An exclusive excerpt from Amanat – Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan (July 2022, Gaudy Boy Translates)
Excerpt from The Anthropologists
by Zaure Batayeva
Translated from Kazakh by Zaure Batayeva
Two Americans sitting in a corner of the café were speaking too loudly. Renée looked at them for a while, blinking her big eyes. “Americans are so egotistical. How embarrassing!” She went on. “I’m researching Kazakh folk songs and also the Kazakh language. I need a translator who can assist me with materials and interviews. I need someone who can go to concerts with me. From my grant money I can pay you three hundred dollars.”
Three hundred dollars, free concerts, a chance to practice my English—what else did I need? I agreed immediately. The next day we met at the Academy of Science at 9 o’clock sharp. As a graduate student I used to go to the library there all the time, but only now did I really notice the grand marble steps leading up to the building. “Do you see how great this building is? This is how the Soviet Union built the foundation of our sciences today,” I said enthusiastically. Renée stopped for a moment, smiled at me, and squinted, her head tilted to one side. What was that about? I quickly walked up the steps.
We stayed silent until we reached the end of a long corridor. The girl at the desk was our age but she frowned, indicating she had a problem with our visit.
“Does she have a permit?”
“Yes, she does.”
“Give me your identity cards. Do you think she cares about our folk songs? She must be a spy. She stands there like an ostrich.”
I checked Renée’s reaction. She did not seem to understand. She really looked like an ostrich, turning her long neck to look away from us.
“Why do you say such things? She knows Russian very well.”
“Why would a spy look at Kazakh folk songs in an archive? What’s wrong with you? You should be happy that Americans want to learn our language.”
“Why should I be happy about it? And what does it have to do with you?”
At last she returned our identity cards. We took out several volumes of folk songs published between the 1940s and 1970s. We started copying down the themes and places of performance. I liked working like this. So many songs I knew were passing before my eyes. Exciting. At some point I noticed that Renée, eyes wet and blinking, was trying to catch my attention.
“I’m very tired. And hungry. Can we go?”
“But we just arrived! Shouldn’t we finish this?”
Renée started to cry.
“That woman at the desk was so mean to me.”
“Don’t cry. She didn’t mean to hurt you. She seems to be an unhappy person.”
Oibai, who would have thought that my new friend was so sensitive? I quickly gathered the papers into folders.
By the time we were outside, Renée had cheered up.
“Let’s go the Uzbek restaurant. We can have laghman.”
“It’s expensive. I don’t want to go there.”
“It will be my treat.”
I followed her. We never went back to the archive together.
The next day Renée invited me to a party.
“Who are they? Anthropologists like you?”
“Some are journalists. Will you go with me? Let’s go!”
“If you’re inviting me, why not? Are there any single men?”
When we arrived at the party, the two-room apartment was full of people, all speaking English. A group of people were standing on the balcony. How did they all fit in here? People were moving around. The music was loud, everyone was shouting. Renée met some acquaintances and disappeared. I went to the living room, where I saw my other American friend, Peggy. Peggy waved me towards her.
“When did you come back to Almaty?”
“Um, just yesterday… What are you doing here?”
“I came with Renée.”
“Oh, pretty Renée? She has already enchanted everybody.”
“You girls compete like two sister wives.”
“We like to gossip. I’m just kidding. Don’t tell her!”
“I won’t. Why didn’t you tell me that you were coming back so soon?”
Peggy pretended that she hadn’t heard me and introduced me to the man sitting next to her.
“This is Michael. He’s just arrived. Michael is a historian.”
Michael waved to me and said “Hi!” in English. Peggy stood up and walked away.
“Are you going to study Kazakh history? Even Kazakhs don’t know their own history.”
“I’m studying the methodology of historical research.”
“That sounds intriguing. Do you need a translator?”
“I have a Kazakh friend who helps me with Kazakh.”
“You have just arrived and already found a friend?”
“I have known him for a long time. He studied in America. I’m also staying with him. He works at a bank.”
“If he studied in America, lets you stay in his apartment, and works at a bank, then he must be a real shala Kazakh.”
Michael shook his head. “You should be careful talking like that. The girls here are calling you a bossy nationalist.”
