An American Reading Arendt in Kyrgyzstan

I taught in the former Soviet Union for exactly three years. The first time that I, a baby boomer, sat foot in the Soviet Union proper was the day I arrived to teach, June 4, 2011. Sure, after 1990, the former Warsaw bloc opened. As curious backpackers or enthusiastic researchers, it became possible to visit wonders hidden by die Mauer. Some even made Russia itself a regular visit. But, I was teaching in the Kyrgyz Republic, most commonly known as Kyrgyzstan.

Nestled amongst neighbors as diverse and dangerous as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China, Kyrgyzstan is also comfortably close to Mongolia, Afghanistan (which explained the Manas Transit Center at the international airport), and, of course, Mother Russia. Kyrgyzstan is a tiny democracy, hopelessly corrupt, and teetering on the edges of full-on ethnic conflict (with its Uzbek neighbors) and a full-on charge to breakdown in infrastructure. The nation also happens to one of the most beautiful and wild places left on this planet. All in all, a heartbreaking place with which it is easy to fall in love. Teaching there, at the American University of Central Asia, was itself a unique experience because of the historical borderland that is the Silk Road.

Since graduating from Georgetown in 2002 with a Ph.D. in U.S. history, I have held positions in the U.S., Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and now Kyrgyzstan. As a large part of my position at AUCA, I am a teacher trainer who conducts faculty workshops in methods of student-centered teaching and strategies to teach specific subject matter. I work with local faculty to encourage them to inspire students to think critically rather than memorizing the material and regurgitating a “correct” answer (as has been the technique in every country where I’ve taught). Instead, teachers are expected to help student understand the themes in any given piece of writing and propose questions for students to answer (in college-level English). Especially with those educated in the Soviet Union (anyone over 45), this is an especially difficult challenge. The other challenge is to help foreign faculty to adjust, not downgrade, their expectations for our students. Our students are an interesting mix of children from staunchly Soviet parents and of traditional families living in villages with basic amenities. In a sense, every student has special needs, depending on the provenance of his or her teacher. That I have been teaching overseas since 2002 and have faced a multitude of challenges, all of which has made me more flexible and a better teacher/colleague, has given me the perspective to stand astride this cultural confluence and help each help the other.

All of my international posts have had two things in common: a dominating patriarchy and at least a nominal Islamic majority. Neither of those circumstances have manifested too obviously in my teaching—after all, I take the position that I am teaching U.S. history; if a student wants to find a parallel in his or her own culture, well that’s not on me. In some of these places, one must be careful about criticizing the government or religion or give the hint of proselytizing (it is hard to teach Colonial America without teaching Puritanism). I’ve walked that line carefully and well. Kyrgyzstan is unique in one way, and it has to do with the influence of the U.S.

In addition to history, I was teaching and co-directing the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking sponsored First Year Seminar Program. Luckily, in 2014 I had the opportunity to teach Hannah Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.” All of my students from the CIS countries (we also have student cohorts from South Korea and Afghanistan) have a clear history of the Great Patriotic War etched into their conscious minds, one even might call it an institutional memory. Many times overseas I must check to make sure university students have a basic familiarity with the ideas on display. For example, my students in the former Soviet Union know almost nothing about World War II in the Pacific. I say almost, because the atomic bomb is the only element of American or British participation in the war they are taught in high schools. So, when discussing Arendt, I did not have to explain who Adolph Eichmann was and what he represented, but I did have confront angry accusations of American atomic warfare on an innocent Japan. This is what we call a teaching moment.

Instead of focusing on the war itself, I focused on Arendt’s basic message: in times of moral reversal, failure to think, to conduct and internal dialogue with oneself, breeds personal responsibility. Interestingly, a later reading, the excerpt “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, claims that failing to think—experiencing great events as a member of a herd—exorcizes responsibility. Yet Arendt was correct; events such as the Holocaust require review of “automatic” morality. When all of life inverts, when that which was moral is then immoral, the illegal made legal, failing to think creates responsibility and therefore culpability. Her example is the moral upheaval that was National Socialism. Yet, another moment of moral reversal clung to edge of my consciousness, and I was almost afraid to bring it up, mostly because academic freedom is a fairy story we tell to graduate students to keep them from fearing the future. The very students had experienced a profound moral reversal, and they had failed to think the consequences through.

