Bye Bye Bishkek
21 Jan 2018
Reading time ~26 minutes
What was supposed to be just a quick pit stop in Bishkek before making my way to Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan turned into a few more days of whirlwind-esque interviewing. One of the first things that struck me about being back in Bishkek after having spent a week in Talas and Almaty is the air pollution around these parts. Indeed, things can get so bad during the week that I can’t see the massive ferris wheel that’s only about 400 meters away from the balcony of my flat on the 7th story of the building I’m currently staying, at let alone the gorgeous Ala-Too mountain range that’s are several kilometers even further out. Anyhow, I finally managed to kiss Bishkek goodbye on Sunday and arrive in Osh about an hour later.
Tata Ulan, no stranger to Kyrgyzstan’s music scene, calls himself an akyn (poet-singer) for lack of a better descriptor. I imagine most unassuming Western ears would perceive his music to be rap. With the help of an assortment of characteristic face masks, Tata Ulan remains anonymous in the public eye. Most of his relatives are nominal Muslims, so there was little to no actual Islam in his household growing up. He recounted to me turbulent times as a young man smoking, drinking, cursing, and brawling with people whenever the opportunity presented itself. At age 14, he began songwriting and even back then, his lyrics featured a great deal of social commentary. Since actively taking up Islam about nine years later though, he’s cleaned up his act and the bulk of his lyrics has concerned the propagation of Islamic values. Though the lyrics from his “pre-Islamic” phase was neither highly taboo nor sacreligious, Tata Ulan nevertheless feels disappointed in himself for not directing his creative faculties in service of religion earlier on. Actually, the content and delivery of Tata Ulan’s music hasn’t changed a whole lot since his “reversion” to Islam. Before practicing the religion, he would commonly bemoan social problems in his music. Curently, only about 2 or 3 of his songs explicitly reference Islamic doctrine. Most of his other songs simply expose bad deeds of and qualities in people and society. In such songs, Tata Ulan commonly sets up hypothetical scenarios involving bad deeds or qualities in people or society for him to then criticize with all of his poetic might. In this way, he intends for people of all faith backgrounds to be able to appreciate his music.
Tata Ulan has been keenly aware of the issues surrounding arts production and consumption in Islam since he began reading up on the religion. At one point, he felt highly conflicted about his own musical involvements in light of controversies surrounding music-making in Islam. He already made up his mind on the matter before formally consulting religious experts. The way he saw it, music was nothing more than a means to and end - a medium of communication just like any other, i.e. literature, live speeches, TV broadcasts. He simply could not be convinced that music consumption and production in service of Islam could possibly fall under the realm of haram. Tata Ulan did eventually get around to consulting a number of ajy (religious experts/elders) in Kyrgyzstan on the matter though. By his account, all such consultants gave him the green light to continue what he loves doing on grounds that he possessed God-given talent and that his music was in service of Islam. Tata Ulan is regularly invited by moldos (religious teachers) for a variety of events in the name of dawat (propagation of Islam). Though he is not especially picky about where he agrees to perform, Tata Ulan told me that he never compromises on choice of lyrics/songs. For this reason, he does not get invited to play at perhaps nearly as many toi’s (celebratory gatherings often featuring live music) as big name pop stars in Kyrgyzstan do.
By the end of our interview, I’d gotten a pretty clear sense that Tata Ulan wasn’t in the music business for fame or money. If he were in search of big gains, he could do a much better job by applying his talent to producing rap music for a much wider audience. Unlike in major US cities where even niche communities have the ability to make money simply due to larger subscriber bases, Kyrgyzstan is much too small and relatively non-religious to provide for a viable Islamic music market let alone Tata Ulan style “Islamic rap” market. This concern on Tata Ulan’s part was echoed by Omar Janyshev in my interview with him last week. The fact that Tata Ulan insists on remaining anonymous doesn’t really help the money situation very much either. This latter point also invalidates the possibility of any desire for fame or recognition on Tata Ulan’s part. He criticized many other well-known Kyrgyz performing artists today who capitalize on their apparent allegiances to Islam while reaping the benefits of being pop stars in the music industry. He contends that if such people really cared about Islam, they would devote more of their time to the propagation of Islamic ideas rather than constantly showing off how just how Islamic they are on Instagram or Facebook. Such performing artists in Kyrgyzstan who partake in such social media advertising would likely retort that by publicly making a show of their allegiance to Islam, thousands of their followers are inspired to look into and practice Islam. They may also insist that there is no way to be a celelbrity in any country today and not be active on social media. At any rate, Tata Ulan concluded our interview by telling me that he’ll only feel confortable retiring when moldos (religious teachers) are just as attrative as he is to the youth of Kyrgyzstan. As such a prospect is unlikely to actualize anytime soon, it seems that Tata Ulan will be in the music business for some time.