“The anthropologist girls? Yes, they are like second-year medical students. They diagnose everybody with nationalism.”
“Yeah, well, they’ve probably read too much Benedict Anderson.”
“Who is Benedict Anderson?”
Michael laughed. “You’re better off not knowing.”
At midnight the music was still playing. I sat in the corner with a bottle of beer that Michael had handed me a long time ago. I started regretting that I hadn’t eaten dinner at home. Peggy and Renée occasionally waved at me from a distance. The Russians and Kazakhs at this party dressed and behaved just like the Americans. I could see that all the people here were leading lives that were different from mine. Images of a shabby village flashed through my mind. For a moment it seemed to me that rural Kazakhs were awaiting the same fate as American Indians. My heart ached at this sudden thought and tears filled my eyes. A slim man with very blue eyes sat down next to me.
“Why are you so sad?”
He had a slightly different Russian accent and I understood that he was from Europe.
“No reason. Just tired. What are you doing in Kazakhstan?”
“I’m an anthropologist. My name’s Eyvind. I’ve been doing archaeological digs in Kazakhstan for seven years.”
“So you are a real anthropologist, the old-fashioned kind!”
The man did not seem to understand my excitement.
“Seven years is a long time. Are you going home soon?”
“I don’t want to go back.”
“I don’t know. The country where I come from is strange. The people there think only about material things.”
“Isn’t that an indication of a good life? We Kazakhs only think about our daily bread. There is no room to think about anything else.”
“That is exactly what I mean.”
I saw Peggy and Renée standing on the balcony in the middle of a group of Americans. They were all speaking loudly, shouting even. After a while I noticed that people were leaving. Then I saw the archaeologist pick up the empty bottles and put them into a bucket.
“Eyvind, why are you cleaning up? Do you live in this apartment?”
“No. Who else is going to do it? We need to gather the bottles separately. Otherwise someone will put them in the trash.”
“But we don’t allow our guests to clean the house.”
Eyvind continued his work. “Separating garbage is important.” He stopped for a moment, took out a card from his back pocket and handed it to me. It was his contact information.
Michael approached us.
“Michael, do you have any idea why Eyvind is cleaning the house?”
“That is exactly what I asked too. Isn’t it weird?”
“You are all weird. What kind of party is this? Nothing but beer! No food, nothing!”
Renée had been invited to an academic conference and asked me to come along.
“What is it about?”
“You’re not a historian. They just need foreigners to dress up their fake conference.”
“There you go again! The person who invited me is a well-connected academic. I need to interview lots of people for my dissertation, so I need to have a good relationship with her. Her father is a famous professor.”
After the conference the organizers set a big table, full of food. They sat us in the middle of the table, just opposite two young men, Russian-speaking Kazakhs working in the university’s administration.
“Devushka, are you an American?”
“Wow! An American Tragedy! Have you read Dreiser?”
“No, who’s Dreiser?”
“An American writer.”
“What are you doing in Almaty? Spying?”
Both men laughed. Renée started blinking and replied firmly in Kazakh.
“I’m not a spy. I’m learning Kazakh here. What about you guys? Do you speak any Kazakh?”
The men froze. Now it was our turn to laugh.
We were told that the dean of the music college had agreed to be interviewed by Renée. The next day we stood outside his door at the appointed time. A lady in her sixties opened the door. The professor was not home. The professor’s wife, Baqytjan-apa, was a retired theater actress. Her apartment was clean and the furniture was dark, expensive and overwhelming. A big table in the living room was already set for us. Wrapped in her long silk robe, she lifted a porcelain teapot with hands covered in gem stones and poured tea with such elegance that no sound of liquid escaped. Soon we learned that her son had a good position in a foreign company and that her son-in-law was a big fish in the local government. She continued boasting about her children and her in-laws, using a language that mixed Russian and Kazakh and that Renée sometimes failed to understand.
“My daughter is so diplomatic.”
“Really? In which country?”
I was too lazy to correct Renée’s lack of understanding. Why on earth should I have to translate other people’s bragging? I had made a rule for myself, that this wouldn’t be part of my job. Suddenly Baqytjan-apa yelled at me.
“Hey, why are you acting so important? Translate!”
