korean population, and the art and food maintain a lingering fragrance of the old Silk Road. The eastern and southern borders are braced by the upper parts of the Himalayan mountain range that eventually makes its way down through Pakistan, India and Nepal.
Basically, Kazakhstan is a gorgeous cultural crossroads, surrounded by mountains, where everything is written in that crazy Russian alphabet that looks like English after a rough night.
The second and third days we went sightseeing around Almaty. In the Green Market we browsed all manner of essentials including fruit displays from Mars, sacks of rust-colored spices, butt-pad underwear, and a vibrant expanse of fermented Korean goods stretching off nearly to Korea. We spent some time wandering “the area of cheap goods from China, which are the same everywhere,” according to Freeman, who was our only expert in this situation.
One of the most interesting things about Almaty is the mash up of quaint, European-like streets lined with chic cafes and flower gardens, combined with austere Soviet-era concrete fortresses dotted throughout the city: apartments, offices and municipal buildings. On one hand, Kazakhs have enacted such delicate flourishes as distributing mountain runoff over the natural downhill slope of the entire city to create a delightful canal system that sends fresh, cooling streams of water gurgling down the sides of the manicured city lanes. On the other hand, we walked these lovely streets to get to the Central Musuem, which turns out to be housed in the Citadel of Sauron, beamed over directly from the Middle Earth.
“When the Russians build something, they go big,” Freeman explained.
Inside the Central Museum we saw two of my favorite things: mesmerizing spearheads made by prehistoric humans tens of thousand of years ago, and extremely detailed ideas on advanced cosmonogy world organization, painstakingly translated for English speakers.
I was enthralled when we visited a candy store lined with bins of billions of dazzling wrappers in every color, which, it’s candy store-ness notwithstanding, Freeman pointed out had retained a very typical Soviet-era setup, whereby customers wait in long lines while employees put goods in to containers for them. Of course, we’re talking about candy here, and an endless supply at that; under the Soviet Union, basic goods and food were often in short supply. Freeman said it was similar in China, and when he first came to the U.S. at age 11, it was incredible to him to enter a grocery store and be allowed to touch the food.
See, I never thought of that.
As I come to the end of my summer travels, I appreciated the complexity and diversity and contradictions of Almaty. At night, we tried to watch the Olympics, but Kazakh TV was only showing the things where Kazakh athletes were competing, so we attempted to be riveted by the race walking marathon – YES, A WALKING MARATHON – TRY TO STAY RIVETED – and the trampoline competition. When race-walking got to be a lot, I flipped occasionally to the BBC or CNN, where the U.S election is the only thing on, far away and too close, oddly irrelevant, and yet more relevant than ever. During the time I’ve been in Nepal this summer, there has been an onslaught of international terrorist attacks and domestic racial violence in the U.S….the other day, a friend posted a photo he captured at a Connecticut political rally (where he was protesting) proclaiming “Diversity = White Genocide.”
Mean time, Aamaa has no idea who Barack Obama is, and a major event of our summer was that I acquired some new sheets of corrugated tin to replace the 25-year-old kitchen roof, which was leaking directly into the cooking fire. How is it possible that a person can go from one side of the world to the other in barely a day?
Nepal is my full-time work, not a summer excursion. Nevertheless, during these transitions from one continent to another, I’m gifted with the chance to be between; to float over the globe and feel the intensity of tiny things, like the drops of water falling where Aamaa sits by the fire, and also the drifty arbitrariness of all of it, how the most urgent fixation somewhere is irrelevant somewhere else, how everything is swallowed in sweeping expanses of destruction and renewal and passages of time. We are so small, yet there are so many treasures to find.
Maybe that’s why my favorite stop in Kazakhstan was the Central Mosque, which we visited just after the color and chaos of the Green Market. Before we went through the gates, I draped a sheer pink shawl over my head, and while Freeman entered the cavernous men’s side, I made my way around to the smaller women’s side. I removed my shoes and entered a hushed, carpeted room just as a row of women was moving through a series of prayers playing over a speaker.
Standing in the back, I was vaguely aware of myself, a white American Jew standing aside in a Kazakh mosque, a cultural transplant who seems to be at home everywhere and nowhere. I hope these women will forgive my vanity in sharing the over-exposed photo I snapped of their meditation, because at a time with so much violence outside the walls, it was such a soft and sanctified place. The natural thing was to move to the center of the room and join in the late morning prayer, and it was easy to follow the succession of standing, bowing, kneeling, and bending to the floor. I’ve offered prayers in so many different kinds of temples and situations and settings, these fleeting spaces sometimes feel more like home than many other places where we live.
I don’t speak Arabic, of course, and I’m no more Muslim than Hindu. But with the U.S. border emerging over the horizon, CNN flashing in my head, and the world marching under us, I heard words announce themselves in my ears as I put my forehead to the ground one time and then the next, the pink shawl falling comfortingly around my face.
Please humble our hearts.
Please bring solace to those in sorrow.
Please give wisdom to our leaders.
Please guide us to our better selves.
Please strengthen us through our differences.
Please make me an instrument of peace.
See you soon, USA.