Within a few days of arriving in Bishkek, I visited the State Opera and Ballet to enjoy a staging of “The Nutcracker” just in time for the holiday season. I remember thinking just how good it would be if I could get a hold of one of the ballet dancers on stage for an interview. Fast forward about a month to this past week and there I was interviewing Aidana Adnaeva, an up and coming ballet dancer and choreographer currently working at the Kyrgyz Opera and Ballet Theatre. Aidana took up ballet from a very young age as it had long been her mother’s wish for her to be a dancer. Though her grandmother is rather religious, she characterized her own mother as being a “modern Muslim”. For the most part, religion has not been a major point of contention both within her own family and on the job. Nonetheless, her immediate family and relatives have a good number of religiously inspired differences. For instance, Aidana takes care to wear relatively non-revealing clothing when she visits certain relatives’ homes, and she generally does not invite such relatives to the more liberal ballets that she performs in. One such production, Spartacus, actually gave rise to a petition spearheaded by conservative Muslims in order to bar the theater from staging the ballet especially because most of the cast end up half-naked during the play or “fully naked” with the help of skin-colored elastic costumes. Despite such noises from the conservative Muslim community, the theater administration assured the general public that the staging of Spartacus was not meant to be a commentary on Islam or generally have any bearing on religion. The ballet continued to be staged.
According to Aidana, roughly 60% of her colleagues at the Opera and Ballet Theatre are Kyrgyz, around 90% of whom are at least nominally Muslim (other Muslims stem from the ranks of Uyghur and Dungan members) and about a quarter of whom are more religious than she is as they actually do namaz (ritual prayer) and read the Quran and Hadith. For the most part, religion or religious restrictions are never brought up on the job as the cast realizes that it is their duty to engage in tons of physical contact between the sexes. In a row of nearly consecutive interviewees, Aidana was first to emphasize that there is no place for religion or religious restrictions at the work place. If Muslim ballet dancers with the Opera and Ballet Theatre have to skip out on namaz for the sake of rehearsal, and I presume the majority of them do, so be it. If Muslim cast members of the opposite sex have to support each others bodies around each other’s private parts, which they constantly have to do, then so be it. Aidana typified the camp of artists in Kyrgyzstan who are willing to quite literally suspend religion when it is time to make a living for oneself and one’s family. This position initially struck me as somewhat bewildering but later turned out to make a good deal of sense. Aidana recollected another incident that I felt perfectly demonstrated her and other Muslim performing artists’ attitude on this matter. Once on an international tour, she and other colleagues were dressing back stage among other international ballet cast. Aidana and her colleagues objected to the dressing room being open, allowing for both female and male gazes to invade the scene. The non-Muslim ballet dancers from other countries apparently did not have an issue with the door being open. They suggested to Aidana and her colleagues that they ought to accept their lot as ballet dancers when it comes to such matters. In response, Aidana and her colleagues insisted that they were obligated as Muslim women to not openly reveal their bodies willy nilly to random, male bystanders. The fact that Aidana and her colleauges were so cognizant of this prerogative off stage and yet engage in all sorts of physical interaction between the sexes and nakedness on stage spoke volumes to me on the particular point of separating religion from the workplace. There are, of course, certain points that Aidana and some of her Muslim colleagues are unwilling to compromise on. For instance, several of Aidana’s colleagues refused to do the sign of the cross in one ballet on grounds that it was strictly against their Islamic sensibilities. Some of the dancers initially opposed to the idea ended up doing the sign of the cross the “other way”, some stayed their ground, and others yet caved in and did it the “right way”. I imagine that a few other things might be similarly if not more controversial for the Opera and Ballet Theatre’s strictly Muslim staff including eating pork and drinking alcohol on stage.