“She understands Russian very well. You can continue in Russian.”
“A real Kazakh … she is sitting there as if she is invited.”
“I apologize, Baqytjan-apa! Interpreting wears me out quickly and I was saving my energy for the interview.”
Renée, blinking again, turned to me.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing. She is upset with me.”
Baqytjan-apa continued, recounting the story of her daughter’s lost diamond earring. Meanwhile I was enjoying the tasty bread and horse sausage on the table. Renée nodded her head occasionally, but I saw that she was mostly occupied with the horse sausage as well. Poor Renée, she probably did not understand Kazakhs’ admiration for expensive jewelry. I had never seen any of the Americans wear gold. Suddenly Baqytjan-apa turned the focus of the conversation to me.
“Why are you still not married?”
“I don’t know. Earlier there was nobody I could marry and now I’m too busy.”
“No time? You must be imitating them. Do you think that it suits you? Not a bit. If nobody marries you, just have a baby for yourself. A Kazakh woman’s duty is to be a mother and stay at home.”
Was she hinting that I was hopelessly old? I was barely thirty. I was offended, but I reminded myself that I was her guest.
“I will get married at the right time. Do you think I’m just out having fun? I’m working. This is my work. Who makes a child for herself? That would be cruel.”
The professor called. He told us to come to his office. Confused as to why we had not gone there at once, we thanked the professor’s wife for the tea and went to the office. We were received by a man in his sixties, his white hair carefully combed back. Renée spoke Russian as much as she could. The professor called his secretary and instructed her to bring tea. The secretary brought a big tray with all kinds of delicacies and set the table. The professor walked slowly towards the armchair next to the tea table and sat down, and turned to me.
“So, girls! What is this lady’s profession?”
“An anthropologist who studies skulls?”
“In America, anthropology is understood differently. American anthropologists study the interaction between human beings and their environment.”
“My grandson studied in America. He wants to go back. Their propaganda is powerful!”
“He may have liked it there.”
“Why should he? Kazakhstan is paradise on earth. Everyone is coming here. Tell this girl that Kazakhstan is five times the size of France.”
“She has heard that before.”
“Hmm. Ask her if she has read Dreiser’s American Tragedy.”
“No, she hasn’t.”
“How do you know? Ask her!”
“Have you read Dreiser’s An Ameriсan Tragedy?”
Renée’s eyes had started blinking as soon as she heard Dreiser’s name.
“Why do they keep asking me about this Dreiser? Is he someone I should know?”
The old man had already reached his conclusion.
“So it’s true that Americans don’t read books. I have a personal library at home. All four walls are full of books. I’ve read them all.”
“You love books!”
“Oibai, this thing speaks Kazakh!”
Renée adjusted her glasses with her index finger. “A little!”
“Good girl! Will you have a glass of cognac with me?”
“No, thanks, I don’t drink cognac.”
“I have prepared a concert for you.”
The professor led us to a conference hall with a small stage, where a group of sad-faced musicians was sitting, hugging their folk instruments. They all spoke at once.
“Working hours are over. We have children, families! Let us go home!”
“Hey, stop talking! Play Kosh Keruen.”
After the orchestra had played the piece, the professor introduced each instrument. “This is a sazsyrnay. No other people in the world have an instrument like this.” Thus the lecture went on. The professor took a dombyra and showed off his musical talent. Renée looked disappointed. She surely had not expected her request for an interview to be turned into a concert in her honor. When the professor had left, she invited all the musicians to dinner. The women declined, saying that they had to rush home. The men liked the idea very much.
A group of men carrying their instruments led us to a small restaurant nearby. The restaurant was still empty and the waiters put together two tables that took up almost one quarter of the room. I could see that the American among us had put them under a spell. Was it the Soviet habit of showing off in front of foreigners, or was there a secret hope for money to be gained? As soon as the refreshments were served, the singers started performing. Some of them were rising stars who had already appeared in big national concerts and on TV shows. Now it was the turn of a young man sitting quietly at the end of the table. His strong fingers slid along the long neck of the dombyra and his deep voice began a famous song. Shiny black hair, high forehead, almond eyes, straight nose and dark skin, his big body motionless, he reminded me of the Indian chieftain Chingachgook, as played by the East German actor Gojko Mitić. I could not help but whisper: “He looks just like an Indian chief!” The handsome man smiled. Afterwards, Renée and the men started competing in aytis, inventing witty rhymes one after another. Renée kept up with them. She improvised with the same speed as the men.