In 1991, Kyrgyzstan became an independent nation. At no time in history prior to 1991 was the territory now called Kyrgyzstan ever a nation state. The Soviets carved the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic from the rest of Central Asia out of subtle linguistic differences among other Turkic languages, such as Kazakh and Uzbek, and primarily Mongolian features that the Kyrgyz share with Kazakhs and Yakuts in Siberia. The nation that was never a nation is now finding itself with a rising and fervent nationalism, which is not the only lasting feature of a post-Soviet world. Kyrgyzstan is unique amongst its neighbors in that it attempts to be a democracy, and despite two revolutions in twenty years, the last president, Rosa Otembayava, did leave her position on schedule. That makes one peaceful change of power, something no other CIS nation can boast.

Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is multiethnic. In addition to the sizable Uzbek minority in the south of the nation, the environs around Bishkek, the capital, were Stalin’s dumping grounds in the late 1930s: Tatars from the Crimea, Volga Germans, Jews, and Chechens (including the Dzharnaev family whose sons moved to Boston) were all relocated to the country so far from anywhere else. Perhaps this is why the U.S. decided to focus its aid and military cooperation on Kyrgyzstan, or perhaps it is the long Chinese border, but in any case, Kyrgyzstan’s blatantly corrupt economy is propped up by payment from the United States. The only other single industry in the nation is a gold mine operated by a Canadian firm that is under constant threat of nationalization by the government and attack on horseback by the local villagers. Kyrgyzstan is afloat because of American money. And, with American aid comes American ideology, and since World War II, American diplomacy demands adherence to the political idea of the free market economy. And there is where the moral reversal lies.

Ingrained in American foreign policy is the sanctity of the open market, the inviolability of contracts. In the spirit of Arendt, the “automatic” go-to philosophy taught in America is the so-called free market, the greatest mythological expression of which is the self-employed success. Only with careful thought that feel as though borders on the treasonous does the adult come to realize that this philosophy confused with mother’s milk is itself morally questionable. To counter, the “automatic” philosophy of citizens of the Soviet Union was the violence that was the free market and the superiority of communism. Adults also questioned (inwardly) the hegemony of the Comintern, but a freer market certainly did no mean the vacuum of social support that is the American ideal (and thankfully, not the entire American reality). In the CIS, one day communism was the rule; seemingly the next day, capitalism came hand-in-hand with American aid. Included in this ideological shift was a profound moral reversal.

America’s assumed inviolability of contracts is morally compromised in idea, and perhaps completely immoral in application. At the base of contract law lies the fiction that parties who are contracting are similarly situated enough to be considered equals. The contract provides for obligations for both parties as spelled out in the document. A contract is a legal promise. The problem with this fiction is rarely, if ever, are parties contracting truly equal. When the powerful contract with the weak, there is very rarely the change to bargain honestly, and if the stronger party doesn’t keep up its end, who will make them? Certainly not the weaker party. A contract is an opportunity for abuse.

In the Soviet Union, the situation was reversed. The State existed to protect the weaker party, banning “the freedom” of contract. While not perfect, the ruling idea was not to take advantage of the weak however one can. The ruling idea was to protect the weak, “Each according to his abilities.” The old had pensions, the ill had treatment, the artists had jobs, and the swindlers had jail. After 1991, the old, the ill, and the artists had the street and the swindlers ran the country and the black markets.The strong man, like Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, became the hero, and public utilities around the region crumbled.

The western democracies had so successfully branded communism as evil that its opposite must be good, so when what had been billed as the opposite arrived, the capitalists painted themselves as liberators. Unfortunately, some of America’s freedoms are freedom to starve, to freeze, to be discarded. In times of moral reversal (especially when the change is so dramatic), failure to think breeds personal responsibility. In Kyrgyzstan, at least, a new generation has accepted without question that communism was bad and capitalism is good just because America said it was. Moral reversal came to the CIS, and no one questioned it at all. Perhaps this helps to explain the popularity of Vladimir Putin. He questioned America, and in so doing became a dictator. The U.S. needs to divorce the free market from its foreign policy. Let people have their social welfare states; perhaps the world will end up with fewer dictators.


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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Foreign Policy, Former Soviet Union, Hannah Arendt, Higher Education, Ideas, Kyrgyzstan, Thinking

Freeing the Fixed Mind

I have just finished 6 months of teaching in the US at the community college level after twelve years of teaching at the undergraduate level overseas. Most of my students are actually still in high school and are attending community college as part of the Running Start Program that funds high school juniors and seniors to attend community and other public colleges for both high school and college credit. I expect the high school students to do exactly the same work with the same level of maturity as any college freshman. Obviously, some flexibility is necessary, and I am particularly aware of the need for faculty to provide what the British call “pastoral” care for undergraduates. High school students, no matter how advanced they might appear through testing, will need more of a helping hand than the usual undergraduate. After twenty years of teaching at the undergraduate level, including that twelve years spent in various locations throughout Asia, I was stunned by some of the issues I ran into. The most stunning was the absolute lack of preparation students had for independent and critical thought.

