Sunday, June 11, 2006

Aldar Kose Tricks the Bai

On a bitterly cold winter's day, Aldar Kose was travelling across the steppe. "Crunch, crunch," went his rickety horse's hooves through the snow. "Brr, brr," went Aldar Kose, as he shivered in his thin, hole-ridden coat. As he struggled along, he saw the local bai, or rich man, headed toward him. Immediately, Aldar Kose threw open his coat and whipped off his hat.

"Greetings, Aldar Kose! Why, you are burning up. What is the matter?" said the bai.
"It is this magic coat," explained Aldar Kose. "It is far too warm. The holes let all of the cold out, and what little cool air does come in, blows right out through the next hole. I am melting from the heat."

Upon hearing this story, you would think that the bai should have known better. After all, Aldar Kose was known far and wide as the cleverest and trickiest man on the steppe. But the bai only heard that Aldar Kose had something wondrous that he himself did not, and was gripped by the desire to have it for his own.

"My poor man," said the bai. "How you suffer! Let me help you. I will trade my fur coat and hat, which are just right, for your holey, too-warm ones, so that you may be more comfortable on your journey."

Aldar Kose thought about the bai's offer, hiding his smile behind his hand. "Sir, you are generous, but I cannot accept the trade," he said. "This coat was enchanted and given to me by my father, whom I dearly miss."

Now the bai could not stand not to get what he wanted, and so wanted the coat even more. He said, "I see it is difficult for you to let me help you. Take my coat and hat, and my horse, which rides like the wind. The breeze will cool you."

Aldar Kose hesitated a moment. "On the one hand, I should honor my father's warning, though I don't recall what it was. On the other hand, he always did encourage generosity in others, so I should allow you to help me."

The bai could no longer hide his impatience to own the magic coat. "Then you cannot refuse my generous offer. Take the fur coat, hat, horse and this bag of gold for your father's wisdom, give me that coat and consider yourself fortunate in the trade!"

Well, quick as a flash, Aldar Kose surrendered that coat of holes and the tired old horse to the bai. He put on the fur coat and hat, took the bag of gold, and mounted his new horse. The bai now sat on the old horse, wearing the holey coat and looking very pleased with himself. As Aldar Kose turned to ride away, he paused. "Aha! I've just remembered my father's warning," he said. "The magic in the coat works only for me. Good-bye!"

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Aldar Kose is the trickster of Central Asian folklore, similar to Anansi the spider of West Africa, or Br'er Rabbit and Coyote in American tales. Often he uses his wit and cleverness to aid the common man, or to turn the tables on the greedy or selfish. He appears in Uzbek, Tatar, Kyrgiz, and Karakalpak folktales as well as in numerous Kazakh variants.

A more elaborate version of "Aldar Kose Tricks the Bai" is included in Tales Told in Tents: Stories from Central Asia.

Another nicely illustrated collection of Central Asian folktales is Stories from the Silk Road.

Visit the Silk Road Caravan

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Kazakhstan's Nuclear Legacy: Vika's Story

Many know that Kazakhstan was the birthplace of two of the Soviet Union's biggest steps into the modern age and Cold War power. One step was at Baikonur in SW Kazakhstan, where the cosmonauts first launched into space and set off a "space-race" with 1950s America.

Another of the USSR's modern experiments took place in an "uninhabited" area of the northeastern steppe, near the city of Semipalatinsk, now know by the Kazakh name Semey. In 1949, the first of over 400 nuclear weapons tests exploded over the Semipalatinsk Test Site. There are estimates that over 200,000 people, mainly Kazakh nomads living in the fallout areas, died from radiation-related illnesses in the four decades of above- and underground nuclear testing from 1949-1989.

The following piece of oral history was written by former Peace Corps volunteer Ian Woodward, who lived and taught in Pavlodar during his PC tenure. You can read this story and more of Ian's experiences and observations in Kazakhstan on his blog stuck on the 45th parallel.