We were enjoying ourselves so much that we did not notice the people coming in. Three Kazakh men sat down at the next table. At some point one of them shouted in Russian: “Hey, enough with this mambet bazaar!” The singers slowed down and asked each other what had been said. The offence was too big to let go. One of the singers stood up and said, “Who are you to forbid us to sing sacred Kazakh songs here?”
That was it. Within seconds the restaurant turned into a battlefield. It was too late to run to the exit, so I followed Renée to the wall. The sky seemed to have fallen. Chairs were flying in the air. Someone must have been injured: blood was splattered all over the room. A man behind the bar was now showing his head, now disappearing, just like in a western movie. He was shouting but not able to stop anyone. The men were going insane—someone could have been killed. The handsome singer stopped for a second and yelled at us: “Why are you still here? Get out! You will be hurt!” I pulled Renée by the sleeve, lowered my head and ran for the door. Only outside did we notice that Renée’s white shirt was covered in blood. “Are you hurt?” Under the street lights, she looked pale but uninjured. I hailed a taxi.
The TV channels were reporting about the American invasion of Iraq. Peggy called to invite me to an antiwar roundtable. Renée had been at the US embassy all day, and she decided to join us as well. In the evening we met at the gates of the Italian cultural center, a fancy white building in the heart of a poor residential district of Almaty. In the shiny conference hall people were sitting on expensive chairs and discussing the war. The moderator, a big man in glasses, spoke Russian with a foreign accent. Most of the participants were foreigners. There were no seats left so we stood at the entrance. Renée and Peggy had guilty faces as if they were the ones who had started the war. When I was accidentally given the microphone, I said that it was not good to ignore the opinion of international organizations. That is what my sister had told me earlier that day on the phone. When the event was over and people were offered refreshments, the big Italian approached us. He stretched out his huge hand and introduced himself as Tony. After a short conversation with the Americans, he turned to me and said that he was looking for a Kazakh translator. “Can you come back tomorrow?”
I returned the next day. The gates were closed. I pressed the doorbell. A young Kazakh man met me at the entrance. He was wearing a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. My eyes fell on his silver necklace: a Christian cross. “Hello! I’m Maqsat.” His brown eyes were smiling. Tony was already in the office, together with the director, a woman named Andrea. Maqsat was Andrea’s assistant. As we spoke, it became clear that this cultural center was in fact the headquarters of the Italian Catholic missionaries in Central Asia. Andrea and Tony were the leaders of the mission. They had called me because they were looking for someone who could translate Ystoria Mongalorum into Kazakh. Having been raised in a family of communists, I blurted out, “So, in fact, your mission is to convert Kazakhs into Catholics. Is that it?” Andrea and Tony exchanged looks.
“Yes. And to take care of orphans. We help several orphanages in Almaty. Isn’t that good work?”
“What do you gain by converting people into Catholics?”
“Christianity is not new in Central Asia. What about the Nestorians?”
“That was a long time ago! Why don’t Buddhists impose their religion on anyone?”
“They do propagate their own religion. And as for us Christians, it was Saint Paul who told us to build churches.”
“My grandfather was a mullah. I have never seen him impose Islam on anyone, not even on us, his grandchildren. Okay, I will think about it. How much would you pay for the translation?”
“It is not an easy text, so we would consider paying 60,000 tenge.”
A pretty good sum of money. I could buy a washing machine for my mom. But something was holding me back. The next day I sent an email to Andrea telling her I needed some time to decide, but asking her to sign me up for their Sunday film club.
I joined the Sunday film club, run by Andrea and Tony’s friend Valentina, and returned every week to see another Italian film. One Sunday I arrived too early. The door of the conference hall was open and I could see a priest conducting Sunday mass. Tony gestured to me to come in. I sat down in the last row. A long line of people was slowly moving down the narrow aisle between the chairs. When they reached the priest, they knelt in front of him, touched a bowl with their lips and kissed his hand. Kazakhs and Russians, all of them young. I had seen this ritual in films but seeing it with my own eyes was a different experience: now I felt with all the fibers of my body how strange and alien this culture was to us. It was such a strong sensation that I felt dizzy. It seemed just yesterday that atheism was a big part of our life. How did these young people succumb to religion so quickly? Valentina, sitting in the same row, turned to me and tried to smile. “I cannot explain it to you. You are an atheist.”