With few exceptions, these students, supposedly the most advanced, claimed that they were only taught to take the test. Some students just could not adapt. I was criticized by students on their formal evaluations and at an informal site (that allows students to rank a professor’s relative “hotness”) for two main issues: first, I was not sensitive to their Christian beliefs. This came about because I begin American history with the migration of peoples across the Bering Land Bridge at least 13 thousand years ago. This history conflicted with the students’ professed belief in the 6000 year-old age of the Earth. So, in their minds, I am anti-Christian. These complaints prompted some academic advisors to suggest students stay away from my classes because “there have been problems.” This is a public institution.

The second point of criticism was the amount of work I assigned. While this is not an unusual complaint (I’m a tough teacher), the form in which it was expressed was bewildering. Apparently, students were upset because I asked them to write a paper on a topic that we did not cover completely in class; in other words, I asked them to write a research paper for a freshman level college class. I did not give the students a grading rubric because I wanted them to have as much freedom as possible in selecting and researching a topic. I provided general guidelines and (despite being adjunct faculty without an office or being paid for hours spent outside class) willingness to meet with a student at any time to discuss their progress on the their papers. English Composition is a required prerequisite for the class. Yet, some students were unable to generate curiosity about a topic other than one discussed formally in class. Furthermore, some students were unable to complete an essay exam without being given the questions ahead of time. On evaluation complained that a take-home essay exam was in fact an unfair paper assignment because he or she had not known the questions before being handed the exam. To hand out the test questions is what many of my students call a “test review.”

Of course, the fault for this does not lie with the students or the high school teachers. Teaching for the test has become the dominant teaching philosophy in the American system. As a result, even the most advanced students are graduating expecting “fairness” to be having the questions and answers provided to them. Independent and critical thinking is not absent from my classroom. I teach my students how to think critically, to assume that all information is prepackaged by experts and that it is incumbent on the individual to assess the creditworthiness of a source and the spin intended by the seller, especially if that purveyor is an expert of some sort. When they leave high school, however, students are taught to rely exclusively on the authority of the test writers, givers, and graders. When faced with criticizing the question or the source, students react fearfully and offensively, projecting the insecurity of being cast into a cold universe of independent thought onto the one who asks them to have an informed opinion. In this case, that person is I.

There is no better job on this Earth than that of being called to teaching. Encountering the creativity, curiosity, challenge, optimism, and candor of a mind uncluttered with cynicism and unburdened by calcified opinions is a glorious job description. Those encounters are becoming less and less common. Instead of instilling a young mind with wonder at the possibilities of truly independent thought, I am suddenly faced with outrage by children when I dare to destabilize their force fed worldview. In what world does a 16 year-old child, no matter how bright, have all the answers boxed and tied up with a bow? In ours, apparently. Instead of arriving curious and ready to argue about the nature of everything, students are emerging from high schools with minds as fixed as bayonets on an infantry charge, education being a tool—a means to an end—rather than an opportunity to explore the universe in all its mysterious glory.

I am an expert in setting up American-style liberal arts higher education overseas. Having returned to the US after being founding faculty in three international schools, I have to emphasize that the kind of education I have been providing is extinct at all but the most exclusive schools in the U.S. I set up American-style education, as opposed to the current quality, because no one would want to intentionally implement American anti-intellectualism and shortsightedness guaranteed to produce a dependent and uni-dimensional class of non-thinkers. Unfortunately, when I did encounter genuinely open and curious minds, the rigid walls of administrative rules refused to bend to allow students to play with their ideas.

We have already reached the post-apocalypse, and it is conformist, narrow, and potentially civilization ending. Its name is corporatism and it strives for regimented sameness and the absence of creativity and spontaneity in everyday life.

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Filed under Higher Education, Irony

Quantemplating Blood

Societies draw lines all the time. On which side of any given line one finds oneself determines the goodies divided up in societies. Socially and culturally created lines impact the biological well being of society’s members. For example, the line between citizen and non-citizen can also be line between life and death. Societies invent exceptions to their lines to avoid the harshest cases—asylum, or citizen exemption—can be extended in cases where those on one side of the line forgive those on the other side for their foreignness. With citizenship or its approximation, a person may obtain a job, have police protection, rely on a social safety net, or enjoy access to education. Without, a person—an equivalent human being—is excluded from these privileges, left standing outside in a cold rain, envious of the warm and happy glow of the hearth.

