Nomads on High Heels
As I was saying, I loved Almaty and loved to complain about it.
Before I get back to my favorite people, one refinement to the theoretical (or was it rhetorical?) frame. After chronodynamism, this time I am introducing fractals into the idea of Central Corners 🤯. Without getting into the difficult ruminations of Mandelbrot, whose name is the only thing I understand of the mathematical aspects of the concept, I will resort to a simpler definition: repeating patterns inside patterns.
In this post, continuing to talk about that sublime calamity of people that are the citizens of Almaty, I will be spreading around and focusing on two local Central Corners. The idea is to show how, inside a Central Corner like Almaty, smaller and mirroring Central Corners can be found.
First things first. Since I am Italian, nothing can be more central in this world than food (mum belongs to an infinite universe above).
In Almaty, it is often conveniently located, at least for my purposes, on a street corner, where the small grocery shop stands. Compressed in 3 square meters at its largest imperial expansion, it looks like a garage just reconverted into a store, with fruit and vegetables stocked at knee level along the walls, leaving barely the space for one person to step in. In these minimalistic palaces of flavor, local specialties wait for the experienced glutton: apples, raspberries, and strawberries look like the injured cousins of those insipid gems that you see in the supermarkets, but these are going to take your taste buds to a world of sinful delight.
Alternatively, you can head to the less cozy but still characteristic open markets, corners of the city that appear out of the sudden in the middle of a neighborhood, or go directly to their center: the Green Bazaar – the master of them all. There you will be stunned by a true festival of colors that reaches rainbow-unicorn blinding levels in the section of dried fruit. Moving to the meat sector, you can find a splatter of tonalities of reds and browns that would delight Rothko, combined with a succulent intensity of raw fragrances, on that precious threshold just before the tipping point when they would become too much. If you are an insatiable experimenter, who has already savored everything, and has now developed a decadent taste for that too much, you can always access the fish stalls during hot summer days. Besides satisfying the suicidal morbid appetites of the food-depraved, this section accomplishes a socio-sanitary function during emergencies: if you can resist the aroma for more than a few seconds, then your olfactory tract has been clearly damaged – no need to go testing for corona anymore, just quarantine yourself 😷.
Anyway, as much as I appreciated fruit and vegetables, food in Almaty is about meat: excellent, with two main options (horse and lamb), and some variations (beef and poultry). Obviously, this derives from their nomadic origins: Kazakhs love their horses, and it is reported that in the region they were already tamed 5,000 years ago (horses, not Kazakhs – that would be much more difficult).
To the untrained, this might suggest a focus on rural sustenance rather than urban refined taste, as if the corner of today’s small shops was a reflection of a past indifference, if not to the products, to cooking. Sure enough, classic Kazakh food is simple in terms of appearance and variation, and it is nutritious, but it requires, beyond the quality of meat, something that does not come cheap: skills and dedication. For example, the main traditional dish in Kazakhstan is Beshbarmak. Literally, it means ‘five fingers’, as it is supposed to be eaten with the hands – something that I never saw being done, and I was always tempted to do, just to check the reaction of my host. It is a broth with homemade pasta sfoglia, lamb, and horse meat in sausage form (kazy). I do not like it – and with this I earned the hate of an entire nation. I love kazy, but beshbarmak is not my thing. Still, it is a dish that requires hours of preparation. When that happens, my admiration for it and for the people preparing it grows exponentially. It means that the expectations related to food go beyond strict necessity, towards a passion for it, while keeping it genuine and real, as an Italian would recommend, without getting into some fancy French sophistication (food challenges between cousins, just let it go). The apparent corner is turning out to be a center, perhaps even further growing with time.
In fact, in a cosmopolitan city like Almaty, curiosity towards other cuisines is well developed. Starting for obvious reasons – Kazakhstan was sort of colonized by the XIX century by their northern neighbors and then became one of the Soviet Republics – from the Russian one (whose dishes – soups, pelmeni, vareniki – are basically considered local), other Central Asians and Caucasian (plov, lagman, shashlik), Korean (who constitute a small but solid minority), Middle Eastern, and the other usual suspects (Indian, Chinese, South Asian, French, Italian – just forget the Italian, though), up to McDonald’s that, as awful as it is, still looks and tastes better outside the US. Just make sure to pass by Samal – a restaurant on the way to the mountains dominating the city – and taste the simplest food: baursaki, fried bread as light as a winter sunrise.