I finished off my interview with Aidana by gauging her thoughts for the future of ballet and theatre in Bishkek in light of increasing Islamization in Kyrgyzstan. A good deal of my motivation to pose this subject to Aidana stemmed from concerns voiced by Saltanat Ashirova in last week’s batch of interviews regarding her perceptions of a decreasing number of women in the music industry and the declining confidence and expressivenessof her women mentee’s. As of now, the extent to which Islam really affects ballet in Bishkek is quite small. Most conservative Muslims, including some of Aidana’s relatives, do not really frequent the Opera and Ballet Theatre. I suggested to Aidana that there is indeed a chance, though admittedly a slim one, that theater may take a hit into the future if puritanical Islam continues to take hold in Central Asia at its current growth rate. Though Kyrgyzstan’s scene is quite a ways away the arts situation in a country like Saudi Arabia, performing for mixed-gender audiences is virtually impossible let alone the unimaginable prospect of half-naked women ballet dancers performing with half-naked male ballet dancers for a public performance in the latter country.
“Without culture, there is no humanity” - a Kyrgyz saying shared with me by Albina Imashova, an actor in Kyrgyzstan’s film and theater industries. Born into a Muslim family, Ms. Imashova and her family may not very actively practice Islam but they resonante with key Islamic values including good hygiene, presentability, hospitality, and ethicality, and they observe key Islamic traditions such as fasting during Ramadan. Though religion has not been a very big factor in her personal life and acting career, Ms. Imashova had a good deal to share regarding the need to balance spiritual and cultural sensibilities in society. She has never had strong debates with religious people about the permissibilities of artistic and cultural pursuits in Islam, but she has been acutely aware of how increasing Islamization in Kyrgyzstan has affected people’s valuations of aspects arts and culture. In Ms. Imashova’s experience comments about the illegitimacy of Nowruz celebrations (or any celebrations aside from Orozo Ait, i.e. Eid-ul-Fitr, and Kurman Ait, i.e. Eid-ul-Adha, more generally) abound on Facebook and Instagram. In some of the direct messages she’s received on social media, she’s been called a “bad woman”, a “bad Muslim”, or “Satan” simply because she’s played antagonistic roles in film or theater. Such people villify her because she chooses to represent what they consider to be sin and evil on the the big screen or on stage. On occasion, some of Ms. Imashova’s more devout Muslim male colleagues have encountered more direct forms criticism of their craft at mosques by worshippers who label theatres, cinemas, production houses, and/or the like as “devil’s abodes” or devilish houses.
It bears repeating that the majority of people who call themselves Muslims I’ve encountered on my travels do not share the convictions of such mosquegoers or “Facebook imam’s”. Most Muslims I know recognize that art is art - that participation in the production of any given artistic work may be driven by a variety of motivations, inspirations, and intentions and that such a work is given to multitudinous interpretations by its consumers. Ms. Imashova actually appreciates the fact that such people take the time to denounce her work on social media, because otherwise she would have no idea what they actually think about her as they are not likely to summon the courage or have the opportunity to tell her off in person and woman are not allowed to attend mosque in most of Central Asia, which is total anomaly in other Muslim majority countries (e.g. Indonesia). In the face of such petty criticisms, Ms. Imashova believes she is obliged to depict all things in society through acting, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. She values her power as an actor to educate people about real human actions, emotions, and stories, as opposed to sugarcoated, warped, or fictional representations of society that cry “sharia-compliance.” Ms. Imashova believes that the majority of her Muslim colleagues in film and theater would likely share similar sentiments about their conception of the arts. Some may go so far as to deem their work in acting as a form of dawat (propagation of Islam), given the Islamic mandate for humans to seek knowledge and the role that actors play in exposing the general public to new ideas, emotions, scenarios, etc. Ms. Imashova strongly believes in artists’ potentials to be missionaries via their respective artistic media just as preachers educate Muslims through oration. Just as she believes that culture is great for religion, Ms. Imashova concluded our interview by emphasizing that the moralizing and socializing aspects of religion are beneficial for society. Alongside continuing to develop her artistic abilities, Ms. Imashova looks forward to more actively practicing Islam into the future. She is hopeful for the collusion of religion and culture in service of the greater good in society.
