The other day one of my Kazakh teachers presented me with the following proverb:
Әке – асқар тау Ake – asqar tau
Ана – мөлдір бұлақ Ana – moldir bolaq
Бала – жағасындағы құрақ Bala – zhaghasyndaghy qoraq
Translated, it means:
A father is the tallest mountain
A mother is a clear spring
A child is a tender sapling growing by the water
Nature imagery abounds in Kazakh maqal (proverbs), as does a recurring reference to the structure of the family as the essential building block of Kazakh society. This maqal not only links family members to particular landforms in Kazakhstan, but also sets up essential family roles and relationships. Hierarchically, fathers are the heads of the household, the first mentioned, and the one from which other family members must draw their support and sustenance. Mountains comprise a mere 10% of Kazakhstan’s landmass (the remaining 90% consisting of plains and lowlands), yet loom large in Kazakhstani national imagery and ideas of statehood – see the snow leopard the national symbol of Kazakhstan.
Unlike the relative rarity of mountains within the topography of Kazakhstan and despite continued public attention toward the scarcity of men compared to women in Kazakhstan, in actuality there is a relatively small gap between males and females in this country. According to my Kazakh textbook, in 2018, there were 1074 women for every 1000 men. Regardless of imagined or actual scarcity in men and mountains, both are incredibly important in Kazakhstani discourse. Indeed, a point of pride and distinction from other Muslim nations is that each Kazakh can proudly recite their zhety agha, or seven grandfathers, which is how Kazakhs both establish kinship ties and what determines the suitable kinship distance to allow for marriage. The family unit, however, retains paramount importance in both nature imagery, and ideals for Kazakh life. Thus, for each man’s unsurmountable heights, a woman – a clear glacial stream cascades through it and bringing life, nurturing spring saplings.
This past weekend was a nostalgic one, in both my learning of Kazakh language and culture, as well as my forays into the incomparable beauty of the Ile Alatau, the portion of the Tien Shan (or celestial mountains, as translated from Chinese) located around Almaty. My Kazakh classes with ERLP (Eurasian Regional Language Program) where I’ve been studying Kazakh for the summer have wound down, and I accompanied other American Councils students learning Russian here to our last group hiking excursion. Ile Alatau refers to two key landforms in southern Kazakhstan – the Ile River, fourth largest river in the country, and the Alatau Mountains – the white and black mountains, called so because of the ever-changing perpetual snows that cap their peaks.
Burdened with the looming prospect of exams, not everyone made the journey up to the mountains, but it was certainly the perfect capstone to my American Councils experience – a short bus ride and three successive cable cars up to the mountains had us at the snow line.
We scrabbled around on the rock scree, and beneath meters of loosely settled rocks, you could hear the roaring of a glacial stream deep below. Someone threw a snowball at me, and we slipped around on the 6-month old snow. While I didn’t see any saplings, to my astonishment I spotted hardy little white flowers dotting the rocky landscape, persisting above where the air is too thin for most trees to grow.
Our hike, just like this summer program, all too soon came to an end. But we took a group picture to commemorate our time together, the bonds we developed in this indescribably gorgeous country, and what we accomplished in our time here. We gained greater mastery over foreign language, knowledge of Kazakhstan, and like the Kazakh maqal, were reminded of the importance of close bonds – both blood and chosen.
By: Laura Tourtellotte
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2018