We went in several cars to a newly built orphanage on the outskirts of Almaty, taking birthday presents to the little ones who had been placed here. Going in, I caught a familiar smell. Once experienced, this smell haunts you all your life. It is not the sweet smell of babies; it is the bitter smell of the tears of babies missing their mothers. We went right to the canteen. Around thirty young children were sitting at low tables. A silent room full of toddlers is an odd thing. The sharp sounds of metal spoons touching metal bowls broke the silence. Several adults were sitting awkwardly at the low tables along with the children. Some children looked at us with surprised faces and some did not pay us any attention. I sat down on a bench along the wall. As a student, I once volunteered to work in an orphanage, and afterwards I told myself never to go back. I did not want to see this scene again. Back then most of the orphans were Russians and we were told that their parents were either alcoholics or criminals. A sculpture of the Virgin Mary was hanging on the wall. So this was Tony and Andrea’s answer to all my prickly questions.
A little girl walked up to me and stood in front of me, holding her little fingers crossed somewhere around her face, as toddlers do when they observe something unfamiliar or interesting. Then she leaned on my knees. I lifted her and put her on my lap. Her several layers of clothing gave off the strong smell of an unwashed body. I took off the ribbon attached to her short hair and smelled her head. The toddler, breathing heavily through her congested nose, put her head on my shoulder. When Tony offered her candy, she quickly filled both her pockets and grabbed more with both hands. Holding her candy tight in her pudgy little hands, she put her head on my shoulder again. I did not dare to move. We both sat there until I had to leave.
On our way back, nobody spoke. I was looking through the windows at the shabby streets of Almaty, full of people with striped Chinese bags. Around the bazaar I could see elderly women engaged in illegal activities: selling sunflower seeds, fortunetelling. Who was going to tell fairy tales to our children if the grandmothers were out in the streets all day? We had almost lost our language and culture to the Soviet regime, and now this alien Christian culture would confuse us even more. I was frightened by my own thoughts.
“Tony, you are an educated man. Tell me, is it fair to confuse the young people of this country with religion? They are too young.”
“Religion will guide these kids. I cannot even imagine what would have happened to Maqsat if he had not met us.”
“Maqsat will be a good Italian. He speaks Italian and Russian, but he does not know Kazakh. He already despises the language of his own country.”
“So, for a nationalist like you, it would be better if Maqsat ended up in the streets? Look at you! You’re making money assisting American spies!”
“Why not leave the children of this country alone? If people want to run away from themselves, they have the right. But I have no desire to participate in it.”
My friendship with the missionaries ended there. But the Americans would keep asking, occasionally, what had happened with Tony.
Excerpted with permission from the author and publishers of Amanat – Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan (July 2022, Gaudy Boy Translates)
Gaudy Boy: https://singaporeunbound.org/gaudyboy
About the Book
An unprecedented collection of women’s voices from the heart of Central Asia.
From the foreword by Gabriel Mcguire: “I cannot think of anything quite like … Amanat.”
A man is arrested for a single typo, a woman gets on buses at random, and two friends reunite in a changed world…. Diverse in form, scope, and style, Amanat brings together the voices of thirteen female Kazakhstani writers, to offer a glimpse into the many lives, stories, and histories of one of the largest countries to emerge from the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The twenty-four stories in Amanat, translated into English from Kazakh and Russian, comprise a groundbreaking survey of women’s writing in the Central Asian country over its thirty years of independence, paying homage to the rich but largely unrecorded oral storytelling tradition of the region. Contemplating nostalgia, politics, and intergenerational history in a time altered by modernity, Amanat acutely traces the uncertainties, struggles, joys, and losses of a corner of the post-Soviet world often unseen and overlooked.
Utterly absorbing, Amanat is an invitation to listen—the women of Kazakhstan have stories to tell.