The woman who wasn't there
Intriguing encounters with a very religious community
This following story is from our time in the town of Shamaldysay (12/10/2009), located just off the main road between Osh and Bishkek, very close to the Uzbekistan border. After our initial troubles of finding a place to stay, a very devout Kyrgyz Muslim man found us and invited us to his house. The problem was, however, that he was so religious he could not even look at Megan, let alone speak to her. And on the flip-side, Roger was not even allowed to look at his wife, despite her being fully-veiled. This resulted in our respective experiences in this town diverging considerably - Roger had an insight into the secret world of Muslim men, and Megan got to speak with the women behind the veils.
Adhering to these distinct experiences, we have written these two parallel tales from the perspective of Megan and Roger, respectively. We hope it provides some enlightenment as to the daily lives of the people of this village.
Along the main road from Jelalabad to Bishkek we noticed a sign to a village off to the south called Shamaldysay. Realising the day was closing in on us, we decided to take the turnoff and see what the town had to offer. First on the agenda was to find a safe place to stay that evening. After wandering around the village looking for a place to camp, we opted for our last resort - camping at the mosque. It is always a safe place in town, the only problems being the inconvenient hours of the loud Namaz calls early in the morning, and the attention we'd receive from every man and boy that entered the mosque grounds.
To find the mosque we asked the village boys (that were tagging along with us on their bikes) to take us there. We pulled up outside the grounds just as the second last Namaz of the day was beginning. Almost immediately a very conservatively-dressed man walked up behind us, tapped Roger on the shoulder and told him to wait there, as he would speak to us after Namaz. To us, he appeared well-connected with the town's religious community and would be able to arrange the campsite for us, so we happily waited there for him to return, entertaining the boys on bikes and feeding them snacks while we waited. After about 15 minutes all the men emerged from the mosque and the conservatively-dressed man (Atiar) started talking to several of the other men, seemingly arranging something for us. After a few minutes he came back over to us and told Roger to follow him. It was at this point that I realised that Atiar hadn't yet made eye contact with me whatsoever, and was speaking only to Roger. I accepted this as just another one of those arrangements where Roger (the man) would be answering all the questions, and I (the woman) would be assumed to not be educated enough to understand the spoken language.
We followed Atiar a few hundred metres to his house, and upon our arrival there he quickly pushed his broken down car out of his garage to make room for our quike. But before we entered the house, we had to make a quick trip to the WC. Roger asked him where to, and after a quick ponder Atiar directed us to the communal pit toilet outside his back gate. He then asked Roger whether his sister (me) needed to go too, and told him that if she did, that she should also go outside. Upon our return, the man poured the jug of water for Roger to wash his hands, then handed the jug over telling him to pour the jug for his sister. Then, when we went to go inside, he turned to look straight past me to Roger to call him inside the house. I assumed that he must have meant me too, so I went inside too.
Then, when we were sitting inside, it became very clear that this was not your usual women-are-lesser-beings behaviour. Atiar addressed all questions to Roger alone, and did not show the slightest interest in anything I said. At one stage, when Roger reached out to take a chocolate from the table, he said to him "does your sister want a chocolate too? Give one to her", instead of just asking me himself. But I didn't really mind this situation too much - it meant that I didn't have to try to understand the Russian conversation. Instead, I just tuned out and gorged myself on all the glorious foods that he had brought out for Roger to eat - watermelons, dinya, honey, fresh bread, pomegranets, apples, walnuts, cherry jam, etc...
After about an hour of eating ourselves silly, Atiar invited Roger to go the the mosque with him for Namaz. Since we've seen many Namaz sessions before, and were still felt a bit uneasy about this new situation we'd found ourselves in, we decided to not split up and Roger would not go to the mosque. However the man was quite insistent that he wanted Roger to come with him. He said something about his wife being home with me, but we didn't understand what he meant by that (perhaps not a safe neighbourhood?) so we insisted to him that we'd rather stay there. In the end he accepted our decision and told us to rest while he prayed for the next few hours.
