Our travels in Kyrgyzstan overlapped with Ramadan this year (13 September – 12 October). For Muslims around the world, Ramadan is a month of fasting, reflection and renewal. While the majority of Kyrgyzstan’s Muslims do not appear to strictly adhere to the fasting requirements of the holiday, it still plays an important role in the country’s social and cultural landscape. The timing of our visit there offered us a unique window of insight into Kyrgyz culture…and a few challenging moments of discomfort.
A Goat Sacrifice
We had just completed a beautiful two day journey on horseback and arrived on the shores of Song Kul Lake. Within 15 minutes of dismounting our horses, our horse trekking guide quickly switched gears. In what appeared to be an honor for him as a newly arrived guest, he was given the task of gutting a goat for the evening feast. With virtually undetectable effort and remarkable speed, he pinned the goat to the ground, slit its neck and drained its blood into an aluminum basin. The evening’s benefactor, a local man from the lake, provided butcher’s assistance. The two separated the goat’s hide from its body like a winter jacket and carved its insides with the precision of schooled biologists.
Ten minutes later, they carried the goat’s remains, deliberately separated into various plastic and aluminum basins, into the kitchen yurt. A yurt, by the way, is a kind of circular nomadic house constructed from wooden poles and multi-layered felt covered in sheep fat (waterproofing).
Our hostess overtook command of the goat preparation. With the aid of large pots of boiling water, she continued to separate and sanitize the goat’s insides. Meanwhile, its head, tossed to the side amidst a group of melons at the edge of the yurt, stared at us as we warmed ourselves with green tea and attempted to comprehend the process that had quickly unfolded before us.
Our guide took a moment to explain to us that the goat was provided for the evening feast and would be used to celebrate breaking the Ramadan fast after sundown. While we were curious to witness the local cultural traditions of sacrifice and celebration, we were secretly hoping to avoid a goat-filled dining experience.
An Evening Feast: The Near Miss?
Later that afternoon, we continued warming ourselves in a neighboring yurt occupied by an Israeli couple. The four of us were the only tourists taking in a freezing but beautiful autumn day at the lake, which only a few weeks ago was swarmed by tourists. We exchanged travel stories and shared warmth. Eventually, we had to separate ourselves and return home to our yurt. What would we find at our dinner table? Curious and hesitant, we were conflicted.
We poked our heads past the heavy felt flap front door of our yurt to find it filled with fifteen people – neighbors and friends of our hosts – arranged around a candlelit table. We were invited to join them. To our delight, we were served plates of fried fish from the lake while everyone else concluded their meals with sweets, butter cookies and pomegranate. We were so relieved they'd already eaten the goat.
The man who provided the goat sat at the head of the table. He seemed to assume the role of toastmaster (minus the consumption of alcohol), talking endlessly as the others listened and nodded. We had no problem accepting the fact that our lack of Kyrgyz language skills excluded us from the conversation, except when his topic changed to an aggressively delivered lecture peppered with mentions of America, Israel, Islam and Afghanistan. A few familiar universal words and visual cues were enough for us to understand that what was being preached was not positive. We each silently debated whether to leave or continue to eat. Erring on the side of courtesy, we abided the political discussion and decided to stay.
After the toastmaster concluded his monologue, an old man next to Audrey engaged her in Russian. When she replied that she was American, his face froze in shock and communicated his obvious embarrassment. Apparently, he didn’t consider it good form to talk about one’s guests either — even if they aren’t completely able to understand what’s being said about them.
Fortunately, a warmer and more inclusive conversation continued with a larger group. We covered topics related to our family, our travels in Kyrgyzstan and where we were headed next. The toastmaster never mentioned America again.
An Evening Feast: On Target
As if on some cue imperceptible to us, everyone got up and carried the table off to the side of the yurt. A plastic sheet was placed on the ground and everyone resumed his position, minus the table. Each person washed his hands in a tub that was passed around. We took our cues from the other guests and sat solemnly on the ground, waiting for what was next.
Fulfilling the very worst of our fears, a tornado of steaming goat fragments circulated the table on platters and in the same colored bowls from the afternoon. Every last bit of the goat was present. Unfortunately, the two candles that once provided a soft ambience now seemed so dim. The insufficient light they threw made it impossible to distinguish anything. We were in dangerous territory – not familiar with custom and quickly becoming nauseous, we were destined to offend. Hoping that our empty plates would go unnoticed, we graciously continued passing the bowls without taking anything.