For the better part of his life, Isa Omurkulov, one of Kyrgyzstan’s better known singers in the pop music industry, had been highly skeptical of Islam and religious people. His opinions on Islam were largely informed by its depiction in the media, most of which Isa believes to be highly stereotypical. He admitted to me that he used to have few reservations satisfying his desires for clubbing, drugs, and women. About four years ago, a few key people started to pique his curiosity about Islam, the most influential of whom was none other than Omar Janyshev. Isa’s and Omar’s relationship goes back over 10 years, when Omar opened for Isa’s debut solo concert at age 12. Omar would often invite Isa to accompany him at meetings with religious people or urge him to attend jummah (friday) prayers in Bishkek. After roughly a year of diverting Omar’s invitations, Isa got into a car accident in 2015, leaving his car severely damaged but his body virtually unharmed. In the immediate aftermath of this accident, Isa had a hard time thinking about anything other than life’s “big questions” - who created me? where do we come from? where will we go? He found himself increasingly curious about and fascinated by the miracle of life. With time, he came back to attending with Omar and other religious people, observing Friday prayers, and reading up on Islam from authoritative sources. By 2016, Isa had memorized enough surahs to commit himself to doing namaz (prayer) 5 times a day. The more he researched and prayed, the more that his biases against Islam melted away. As of now, Isa believes that the Quran contains everything one requires to live a rightly guided life. He’s realized that all of the morals imparted to him by his elders, particularly his mother, were point-blank in the Quran including mandates to love and respect others, do good deeds, be hygenic, seek knowledge, and more. At one point, Isa was on the brink of giving up his singing career as he felt that being a public figure more opened himself up to too many ways of being in the wrong - fame, ego, playing for mixed-gender crowds, the financial need to continue singing questionable lyrics in questionable environments, and more. Indeed, several anti-music leaning individuals I’ve interviewed don’t claim that music is intrinsically haram (forbidden) as much as they view the circumstances under and environments in which music is played to be highly problematic. In other words, people’s anti-entertainment sentiments more commonly stem from the fact that beer guzzling, wearing skimpy clothes, and gender mixing/hook-ups are phenomena that often take place in the auspices of music making. Isa did end up taking a break from show business between roughly 2016-2017, not for religious reasons but rather to complete his studies of law and juripsdrudence at the Kyrgyz State Law Academy. Upon completion of his degree program, Isa promptly got back into the swing of show business in 2017 and hopes to revamp his act with fresh choreo and new hits for 2018. In addition to writing pop tunes with typical themes, he hopes to produce music that at least implicitly propagate Islamic values into the future.
Niyaz Abdyrazakov is one of several people I’ve interviewed who describe their lives as being filled with ease and peace since they began actively practicing Islam. Niyaz has been in show business since 2006, playing piano, singing, arranging, composing, and directing films, though his solo performance career launched in 2014. Niyaz’ artistic side comes from his parents, both of whom are musicians, while his engagements with Islam stemmed from the influence of his grandparents who would strictly observe namaz during his childhood. After the passing of Niyaz’ paternal grandfather, his greatest religious influence up till that point in time, he found himself no longer connected to religion, neglecting namaz and quranic studies. Ten years later in 2016, he “reverted” to Islam mostly due to the influence of Ernazar Tastanbaev, a musician who came to Niyaz’ recording studio for several sessions of recording maulid music. Before his interactions with Ernazar Tastanbaev, Niyaz remembers having conversations with musician colleagues of his who were practicing Muslims on the topic of music permissibility in Islam. Many such colleagues often felt conflicted about doing music professionally as they were aware of a variety of contradictory ideas on the topic of music permissibility in Islam among religious cricles in Kyrgyzstan. Without a unanimous agreement regarding the debate in sight, Niyaz and his colleagues simply continued their musical involvements. Of course, the other option or the “safer option” available to Niyaz and his colleagues was to simply refrain from music making and listening entirely. There is in fact a camp of Muslims who do choose this “safer option”, so to speak. It is the simple difference between the “I know not, therefore I do not” types and the “I know not, therefore I do” types. The majority of imams and moldos (Islamic teachers) Niyaz is aware of or has interacted with in Bishkek disapprove of music as they cite that making or listening to music affords greater disadvantages than advantages in life just as Muslims often argue that alcohol production and consumption does more harm than good in society. At any rate, after witnessing the passion and sincerity in Mr. Tastanbaev’s music, Niyaz went from being nominally Muslim to praying five times a day within a fairly short timeframe. Since 2016, he’s produced a number of explicitly Islamic songs in addition to the usual songs appropriate for performance at toi’s, i.e. party music. He told me that he wishes to gradually transition from writing and singing secular songs to entirely producing and performing nasheed music into the future.
