Defining Kyrgyz Identity

The fact that I find it difficult to define myself as a Kyrgyz person occurred to me  only when I moved to London. Not only most people around me find it difficult to pronounce Kyrgyzstan, most of them have no idea what Kyrgyzstan is. The fact that I am Asian, Muslim and speak Russian doesn’t make it any easier.  So the question occurred, how do I accurately describe myself as a Kyrgyz person?

By now I have realized that it’s impossible to do it without a lengthy introduction into Kyrgyz History, because after all identity is shaped by culture, and culture is shaped by history, well, and many other components.

Let’s start from the beginning; first traits of Kyrgyz people date back to 201 BC.  Ancient Kyrgyz were nomads. So the nomadic culture is deeply rooted in our contemporary lives, including cuisine, living habits and traditions. “Tengrianism” is another aspect of nomadic culture, which has blended into daily life. As a result of nomadic past, traditions as “archa jaguu” (burning juniper), “jyt chygaruu” (ritual of remembrance of those, who have passed away) are still practiced on daily basis.

Kyrgyzstan

Islam was introduced to the Kyrgyz tribes between the eight and twelfth centuries. More recent exposure to Islam occurred in the seventeenth century, when the Jungars drove the Kyrgyz of the Tian Shan region into the Fergana Valley, whose population was totally Islamic. (Islam in Kyrgyzstan – Wikipedia).

Since Islam was introduced to Kyrgyz, it lived through many hard times.  Not only was it not practiced widely by conducting its traditional forms and rituals, such as praying five times and fasting on Ramadan, it was mixed with native traditions and rituals. Later existence of Islam as a religion in Kyrgyzstan was challenged once again, as Kyrgyzstan has become part of the Soviet Union. Religion in any form was suppressed and communist ideology preventing active practice of Islam, which created almost two generations of semi-atheists.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam has been reviving, as more and more mosques are being built and people are in search for their identity. Currently, the majority of people are nominal Muslims, who identify themselves as Muslims, but do not practice it actively.

Being part of the Soviet Union for seventy years has influenced Kyrgyzstan culture and Kyrgyz identity strongly. Promotion and introduction to Soviet culture led to education about Russian culture, literature and language. Russian traditions and living habits arrived to Kyrgyzstan together with Russians and Ukrainians, who moved to Central Asia. The majority of schools and higher education establishments taught in Russian language, making it the official language.

At this moment Kyrgyzstan is one of the countries that have two official languages, Russian and Kyrgyz. Russian culture has blended with local traditions, creating dazzling mixture of Slavic and Asian cultures, and is expressed in many forms, such as cuisine, living habits and agriculture.

Finally, the independence gained twenty years ago already gave a birth to new generation of Kyrgyz people. Not only older generations had to reconstruct their values and ideology, people were faced with free economy and unfamiliar democracy.  The later generation of people born in sovereign Kyrgyzstan, picked up quickly the digital demands of modern world, creating the most active cyber space in Central Asia.  Networking, Twitter, Facebook and following became part of contemporary Kyrgyz culture. Political instability, economic challenges are shaping its modern history.

Search for Kyrgyz identity, revival of Kyrgyz values, renaissance of nationalistic ideas and ideology contributing to what’s yet to become a future Kyrgyzstan.  In brief I am Kyrgyz , but I also think I am multicultural, because I am from a culture with rich mix of other cultures and every part of this culture is essential component of my Kyrgyz identity.

 

Read more:

Traditional and modern: two Kyrgyz weddings
Photo tour of Bishkek
“Long Distance Love” a film about love and more

About the author

Nargiza Ryskulova
Nargiza is a journalism student at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She has also studied in the USA as part of the Future Leaders Exchange programme. She speaks Kyrgyz, Russian and English.
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