Uyghur circumcision

kazan of plov
kazan of plov

For over two weeks I’ve been back in Central Asia and still yet to eat p’lov, the national dish of the ‘Stans. Though the Kazakh national dish is bishparmak, which means ‘five fingers’ and is made usually of horse meat and noodles, no one seems to like it much, so they too celebrate p’lov. The Kazakhs I’ve met, anyway.

The complete set of pics are up on Flickr.

I’ve not had manti, samsa, or shashlik, either. I usually don’t order for myself, and everyone keeps feeding me chicken. Or lamb. Had lamb’s head yesterday, in fact, and they placed the head smack in front of me such that I kept glancing at the nose, which looked quite like it was still capable of smelling the feast. Yes, again veggie thoughts. And though the fat-streaked meat looked a gruesome color that suggested it hadn’t met with refrigeration, I admit it tasted quite good.

Today, at long last, I ate p’lov. Uyghur p’lov, at that. I went to the Sundet Toy of Gulnara’s friend’s son. It was just what I needed, as Kazakhs in Almaty aren’t traditional in the least, and I’ve been missing the cultural charm of Uzbekistan. Yeah, who’d guess? So, Gulnara, Nadilya and I took a taxi to Issyk, about an hour east of Almaty, to celebrate the circumcision of Rasul, the son of Gulistan, Guka’s Uyghur friend. Uyghurs are a Muslim, Turkic-language speaking Central Asian people from Xinjiang, now a province of western China. The Chinese government is not traditionally kind, and in the last hundred and some years about half a million Uyghurs have left their homes in Xinjiang for the ’Stans. Guka loves Uyghurs. She claims they are more open, happier, have better food, and are all-around more fun than the other Central Asians. Well, what better way to find out than a circumcision party?

Nadilya, the Kazakh Susan Sarandon, & Guka. The matching scarves are circumcision party gifts
Nadilya, the Kazakh Susan Sarandon, & Guka. The matching scarves are circumcision party gifts

We got a late start because Nadilya ran a snag behind. Nadilya has an organization called the Chi Center where I teach yoga. She looks like a Kazakh Susan Sarandon, and I spent the night we met trying to remember the name of the film, Thelma and Louise, which no one had seen anyway.

Nadilya, the Kazakh Susan Sarandon, & Guka. The matching scarves are circumcision party gifts

Once we made it to Issyk, the driver took us to the proper street and let us off. We couldn’t find the street number 119A (it was an urban planning disaster of the ‘street ends for a field and begins again on the other side’ ilk) and spent the next forty minutes searching it out. I was delighted to have my camera because between plucking apples, plums and nectarines off trees and sucking them down, and odd things that popped up on Sadovaya Street, it was a photogenic 40 minutes: view a slide show (click F11 if the verticals aren’t fully viewable). And because without it to entertain me, I would have been really annoyed.

Unfortunately, we arrived after the mullah gave the blessing. The men were sitting outside at a table in the courtyard somberly awaiting dinner, and the women sat at a table inside. Apparently Uyghur women and men sit separately at such events. Gulistan kissed and hugged me hello (we’d never met), and took us in to meet her newly circumcised son. ‘Last night, it happened last night,’ she explained.

The first question I asked Guka when she invited me to the event was how old is the boy? I’ve been to a briss or two, and it’s quite low key as the baby is so new. But I had a Muslim boyfriend from Malaysia who was circumcised at 13 and, well, it seemed a traumatic endeavor for him. Was Rasul 13? Would I be feeling his pain?

Rasul is seven
Rasul is seven

He was lying in bed playing a video game with a bunch of other Uyghur boys who sat on the floor. A bag full of money was next to him on the bed. Each of us put about 200 tenge (about USD $1.50) in it. Gulistan introduced us, and then raised her eyebrows and asked if I’d like to see. “Does it interest you?” she asked.

“Well, yes, it does,” I answered, always interested in a new cultural experience. With that, Gulistan removed the white sheet and a scarf that covered her son and pointed to his bloody, bandaged member.

“Oh good god that’s, that’s not just the tip,” I thought. The blood was thick and scabbing about mid-penis and a not-very-modern bandage of sorts was wrapped just below that, allowing his nipped head to peek out from the bottom.


No one else seemed to be concerned about infection, and Gulistan explained that the doctor was the best (‘it’s always nice to have the mullah do it, but weren’t sure of his expertise, so went for the doctor’), so I let my worries subside. We Westerners are much too bacteria-phobic anyway.

