The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
The only way to escape Kyrghizstan seemed to be on a barstool. I wriggled onto it, straightened my mini-skirt and sipped my blackcurrant juice, disguised as vodka ribena; bargirls stay sober while their customers drink. The bar was empty, but it was early and this was the only luxury hotel in all Kyrghizstan, so I was sure to meet rich foreigners.
First into the bar were some youths in tight black trousers, Kirghiz, like myself: short, round faces, flat noses, slit eyes and straight black hair. I ignored them and ordered another drink in Russian. The nastiest one sidled over and hissed, “we don’t like Russian prostitutes here”.
“I’m Kirghiz. Don’t I look i?”
“Then why speak Russian?”
“My parents never spoke to me in Kirghiz.”
He ran a small knife along my thigh. “Go back to Moscow, darling.”
I went home alone. Mother and father had always spoken to me in Russian. Life was a ladder to be climbed in Russian, from their school in the mountains to Russian-built Bishkek, to a job in the electrical goods factory and our apartment on Red October street. “Kirghiz is the language of poverty”, said father, and he made me talk, think and work in Russian, all the way to college in Moscow, to train to be a teacher in English.
In Moscow I was an exotic savage. They asked me if we had cars in Frunze (as Bishkek then was) and believed me when I said we rode camels. After my degree the Government posted me to Kursk in western Russia where I taught for two lonely years; probably the first Kirghiz in Kursk since Attlia. The children drew funny pictures of me and I longed to go back to my own people.
Suddenly the Soviet Union ceased to exist and I was free, free to return to the independent republic of Kyrghizstan to teach English Literature at the new university of Bishkek.
My parents would have been proud, but the University paid me only $25 a month. I lived on bread and pasta; no money for clothes or shoes, only a black and white TV with two channels in Russian and no hope of travelling abroad although we were now part of the free world. That winter they cut off the central heating and only the gas stove kept me warm. So I decided to leave Kyrghizstan on a barstool, using my English and what was left of my youth to catch a Westerner.
My evening at the Bishkek Hotel taught me I was a foreigner in my own country. “Aiysha”, I told myself, “take classes in Kyrghiz, like your Russian students have to do, and try another bar.”
Six months later I dared it again. This time I had competition. There were three other girls at the bar. I greeted them in my new-learned native language.
“Why do you speak with a Russian accent?” asked the tall one.
“I went to college in Moscow.”
“So you want to show you are more civilised than us?” They crowded around me. “This is our pitch, smart girl. Get out before we scratch your face clean.”
I was back to zero, but then came the Canadian Gold Mining Corporation and I became their receptionist, sitting in a glass box and polishing my nails for $200 a month. It was shameful and boring but I had clothes and shoes, a satellite TV, I shopped in dollars at the Elite Supermarket and I met Dirk.
Dirk was a Canadian engineer, big enough to lift me with one hand, as he sometimes did, and he talked a lot about goldmining. “It’s a game of chance, Chick”, he explained, “we strike paydirt in the Tien Shen in three months or we go home.”
“Do you mind that I’m a Muslim, Dirk?” I asked.
“Hell no! You’re a great girl. When the Taleban take Kyrghzstan you’ll be the first one they’ll put against a wall.”
Then one day Dirk told me they were pulling out.
“Am I coming with you, like you promised?”
“Chick, I don’t think you’d fit-in in Edmonton.”
“I’m used to hot summers and cold winters.”
“That’s not it. There aren’t too many people like you there.”
“You said I was like an Eskimo. You have Eskimos in Canada.”
“Gee, Chick, I feel awful, but it wouldn’t work – it really wouldn’t.”
That evening I bought a bottle of sleeping pills at the Elite and a bottle of vodka. There was only way out from this poverty-stricken land where I was for ever an outsider. I took half the tablets and half the vodka and lay down on the bed.
I woke feeling as if there was a hole in my stomach, crawled to the bathroom, vomited, tried to stand and then floor came up to meet me. When I awoke again I was on the floor and very cold. I crawled back into bed.
The phone must have been ringing for some time before I heard it.
‘Chick, Chick, where’ve you been? Great news! They were closing down the test adit and searching the miners – those Khyrgiz steal anything – no offence to you, of course, Chick – and two of them had nuggets concealed on their persons. I won’t say where, it wouldn’t be decent. Real big nuggets. They’d been smuggling them out to buy dope from the Afghan smugglers to trade on to Moss-cow. We were sitting on a gold mine all the time and these guys were taking us for a ride. We can get together again, Chick.
‘Chick, Chick, are you there?’
Slowly my addled brain understood. Allah had given me back my life. He didn’t want me to run away.
Dirk was offering me back my old life, for what? He was never going to take me away and surely Allah had not spared me for more than another spin of night-clubs, vodka and new shoes.
I let the phone slide to the floor. There was no more running away. Kyrghzstan had struck gold, I spoke four languages, there would be foreigners wanting to learn Khyrgyz (or Russian). I can teach them, find them places to live, find money to buy accommodation and bring it up to Western standards. This was my life in my own land.
Don’t cry for me, Kyrghyzstan!
The publishing history of this item, such as it is, is at busywords.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/dont-cry-for-me-kyrghistan