The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
I had decided to escape from Khyrgizstan 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 the city, so surely I would soon meet a rich Westerner, maybe a diplomat or an Aid worker.
First came some youths in tight black trousers, Khyrgiz like myself. 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 Khyrgiz. Don’t I look it?’
‘Then why speak Russian?’
‘My parents never spoke to me in Khyrgiz.’
He ran a small knife along my bare thigh. ‘Go back to Moscow, darling.’
I cried my way home. ‘Khyrgiz is the language of poverty’, I could hear heard my father saying. He and Mother always spoke to me in Russian. Life was a ladder to be climbed in Russian, from school in the Tien Shen mountains to Russian-built Bishkek, to the electrical goods factory and our apartment on Red October Street. I had talked, thought and worked in Russian, all the way to college in Moscow, to train to be a teacher in English.
In Moscow I was an exotic savage. ‘Do they have cars where you come from?’ asked one of the other students, and she believed me when I said we rode camels. After my degree the Government posted me to Kursk in western Russia where I taught German for two lonely years. The children drew funny pictures of me: round face, flat nose, slit eyes and straight black hair. I was probably the first Khyrgiz seen in Kursk since Attila.
Suddenly the Soviet Union ceased to exist and I could return to the independent republic of Khyrgizstan to teach English Literature at the new university of Bishkek.
My parents would have been proud, but the University paid only $25 a month. I lived on nam bread and tea; no money for clothes or shoes, only a black and white TV with two channels in Russian and no travelling abroad although we were now in the Free World. That winter they cut off the central heating and only the gas stove kept me warm. So I decided to leave Khyrgizstan on a barstool, using my English and what was left of my youth to catch a Westerner.
My evening at the hotel taught me I was a foreigner in my own country. ‘Aiysha’, I told myself, ‘learn Khyrgiz, like they make your Russian students do, and try another bar.’
Six months later I dared it again in a new hotel which had just opened. 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. ‘This is our pitch, smart girl. Get out before we scratch your face clean.’
It was cold at the bus stop despite the fur coat over my skimpy dress. A Khyrghyz winter bites harder than Moscow, but it was not the cold but my tears that made me shudder. Nobody wanted me, neither Khyrgiz nor Russian, East nor West. I had worked hard, got what my family wanted, and it was all lonely, dreary and worthless. Had there been any traffic I would have thrown myself in front of the next vehicle.
‘It is a cold night to be out on your own.’
The voice spoke in English. I hadn’t seen him come up behind me. His overcoat and fur hat were dusted with hard, thin snow. The streetlight was too weak to see the colour of his face.
‘How did you know I spoke English?’
‘I didn’t. I wanted to find out.’
‘Are you English?’
‘I have a British passport and I studied in London. I’m a in-between, like yourself.’
‘How do you know? You followed be from the hotel, didn’t you?’
‘I was behind the bar, with the barman. I’m the hotel manager. I have to be everywhere since they arrested my assistant.’
‘Why did they do that?’
‘Do they ever give reasons for arresting foreigners, or anybody else for that matter? Do you have other languages?’
‘I taught German once.’
‘I teach English Literature at the university.’
‘Which doesn’t make you rich. I knew you weren’t a bar girl. Come back to the hotel and we’ll see if you you’d like join my team. This country needs people like us.’