I refrained from snapping pictures, though his cousin was next to the wall videotaping the Amerikanka gawking at her cousin’s genitals. That’ll be some nice footage.

Days later, when Kuki’s (Guka’s brother) fiancé told me that at their wedding, tradition mandates that everyone will pay her to lift her veil so they may view her face, I wondered if that bag of tenge I dropped a bill in before seeing Rasul was not simply a gift but the fee to view his circumcision. I asked Guka for clarification and indeed, the 200 tenge was a viewer’s fee. At long last, I’ve found some tradition in Kazakhstan.

We went to the Topchan (a bench-table, like an Uzbek homtakhta) in the next room for dinner, starting with flat, Uyghur lepyoshka and tasty soup.

I asked Guka why we weren’t sitting with the rest of the women and she explained that we asked to sit separately.

“Oh. Why did we ask to do that?” I wondered.

“Because they are old. All babushki,” she explained.

This meant because we’d have to behave, which meant something different to the babushki than to the otherwise overly well-behaved Almaty girls.

Gulistan and her sisters ran around preparing and serving the food all day. One sister, Gulmira, stood washing dishes and laughing the entire four hours we were there.

Each sister individually pulled me aside and told me that she was interested in the moment after the cleric and peripheral guests left when they would set out more desserts, tea and bread, and finally…she flicked her neck twice with her thumb and forefinger. In the land of the once-Soviet Union, this means to get drunk. It seemed that Guka was right. These Uyghurs are a joyous bunch. They gave the impression that they were up to something, and I liked it.

After the soup I was directed into the room with the babushki to take photos of the recording of gifts. In the custom of the Sundet Toy, there are gifts of two sorts; gifts for Gulistan and Rasul (mother and son), which are recorded and paid back, and gifts to Gulistan’s mother, the hostess, which are not paid back.

Most of the gifts to the mother and son are sweets which are divvied up, packaged in plastic bags and sent home with the guests, though there are also gifts of clothes and money, which are also recorded. Most of the gifts to the grandmother are cash.

Someone plopped a hundred dollar bill down on the grandmother’s lap, which is quite a sum in these parts. The average salary is Issyk is about nine hundred and sixty USD per year (source: Guka).

Back to the topchan, where Gulistan served us chicken, cold cuts and salads. She asked us if we wanted to drink. Guka and Nadilka said ‘no no no.’ Soon after, Gulistan’s sister, Makhrinur, came by and asked us if we wanted to drink. Again, a resolute no.

Back into the room of babushki: P’lov had been served.

When I came back to the topchan, Makinur had brought out a bottle of cognac after our p’lov and was pouring heartily, to the chagrin of Guka and Nadilya. She’d caught a gleam in my eye on her last offer and brought the bottle despite the resistance. Gulistan grabbed me and took me outside to introduce me about and photograph the p’lov festivities. First we walked down the street,

p’lov in hand.

and delivered some to her neighbor (another tradition).

She then took me back into the courtyard to the vat (properly called a kazan) where the p’lov is cooked (see first pic of post) and on to the giant samovar, which keeps tea eveready

By the time the watermelon had come out

the older guys had loosened up and wanted to be photographed.

Back inside on the topchan, the Almaty girls were finally relaxing into the festivities.
on the topchan, left to right: Uzbyetchka, Nadilka, Me, Guka, Gulistan

Finally the sisters’ moment came. Makinur (the sister who introduced the cognac) insisted it was time to dance.

Everyone agreed

Almost everyone.

After dancing (slide show: hit F11 if verticles not fully visable) we sat a bit for with the family, ate more sweets and refused more alcohol, then readied to leave. We said our goodbyes to Rasul. It was obviously a sensitive subject but because he was already on his cousin’s film, for the sake of documentation I made myself ask Gulistan if I could photograph Rasul. Specifically, Rasul’s sundet toy. ‘Of course, why not?’ she said, but Rasul wasn’t into it.

No way: Rasul and his money bag.

Slightly relieved, I quickly interjected that it wasn’t necessary. Gulistan kept on.

“If she gives you money will you let her?” she pried on, Uygur tradition in mind.

He looked horrified, and I insisted I didn’t want to bother him. I couldn’t help but recall a bit I’d read in a guidebook about how one shouldn’t pay people to take their photo. How would this situation fly? It’s tradition! Oy.

We finished our goodbyes and Gulistan took us to the Issyk bus station.

Gulistan said she’ll be distraught without us

Guka assured, “no, no, we’ll go dancing next week in Almaty.”

And we do.

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