We sat in the room for a while but were starting to get a bit bored, so we decided that it would be nice to go and see what the wife was cooking for dinner, and maybe even join in for the food preparation. As we walked toward the kitchen door, I peered around the corner in the kitchen to find a young woman wearing a headscarf that covered her neck and ears, and she was holding a baby. Roger followed but jumped back into the corridor for some reason. I asked him why and he said that the lady raced away and hid from him, so perhaps he shouldn't be seeing her. I told him to not be silly - the lady was simply lifting the baby to show me. So he tried again to enter the room but again raced back around the corner. Dismissing this as just Roger's silly behaviour, I went ahead regardless and asked the lady whether she needed any help cooking dinner. Howevver, she didn't understand Russian so it was futile. I also talked to another woman who I found to be cooking plov in the kitchen. But it was even harder to to talk to her as she kept half lifting her headscarf over her face as she spoke to me.
After a few minutes of trying to speak Russian to these women I gave up and went back to find where Roger had disappeared to and why. There, he explained to me that it was the other woman - not the one with the baby - that had run to hide from him, and I hadn't seen all this because she had hidden herself around the corner, where I couldn't have seen her. This also explained why she hesitantly lifted her scarf when she spoke to me. I think she was at first unsure whether I was a boy or a girl (I surely don't look like any of the girls she would know!). So we realised then why Atiar had wanted Roger to go to the mosque with him - it was to shield his wife from this type of accidental exposure of his wife's face to him.
After several hours of waiting back in the room, Atiar returned from his prayers and we shared the meal of plov with him and his three young sons. Soon after, as it was now quite late, he made the beds for us and we went to sleep. This was strange for us to see as usually the women make the beds. Perhaps, again, the man was shielding his wife from this potential "viewing" by Roger that might occur had she made the beds.
In the morning we were fed a big soup for breakfast and then we went out to do some of our errands. On our way out we were invited by Atiar's sister-in-law (Ainura) to have lunch with her. We agreed, not only because it gave us an opportunity to speak to more of the characters in this strange world, but also because she actually dared speak to both Roger and I, making for much more interesting conversation for all of us!
After we had returned from doing some errands, and while Roger had snuck out to the toilet, the wife came to speak to me individually. She was telling me that Roger was not allowed to visit the sister-in-law's house for lunch as her (Ainura's) husband was away at work. She was quite insistent and it was difficult because she spoke only a few words of Russian, but her hand gestures made it clear to me that she was wanting for herself and me to visit the other lady's house for lunch, without Roger. This was quite strange as Ainura clearly had no problem talking to Roger earlier that morning. I went and explained this new situation to Roger but we figured that there must have been a mixed message as Ainura had clearly invited both of us.
So after our errands, we headed around the block to Ainura's house. There she invited us both into her house, even though she was not wearing even one headscarf and even had her arms showing! We sat down for chai and some enlightening conversation with her. She explained that our host (Atiar) had recently been to Mecca and that is why he is now very religious. He is not allowed to even look at other women besides his wife (Gulbakhad), which explained why he never spoke to me. His wife must now cover up and not be seen by any other man besides himself and close family members. This is when we realised what Gulbakhad had been trying to tell us all along- that she had wanted to have lunch with Ainura, but couldn't if Roger was there! We felt quite bad about that. She also told us a bit more about her life that was intriguing - she only ever wears the headscarf when she goes to visit Atiar's house, she and her husband had both been previously married, and most shocking of all - she revealed to us that when she is at home with her family in another village, she even eats pig!
She also told us that at Atiar's house, they eat plov for every lunch and dinner without fail. So we suggested that Ainura come with us to teach us and Gulbakhad how to make some good Manti, and that way we'd have something different for dinner that evening. She agreed to this and then we all headed back to the Atiar's house to organise the evening's feast. At the gate, Ainura knocked and hollered out to the wife, who soon opened the gate for us. But she told Roger to wait behind before he could enter. As we went in, we could see that the wife was hiding behind a bedsheet that was hanging on the line, even though she was fully-veiled. And she only reappeared and came in the house when Roger was locked away in the tea room.
