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Kyrgyzstan: A Nation Is Grieving for Chingiz Aitmatov

(…) It was late as we journeyed home from the station. Daniyar rode on ahead. The night was magnificent. Who does not know these August nights with their far-off, yet so close, gleaming stars! There was one star: it seemed frozen round the edges, its icy rays sparkled as it looked down from the dark sky in surprise at the earth below. I gazed at it as we rode through the canyon. The horses, eager to be home, trotted briskly and gravel crunched under the wheels. The wind from the steppe brought the bitter smell of flowering wormwood, the faint aroma of cooling ripe wheat, and all this, mingling with the smell of tar and horses’ sweat, made our heads light.
From Chingiz Aitmatov's Jamila (online version)

Passages like this have drawn me to Central Asia long before I actually went there. They have instilled longing and a feeling of freedom in many people. Thanks to Chingiz Aitmatov, Central Asian traditions, lifestyles, myths – but most importantly – a transcendental Central Asian “feeling” became part of Soviet culture, known and celebrated beyond the borders of the former empire.

Chingiz Aitmatov died on Tuesday this week, at the age of 79. With him, Kyrgyzstan loses one of her (if not the) most famous sons and one of the most important Soviet-era authors. Jamila and The Day Last More than 100 Days belong to the best books I have ever read in my life, and his bibliography is long enough to discover his work for a long time to come.

The blogosphere is grieving. Aibeque writes:

Yesterday, one of my friends asked me:”Why do people become more interested in a person after his death???” I did not answer immediately; firstly, I reflected on his question, and many answers penetrated my mind. The only sensible reason was an absence!!! When you are away from someone, you miss him; so simple, but so real. In most cases the harsh absence is death.

Jonathan recalls a conversation about Aitmatov with his Kyrgyz host mother:

The longest conversation I have had with any Kyrgyz person on any subject was right then and there on the couch about Chingiz Aitmatov. I have been instructed that I must read the remainder of his works before I leave Kyrgyzstan, because only then can I understand this place.

Scott Horton points out Aitmatov's important role after Kyrgzystan gained independence in 1991:

But one of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life was that he charted first the decline of the Central Asian life and identity, and then participated in its resurrection as the Soviet Union collapsed and as the Central Asian states regained, quite unexpectedly, their autonomy and footing on the world stage; Aitmatov spent his last years as a voice and conscience of his homeland upon the European stage.

The above sentiment is also echoed in this Turkish Weekly article.

I once had the honour of sitting in Aitmatov's back garden in the outskirts of Bishkek, talking to his second wife Maria. It was back in 2004, and Aitmatov's health was already in rather bad shape by then, preventing me from holding an interview with him. But just sitting in the shade on the terrace, drinking Kumys and talking about the charitable activities Aitmatov and his wife were constantly involved in impressed me a lot.

Kyrgyzstan is a young state and Chingiz Aitmatov was a pivotal figure during the first years of independence – an icon people could find moral strength in regardless of their own ethnicity and political affiliation.

Growing up also means learning to cope with the parting of those father figures. And although Aitmatov is no longer around, his work will live on and continue to inspire each new generation of Kyrgyzstanis. And people around the world.

Also posted on neweurasia.net.

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