Artificial boundaries exist within societies as well; they delineate how spoils shall be divided. In homogeneous societies, such barriers fell along lines of family lineage and sex. Wealth was inherited along family lines and descended through the male heir. The society that controlled wealth had interior rules, but patriarchy and oligarchy ruled. The males of a certain family married women from families of similar status, and wealth was controlled. Those not of the correct bloodline were simply out of luck. Although conceived of as part of “good breeding” (without engaging the idea of eugenics), the only real differences between people of breeding and commoners was the artificial lineage spurred by antique conquest. Blood itself was neither better nor worse. Those with access to education and proper nutrition became rulers while those without served and represented a seemingly permanent underclass (even when the upper classes were, arguably, more feeble because of selective inbreeding to maintain purity).

Meritocracies have been imagined discreetly since the Axial Age, but in most cases, granting leadership to the most able simply could not dislodge long held beliefs in descent by blood. Membership in a leading family or tribe has consistently determined access to power and the greater share of the spoils of citizenship. Caste and class were seemingly the same because social standing determined on an immutable characteristic: blood. Conversely, membership in a family who was not in a leadership role established a rigid cast system of leaders, artisans, unskilled workers, and flotsam and jetsam of society. Social mobility upward was nearly impossible while mobility downward could happen due to perceived defects of character. Despite supposed good blood, individual lapses could result in expulsion from honored society. In the United States of 2015, such lapses are called “affluenza.” The affluent who do wrong are generally more quickly exonerated from, or less severely punished for, their transgressions. “Blood will out” is an idiomatic phrase that indicates that good breeding will show itself but that it also must be protected and cared for in a husbandry-like manner. Some people within societies are just better than others.

Of course, when the English established their global empire, they came into contact with many people who could never share the same blood as the aristocracy, so they would always be inferior. Furthermore, the “wogs,” the aboriginal peoples of conquered lands also looked different from the English ideal, as expressed in medieval romantic poetry and satirized in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (and perhaps even by Cervantes in Don Quixotes’ imagined visage of Dulcinea).[i]

Classically educated explorers took with them the ideal of coral lips and alabaster skin. Naturally, natives of Africa, the Americas and the South Pacific did not meet that standard, so were considered by nature less worthy. In the case of African Americans, the “one-drop rule” evolved: if a person, no matter how “white” he or she might appear, had “one drop” of African blood—or in other words any African ancestor—that person would be considered black and firmly outside a primary exclusionary line of social benefits. The oppression of the one-drop rule led many individuals who were genealogically labeled as unclean to take matters into their own hands and chose to act as if they were not saddle with this ludicrous measurement. They “passed” as white—they pretended to have no African ancestors—in order to occupy space on the side of the line that granted full citizenship rights. The very nature of passing and the one-drop rule are examples of the fallacy of conferring social difference based on imagined blood quality.

This blood issue also troubled Native Americans. Although considered by British colonizers as being more “noble” than Africans, mostly because Native Americans successfully resisted enslavement through knowledge of the landscape that permitted escape and immune systems not prepared for European diseases, which cause captive natives to die in droves—which ironically generated English respect for those who would die in captivity and therefore constitutionally must be free—Native American blood was still considered unclean and not suitable for mixing with Anglo-Saxon-European blood. Still, mixing happened (mostly through rape), and offspring from Euro-Native unions looked more European and had acquired immunity to European diseases from European parents. Although a person with one native grandparent was still consider and Indian and therefore not eligible for the rights of citizenship, that person would appear to be Anglo-Saxon and therefore could pass as white. In the British conquest of North America, almost all previously autonomous East Coast tribes were completely wiped out. All that remained were vestiges of the once mighty Iroquois Federation and the Anglicized Cherokee Tribe. Any individuals remaining from the smaller, losing tribes has long since integrated into larger, victorious societies, be they white, renegade African American, or traditional enemy tribes. For the Indian that passed after the birth of the Republic, white society made the most sense. Only by entering white society could individuals survive the successful destruction of their culture. And it is these very individuals who are having that choice born of necessity—assimilate or die—used against them in any attempt of their descendants to reunite with cultural values.