Later that afternoon we started our Manti preparation session. However, unfortunately for Roger, since the wife was joining in for the cooking, only I was allowed in the kitchen. Luckily by now, and since she was now certain that I was indeed a girl, she was comfortable with just wearing one headscarf when around me. The three of us women sat there for a while, chatting and them teaching me the Ullah words, and I got to know Gulbakhad a lot better. Most of the conversation revolved around marriage and children - at what age the girls get married in Australia, how many children they are expected to have, and whether I realised at 26 years old, my time was running out to have children myself. There was also a clear push toward Muslim teachings. I had to repeat some verses back to the women, and had to write it down in Latin script too to ensure I wouldn't forget how it went.
When it came time to take some photos, I had to wait while she covered up fully before I could get a snapshot of her making Manti. It looked as though the big all-covering headscarf was very inconvenient because when she was wearing it for the photo, it kept getting caught up in the rolling pin. Luckily she did not have to wear it all the time in the house too! I accidentaly got a photo of here with her eyes showing, and out of respect I showed it to her to see whether she wanted me to delete it. To my surprise, she was more concerned about how fat she looked, and had no problem with her eyes showing! This meant that I could now show the photo to Roger, and he would effectively be able to see her. Maybe she didn't realise this consequence...
At one point in the Manti preparation Gulbakhad put her big head-covering scarf on and left the kitchen, and Ainura told me to call Roger in to take photos of us. The wife went somewhere (I'm not sure where) to hide and Roger came in for the photo session. After a few minutes we heard the wife call out something in Kyrgyz and Roger was told to leave so that the wife could come back in the room. I did feel a little bit sorry for Roger, being left out like that, but then again, I'd been left out of everything else at that house! Also, it was our way of making up to the wife for excluding her from the social outing to the sister's house earlier in the day.
Later in the evening I was outside brushing my teeth when someone knocked on the front gate. Gulbakhad beckoned to me to answer it as she hid behind the sheet on the line. Realising that she was not allowed to answer the door herself, but OK for me to do so, I approached the gate. However, being mindful of my own safety, I called out "who is it?" in Russian before I opened the door. There was no response so I called out again, and this time I heard a man grunt, and the wife quickly emerged from the curtain saying "mush" (which is Russian for husband). So I undid the latch and let him in. At that time it was dark and I couldn't work out how to close the gate easily, so I tried to hand it over to Atiar to fix as he went past. However, since he was not allowed to see me, he just walked straight past me without acknowledgement and just left me there in the dark to figure it out for myself.
On the morning of our departure we were again treated to an oversized breakfast. When our meal was coming to a close, Atiar came in, kneeled before Roger, and started to explain to him the significance of the Q'oran he was holding in his hands. He then sung out a Sura (in Arabic) and translated it to Russian for Roger to understand. This was pleasant enough - we sat through patiently, listening intently, until he had finished his Sura, and when he'd finished we started to make motions toward leaving. However, Atiar had different plans. He continued on to the next Sura, then the next one, and so on. This was not a problem for me as to Atiar, I was invisible, so I could just sit there, leave the room, drink tea or fall asleep - whichever took my fancy. At one point his sons directed me to go into the next room to speak their mother, and there she showered me with farewell wishes. This included walnuts, a spray of Arabic perfume, kisses all over my face, and some Ullah beads. As she disappeared out the front gate with another veiled woman, I continued on my preparing of the quike for departure, and Roger sat in the room listening to endless Suras.
A few hours later, Roger escaped the Suras and came out to meet me at the quike. He told me he had worked out a plan for getting us to Bishkek quickly and cheaply (we were still chasing our Chinese visas). It involved going to see the men at the mosque and getting one of them who was going to Bishkek to take us either part way there. My job would be to finish packing the quike and then sit in the house and wait for him to return, hopefully only 30 minutes later.