While restaurants can be good, the real feast is at home, where guests are treated with something only barely short of a banquet. If you are still able to walk rather than roll out, you are not only offending your host, but also your food intelligence. Any time it happened, it was like going back to my childhood, when my visits to my grandma included pasta, fried eggplant, french fries, Milanese cutlet, pudding, fruit. No leftovers allowed when the cook lived through the war. I even suspect that, had she been aware of that movie, she might have added a little mint just to see if I could follow the Monty Python’s idea of the meaning of life (1).
Back in Almaty, during official ceremonies, when the whole lamb is cooked, the most respected guest – in Kazakh tradition the title is usually reserved to the eldest – is offered the delicacy of the eye. Getting any part of the head of the lamb is an honor, and so far I am proud to inform you that I got to get a slice of the cheek. Needless to say, if I survive until 90, I am planning to go back to Almaty to finally get the real oculist treat.
As we know, we cannot eat without drinking, but here I have some reservations. Almatinsky do drink, but they need to toast. Nothing strange here, except that every single toast lasts between 3 and 10 minutes, with the best performers starting from the story of their ancestors seven generations before.
Possibly revealing some hidden masochism, I love it.
I am not sure where this comes from, but I suspect that it has to do with vodka. There is only one way to swallow that thing: to gulp it down. If you want to reactivate the social part of drinking, out of necessity, you need to introduce long toasts. Clearly, the last ones tend to be the best ones, when neither the speaker nor the listeners are able to understand what is being said.
Then, when you are ready to go home, you are given the final present: a package with some food in it for the journey. This is another legacy of the traditional nomadic past, when trips home were done on horseback and might have taken from a few hours to days.
This takes me to the second local Central Corner.
According to the ongoing narrative, nomadism should be a central part of the lives of the inhabitants of Almaty. As the concept of a settled location already reveals, there are no nomads in the city, and this idea of a moving people seems to be mostly cornered into a historical experience. The remnants of the nomadic past are a source of pride – a mark of strong and resilient people – but also a little bit of unconfessed embarrassment: where are the monuments that all the others – even the Uzbeks! – have(2)? 😬
Nomadism is a wonderful part of the local culture and heritage but, while some characteristics remain in an evolved form, many of the urbanized people of Almaty are starting to miss out on some of its traits. For example, try finding someone there who is able to set up a yurt (the traditional house of the steppes). Or consider how, courtesy of a good life indulging in food, if they attempted riding a horse, most males of Almaty would break the back of the poor creature.
To keep the tradition going, universities are required to teach one course on the history of Kazakhstan (although it has been reduced to the post-independence period, ‘accidentally’ becoming just a glorification of the first president), but also a much more interesting one on the (mostly nomadic) customs of Kazakhs. I do not have the necessary knowledge to dwell into those, but I can provide a couple of contemporary forms of etiquette that from those traditions derive. In Almaty you always need to shake hands when you meet someone but, if that person is older than you, remember: he will offer one hand to shake, and you need to use both yours. It is a nice sign of respect for the elders. Just do not shake hands on the threshold of the house.
On the threshold, absolutely not!
I am not sure why and what events it would unleash, but I enjoyed imagining the abysmal catastrophes that would be happening, if I had ever dared.
Then, there are more structured rituals. My favorite one happens when a newborn gets to 40 days, which marks the time when people outside the close family can see the infant, lest the evil eye gets her or him (Italians can well relate to these innocuous but strictly observed superstitions). A selected group of friends congregates. The godmother (we surreptitiously added also a godfather) cuts the hair and nails of the child. Then each person expresses a wish for the new creature and drops one silver coin into a bowl of water, until the magic number of 40 is reached. Finally, the coins are tossed into the bathtub and the baby is washed. It is a knit community and everyone who is there is actively participating in the official entry of the baby into the world. Instead of impersonal formulas spelled for satisfying the obscure desires of some arcane entity, there are real people welcoming a specific newborn with personalized and heartfelt wishes. So much better than baptism! Hoping that my Catholic mother will never read this…
Beyond descriptions, I want to ruminate (this post is full of horses, I’d better adapt) a little on my own experience. By the way, if you believed the sentence among parentheses, you are not Kazakh: horses are not ruminant animals 😳😜.
