Vastly Varied Viewpoints
07 Jan 2018
Reading time ~18 minutes
Nothing especially special happened this week save the usual interview grind. That being said, this week’s interviews were on the extra juicy side if I may say so myself. This was my last full week in Bishkek, so I struggled to cram as much interviewing in before making my way to Talas, Kyrgyzstan and Almaty, Kazakhstan next week. I’ll be back in Bishkek the week thereafter for a couple of days before making my way to Southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan thereafter. Thankfully, both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan offer visa-free travel for upto 90 days for US citizens. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, requires visas for US travelers. After a couple of visits to the Uzbek embassy in Bishkek, phone calls nearly every day for the past three weeks, and paying $160, I’ve finally obtained the 40 square cenimeters or so of paper on my passport that will legally allow me into the relatively insular country. More on my time there later though. For now, let’s get this party wrapped up in Bishkek.
Omar Janyshev, Singer/Entrpreneur
Having WhatsApp messaged Omar Janyshev, a well-renowned Kyrgyz pop singer and musical entrepreneur, nearly everyday for the past month or so, I finally managed to interview him this week. I sure am glad that we finally met up, because I felt that our interview was totally worth the wait. Omar was born a Muslim as with most of his immediate ancestry, though he only started intensively practicing Islam about four years ago. His singing career which spans the past 10 years can thus be split into two nearly equal halves - his previous non-practicing and current practicing phase. Although Omar’s music did not drastically change with his transition into practicing Islam, he told me that he feels disappointment in himself for aspects of his lifestyle and career choices early on in his music career. Back then, Omar would sing about most anything that a typical pop star in the United States might sing about, and he would also dabble in a variety of musical genres. Nowadays, Omar continues writing and performing songs with secular lyrics, but tries his best to ensure that such songs are “shariah-compliant”. That is, no more singing about giving your life away for your girl or singing about just how turned on you are about your girl’s moves on the dance floor.
Aside from trying his best to steer clear of superficial lyrics, Omar’s taken to incorporating songs with explicitly Islamic lyrics or messages into his repertoire. He balances these songs with secular numbers that his fans wouldn’t want him to ditch altogether. As of now, Omar fully embraces having to make this compromise. Though he means no disrespect to certain individuals who have pulled out of the Kyrgyz music industry due to their Islamic convictions, Omar feels strongly that his current standing as a professional musician renders unideal and unhelpful either completely Islamizing his repertoire or pulling out entirely from the music industry. If he were to stop singing songs with secular lyrics and refrain from perform at secular events, a huge segment of his fan base would likely turn against him, entailing a massive blow to his income and leaving him with a significantly diminished platform upon which to do good in society. Even more, if he simply leaves music for good, Omar reasons that someone or another will surely fill in the talent vacuum in his wake - someone likely to be not nearly as pious as he, leading to a net increase in the amount of undesirable secular music caricatured above being churned out for consumption in Kyrgyzstan.
Though Omar must continue to be pragmatic about things, he told me that if he could go back in time, he wouldn’t have opted for a career in music. Although he is much more careful nowadays about what he does as a professional musician, Omar told me that he can never be sure about the legitimacy of all that is involved as a performer in the entertainment business. He recognizes that it’s difficult for one to be accountable for one’s influence as a celebrity and that any profession that is less public and has less to do with entertainment would likely cause less anxiety in a pious Muslim who is constantly concerned with the appropriateness of his thoughts and deeds. Nonetheless, Omar must financially support his family and continue putting food on the table which is an Islamic duty in and of itself. One could argue that refusing fulfill this basic responsibility as a Muslim with the main gift that Allah endows singers with, namely a beautiful voice, can be seen as ungrateful or loathsome. Indeed, Omar fears that if he does not make benevolent use of his talents, Allah may ask him on judgement day why he wasted the skills and influence that he blessed him with. He believes that God endows people with such blessings for the purpose of serving Him, not for the sake of ego, massive wealth, popularity, etc. Omar tells me that sometime in the future, when and if he no longer needs to worry about finances, he wishes to sing songs only with explicitly Islamic lyrics. Omar related to me that in places like the United States, there are enough people and actors invested in the music industry to allow for a myriad of musical sub-cultures to subsist on album sales and live performances. In Kyrgyzstan, the sheer lack of people as well as interest in muscial sub-cultures usually entails music career death for most people not making secular pop music. Thus, for the time being, Omar must continue tip-toeing the line between the sacred and the profane through increasingly clever and pragmatic means.
