Said Shahmandarov, 38, was born in the city of Frunze. He has lived through its many transformations and recalls his memories of Frunze, the collapse of the Soviet Union and birth of present-day Bishkek as if it has happened not long ago. Born in Bishkek, he is now a citizen of Belgium. The aim of this interview is to try to understand what it means to refuse your native country. Why would someone do that? How does he feel about it now? Interview by Jamala Temirbekova.
– What comes to your mind first when you think of the city of Frunze?
– The city’s green color and its multinational society. The friendship among all of the people, and peace. These are the things that best describe former Frunze.
– What was so peaceful about the city back then?
– Today we don’t normally let our children play outside in the evening. We are not even sure we would be safe walking around at night, but back then it was so different. I remember how we guys used to play guitar, singing romances in the yard with no fears, whereas today no one even thinks about such things.
– Have you ever done something beneficial for the city when you were young?
– Of course. We planted trees in our yard with neighbor friends when we were only 10 or 12 years old. Everything was done without any order, out of pure willing to make the place look nice and green. Apart from that, when a kindergarten was being built near our yard we volunteered to help. Not because we got paid or anything, but just because it all felt right.
– What happened later when you grew up and Soviet Union collapsed?
– It all took place in the early 90’s. Right then the new culture begun. It was the culture of night clubs which were mostly unknown before, casinos and restaurants open to everybody. There certainly were many restaurants, but you had to be 21 and over in order to enter them.
– Why did it become so popular in 90’s? All these casinos and night clubs?
– Because it was all so new to us. Every single one of us tried to show off what he’s got. It was sort of cool to have a new car, good clothes and money, of course. Also, it was a time when so called ‘concepts’ or ‘notions’ (ponyatiya) among us peers came into view. For example, in order to gain respect, you had to do something for it; either fight or have this ‘men’s conversation’. And only this way people would know of you.
– What was the reason for ‘ponyatiya’ to become so famous precisely in 90’s?
– Kyrgyzstan has gained its independence, the collapse of the Soviet Union happened and a chaos begun. It was literally everywhere. Everything has changed; people started to learn about democracy, human rights and commercialization. I guess all these factors were dominant in creating a new culture, new rules and new us.
– There are special places in the city for every person. What are yours?
– Mostly parks. I think because of the fact that when I was young me and my friends most often used to go to the parks and spent time there. It was fun, always. There is a place called Chon Aryk, not far from Bishkek, maybe about 10 minutes by car. When I was young, I used to go there, because it has so many fields, and there are flowers everywhere. I used to collect tulips and snow….
– That is very sweet! What did you do with the flowers?
– I normally went there before some holiday, usually the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, and gave the flowers I collected to my mother.
– What’s the brightest memory you can recall from the days of your childhood?
– My yard. It is the brightest thing I remember. The so called “yard culture” is still a very important thing in my life, as most of the friends I have today belong to my yard. These are the people I know from the very first minutes of being a child. Besides, my parents still live there and I visit them several times a week.
– Did people change from the time of former Frunze to present Bishkek?
– It is very sad, but yes, they did change. Today they are more vulnerable and stressed, than before. They were also very fair and kind before.
– You have changed your citizenship not long ago. How did it happen?
– I saw no opportunities here. People with university degrees could be seen at the markets, selling stuff. Most of the things are done with money, for money and in the name of money.
– Was leaving Bishkek a hard decision to make?
– For sure, but you always try to be where someone cares for you. I lived in Belgium for 10 years before I got citizenship. I experienced the dramatic difference in social, financial and cultural fields between Belgium and Kyrgyzstan.
– Did you miss Bishkek?
– Very much. Every time I came back here I felt relieved. Bishkek has always been and still is a place where I belong. Many people don’t understand how a person who loves his city so much can go on to live in some other place, but I have my own view at it. If the country could provide me with all I needed, there would be no need for me to stay in other place for 10 years.
– What are your hopes for the country’s future?
– I would love to see the city with good roads, beautiful buildings, so that anyone would be happy to stay here. I think that clear water and trees are things that make this city unique and it would be perfect if those things remain forever. Also, multinational culture is very important in Bishkek. It is like a bouquet of flowers. The more flowers you have in your garland the more beautiful it looks.