Many hours passed, and the quike had long since been packed and ready to go, but still there was no sign of Roger. Other visitors (neighbours, relatives) had come and gone at the house, each inviting us to be guests at their house and offering up bags of food for the road, but no-one could tell me where Roger was. I was starting to get quite worried that they might've kidnapped him to turn him Muslim, or maybe he'd gotten lost walking back from the mosque alone (his sense of direction is not so good).
It was not until late afternoon that Roger returned from his excursion to the mosque, and he could hardly keep a straight face while he tried to recount his morning of adventures. But the other news he had was that his original plan for how to get to Bishkek had fallen through, so we must get on the quike and ride straight away.
As we getting ready to hit the road, Atiar presented Roger with the very same Ullah beads that the wife had given to me. One of the young boys had picked them up while I was packing, and then taken them to his father, who in turn presented them to Roger.
Right up until the last second when we were about to leave, Atiar was still trying his best to convince Roger, and Gulbakhad was trying to convince me, to stay on for longer, but we explained that we were already quite short on time and they understood. Eventually they let us continue on our way to Bishkek, but only after piling on a few more bags of food for our journey.
Riding along the road towards Bishkek, we passed by a turnoff to Uzbekistan (only a few hundred metres away). Not wanting further problems with the Uzbekistan police, we decided to keep riding a few hundred metres down, to turnoff into an adjacent village in Kyrgyzstan. Little did we know that this village was a very conservative Islamic village.
Whilst riding along the main street, a group of boys ushered us to the local mosque, where we arrived just in time for the start of Namaz. One of the men rushing in (as he was running a bit late) came up to me and quickly asked me to wait outside so he could speak to us (about what we did not know) after Namaz. Some 15 minutes later him and a whole horde of other men poured out of the mosque to speak to us. They were all dressed in very strict, traditional, and conservative Islamic garb (beard, vest, cloak, overboots, underboots, cap, etc).
One of the men asked us to follow him to a friends house where we would be “guests”, so following a short ride through town we found ourselves outside the house of another man, with our guide no where to be seen.
It was here that the interesting proceedings started. The man whose house it was had done his pilgrimage to Mecca only a few years ago, and was extremely fastidious at upholding his personal religion. To him Megan did not even exist, he could not acknowledge her existence, let alone see or speak to her.
Thus I was soon invited into his house (Megan just followed since she was invisible), where plates upon plates of food were continually brought out (to them, we were angels from god, sent as a gift and as a test).
Whilst I passed food onto Megan, the man talked only to me (introducing his two boys), all the while pretending Megan didn’t exsit. The only reason Megan was allowed in the man’s house (or even near it) was because I told him she was me sister. If she had been anyone else at all (apart from my wife), she would have been banned from coming anywhere near him (not that it really mattered, as to him, even with her fully veiled she didn’t exist).
After the meal, the man tried incessantly to invite me to the mosque with him. Being mindful of Megan's safety however (it wasnt a very nice neighbourhood) I insisted on staying put. That afternoon, whilst venturing outside to check on Quikey, I saw what appeared to be a black ninja scurry for cover into the kitchen. Intrigued/scared as to who this person could be and what they could be up to, I rushed in to confront this person, only to find them scurrying for cover again. It was then that it dawned on me, that it was a fully veiled woman trying to hide.
Later that evening, it turned out that it was the man’s wife, who had to be invisible to all men bar her husband and his family. Ever since we had arrived (many many hours ago), this lady had been hiding (banished) in the drop toilet (a very stinky overflowing room, about 1m by 1m). We do not know how she managed to spend half a day in a drop toilet hiding from me! Thus the reason why we had not seen her at all since we had arrived, was that the husband had ordered her out of the house, to go and hide in the drop toilet.
After another big meal that night, where Aitar showered us with all different foods again, Aitar made our beds (the first time we had seen a man do so) and we went to sleep.The next morning after breakfasting with me - where I periodically passed some food to Megan so she wouldn’t starve (Megan even had a veil on at this stage, but this made no difference whatsoever to her non-existence), the man was insistant that I come to the Mosque with him to pray which finally I agreed to. After a “brief” 3 hour lecture (the man just sang in arabic from the Koran non-stop and dictated to me, so I could write down exactly what he was saying, the man constantly checking to make sure I hadn’t missed a word) it was time to go to the mosque to be taught by the other religious teachers. The man had made it his mission to teach and convert me, along the with help of the other fellow citizens of the town. All the while Megan was jut waiting in the back room of the house, pondering her own existence, for some 7 hours or so.