Thanks to Nursultan Alibekov, I attended a dance battle for the first time in my life. Nursultan is currently working full-time in the energy sector alongside doing dance part-time (b-boy, popping, hip-hop, etc.). Similar to Aidana, Nursultan’s family is somewhat divided along religious lines. His immediate family is relatively “modern”, “urban”, and “liberal”, while a good number of his extended family members, mostly living in Osh, are quite conservative and puritanical. His paternal grandfather was a fairly well-known moldo in his village, and most of his paternal relatives are stritly practicing Muslims. Though Nursultan does have the intention to pray 5 times a day in the future, his current relationship with religion mostly entails fundamental theological beliefs and attending jummah (friday prayers). During his earlier years of working as a professional dancer and actor, members of both his immediate and extended families held rather prejudiced views on his artistic engagements. While is immediate family members were mostly concerned that he might be wasting his time and opening himself up to negative influences in the worlds of dance and acting, his extended family members were more so concerned with the particular theological point of music, dance, etc. being allegedly haram. The views of his immediate family members and to a lesser extent of his extended family members changed on this matter as Nursultan started winning dance awards, getting casted for movies, and making appearances on television and magazine. In other words, Nursultan had to prove to his relatives that his engagements with the arts were both respectable and lucrative. Even now though, after he’s already proven himself in this regard, he’s faced with religiously informed opposition from family and friends for some of his artistic engagements. A few years back, Nursultan acted in the movie “Jinn Man” in which he was tasked with representing two sides of himself, both good and bad. Some of the scenes from the movie required that he act rather “develish” or in ways which were not the most shariah-compliant. Though most of his relatives ended up appreciating the film’s expositional value and it’s positive ending (the jinn ends up losing), one particularly conservative relative continued to voice his strong opposition to the movie. For this reason, just like Aidana, Nursultan generally invites only his more liberal relatives to his more questionable or controversial artistic engagements.
As a freshman in college, Nursultan suffered a serious knee injury from dancing which called for surgery. As he was highly into dance at that time, he resumed dancing full-time soon thereafter. About two years ago, he suffered yet another serious knee injury, this time putting a halt to his dance career for a full two years. During this time, Nursultan took to working out as a replacement to his engagements with dance. However, he’s taken up dance yet again just about half a year ago, as working out did not offer him anything nearly as fulfilling and exhilarating as dance did. Right after his second dance injury though, Nursultan actually did seriously consider leaving dance for good. Many of his relatives, including his own parents, suggested or were convinced that his knee injuries were signs from Allah, telling to put an end to his work as an entertainer. Nursultan felt especially conflicted after learning that his first proper dance teacher had given up dance himself due to religious reasons. This teacher who had once introduced Nursultan to various actors in show business in Kyrgyzstan, was now telling him to give up his dance commitments for good as well. By the time this teacher had reached out to Nursultan, he had already purged music from his life for over two years, telling taxi driers to turn off the radio when riding in their cars and such. Nursultan also reached out to several religious friends of his, requesting them to consult with imams or moldos they were related to or otherwise connected with on his behalf regarding his predicament. The majority of such religious figures reported back that music, dance, and related fields of activity caused greater harm than benefits in society. After deliberating on the matter, Nursultan has made up his mind that regardless how many people tell him that music or dancing is haram, he will continue doing it for the rest of his life as his dance engagements are relatively shariah-compliant and he is convinced of the manifold benefits that dance has afforded him throughout his life. Nursultan concluded our interview by telling me that he looks forward to more actively practicing Islam into the future alongside maintaining his vibrant relationship with dance.
