A Kazakh friend recently asked me what had surprised me most about life in Kazakhstan. Without a doubt, I answered: my host family’s religion. Before I came to Kazakhstan, I expected that my host family would be moderate Muslims. As it turns out, they are recently converted Protestant Christians. My Protestant background has made the transition to living with them surprisingly easy. We have a lot of common ground despite being from cultures separated by an ocean and a continent.
I have a lot of respect for them. They converted to a religion that is not mainstream in Kazakhstan because they felt a spiritual calling. Kazakhstan is remarkably tolerant, but in a country where Islam has become more widespread after the fall of the Soviet Union, it is by no means easy to be Christian and ethnically Kazakh.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the way the family practices Christianity is the fact that they still maintain some traditions left over from Islam, either knowingly or unknowingly. Before breakfast and dinner, my host mother says a blessing in Kazakh. We hold our hands out and open during the prayer. When the prayer concludes with “amin” we slide the palms of our hands down our faces. The ritual is Islamic, but the content is Christian. The host family has told me that one of the big draws of Christianity for them was the ability to pray and sing praise songs in their native language, rather than Arabic.
As someone who grew up in North Carolina, pork has always been a big part of my diet. It is the base of southern cuisine. We cook our vegetables in pork fat, and for us “barbecue” can only mean roasted, pulled pork. Important events such as weddings and baptisms are sanctified with the roasting of a whole pig. When I came to Kazakhstan, I was prepared to cut pork out of my diet, but when I found out that my host family was Christian, I got excited about the prospect of bacon for breakfast. Much to my surprise, my host family still does not eat pork, despite the fact that it is no longer forbidden for them. Pork is available in certain markets, but they simply do not like it. Bacon sizzling in a skillet just does not have the irresistible draw for them that it has for me.
I was most surprised one Friday when I came home from class to find out that the family would be celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. Even though the host family is no longer Muslim, the tradition of feasting and visiting relatives is still important to them. I felt honored to participate in the feast, to speak Kazakh with the guests, and to enjoy a full table replete with fresh fruit, vegetables, rice pilaf, and plenty of horsemeat. It was a unique experience that deepened my understanding of my host family and of Kazakhstan. They are people who have religious freedom and strong beliefs, but who also respect their own traditions and the traditions of their ancestors.
By: Beach Gray
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2015