Although I’ve never been to Kyrgyzstan I’ve long wanted to go there. I initially became interested in the Central Asian region due primarily to its sheer obscurity relative to the rest of the continent. When you take an Asian Civ class, you're unlikely to find Tajikistan on the course syllabus.
Ten years ago, when Napster made it possible to expose oneself to music otherwise outside one’s reach, in addition to searching for digitized wax cylinders, I used to often type the names of Central Asian countries and see what treasures I could find. The music of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan proved very appealing to me but nothing from the region resonates with me more than Kyrgyz music. To my unschooled ears, there’s a musical echo of every people that passed along the silk trail and many of the nation's neighbors. I hear similarities with Turkmen, Kazakh, Mongolian, Russian and European Renaissance music… and even the shamanistic music of some Native Americans, whose ancestors inhabited Central and North Asia thousands of years ago.
When I first became interested in Kyrgyzstan, I didn’t know what Kyrgyz people look like. I’m assuming most of the world has no familiarity with Central Asians, that’s why the Jewish Sacha Baron Cohen could easily dupe most of us into thinking, with a smattering of Yiddish, that Borat was from Kazakhstan. If Central Asia had a higher profile, it's unlikely that his prank would've worked as well as it did. My first exposure to real Kyrgyz was watching Aktan Abdykalykov’s film, Beshkempir, a restrained, well-made coming-of-age story. In the faces of the cast, you can see the diverse genetic admixture you'd expect of a people who live at a racial and continental crossroads.
Diversity is intrinsic to the Kyrgyz people. The term “Kyrgyz” is thought to mean “forty tribes,” a reference to the diverse peoples united by the Kyrgyz national hero, Manas, who banded together against the invading Chinese Khitan people. Today, Kyrgyzstan is still home to a variety of ethnicities. The Kyrgyz make up 69% of the population and are followed by 15% Uzbeks, 9% Russians, and smaller but significant populations of Tatars, Uyghurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Germans and Ukranians. Yet since regaining independence after many years of Soviet occupation, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to stabilize as one corrupt dictator has followed another corrupt dictator. And now, with the unfortunate violence flaring between some Kyrgyz and Uzbek, it seems that some parties in the region are attempting to create false divisions within a people who have more in common than separating them.
Over the past few days, hundreds of people have died, thousands have been injured, and 30,000 Uzbeks have fled their homes. Interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, who may prove to be the first decent leader of the young nation, has appealed for outside assistance. The response from the international community has been negligible although the violence seems to be dying down. The United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Collective Security Treaty Organization on Sunday announced their plan to coordinate efforts in helping Kyrgyzstan. If you'd like to help, please consider donating to Unicef, Médecins Sans Frontières and The Red Crescent.