Many of those who passed as white completely assimilated and forgot all traditions.[ii] Being discovered as a person of color passing as an Anglo-Saxon could carry a death sentence at the end of a rope. Nonetheless, some who passed preserved in secret the culture they had left, passing it to children and grandchildren. Memories fade but oral history is reliable. When a grandmother passes a story and a bit of cultural belief onto a grandchild as a statement of coded history, the shared memory has as much (if not more value) than a written version of a similar communication. When communicated in hiding, a truth is being concealed, one that could never be communicated in the open format of a book. Whispered rites and creation stories merge with mainstream Bible stories and accepted practices and create a tapestry heritage rather than a lineage.

People don’t seem to understand the fundamental lie at the base of race in America: “race” is ethnic difference confused with biology and then codified as genealogy. That “race” follows the “condition” of the mother lead to obnoxious one-drop rules and the obscenity that was the cultural necessity “to pass.” Skip the outrage. If you really do believe in total cultural equality, being trans-ethnic is no big deal. Everyone constructs an identity to share with the world. Picking a subaltern identity is no less dishonest than picking a ruling class identity; it may even be the sincerest form of flattery.

I’m guessing that some outrage might stem from comparing the present situation—a young woman presenting herself as African American and completely adopting the culture—to minstrelsy. However, choosing to live as a member of an adopted culture does not reek of exploitation/appropriation as did minstrelsy, not matter how much white musicians appreciated what they perceived as African American culture. Ultimately the minstrel show reinforced the Jim Crow line of white supremacy. Nor is trans-ethic behavior “slumming.” There is nothing temporary about joining in toto another group’s culture. At the end of the day, no one would choose to live as a member of a subaltern group for any other reason that the culture expresses his or her true identity. The issue of trans-ethnic living only becomes unsavory when one continues to confuse ethnicity with biology and because of the unique history of race in America.

While we accept transgendered and transsexual designations, why does trans-ethnic expression feel like cultural appropriation, like a lie? Does one truly have the freedom to choose ethnicity, especially moving from a dominant to a subaltern group? Maybe this is just a case of a white girl being sick of white people crap and choosing to live without it. She choose at the same time to live without white privilege, which should also be considered before anyone chooses to throw stones.

[i] Walter Clyde, “The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty as Found in the Metrical Romances, Chronicles,” Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1916.

[ii] Karen Grigsby Bates, “‘A Chosen Exile’: Black People Passing as White in America,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio:

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Filed under Cultural differences, ethnicity, Ideas

Mourning Over the Inland Sea

As much as I want legroom when I fly in cattle class, I always choose to sit by the window for daytime flights. However, what I see below, on this trip from Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul, is tragedy only in the sense that it was caused by human hubris. The violence of poverty and ignorance are written on the face of the Earth below. I cannot document the devastation well enough on my iPhone, but I can tell a sad tale. The route appears to follow a traditional VOR route just to the south of Russia until the Black Sea, when the plane turns left and heads directly for Istanbul. There is so much light brown earth that the view seems monotonous, unless one realizes that most of what the plane is flying over used to be water.

The abstract beauty of devastation as seen from five miles up.

The abstract beauty of devastation as seen from five miles up.

I am, of course, referring to what was once known as the Aral Sea. To my historian’s brain and my photographer’s eyes, I can see a lot of things that are no longer there, first of which is water. Either Turkish Airlines is using maps made in the 90s or the desertification has accelerated because everything that marked in blue on the map is now brown, tan, or black interspersed with wee bits of green next to a brown “river.” There is no blue where there should be. I know the maps are accurate because I can feel the airplane turn at the appropriate VOR, which is supposed to be on a coastline. Now the plane turns in an anonymous-looking piece of desert.


This entire area is rendered in blue on the aviation map. That’s not good.

Of course, I saw more than the missing blue where the authority of the map told me it would be. I hopped into my historian’s time machine and looked back further in time than my own study of geography in the 1980s, when the Aral “Sea” was considerably bluer and, as I naively thought, had not begun to shrink. I read that the Aral Sea had been shrinking for some two decades now, but it has been shrinking for a lot longer than that. We, the parasites who live on this planet, only noticed or cared twenty years ago. Any fool can see from 36,000 feet that the entire basin had once been a great inland sea, spread from Tashkent and Bukhara in the (arbitrary East) to Baku in the West.

Yes, Baku. When I say that the entire basis was a great inland sea, it must have stretched from Azerbaijan to Tajikistan, south to Iran. Of course, I am writing from 36,000 feet up, not as an archaeologist digging a meter under the sun-baked crust of no man’s land, the land of Alexander, Mongols, Infidels, and Intifadas. But as much as one can see on the scarred Earth the impact crater that in grade school I learned had the name “Yucatan,” I can see the bottom of a prehistoric (or a very, very old) ocean.


