Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Funeral

I haven't been writing these last three weeks. I haven't been reading, either, apart from the texts that I'm teaching. The region of my brain that deals in words has been co-opted into preparing lessons and planning for the year ahead. However, a very interesting scenario is playing out in the courtyard seven stories below, and I thought I'd better tell you about it while the will is with me.

A small, plain yurt has been erected; dozens of men are squatting around it, alternately smoking and making thoughtful contributions to the pools of spit between their feet. Elderly women with covered heads sit in purposeful silence with hands clasped, and children dressed in their best find ways to play quietly without ruining the white of their shirts.

(This is a yurt on the jailoo: now you need to imagine it in the valley that is our potholed courtyard, with the mountains that are these broken-down apartment blocks on all sides.)

When night falls, the women begin to wail; orchestrated, echoing wails that bounce between our apartment building and the one parallel to it. It's an eerie soundtrack to my dinner-making; the scrambled eggs lose their prosaicness amidst the ululating sounds of sorrow, and eventually I abandon my dinner to the spectacle. From the seventh floor, I can see the lights flickering through the tunduk at the top of the yurt, and the dark shapes passing under it. After a time, a man's voice starts up among the women's. He is singing a dirge, and soon he is singing alone, an haunting elegy for an audience of apartment-dwellers and cold night sky.

Now it's morning; as I was stirring my porridge in that half-asleep Saturday morning sort of way, the wailing was renewed with so much vigour that I had to look out the window again. Right now, the corpse is being carried down the street by a throng of men, while the women remain seated around the yurt and bellow grief.

There is a Kyrgyz saying that goes, "only when a Kyrgyz dies and is laid to rest does he cease to be a nomad." Deaths and marriages are the most important parts of Kyrgyz society, and the rites surrounding death are full of pomp and generally costly; since family honour is involved, the service must be splendidly lavish. A yurt will be set up near the home of the deceased, and the best, most expensive food must be served - traditionally horsemeat. Specially assigned mourners share the wailing and the praying, and as in all Islamic societies, after several days of ritual, an imam will preside over the burial. Memorial services will take place periodically over the next year until the final one, twelve months after burial.

Now I've had the inestimable privilege of observing Kyrgyz funeral rites from my window; I should like to see a wedding one day - if I can possibly do so without having to partake of horse.

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