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from the January 2018 issue

The Beskempir

Zira Naurzbayeva pays homage to an older generation of women struggling to make the transition from village communities to urban living in contemporary Kazakhstan.

Listen to Zira Naurzbayeva reading an excerpt from "The Beskempir" in Russian.


The roar, filled with anger and a hot wrath, changed into a long, sad howl. My horror was quickly replaced by doubt, because that scream had sounded on a sunny summer day in Academgorodok, somewhere among the brand-new, pink seashell–trimmed buildings of the academic institutes and the housing units for the people who worked there.

I came here fairly often after class and during breaks to help my mother fill in her daily data on the ten square yards of peach graph paper that lined one wall, help her plot out every new data point and connect the dots in pencil. This dreary job, which demanded not just precision but also constant strain on the eyes, was too much now for my mother, who was only working a quarter of her former hours. Her sense of responsibility and her pride prevented her from rejecting this hellish burden altogether, and her bosses, all yesterday's graduates she had nurtured herself, tried not to notice it. That was why I was at the institute and heard that shriek through the open window.

 I looked at Mama. But, contrary to her usual habit, she offered no explanation right away. She looked down, guiltily, somehow, and did not speak. The woman who shared her office did not speak, either. The scream came again. Now I knew for sure it was a person screaming. Mama winced so noticeably that I couldn’t ask my question out loud. I went on working on the graph paper, sorting out possible explanations in my mind. A cry of sorrow? The weeping of some alcoholic in the heat of delirium? A domestic quarrel, some scandal or fistfight? Someone who was just plain crazy?

That evening, when it was just the two of us on the way home, Mama finally found the strength to tell me. It turned out it had been a Kazakh woman screaming, in the apartment building across the way.

A woman working in the Institute of Biology had been in line to be assigned an apartment, and in order to get a bigger one, she had registered her mother as living with her, though she actually lived back in the aul. A lot of people did that back then. Just to be safe—in case the committee showed up unexpectedly or someone reported her—she talked the old woman into staying with her there in Almaty for a while. Her elderly mother was in a hurry to get home. She was lonely in the city, she wasn’t used to it. But her daughter talked her out of it, telling her she needed to stay a little while longer. What if one of the neighbors decided to file a complaint? They’d take the apartment away again. After putting up with it for a while, the old woman made her preparations to go home for good. But by then, she had nowhere to go. Her daughter wanted a new lifestyle to go with her new apartment, and on the sly, she sold her parents’ house in the old aul and used the profits to buy some furniture. What was the big deal, she thought? Why should the old woman live in poverty all alone in that distant village, stoking the oven and lugging buckets of water around? Let her live with her daughter in this apartment in the city and enjoy all the comforts and conveniences.

What else could she do? The old woman agreed. Academgorodok was located, back then, in the middle of an uninhabited green space. Below was the Botanical Garden, to the right were the vacant grounds of the Kazakh State University campus. Since the old woman was used to moving around all day, and being closer to the earth, she started to go out for walks. But problems arose. All her life she had lived in one place, in a tiny aul on the steppes, and now, in her old age, she could not possibly learn to get her bearings in a new, unfamiliar location, among these thick groves of trees and multistory buildings, which all looked identical to her. A few times, she got so lost that the whole building went out searching for her. They’d nearly called the police. Finally her walks were restricted to the courtyard of the building.

Then there was a new tragedy. In the far-off aul, where strangers were extremely rare, she had never once locked the door, and that meant that here in the city, too, she was always forgetting to lock up or leaving her key somewhere. Her daughter finally took her key away for good. When the daughter left for work in the morning, the mother walked out into the courtyard with her, sat down on the bench, chatted with people walking by, and kept at it until her daughter came home. The neighbors felt bad for the old woman and invited her in for tea. But the daughter didn’t like it that her mother was going in and out of the neighbors’ places like some homeless beggar, so now when she left for work she left her mother shut up alone in the apartment. 

At first the old woman still wandered the courtyard in the evenings, but the new climate and her new way of life had their effects on her health, and she grew weaker and weaker. Climbing the stairs to the fifth floor was becoming too difficult. When winter came, she stopped leaving the building. Her solitary confinement in the stone box clouded her mind. Now, from time to time, she walks out onto the balcony of her apartment, and she stares at the far-off mountains, and the gardens all around her, and the people going about their business below. And she wails.

In the Almaty of the 1960s and 70s, the older generation in Kazakh families was represented, almost always, by a sole grandmother, an azhe or apa, widowed by the war. If the husband had survived the war years, then the old folks usually lived out their lives together in the aul. But their grown children tried as hard as they could to get the widowed old women to move to the city, mostly to help raise the grandchildren. Love was also a factor, of course, as was a desire to avoid being accused of leaving an old woman all alone.

It’s only now that I understand how hard it was for our grandmothers to settle in this strange city of stone, where a completely different set of morals is in force, where you needed to stand in a suffocating line of people for hours on end to receive a five-pound bundle of bones wrapped in cellophane, where your grandchildren might not know a single word of your native tongue.

City life itself was more than just unusual to them. It went against their traditional upbringing and their sense of decency. We knew a man who came from my mother’s village. He was a colonel in the KGB, and when his mother came to visit, he used to have to escort her to the bushes, right there in the center of the city, early in the morning and late in the evening, because the idea of handling any physiological needs inside the house was shocking to her. “God forbid my son or my daughter-in-law or my grandchildren hear me making noises!” she would say. It was a comical situation in a way, and just one example, but essentially it was a collision of worldviews.