Jyrgalbek, Komuz/Piano Extraordinaire
The komuz is a potent national instrument and symbol of Kyrgyz culture. It’s significance to the Kyrgyz is comparable to the dutar to the Uzbeks, the dombra to the Kazakhs, or the rabab to the Afghans. I was thus very lucky to get to meet with a remarkably talented exponent of the instrument, Omurgazy uulu Jyrgalbek, who is currently a junior concentrating in jazz piano at Kyrgyzstan National Conservatory Bishkek. Jyrgalbek was actively playing the komuz by the 5th grade back in his hometown in the Naryn region, At-Bashy district. Though his own parents were not very religious, Jyrgalbek had been moderately practicing Islam alongside his engagements with music as a child mostly due to the influence of his uncle, a moldo (Kyrgyz Islamic religious teacher) who often engaged in dawah work in his hometown. Jyrgalbek began to experience a conflict of interest between his musical activities and religious obligations when local moldos in his hometown started insisting to him that there was no way he could conscionably be both a professional musician and Muslim in life. For better or worse, Jyrgalbek was never exposed the likes of illustrious Islamic scholars throughout history such including al Shafi’i (d. 820), Ali Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), al-Ghazali (d. 1111), and Mahmud Shaltut (d. 1963) who generally took issue with external factors surrounding music making as opposed to flat out condemning music in and of itself. Thus, as a teenager, Jyrgalbek made the choice to put Islam behind him and fully pursue music, not only because he loves playing music but also because doing so is the best way for him to make money and support his family. As of now, Jyrgalbek told me that he wouldn’t really feel inclined to resume practicing Islam even if every Islamic teacher, leader, and jurist came to a consensus that music making in and of itself was permissible. All in all, he feels that Islam restricts one’s creative and professional potentials too much for his liking, what with all its rules and prescriptions. Jyrgalbek’s thoughts on this matter reminded me of a couple of times that I had posed this precise concern to Muslim artists back in Southeast Asia, many of whom had exposure to much more flexible and dare I say enlightened streams of Islamic thought on the topic of arts permissibility in Islam. Such prior informants of mine would retort having the freedom to curse God, strip on stage, or guzzle beer aren’t freedoms at all in their opinion. At the end of the day, Jyrgalbek told me that everyone should be the author of their own destiny. He has nothing against Muslims or Islamic teachers especially if Islam is the right path for them.
Saltanat Ashirova, Singer/Voice Coach
Well-known Kyrgyz pop singer Saltanat Ashirova was likely the most raw and unapologetic interviewee of everyone I’ve interviewed so far on my Watson fellowship. Here is a sampling of the ideas and opinions that Saltanat put forth during the course of our discussion and I paraphrase:
- Religious people are sometimes worse than non-religious people. Oftentimes, religious people are full of hate, aggression, and anxiety.
- Religion was created by people to control other people.
- Religious people are too boxed in by innumerable norms and limitations. Non-religious people are generally more open and free.
- Religion is an instrument for belonging. It helps people feel well supported as opposed to feeling lonely. Atheism doesn’t encourage to form sub-groups and networks in the way that organized religion does. This partially explains why young women nowadays in Kyrgyzstan are turning to Islam as it offers them or at least seems to offer them a sense of sisterhood, dignity, and respect.
- A majority of high profile or otherwise well-established performing artists in Kyrgystan today are becoming more Islamic. Saltanat refers to this as the new wave of Islam that she is desparately trying to steer clear from in her little non-religious boat along with what is left of non-religious performing artists in Kyrgyzstan. Saltanat asserted that many of the celebrities who put on a show of Islamic piety today were completely different people ten years ago, and she strongly prefers that they would give up their Islam fads and just be honest with themselves.
- If not enough people like Saltanat are vocal in their critiques of the new wave of Islam in Kyrgyzstan, Saltanat is afraid that the issue of arts permissiblity may eventually come to the fore of Islamic discourse among religious leaders and intelligentsia, potentially leading to bad results for artists and woman performing artists in particular.
Indeed, the difference between Saltanat’s characterization of the way things were in Bishkek just ten years ago as compared to the way things are now in Bishkek was quite striking. Back then, Saltanat could easily make a post on social media critical of Islam or religion more generally and get away with it fairly easily. Presently, if she were to say anything mildly offensive towards religion on Facebook, she’d immediately pay the consequences in the form of incessant vitriol and bullying on part of religious people. Before, she would often party and drink with all sorts of local celebrities in Kyrgyzstan who’ve now turned to Islam, but now she’d be hard-pressed to run into such people at a bar or club and when she does, things are, as one would expect, incredibly awkward.