Sand dunes where there once was a freshwater-fed, saline inland sea.

Sadly, no one else on board this metal tube seems to notice or care. I was nearly weeping watching those around me drink their clean water from plastic cups and thinking what have we wrought? The fighter still remains.

I had seen this same tableau when I flew over in 2012. The area was cloudy in 2013. The new things I saw this trip freaked me out the most: empty oxbows and sandy fields. Oxbow lake occurs when sediment fills in a meandering bend in a river, cutting off the meander, and creating a semicircular lake. The strong flow of the river continues in a deep and straight channel. In stable environments, oxbow lakes usually take some time to form. Sedimentary buildup is not a quick process when water is flowing freely. Oxbows are rare, except in places where water levels drop quickly. In the sand below, the unmistakable shape of an oxbow lake lay in the middle of a desert with no river nearby. The lake was completely dried up. So, if this whole area was once covered in water, the oxbow formed from a river that had had a fairly constant source even when the surrounding water had disappeared. The river flowed long and strongly enough to etch a meander in the soil and then filled it in with silt. Since then, the river itself had completely stopped flowing, and the oxbow lake either dried or was drained. That’s some serious devastation.


Image The meandering white line is a dried river bed. Just on the edge of the shadow, an oxbow (now dried) is clearly visible. The river kept flowing after the oxbow formed. The unmistakable grid of human settlement is the dominant feature on the bottom third.


The second and almost unbelievable sight was abandoned and desertified agricultural fields nowhere near water. The Aral Sea did not disappear due to some natural disaster (unless one considers human habitation a natural disaster). The manmade Janus-faced disasters of poverty and greed are at fault. As evidenced by the oxbow, water flowed into this dry place from some wet place. Humans used the water faster than it could be replaced and permanently altered the ecosystem. The Aral Sea died to irrigate, of all possible crops, cotton, one of the most water hungry and lucrative plants around. Poverty and commerce drained the sea, and when the water receded from overuse, the fields were abandoned and moved closer to the ever-decreasing water. Circular fields testify to machine irrigation; rectangular fields were probably hand or canal irrigated. All of them are now just patterns in the sand.


ImageThe white patches on rectangles are sand dunes on what were fields. New fields are interspersed, most at the top of the image and in the depression in the bottom third, where the oxbows are forming. I’m curious what it will look like next time I fly to Kyrgyzstan.


Sigh. More in Istanbul. The drinks cart is coming. …


Archaeology of Bukhara

The Aral Sea Crisis

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Filed under Environment, Environmental devastation, Flight, Greed, Poverty, Travel, Ugliness, Witnessing

Women’s Work

We are moving all our belongings to the States next week. After a continuous ten years abroad, we have accumulated a rather large amount of art and other stuff. I went thorough and discarded much in the way of knick knacks and teaching materials, but ars longa, vita brevis. Some things are more important than others. I took the job at the United Arab Emirates University in 2004, long before iPhones, ebooks, and Kindle; if I was going to teach and research American history, I had to carry some core essential texts. Also, I mailed 4 large boxes to myself in Al Ain, UAE. When I took the job in Qatar, I had even more books shipped. We took extended vacations in amazing places like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman, Turkey, France, and Germany and picked up beautiful artwork, ceramics, and lots of old metal. Starting with 2 suitcases apiece and four boxes of books, we last moved 1200 kg. of possessions, from Turkey to Bishkek in 2011. The art collecting continued. Nonetheless, it is time to downsize. When we move abroad again, I will not to need so many books, and most of our art has not seen a wall since Qatar, so it will be happy in storage. Like a fellow bibliophile once said, moving books is like moving wet sand. We have also been moving dry sand.

Carpets, kilims, and shyrdaks make up a substantial amount of our shipping weight. Neither the Kyrgyz felted shyrdaks nor the kilims are heavy in themselves (even considering volume), but the wool carpets are difficult to lift, especially after lying on a floor for any length of time. The air in all of the places we’ve lived in the last decade has carried particulate matter: desert sand in the UAE and Qatar, pollen in Germany and France, Anatolian topsoil, and greasy miasmic coal effluvium in Kyrgyzstan. Our lungs and our floor coverings have absorbed much of this matter. The gunk that settled into our rugs just about doubled their weight. Since we are paying by the kilo for shipping to Seattle, I wanted to shed some of that international dirt. First-worlders would go out and rent a steam cleaner; I headed into the courtyard to find some place to beat my carpets.