My last interview in Bishkek was with Shairgul Kasmalieva (aka. Shaira), an Honored Artist of the Kyrgyz Republic who’s been acting since Soviet times. During her early childhood, Ms. Kasmalieva was of the mainstream opinion that there was no God, as propagated by governmental institutions under the USSR. Though she and her family are largely non-religious, Ms. Kasmalieva has found the prospect of a single and omnipotent higher power increasingly fathomable and acceptable over the years. Noticing growing religiosity in Kyrgyzstan each decade since the 60’s, Ms. she whet her appetite for religious knowledge by reading the Quran, Tawrat (Torah), Injil (Gospel of Jesus), and Zabur (~Psalms of David). Though her personal studies of and experiences revolving around religion have largely been nonproblematic, Ms. Kasmalieva made it clear to me that she disapproves of religious people’s tendencies to limit themselves or others in their endeavors and reject the validity of a multiplicity of truths and norms in society. As with other artists I’ve interviewed over the past several months, Ms. Kasmalieva pitted Islam and freedom against one another, implying that if she were to be a religious Muslim, she risks placing herself in a narrow box. To this, several practicing Muslim artists would retort that there is a very good reason for things being limited or prohibited in Islam. In other words, one is not advised against anything arbitrarily in Islam, and true freedom has nothing to do with having permission to do things which are clearly inappropriate or harmful either for oneself or for society as deemed by God.
Midway into our interview, I asked Ms. Kasmalieva if she could gauge Islam’s presence among her colleagues in Kyrgyzstan’s film industry today. She told me that the new of wave of Islam in Kyrgyzstan has not affected the film industry in Kyrgyzstan since her first days acting. Most of her colleagues only pray on occasion if at all, and religious matters are strictly kept out of the realms of casting and filming. Practicing Muslims among her colleagues mostly relegate religion to their own private affairs. Ms. Kasmalieva believes that even if all her colleagues suddenly became strictly practicing Muslims, she would hope that the industry would not be noticeably affected. She insisted that professionals in any industry, regardless of religious affiliation, must be either willing to accept all that is demanded of them on the job or simply resign. She trusts that her colleagues and any aspiring actors are well-educated and cosmopolitan citizens who understand that they have a job to do in order to put food on the table.
Though the new wave of Islam has not drastically affected Kyrgyzstan’s film industry, Ms. Kasmalieva mentioned that it has made its mark on actors in Kyrgyzstan’s theater industry. Her impressions of increasing religiosity among theater people resonated with that of Ms. Imashova’s. Though not entirely sure what exactly accounts for the religiosity differential between Kyrgyzstan’s film and theater scenes, Ms. Kasmalieva posited that hard times and financial difficulties could have something to do with it. She mentioned how actors in film are generally better off financially as they can play many roles in many different movies which continue to make money in perpetuity either in movie halls or in the comfort of people’s homes. Actors in theater, on the other hand, earn money almost exclusively from their live performances. Ms. Kasmalieva doubled down on this theory by sharing the case of a particular actor in theater who began practicing Islam after years of struggling with substance abuse massive productivity slump. This individual in turn has influenced additional people in Kyrgyzstan’s theater industry to take up religion more seriously.
This brings us to the point upon which I concluded my interview with Ms. Kasmalieva, namely, the significance of even just a single religious influencer in one’s life. Having interviewed Niyaz and Isa back to back on the same day and Omar Janyshev just a couple of weeks prior, I couldn’t help but notice just how influential a single person or event can be in one’s decision to either embrace or reject religion. In Isa’s case, a car accident along with Omar Janyshev was the recipe for a full-fledged reversion to Islam. In Niyaz’ case, a single practicing Muslim singer was enough inspiration for him to resume observing his Islamic duties. Omar and several other high-profile singers in Kyrgyzstan such as Mirbyek Atabyekov went through similar transformations in recent years. As noted in my previous posts, some such public figures, due to the influence of the camp of Muslims skeptical of music making and listening, have pulled out of the music industry entirely.
Tasty Treats in Bishkek Pt. 4
I’m gonna butter your bread…