Anyway, I said that I felt home immediately as I landed. That might be true but, a few days after I started teaching, one of the students told me that I looked at them as if they were some kind of strange animals.
Besides the point that students are indeed some kind of strange animals – been there, done that – I was not perplexed by any nomadic traits, but rather by the opposite. Students were attending classes dressed like Italians do when they go out on Saturday night. A fashion show lasting all year long. Add to that the fact that I was coming from the infamous Faculty of Political Sciences of Università degli Studi di Milano, where the most elegant person was wearing jeans – though, no flip-flops: not yet America – and you have an idea of my confusion.
Students loved beauty and its demanding requirements of intensive theoretical study, virtuous preparation, aesthetic consciousness and demeanour, artful presentation, and critical judgement. Basically, the only way to teach them philosophy was to organize a fashion workshop. Good for me that I come from a city near Milan – and I honestly think that this increased my teaching evaluations and, less honestly, but it is educational to write so, sprung in me an internal debate on the ethical implications of luck.
The final piece of the puzzle came into shape when I observed how, while I was walking like a drunk penguin and risking my neck every few meters, women wearing 10 centimeters heels were gracefully strolling on the ice at three times my speed.
It was then when I decided that a proper definition for the Almatinsky would be ‘nomads on high heels’.
This is why I get jittery every time I see a yurt as an illustration of Kazakhstan, as not only foreigners do, but also Kazakhstani like to promote. Almaty is a globalized city with new buildings, crazy night life, spirited artistic scene, alternative theatres – Artishock is absolutely a must visit if you pass by Almaty, even if you do not understand Russian or Kazakh. In fact, this is a city that strives for the future, though the origins of this attitude could perhaps be traced back in history.
I think that it (re)started in the XIX century, when Abay, their major poet, invited the Kazakhs to learn Russian as a bridge to the world (not that there was much of a choice, considering that the Russians were colonizing anyway, but still). This movement, reinforced (literally) by the Soviet experience, evolved into a transformative identity that characterizes contemporary Almatinsky. People appreciate food both as skilled cooks and educated gluttons, love and practice beauty, have a passion for travelling (possibly, beyond nomadism, also a legacy of the Mongolian tour of Europe in the XIII century) and like having foreigners around their city, and (finally?) are at the very least bilingual (Kazakh and Russian, Kazakh and English, Russian and English) and more often than not trilingual or polyglots. I know one who has some knowledge of twenty-something languages, but he is a pathological case – with kisses to him.
Beyond necessity, this openness to the world is perhaps an evolution of nomadism (though not a necessary one: Turkmenistan took completely another path), but the sophisticated form that this way of life has taken today in Almaty cannot be represented by a yurt anymore.
Don’t get me wrong.
I like to indulge in the romantic view of nomadism because it is made of movement and portable houses, where you really appreciate the essentials that you can carry with you.
I also respect nomadism because, once you spent one winter in Almaty, with temperatures below zero from November to March and the accidental week at -30 centigrades, you wonder how tough these people were to live out there.
Above all, I love nomadism because it speaks of a past made of real people, not conquerors and kings (after Genghis Khan and successors’ indigestion of lands).
Still, nomadism in its traditional sense is not there anymore. Hopefully, anyway, some of its elements can continue to reverberate in its ‘high heels’ present, and help the Almatinsky to find new paths for riding into the future.
As for me, against the backdrop of majestic stillness of the mountains, I will always choose the anarchical dream of the steppes.
Possibly from the comfort of some corner in the city…
- There are historical monuments in Almaty but, because of earthquakes in 1887 and 1911, the Cathedral of Holy Ascension (XIX century) is the only relevant remaining building https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascension_Cathedral,_Almaty There are other more ancient monuments in Kazakhstan, but they are mostly located further south https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkistan_(city)