The psychologist Erik Erikson described how Native American girls educated in boarding schools often developed depression due to the differing concepts of cleanliness in their own families and at school. For Indian mothers, the ritual cleanliness of their daughters was very important, while for the white teachers, the essential thing was sanitation and hygiene. As a result, the teenage girls felt dirty in both places. The native people also believed that excrement needed to be exposed to the cleansing effects of sunlight and wind, and they were horrified by the white people’s habit of burying their filth and letting it rot in one single place. We city-dwellers can easily imagine what the white people thought about the Indians. But the first thing Kazakhs did when it became possible to remodel their urban apartments during perestroika was to change up the bathroom. They tried to move the door to the lav, so that it would open up into the entranceway, rather than into the same little corridor as the kitchen. In newer apartments, the doorway to the guest toilet is often in the line of sight of anyone sitting at the table in the big room off the main hallway. That still bothers people who retain the rudiments of their traditional upbringing.

The colonel’s mother never could get used to the city. She moved in, plunged into depression, and began calling my Azhe, my mother’s mother, and asking her to come visit. My Azhe tried to straighten her out. Sure, this place can turn your stomach, but it’s not as if I can arrange a proper welcome feast for you. Come now, your son’s at work day and night, your daughter-in-law’s in the hospital, think of your grandchildren, let’s at least go to the store and buy some groceries. But the crowds in the store and the need to make the rude saleswomen understand what she wanted in Russian were terribly frightening to my grandmother’s friend. She left, while our Azhe put down roots here in Almaty. But only she herself knew what that cost her.

In the late 1980s, she and I watched a TV show together, about a Turkish village holiday with horse racing and everything. Azhe’s reaction took me by surprise. She sighed, and her only response to what she saw on the screen was, “Look how lucky they are, living on the flats!” She herself, in her younger days, had occasionally given in to her son-in-law, a public instructor in tourism, and went off on hikes in the mountains with us. But the stately beauty of the Alatau turned out to be less than inspiring for a native of the flat steppes.

Deprived of their old way of life and everyone they had known since childhood, our Kazakh grandmothers tried to recreate their world in the city. Children and grandchildren were all well and good, but Kazakhs consider their peers their own people, while later generations are some lesser, stranger tribe who have come to settle in an abandoned camp. An old man who has outlived his friends is a person who has been accidentally left behind after his clan has moved on, forced to live as a guest among these new settlers. This is the constant face of a traditional culture.

Picking up and moving to the city to live with their adult children uprooted these old widows, both socially and psychologically, and they often ended up the hostages of their children, whom city life had turned cruel. Pride prevented them from going back home to the aul and admitting, publicly, that things weren’t too good with their children.

When I was little, and even in my teen years, Azhe was the most important person in my life, so I judged people almost exclusively on the strength of their relationship with my grandmother. I saw how a coddled city teen who caused his parents endless problems could be perfectly happy to squat down to help his azheka put her shoes on and lead her out to the courtyard, and ring her friend’s doorbell, and then bring her back up to the fourth floor, say, and how he could do that every single day. I watched my own Azhe return abashed to our place after trying to express her sympathies to the family when one of her friends had died. She was ashamed because that family was experiencing no grief, and needed no sympathy. But it was the old grandmas themselves, each and every one of them, who were most interesting to me.

One of my lifelong friends told me, recently, that in a lot of ways, I was still a child. “But at the same time,” she said, “you are much older than I am. Sometimes you seem ancient to me, older even than my mother.” That is probably true. I remember that when I was a teenager, I preferred spending time with little kids or ninety-year-old women rather than with my own peers. But there are still things I could tell you about the world that had already begun to disappear. Almost none of those Kazakh azhes now remain.

It’s now been a long time since some scholar or other determined that the Kazakh word kempir—“old woman”—was etymologically derived from the two words kam and pir, where kam means shaman, and pir refers to a spiritual teacher or a supernatural benefactor. Presumably, the word kempir originally meant a benevolent master of the elements and other natural phenomena in the guise of an aged woman. Later the meaning lost its loftier connotations and became what we have today.

Indo-Europeans have their male thunder gods, like Zeus or Thor, but the Turkic peoples have a kempir, what we might call a “thunder grandma” today. Kazakh scholars have noted this sort of matriarchal orientation in Turkic and Prototurkic mythology. The Turks—hunters, herders, and warriors all—bowed down before their mothers. All this means that Beskempir could well be the title for some sort of ancient pantheon of gods.

One basic element of this mythology is the custom of taking newborn babies, born to families where the children frequently die, and passing them between the legs of three or four old women. Now this custom is explained as a way to confuse death. The original idea, though, was to show that the child had been born of these “masters of the elements” and shared their strength. The first Kazakh Olympic champion, Zhaqsylyq Üshkempirov, got his last name from this tradition.

Here in Almaty, our Kazakh azhes did not feel like goddesses, or even first wives or matriarchs, but their fates, at the end of their lives, were inextricably woven into the enormous tapestry of city life. Sometimes it worries me that in the fuss of our everyday routine they might finally be forgotten, and I repeat their names, or actually their nicknames, since they rarely called each other by their true names, in deference to an ancient taboo. Nyanya-apa. Astarkhan sheshe. Sary kempir. Öskemen kempir. Oficerdyn kempiri. There are others we lost earlier than our Azhe, and I remember them only dimly; in their lifetimes, for me, they were just her friends. Those who outlived Azhe, the ones I invited to her wake, lent their warmth and their respect for our grief to help me through the darkest period of my life. When the last of them departed, the quick-witted, boastful Ofitserdyn kempir (by then I had learned her real name: Nurganym), my door to that world closed forever.


© Zira Naurzbayeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.

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