Most concerning to Saltanat, however, was not her inabilities to criticize religion on Facebook or see old friends at bars anymore, but rather what she perceives to be Islam’s sterilizing effects on the arts and prohibiting effect on women and aspiring female artists. Aside from singing for a living, Saltanat serves as a vocal instructor and mentor to a number of girls and women in Kyrgyzstan. Above all, she seeks to be a strong female model to her mentees and hopes to instill qualities and values such as courage and liberalism in them. Over the years, Saltanat has noticed that the girls and young women who have sought her mentorship in recent years are noticeably fit the humble Kyrgyz woman stereotype much more than mentees of her’s from previous years. Such women may believe that they ought not be too bold or too aggressive lest they somehow put their dignities, honors, or chastities on the line. Saltanat mentioned just how drastically different women’s expectations and perceptions of themselves were in more traditional contexts throughout the Kyrgyz nation’s nomadic history in which women were taught to be strong, bold, and courageous as opposed to modest, shy, and humble as they rode horses, sacrificed sheep, set up yurts, mowed lawns, and tended to multitudes of children. I can see where Saltanat’s anxiety on this matter comes from, because even among some very well-educated Muslims I’ve interacted with on my travels, the prospect of women singing, dancing, acting, or otherwise engaging in some form of public performance is often regarded with great suspicion while the prospect of men doing the very same things is seen to be not nearly as problematic. Judging from the effects of the new wave of Islam in the past decade in Kyrgyzstan, Saltanat is afraid that perhaps 20-30 years from now, women will be even more underrepresented in various entertainment industries than they currently already are. Indeed, she has already noticed that fewer and fewer women serve as backing vocalists for her songs and less Muslims in general collaborate with her to make music. It certainly does not help matters when one of Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent Islamic figures, Chubak Aji (Жалилов Чубак ажы) is documented to have said something along the lines of women being half as smart as men or women having a smaller brain size than men. Slightly unrelated, but Chubak Aji has also apparently been a rather vocal apologist for polygamy in Kyrgyzstan. It is influence of such opinion makers in societ that trouble Saltanat most of all as she fears that a future generation Kyrgyz women may become zombies tethered to their outwardly religious polygamous husbands who are simply married to them to serve as domestic workers and punching bags (domestic violence is no joke throughout Muslim majority countries) all while continuing to drink into the wee hours of the night and go on escapades with halal prostitutes (also, not a joke). Despite Saltanat’s overwhelming pessimism during our interview, she ackowledges and wholeheartedly commends Muslim artists and Muslims more generally out there who practice Islam in a purely personal and moderate vein. Saltanat’s actually collaborated with a number of such people including Nurlan Alabekov on a track about Kyrgyzstan’s Issy-Kul region. When all is said and done, Saltanat contends that the expressive and resilient spirit of the nomadic DNA embedded in the Kyrgyz people will eventually trump the effects of puritanical Islam in Kyrgyzstan.
Aikol and Sayyeed from Umma Magazine
The example of Muslims like Aikol and Sayyeed and religious organizations such as theirs are perhaps the best line of defense against the fears espoused by artists like Saltanat with respect to contemporary Islamization in Kyrgyzstan. Aikol is a full-time Russian language journalist and Sayyeed is a graphic designer for Umma magazine, a publication issued quarterly from Umma’s headquarters in Bishkek dealing with current events from Muslim majority countries, miscellaneous issues in Islam, and features of Islamic arts. Apart from their contributions to the magazine, Aikol and Sayyeed play help plan and coordinate events under the Umma banner. One of Umma’s more recently held events was what they marketed as the “1st Islamic Art Exhibition” in Bishkek. The exhibit publicized the work of visual artists living in Bishkek, many of whom considered themselves to be hobbyists before being invited to display their art at the event. Aikol and Sayyeed told me that this event event along with previous events hosted by Umma elicited much positive feedback from youth attendees. Indeed, youth from the Southern Kyrgyzstan city of Osh visiting Bishkek to attend such events hosted by Umma in the past prompted them to open up another Umma branch in Osh completely out of their own will.
