Not celebrating a holiday; celebrating non-holidays

On November 7, Mairamkul, my host mom from training, celebrated her birthday, while the country celebrated the Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution. I first learned that this holiday is still celebrated in Kyrgyzstan while getting to know my host mom; with a dictionary and a calendar of public holidays, she explained the connection between her name and the specialness of her birthday (mairam is holiday, kul is flower).

The holiday commemorates the anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 and the eventual establishment of the Soviet Union, and it was the most important public holiday during Soviet times. After the USSR collapsed in 1991, most of the newly independent countries decided to discontinue celebrations. Not in Kyrgyzstan, though! I did a little digging and found that Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Transnistria (a breakaway ghost state on the border between Moldova and Ukraine) are the only former Soviet territories that still mark this day as a public holiday.

I didn’t see any parades or big celebrations in Jalal-Abad City, but perhaps something happened in the capital. Universities were closed in Jalal-Abad City, though, which meant my site-mate Nicole and I had a free Monday to relax. We spent the whole day cooking – I baked banana bread, which my host brothers devoured, and together we put together tater tot hot dish. You read that right: tater tot hot dish, the “national dish of Minnesota,” as I explained it to my host family. We grated three potatoes, rolled them up into little balls, and deep-fried the things until they tasted like the Midwest. The boys were a little confused at the taste, but I think they enjoyed the food and were excited that I finally gave an answer to their curiosities about “national meals” in the U.S.

After celebrating the holiday with a total lack of pomp, I expected my return to work to be uneventful. Somehow, though, Tuesday ended up filled with festivities and toasts – not for any official holiday, but for a group of students who were recently married. Classes were inexplicably cancelled for “Science Day,” which called students to Barpy Theater for a presentation, so teachers were free to spend the afternoon eating, relaxing, and congratulating several students on their recent marriages. When a student marries, she and her mother-in-law traditionally prepare a lunch for the department, called a “sevet.” I’ve been to a handful of sevets this semester, but there’s been an accumulation of the celebrations because 4th course students were gone for a month and a half on their student teaching practicum.

All the teachers and the college dean gather to eat plov or manty, drink juice and tea (there’s always liquor on the table, but I haven’t seen it cracked open during school hours yet), and congratulate the student. While everyone holds their hands cupped together, the dean, after asking the girl’s name, gives a bata, a blessing, in which he wishes her good luck finishing her studies, good luck with her family, and a good relationship with her husband. (He also wished everyone “Өткөн майрам менен,” or “Happy belated holiday,” in reference to November 7.) After the bata, everyone oomins, or folds their hands over their face, to close out the prayer before setting to packing up the leftovers. The student and her mother-in-law come prepared and start handing out plastic bags for people to pack leftover bread, candy, and meat to take home. Normally I’m quite conservative when it comes to making a paket to take home, but I stuffed my purse full of candies to bring back to my host brothers. Maybe soon, if I attend enough sevets, I’ll get up the courage to wrap up a chunk of horse or sheep meat for my host family.


See that slice of sheep fat up at the top? Given specifically to me …

sevet platter

The spread at the second sevet

At the few sevets I’ve attended, it’s been jarring to see the students – who are 21 at the oldest – transform so suddenly from kyzdar to ayaldar, from girls to women. Before, they wore their hair loose and talked about doing their homework; after the wedding, as per tradition, they wear a white jooluk, a headscarf, and their marital duties should come first. When the semester started in September, only one or two girls wore the jooluk – now, the room is almost filled with girls in white scarves. I can’t help but think how hard it must be for them to finish their homework and plan their lessons when they now shoulder the responsibilities of the kelin, or daughter-in-law, including cooking and cleaning for the whole family.

jooluk girls

My 4th course students, proudly wearing their jooluks to show their new status as married women

I talked with Nazkul, my host mom in Jalal-Abad, about the slew of sevets and she agreed that it is better to wait until after university to get married. She paused to remember something, took a sip of tea, and said, “But you know, I got married when I was in third course – and everything turned out fine for me.” So, something to think about for a future post: how young women try/manage to “have it all” in Kyrgyzstan.


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