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A Tenuous But, To Me, Meaningful Tie to Kazakhstan

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One of the things I love about working with the Fellows at the Kluge Center is that I am constantly learning new things. Recently, for example, I was speaking with Richard Bater, from Kings College London, who was here on an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship. Richard’s thesis concerns water and the relationship of that precious commodity to the State. Before coming to the Kluge Center he spent about six months in Kazakhstan, the geographic focal point of his research work. In conversation I mentioned to Richard that I have a friend from Kazakhstan.

My friend, Maira, was a Muskie Fellow, who had completed her M.S. in Library Science and come to the Library as a summer intern in 2002. She was assigned to my work team and, as it turned out, we each had daughters about the same age and, as the kids became friends so did we. After Maira and her daughter moved back to Kazakhstan my daughter went to visit them and stayed at their home located along a street that runs the entire length of the city of Almaty.

But let’s to get back to how much I learn through the Fellows with whom I work. After I mentioned to Richard that I had a tenuous but, to me, meaningful tie to Kazakhstan, he brought me a small book that he had requested from the Library’s collection. He’d used it for his research and thought I might now enjoy it.  The book’s title was “Abai: Selected Poems.” Richard explained to me that Abai, whose full name was Abai Kunanbaev (or Abai Qunanbayuli), was one of Kazakhstan’s most respected poets – a Kazakh Walt Whitman.

This tiny volume (about 4″ by 5 ½”), bound in red and gold, proved to be the only book of Abai’s poetry in English translation that is contained in the Library’s vast collection of world literature. It seems it is a rare thing to find Abai’s work outside of Kazakhstan even in translation. The book’s frontispiece has a woodblock print [possibly an engraving] of the poet – a round-faced man with a full beard, seated and looking straight ahead at the viewer, wearing a vast coat while holding his quill pen to paper.

l learned that Abai lived from1845 to 1904, which means that for about 45 years the lives of Abai Kunanbaev and Walt Whitman overlapped; two great writers working on opposite sides of the globe to create a new body of poetry for their people. I learned that besides being a great poet Abai was also a composer and a philosopher. He studied first at a Muslim madrasah and then at a Russian school (as Kazakhstan was part of the Russian Empire) and he came to admire both the poet Pushkin and the folktales of his own Kazakh people.

Who of us, Kazakhs, can compose a poem whose form

Would be a thing of silver, and the words pure gold?

Let’s take my predecessors, for example:

The biys, who had a well-known predilection

For garnishing their speech with proverbs. The akyna — .

Those wingless poets who could neither read nor write,

Who spun their crudely rhymed and worded tales

And fingering the strings of their kobyz or dombra,

Cried out their lofty sounding dedications.

And then passed round the hat, collecting coppers.

So now, like Abai–and Richard–I have passed on to you a little bit of what I have learned about my neighbors on this planet.

Oh, just one more thing. My Kazakh friend’s daughter was visiting here in D.C. recently and I asked her to point out their home on a map of the city of Almaty. We located their apartment and I ran my finger along the street line–one of the longest in the city–until I got to its printed name. I suppose I should not have been surprised to find that they lived along Abai Street.

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