Epic poem inspires hope and defines a culture in time of painful transition

September 10, 1995|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Sun Staff Correspondent

TYUZ ASHUU PASS, Kyrgyzstan -- High in the summer pastures of the jagged Tien Shan range, horse breeder Bubutay Kojomberdieva churns mare's milk in her tent and tells her favorite story of a warrior who rode a flying horse a thousand years ago and had the hide of a tiger.

Three hours up the road in the capital of Bishkek, Ulan Ryskeldiev, the articulate, pin-striped president of the fledgling Kyrgyz Stock Exchange, turns from business to extol the goodness of that same ancient warrior who wept over the enemies he killed.

The tales of the warrior Manas -- which together compose the world's longest epic poem -- are an obsession in this tiny, quiet corner of the former Soviet Union.

Now a 4-year-old independent country, Kyrgyzstan is frantically searching for a national identity as it makes its way on its own into the strange new world of free markets and democracy.

The mythical image of Manas bristling in Genghis Khan-like armor is a metaphor for the sense of self-preservation the 3 million ethnic Kyrgyz people are trying to grasp. And the power of "The Manas" -- as the epic is known -- to bind Kyrgyz of all levels is not lost on political leaders here.

Poor as the country is, they are spending millions of dollars on the Year of Manas, celebrating its supposed millennium. The state is publishing no fewer than 22 new books about the epic. It built a multi-acre Manas heritage village that looks like a medieval theme park.

A couple of weeks ago, the government held a weeklong celebration that included Manas operas, academic symposiums, horseback wrestling, and the culmination of a six-week, three-country horse race.

Visiting dignitaries were feted with horse sausage, sour mare's milk and free lodgings in hundreds of native felt tents -- called yurts -- set up at Manas' mythical burial site. And during all of this, professional bards, who normally barely eke out a living chanting and singing "The Manas," were fully employed.

"Kyrgyzstan is a place that desperately is trying not to be forgotten," says Martha Olcott, a Central Asia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who spends time in the area.

That Kyrgyzstan is trying to read its future in ancient folklore tells much about the mountainous nation's long isolation as a closed-to-foreigners Soviet buffer against China.

"The Manas" is the story of a Kyrgyz warrior who fiercely tried -- and ultimately failed -- to unite scattered and bickering clans against Mongol conquerors. The poem was handed down orally from generation to generation until a written Kyrgyz language was created in the 1920s.

Its theme of self-preservation is familiar in the oral folklore of the Turkic-language region, where such fierce Mongol warriors as Tamerlane and Genghis Khan rampaged across central Asia.

It's an instructive theme in a nation of seven main Kyrgyz clans jockeying for power in the political and economic vacuum left when the Soviet Union crumbled four years ago.

"Today, at a time when we are hardly prepared economically or politically for independence, Manas is the ideal our people need in order to be united," says Sherimbek Sharsheev, a Kyrgyz writer and director of the government's Manas 1000 celebrations.

"Civilized" is the word Mr. Ryskeldiev, at the stock exchange, uses repeatedly to explain the Kyrgyz image he wants to project to the world. Embracing the ancient Manas epic shows -- to the Kyrgyz as well as outsiders -- that there is a code of conduct, honor and long-standing culture here, he says.

The Manas is practically the Kyrgyz cultural code, describing everything from clothing, food and weaponry to marriage ceremonies, horsemanship and nomadic etiquette.

Every ethnic Kyrgyz from President Askar Akayev to the humblest shepherd sees a bit of himself in the epic poem -- and at 1 million poetic lines, it would be hard not to.

Saparbek Mombetov, whose sheep graze in the Tyuz Ashuu Pass, gave $100 -- or about double a month's wages -- to the government's Manas celebration. He hoped it would bring good times.

Since Soviet economic subsidies were withdrawn from Kyrgyzstan, he has had trouble getting his pension every month, and he cannot find the goods he needs when he rides into villages for supplies.

"Under Russia we lived much better," says Mr. Mombetov.

As a Soviet satellite, Kyrgyzstan was run largely by the nation's ethnic Russian power base, which made up about 20 percent of the 4.5 million population. The Kyrgyz majority -- about 60 percent -- raised cotton and sheep to provide meat and textiles for Russia.

In return, heavy Soviet subsidies brought Kyrgyzstan a standard of living -- including nearly 100 percent literacy -- that far exceeded what the new independent government so far can provide.

Now, struggling with its own post-Soviet economic difficulties, Russia isn't buying, much less subsidizing. So textile production and sheep herds have been reduced. And Kyrgyz President Akayev has turned to the West for markets and help.

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