It was at this mosque that the next round of fun ensued. As other religious teachers arrived (all dressed exactly the same way in traditional ultra-conservative garb), my conversion session began, being lectured on all facets of life, from the toilet, to sex, to praying, to everything, no issue was taboo.
My first lecture (practical) was on how to go to the toilet. The first involved me pretending the doorway to the toilet was in front of me, then practicing walking through it, making sure no germs landed on my head, and making sure my left foot was the first part of my body to enter the room. From here I had to practice squatting over the hole, being shown where to place both my hands (this is how muhammed purtpotedly sat when doing his business) one on his hip, and the other higher up, and where to place my legs (the exact leg placement is essential), and then on how to wash (they only use a kettle of water and a bar of soap, no paper or anything else). This was quite a confronting lecture to say the least….but more was to follow!
Next up was on how to deal with my wife for sexual encounters - something alot of men would normally find inappropriate conversation topic. From how to wash before sex, how to have sex, where to sleep, what to say before and after sex (he had to practice this chant again), and many more explicit details, bear in mind that these were extremely conservatice and strict muslims (a group of around 10 elderly men) who were describing (and more frighteningly) demonstrating what to do!. At first I was abit taken aback, so pretended I didn’t speak much Russian in the hope they would give up, but this backfired in the end, as their demonstrations/actions became abit more explicit(physical reenactments, not just gestures) to bypass any possible verbal miscommunication.
As this went on for ours, I was becoming increasingl worried about where Megan was and whether she was OK, I tried numerous times to escape, asking if I could call her to tell her where he was, or whether I could quickly visit her to let her know when he would be back, and even to whether I could grab something from my luggage with the quike….but to no avail. I was banned from leaving, let alone communicating with her.
The subsequent lessons involved, how to sit when eating, how to eat, how to wash hands, how to wash your face, how to walk, how to stand, how to greet people, how to pretend women didn’t exist, where to wear a cap and where not to, magic words to say when you are tired, magic words to say when you are sick, magic words to say when you want children, and so on and so on.
Next I was taught specific religious chants (and made to memorise and repeat), and given religious icons to use whilst he chanted, as well as made to promise that I would convert my family and friends, that I would insist my family visits mecca, and that the steppebysteppe website would be changed to become an Islamic education website instead. They were even going to get someone to come along with me to find a place with internet so they could watch and make sure I converted the site from beign about our trip, to containing religious education material.
After this they set about trying to find a car driver to take us to Bishkek, as well as organizing a few men of the mosque to accompany me to make sure I bought an English Koran, and numerous other Islamic texts (in English) at Bishkek before spending a week at the mosque there and returning, so that I couldn’t escape or run away. By the end of this (it was near evening now, and this had been going on all day) I was still trying to think of a way to escape, as they were becoming increasingly insistant (almost to the point of being aggressive), physical, and demanding about all of these things.
Then I had a bright idea, our arrival in this town was seen as an act of god, to the men, I was an angel in disguise, sent to test their religious conviction and faith. This I thought I could use to my advantage to escape, as to displease or show inhospitableness to an angel of god would be a grave sin.
I decided to tell them that my Kyrgyz visa was running out, and that he needed to register it with the local police and KGB by that evening. Now it was about this time that the next Namaz was beginning. As soon as the men were about to go in for Namaz, I sprung this surprise on them, telling them that I was sure that these men of Islamic faith would not want me to get arrested by the KGB or for them to get in trouble either, and thus that I had to go to the KGB quickly by myself and would be back later. Thus being scared that it would be their fault that this angel of god get arrested (and possibly worse) by the KGB (and that there would be repercussions for them to ), they had to let me go.
Thus that is how two angels on a quike managed to escape a forceful religous conversion by some very devout Muslim men.