Beating carpets is women’s work in non-industrial societies. It makes sense. Women generally have care of the children. Carpet beating means staying in one place for an extended period of time. Since the task is communal, someone can always have her eyes on the kids. It also makes sense because the task requires physical strength and stamina and patience rather than only water buffalo killing strength. For example, the Lewis Hine photograph below shows the communal nature of doing the washing in a pre-industrial society, Tennessee in 1933 [Hine worked a month for the TVA. See Lewis Hine As Social Critic, chapter 6 for a complete analysis of the photograph]. Note the child next to the house. I say non-industrial rather than pre-industrial because Kyrgyzstan, as a former Soviet republic, is not industrialized, although it once had been. In this sense, I think of it as a Roman province, sometime around 600 CE. More on that later.




I did not have a proper mattenklopper, a carpet beater, so my task was made more difficult. “Right tool for the right job,” Dad always said. I tried an aluminum cane, but parts kept falling off and it wasn’t flat (see the picture at the bottom). I had better luck with my next implement of beating, but I had to be careful using it because it also was not flat, it didn’t bend, and it was much too short. I used the billy club my grandmother stole from a policeman. He stepped into a speakeasy in the 1920s to use the loo. With my mother in tow, granny secreted the club under her dress and headed out into the street. I loved that woman. I wielded the cane like a baseball bat, which was awkward, but at least I now know how to lay down a bunt with my left hand. It was necessary to switch sides every few strokes. Otherwise my right arm might have fallen off completely. The club was easier, but it had its own drawbacks; it was too short, and I was in danger of leaving marks on some very expensive floor coverings.



The correct implements for rug savagery.

I had absolutely no idea of the laboriousness of the task. I had difficulty lifting the sand sodden carpets over the only bars available, so Doug, my husband, came out to help me. Wow. When I started with the small carpets which I could woman-handle over my head, I actually disappeared from view. Even after living in this Soviet flat block for 3 years, people still stop and gawk when I walk through. I’m taller than most Kyrgyz men and chose to dye my very short hair fire engine red. Remarkably, the minute I started swinging at the rugs, I was no longer an object of any interest at all. I was just another woman doing the spring cleaning; the most ordinary thing in the world. However, when Doug came out to help me, you could’ve heard a chin drop (phrase stolen from Phil Vassar). Men.Do.Not.Beat.Carpets. I’m sure the men questioned my husband’s masculinity and the women thought I was completely unfeminine (by needing a man’s help lifting a 50 kilo carpet—culture, it’s a funny thing).

You know, women’s work is HARD. I pride myself on being strong and physically resilient. I spent hours with my purloined night stick pounding the sand and dirt and coal smoke out of my rugs. The Subaru parked next to my carpet beating bar ended up covered in dust, as was I. The weather here is very dry and in late May very warm. After a few hours of the most boring and difficult labor one can imagine, everything hurt and I looked like I ran a marathon. My hands were bleeding from blisters and rug burns. Still, when Doug came out to help me pound, I shooed him right back in. While I was working, several women came by to inspect my work and examine my Turkish carpets. I’ve seen these women around for three years, but none—until that day—ever acknowledged my existence. One actually spoke English to me. She assessed the (very nice) carpet and asked “How much?” Assuming she meant “How much did you pay for it?” I tried to answer in a combination of Russian, Kyrgyz, and Turkish. Glorious clucking ensued. I am not very feminine by many standards, but standing there in my shorts and Tevas, sweating and bleeding, wielding my grandmother’s stolen billy club, I was the girliest I’ve ever been.


Everything is reused here. My beater-cane is propped against the tree, eclipsed by my wonderful neighbors.

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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Expat life, Feminism, good things, Kygyzstan, Lewis Hine, Women, Work

No Cracks in the Pavement

I wrote this a few years ago, but facing my imminent and rather unwelcome exit from academia, I might find myself in this situation again.


After looking for work for six months in every country except Saudi Arabia, I have buckled down and accepted a job contributing to the inanity of the Internet. I write “content,” a term that inspires no greater understanding of information exchange than its plain meaning. The infinity of the Internet beckons those who will fill it with everything and nothing. I write for those how-do-I-do-it sites, often resorting to offering well-written but incomplete and virtually useless knowledge (as per guidelines). And, I am paid $15 per “article” for constructing the written equivalent of a painting by numbers.

