Friday, April 22, 2011

Oral Culture

Before the advent of Kazakh written literature in the mid-19th century, the Kazakh literary tradition was completely oral. Like the epics of Homer, which were told and retold at Greek parties for centuries before Homer committed them to paper, so also the epics of the Kazakhs were told for centuries sitting around the yurt. Although that oral cultural tradition is mostly gone, you can still catch glimpses of it in modern Kazakh culture.

For example, the Kazakhs love to recite poetry. At almost every event that students put on, groups of kids will come to the front and say poems from memory. Even at teachers' parties we have one man who, instead of singing a song as entertainment, will recite a long poem while a music track plays in the background. Kazakhs have a real ear for the lyricism of words, and when reciting poetry even the most shy students' voices will rise and fall with the rhythm of the lines.

Another bit of evidence about this oral past is the respect with which younger people listen to their elders as they lecture them about anything and everything. Often, the lecture will contain no new information, but will instead be a rehashing of some bit of Kazakh history or will explain a custom that all the listeners already know about. At first, I found these lectures rather annoying; why were these people wasting my time telling me something I already knew? But I think this is just part of the oral tradition. When you have no way of writing things down, you have to remember everything, and repetition is a great memory aid. By repeating information and stories many times, you ensure that you pass the communal knowledge on to your children.

When my host father lectures me about Kazakh traditions, beliefs or history, he doesn't expect me to interrupt with questions. And he definitely doesn't want me to share my opinion. (The liberal arts grad in me found this hard to stomach at first!) But I think most of his conversations are one-sided because we're not having a discussion about a new idea, but rather because he's passing on ancient knowledge to me. That knowledge needs to be kept intact for the next generation, not meddled with by my own individual whims.

When my parents came to visit, they got a taste of this lecturing. During a two-hour taxi ride into the city my host mom gave my real mom a full blown speech, talking for an hour and a half straight about everything from why the Kazakhs love President Nazarbaev and never speak ill or joke about him (because it's a Kazakh tradition to respect your elders) to why Kazakhs build their villages on rivers while Russians build theirs on lakes (because the rivers carry away the sewage.) My mom, not understanding that the expected response is to listen and nod, tried to insert her own observations as if she were having a discussion. But my host mom would have none of it, and just continued on telling my mother the things she needed to know.

Here's one more example of non-written culture. I was cooking a pumpkin pie for my host family for the third time and had the recipe out on the table. My host mom came in and told me that if I still needed a recipe after making a dish three times, then I would make a terrible housewife and no man would ever want to marry me. Well, at least I know how to scare away any potential suitors!

2 comments:

  1. Haha, that's great. I would never be able to find a husband there.

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