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Customs, Dress & Conduct

A guest is sent from God. Even if he stays a short while, he will see a lot.
Kyrgyz Saying

Both at home and as a guest,
Eat and drink as others request.  
Kyrgyz Saying

These old Kyrgyz sayings sum it up: guests are placed on a pedestal but also have an obligation to behave in a prescribed fashion in order to avoid offence. Ever since the days of the Silk Road, survival in the deserts and mountains of Central Asia has depended on the generosity of others. Now that many people depend on the informal economy and mutual favours, this sense of duty towards a guest is truer than ever. Alter so many years of isolation, Kyrgyz people are particularly glad to welcome foreign guests into their homes. Following are some hints to help you carry out your visitor duties and enjoy the partying.

It is polite to bring a small gift (fruit or flowers, for example) and, if the family have children, a souvenir from your home country-a postcard, key ring or badge. People are always interested in photos of your family and friends and your home, as long as it does not look too luxurious. When you enter a Kyrgyz or Russian home, take off your shoes. Handshakes are between men and never across the sexes; shaking hands through a doorway brings bad luck. In an Uzbek home, never refuse when offered water poured from a ewer to wash your hands.

Meals, especially in Uzbek households, often begin and end with a prayer, the omin, in which the cupped hands are held out to receive God's blessing and then lowered over the face. Guests must wait for the host to offer the omin to signal the end of the meal. Meals are served on a cloth (dastorkon) set on the floor or a very low table. Be sure to keep feet well away from the cloth. It is con-sidered polite for women to cover their bare feet-with socks for example. As elsewhere in Asia, the left hand is traditionally used for washing after defecating so should be kept well away from food. To offer, receive or handle food with your left hand is most insulting. Bread is treated with the utmost respect: when offered, you should always take and eat a little bread even if you leave some; it is a way of accepting the host's hospitality. Bread should always be placed with the patterned side up and never thrown away in the street.
Food will be lavished on you- trying to decline it politely is normally ineffective.

Whereas in Europe it is polite to refuse refreshments offered, in Kyrgyzstan it is considered an insult. You are not expected to finish what you are offered; in fact an empty bowl will be refilled. A little tea is normally served to the guest first and then thrown away and refilled to about half way, leaving room for the host to replenish it later. Empty glasses, too, are refilled. A good 'guesting' will end with an army of empty vodka bottles. Women are not expected to drink much, but men come under considerable pressure to empty their glass. The host won't consider that he has fulfilled his duties until the bottle is empty. It is easier to politely decline drink from the start, saying you have been ill or are teetotal. Once you start, everyone seriously expects you to go along to the bitter end. Starting to drink and then stopping earlier than the rest will be taken very badly. So its either full abstention, or the whole cure. One major reason to make a stand is your health; unexercised livers simply cannot cope with large amounts of vodka with an alcohol level of up to 50 per cent and which is often of questionable quality. A hangover from a vodka bout can ground you for days, just for the sake of that 'one little drink for politeness'. You will also be expected to take your turn in the toasting rounds; your hosts, friendship, the family and world peace are popular subjects.

The eye of the sheep is always given to the guest or someone you want to be friends with, so your particular honour will be to eat it without grimacing-quite a challenge for some. Women are advised to take a man along, as this pleasure will then invariably fall to him. Other symbolic parts of the sheep are traditionally distributed as follows: the head is given to special guests or old people to whom you want to show respect. In a regional variation, around Naryn, the head may be given to a young boy as he will grow up to be head of the household. The foreleg is given for services rendered, so this usually goes to the daughter-in-law as she does most of the housework. The ear is given to young boys so that they will listen to their mothers. The roof of the mouth goes to brides and young women so that they will be good at embroidery (it is ridged so is said to resemble embroidery). The foot goes lo children.

Sometimes, overwhelming hospitality can be hard to deal with, especially if you cannot face more food or if the host family is so poor that they have to borrow from the neighbours or slaughter their last chicken to give you a meal. Good justifications to drop into your jovial refusal are that you still have a long way to go, that you have already eaten a lot or that you do not have much appetite due to the altitude. Thank the potential host with chong rakhmat ('thanks a lot') and your right hand on your heart with a slight bow. If you eat in a yurt, you might notice the strict allocation of seats. The guest's or oldest person's place around the mat is opposite the door, in the warmest spot. Seating progresses along the table in order of age and seniority until you reach the host, who sits with his back to the entrance, with his wife or daughter-in-law on his right hand side to serve food. Men and women have very specifically defined roles.

Men are still regarded as the head of the family, except in some city households. The woman's realm is the yurt, the children and usually the milking. Many Kyrgyz women seem to agree with the old grandmother who told us, 'I don't want him (her husband) in my kitchen. He's got his own work, outdoor work, and he knows his responsibilities. I have my work in the home and I have children, they can help me. Of course, il there is no one around, it's okay if he helps me a little. But the man is the head of the family and should take care of global matters, it's not right that they should deal with little things like the washing up.'

Although the Kyrgyz have been very selective in their application of Muslim tradition to their lives, they tend to apply Islamic dictates to cover up flesh, though to a much lesser extent than other Muslim societies. Minimally dressed visitors cause offence and imply a lack of respect for the culture. Visitors should not wear shorts or short skirts, 'vest' tops, or go barefoot, though short-sleeved tops are acceptable. In rural areas tight trousers should not be worn. It is respectful for women to cover their heads when visiting a mosque or holy place, including a Russian Orthodox church. You will undoubtedly see young people scantily clad; in Bishkek many women stroll the tree- lined avenues in skin-tight mini dresses, offering no concession to traditional notions of decorum, but foreigners doing the same will be looked down upon and accorded little respect. If they take your fancy, the colourful headscarves worn by Kyrgyz and Uzbek women protect your head from the sun and dust in the countryside.