There was an obvious order to the chaos, however.
Empty plate? No problem. Bowls of gamey, steaming goat stock were provided to everyone at the table. We sipped the broth from the same bowls from which we once drank green tea. With each labored sip we took out of obligation, we peered above our bowls in hopes of seeing that no one was taking notice of our glacial pace of consumption.
Another platter of bones and goat fragments circulated. An old man next to Audrey took matters into his own hands and started putting meat bits on both of our plates. “Anything but the eyeballs,” we silently pleaded. We’d heard eyeballs were considered a delicacy and often given to special guests.
We didn’t get the eyeballs (didn’t see them, really), but a jawbone, a chunk of facial fat and something resembling a joint. If only there were a trap door under this yurt so we could disappear. We accepted our fate and began to gnaw our jawbones. Fortunately, there was very little meat. But the fat chunk and joint loomed. We wondered whether we were expected to devour the cartilage and tendons. Everyone else seemed to, particularly the men. They took to the meat like wolves.
Our unfinished bowls of murk were taken from us and poured back into a large broth receptacle. Perhaps we were in the clear? But as fast as the first bowls of murk were taken from us, second bowls of something darker and even more roiled and repellent replaced them.
Meanwhile, two men split the goat's head in half and deftly carved away, depositing every shred of skull meat on a large platter in the center of the spread. Some of the other guests even contributed pieces of meat from their own plates.
A huge bowl of overcooked spaghetti-like noodles was poured into the platter. Hands reached from every direction to dig in and help turn and stir the steaming pile. Then the platter circulated. Each guest grabbed a hot handful, slapped it on his plate and ate it with his hands. This was Beshbarmak – “five fingers” – the traditional Kyrgyz holiday dish.
When the platter came to us, the old man next to us kindly tried to serve us again, but we intercepted the dish when we saw the state of his gritty hands and blackened fingernails. We plunged our own hands into the steaming mass.
For the next few minutes, the candlelit silence that ensued was punctuated only with slurps.
As a film of fat congealed on the surface of our unconsumed cups of broth and on us, a towel was passed around to wipe hands and mouths, serving as a community napkin of sorts. This was the towel’s third round of service that evening. We did the math: 3 rounds of service, 15 sets of hands, makes 90 hands (and 45 mouths) that passed one abused piece of linen. We declined, wondering if we could pull out our anti-bacterial hand cleanser without anyone noticing. We anticipated being struck with a case of “Kyrgyz belly” the next day and were thankful we didn't have another day on a horse ahead of us.
Community and Giving
Audrey asked the old man next to her whether each evening's meal was like this. It seemed like a great deal of effort to expend every night. He explained that during Ramadan a different family hosts the evening meal. The meat being served changes. Sometimes it's goat, sometimes sheep, sometimes chicken. The pace and format are the same.
Finally, plastic bags were distributed so each family could take home some leftovers. Bags of cookies and sweets followed. Regardless of how foreign the eating experience had been to us, we appreciated the strong sense of community and giving.
As a gesture of thanks at the end of the meal, each of the guests performs the amin, cupping his hands together and bringing them down his face as if washing. Like a blessing, it provides a peaceful close to the meal.
The next morning we had a hot breakfast of kashi porridge boiled in broth while our guide and hosts attack a plate of leftover boiled goat innards. The sun was up indicating that the family that hosted the Ramadan fast-breaking feast was not actually following the Ramadan fast. They participate in social and cultural events that bring family and friends together during Ramadan, but don't actually fast themselves.
While talking with a Kyrgyz friend in Bishkek, we learned that this is common. Many Kyrgyz people do not actively practice Islam or fast during Ramadan, but they still follow Ramadan traditions. For them, Ramadan is the time when families come together to remember deceased loved ones and to make amends for past misdeeds. Like celebrities, those who are fasting are often invited to more feasts. It is believed that the good aura from fasting will rub off on those who are not fasting and help cleanse them of their sins.
This may sound like we're trying to mock the Kyrgyz people as superficial Ramadan-followers. Not at all. What was interesting for us is the importance of family and community in Kyrgyz society and how these are incorporated into Ramadan events and traditions. And while our bodies and taste buds could have done without the boiled goat bits, we appreciated being invited to and included in a Ramadan celebration that brought together family and community.