We proceeded to structure our discussion on Umma’s three-pronged mission summarized by the following mantra: 1. Unify 2. Enlighten 3. Create. The people at Umma recognize that there are too many internal divisions within the Muslim ummah (the global body of Muslims) let alone divisions between believers and non-believers on this planet for Umma’s activities and publications to not address the need for unity among groups under the banner of strength in diversity. During the month of Ramadan, Umma holds gatherings to break-fast in which representatives of various ethnic groups (Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Uighur, etc.) in Kyrgyzstan volunteer to prepare food for each other. Ummah also holds events open to non-Muslims as well, including a “veil day” during which representatives of a variety of religious show up and show off their religious garb (CHECK). In addition to their agenda of fostering inter-group harmony and pluralism, Umma hopes to offer high-quality and engaging information regarding Islamic topics and news concerning all of the Muslim ummah to cut through the poorly fact-checked and badly presented information deluge one one confronts while browsing the web. I was amazed at just how serious Umma takes their responsibility to consult with a variety of governmental and official religious bodies in Kyrgyzstan before publishing anything on sensitive topics in Islam such as shariah and before organizing their larger events for the public. Thus, religious experts, university professors, the Kyrgyz muftiyat (Kyrgyzstan’s state-sanctioned body of Islamic jurists), and Kyrgyzstan’s bureaucracy all play a role in the vetting process for Umma’s activities and publications. Especially on matters of shariah, Umma takes care not to impose any single view on legal matters in Islam. Rather, they strive to fairly represent the diversity of thought that exists within the ummah in transparent and thought-provoking ways.
Finally, I Aikol and Sayyed gave me a sense of how Umma’s philosophy on the arts in Islam. By including at least one article dedicated to the arts in each of their magazine issues, Umma wishes to dispel the stereotype that Muslims are necessarily less creative, outgoing, open, or appreciative of the arts. Ideas around beauty and pleasantness in Islam sprung up numerous times during the course of our conversation. Both Aikol and Sayyeed mentioned that Islam places great value in not only good looks, but also good hygiene, good smells, and the like. Such values are taken for granted by most people in the world today and especially in rich countries, but the specific point of valuing beauty seemed to me to be quite noticeably relevant given the Bishkek’s Soviet architectural legacy. Indeed, the majority of buildings in Bishkek look more or less the same - either tan, gray, grayish tan, or tannish gray combined with some variation on box-shaped (the traditional art and architecture among the Kyrgyz and other Central Asian nations is a separate matter altogether and thus has no bearing in this analysis). The fact that most mosques I’ve visited so far in Bishkek stand in stark constrast to their relatively unornamented and uninspiring structurual neighbors speaks for itself. All of this is to say that a bent to beautify all things within one’s grasp, a clear prescription in the Quran and hadith, is not always a given in culture.
At the tail end of our meeting, I managed to learn a bit about Sayyeed’s own personal thoughts and experiences relating to the permissibility of arts in Islam as a visual artist and graphic designer himself. I got the impression that Sayyeed and most other members a part of Umma place few limitation on what ought to and what ought not to be done in the visual arts. A certain segment of Muslims are quick to unequivocally denounce figurative art, paintings and sculptures clearly derived from real object sources including human beings and animals. Sayyeed’s and other Muslims’ view on things is a bit less puritanical, as they dig deeper into why exactly the Prophet Mohammed and his companions were in fact so wary of figurative illustrations. Things begin to make much more sense when you realize that Islam was revealed to humans in the firmly polytheistic society that was 7th century Arabia during which all sorts of figurative depictions were worshipped instead of the one true monotheistic god, Allah. It follows that the Prophet is reported to have disapproved of, for instance, depictions of animals on pillow covers or curtains, because the more figurative depictions that existed in his time, the more opportunity there was for people to commit shirk (idolatry or polytheism). With this knowledge at hand, many Muslims today feel that it is fine to make and enjoy figurative depictions - the key is in refraining from worshipping or obsessing over such depictions. Even so, Sayyeed still has some reservations against very finely done figurative illustrations particularly of human beings. He shared with me that 4 years ago he had illustrated a children’s book about Islam entitled “We Are Good Kids” (translated) written by a fairly conservative Muslim author who ensured that Sayyeed refrained from giving the children he illustrated in the book overly fine facial features. Illustrating the book in a cartoon style evidently helped in this regard. Islamic art throughout history has seen a number of such techniques used for “circumventing” commonly held beliefs about restrictions on figurative depictions in Islam (check out this vice feature about hijabbed, faceless dolls). Indeed, Sayyeed would not feel comfortable doing a full-blown, realistic portrait of someone. Nonetheless, he and many other Muslims who share his concerns recognize that there is a lot less to be worried about than one might think, especially in the realms of photography and videography that is meant to inform, educate, and represent reality.
Tasty Treats in Bishkek Pt. 4
Probably the most pathetic week in terms of proof of the foods I’ve been eating. I sincerely apologize and promise next week will be extra special as a compensatory measure.