Now, I am not saying that this is by any means a fruitless endeavor. Yes, income of any stripe is always welcome, but there are deeper truths about our society to be gleaned from the questions posed by the merely average to so-called experts such as myself. In this banal existence, I may have found some mystical knowledge about the human condition.

One question in particular has inspired this commentary: “How do I install a drain after the cement floor has dried?” There is an innocent beauty in that most obviously wrong of questions; we call it hope. Any one of us could be that do-it-yourselfer who, while presenting his (or her) beautiful new garage/basement/party room floor to a spouse is asked the innocuous question, “Where is the drain?” This belongs to the realm of Haiku:

Flat, dry, unyielding

Still, a windless graying sea

What do you mean, “Drain?”

Insight dawns. Visible physical deflation ensues.

Thus begins my travel from a purely academic understanding of the human condition through a portal to the true core of humanity. Whether college professor, middle manager, or waitress, the Sisyphean futility of life becomes manifest when grasped in the pathetic frustrated hands of imperfect and imperfectable human life; we are all one—there is a Zen moment in here—when in our DIY projects we neglect the most obvious and necessary. One can imagine that poor schmo standing before the computer, having been told that the Internet has all the answers, praying to the binary god, typing frantically, “How do I …?”

Now this foible of humanity lands on my desktop. Rather than gently passing on the bad news that, no, there really isn’t anything to be done now, I open my article formatter and type in the box labeled step one: “First thing, rent a jack hammer and protective ear covering …”

Next assignment: “How do I get a date for my sister?” It is going to be a long night.

signed, the content hack

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Filed under Autobiography, Irony

The Correct Word

“The night was sultry.” Throw Momma From The Train

As a writer, a teacher of writing, and a sometimes translator, I spend a lot of my time looking for the right word. English is beautifully protean, so full of nuance that there is often an exact word to express any idea. Even when English can provide no precision, the language will be true to its larcenous past and will  execute a linguistic five-finger discount, usually purloining from German or French. Still, the contemplation of the right word is one of the joys of writing.

Last week, a student stopped a colleague in the hall; they stood with heads bent in silent contemplation. Curious, I asked what concerned them so. They were looking for a word. Now, our students are not native English speakers–for them English might even be their third or fourth language–but English is our medium. The student explained the idea she wanted to convey. We tried direct translation to no avail. I promised to think upon it. A few hours later it hit me: parasite, or even better given the belittling ferocity of the context, leech. Thus are the joys of a large lexicon.

Yet, this pastime–which makes it me very hard to best at Words With Friends and a whiz with the New York Times Crossword–has a non-vocabulary analog. For me, a photograph has the same potential as the correct word, the potential to transcend mere comprehension in favor of epistemological metastasis. For me, a photograph is kin to the right word. A seamless composition of reflected light can be as complex as Michelangelo’s La Pietà. Stare long enough, and you might see it move.

A small college wishes to commission a work of art to express some very complex and contradictory aspects of one world historical figure. Since my medium is the non-posed photograph made in available light, my art is relatively easy to make. I do not need a studio, artificial light, models, props, or any supplies beyond my camera and my eyes. If I were to apply to that competition, I know that I could make a photograph that would express the correct sentiment; I could find the right word to express an idea precisely. Yet, since there is no fussy material cultural in my process, would the elegance of precision be enough? Will a nearly two dimensional print fill their space with an appropriate (and, one expects, massive ) object.

Hemingway wrote the shortest tragedy in the English language: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Because of its brevity and precision, is it less powerful than Hamlet? The shortest horror story should be compared with the shortest tale of psychological anguish: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Compare: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a lock on the door.” Perhaps brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also the essence of elegance. And skill.

In the years since World War II, Abstract Expressionism has competed with photography for elegance and brevity, especially with  images of the Shoah. Can a  sculpture ever inspire the same level of distress as a photograph of the Einzatzgruppen gleefully completing their loathsome task? Enormity of feeling needs to be met with enormity of scale. Subtlety and efficiency may be too severe and thus insufficiently oppressive to wrap one’s head around the brutal immediacy of a photograph.

I will not submit a proposal for this commission, mostly because most people do not think a photograph can inspire the same sense of gravitas  as a sculpture or installation. I will, however, undertake to make the image as a test for myself. After all, the exercise, like journey’s relationship to destination, is as important as the output. Whether it be the correct word or the precise image, thinking is the cure for the restless spirit.

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Filed under criticism, Ideas, Letters, photography, teach writing, teaching, Thinking