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vika's story


the year is 1955 and you are vika, a six year old girl living in makaieen, kazakhstan, a small town of 15,000 people on the eastern edge of the vast kazakh steppe. makaieen is the only world you have ever known. your first trip to the big city, pavlodar, is still a year and a five hour car trip away. when you are not in school you play outside with other children from the neighborhood. from time to time you walk with your friends to the edge of town and peer into the distance.

in every direction from makaieen all that can be seen is steppe. no hills. no trees. no buildings. only brush. a flat endless brush. the view into the steppe from makaieen is the same no matter which direction you are looking. the sun rising and setting provide the only perspective against an endless horizon.

one day you are playing with your friends near the broken swings outside your government provided apartment. it is early, around 8:00 in the morning. the air has the spring freshness in it that comes from a morning with a light dew. all of a sudden you stop playing and gather with your friends to look out into the steppe. something has happened, something is different.

a gigantic cloud is growing, apparently from the ground. it is huge, easily the largest thing you have ever seen. its colors are on the edges of color. where orange becomes red and where blue becomes violet. they are vivid, bright, and captivating. you cannot take your eyes from it, it is amazing. it is beautiful.

the cloud, in the shape of a mushroom you have now realized, grows in size until it stands many kilometers into the air. it doesn't move, there is no wind. it also doesn't dissipate. it just stays there, as if it is waiting for you to go along with your day.

after some time you comply and begin to play again with your friends, but all the while sneaking glances over your shoulder at this giant beautiful mushroom cloud standing over your small town.

a few weeks later all of the residents of makaieen are gathered in the main square. they have set up bleachers for the older citizens to sit, and the rest stand around waiting for something to happen. finally a man comes to the podium under a 35 foot statue of lenin and says that today the citizens are makaieen are going to serve the motherland. the people of makaieen will be witness to the might and power of mother russia. you, the people of makaieen, have the rare opportunity not only to bear witness but to show your strength to our comrades in moscow. this man, a member of the local communist party leadership, directs your attention to the steppe and the distance.

you don't know what is going to happen, so you grip your mothers hand with a little extra strength. "vikoninka oo spakoisya" (vikoninka, don't be scared) your mother whispers into your ear.

just then an explosion rips through the silence and you feel the earth beneath you shake. another cloud begins to form on the horizon and the town realizes that it is witnessing an above ground testing of an atomic bomb.

fast forward to 2005. your name is still vika and you live in a 7th floor apartment in a nice section of pavlodar. after preparing dinner for your house-bound mother you sit down to enjoy a meal in front of the evening news. the president of kazakhstan appears on the screen and part of a speech given earlier in the day is being shown. the president is talking about the nuclear testing that occurred in the area of the steppe that stretches from semi-polatinsk to makaieen. he mentions that over a period of 50 years there were 456 nuclear tests. most below ground, but many above.

you haven't thought of those days in your childhood for quite some time, but the images come flooding back. the giant cloud remains as vivid in your mind as it was that spring day. the colors just as vibrant and beautiful.

the president finishes his remarks by saying that people who lived in the area of the tests will be receiving a payment from the government. the amount will vary depending on how many years you lived in the area, and in which towns.

you, vika, open the paper the next day to read the news. you want to know how much your health is worth to your government. after some careful checking, and a search of your house for the seven required documents, and a trip down to the local offices you know the answer. your bravery, and the possibility of diseases yet to come is being rewarded with a check.....

50 dollars.

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Read more about the Soviet nuclear testing and continuing social, environmental and health concerns:

Profile and interview with Kaisha Atakhanova
, Kazakhstani biologist specializing in the the genetic effects of nuclear radiation and 2005 Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

"Life Under a Nuclear Cloud". Rosemary Righter in The Times (UK), 8/1/2002.

"Cold War Legacy." Sabrina Tavernise in The New York Times, 5/19/2002.