Monday, 5 September 2011

Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan

From one Central Asian country that is still reeling from the after-effects of independence from the USSR, I travel to a neighbouring country undergoing similar growing pains: Kyrgyzstan. For this leg of my journey I am reading “Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan”, an account by British writer Saffia Farr of her time spent there as the ex-pat wife of a water-engineer husband working on an aid project to bring safe drinking water to the countries outlying regions. As with the previous book, this is a uniquely personal account by a non-native: yet one which is both insightful and engaging, and which explores the process of a Western outsider coming to terms with what is initially an alien environment.

Where this book differs from its predecessor is in its narrator; Saffia Farr, an Englishwoman from Bristol who travelled with her water-engineer husband to Kyrgyzstan just before the country’s revolution. Complicating matters further was the fact that she was expecting her first baby as she arrived in this remote, largely unknown country. Indeed, the Revolution of the title is as much a reference to the personal revolution precipitated by her pregnancy as the wider political revolution going on in the country.

Giving away the ending of a book is not a good idea in a review; but knowing the end of this book will not spoil the experience of reading it.

“Revolution Baby” is not a novel, although to many readers some of it may seem stranger than fiction' - this is an account of Saffia Farr's experiences living in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

The revolution of the (brilliant) title comes very near the end of the tale - in 2005, Kyrgyz people overthrew Akayev, the country's corrupt president who "only built the Switzerland of Central Asia for his family". Saffia Farr credits an opposition politician with this last quote but it demonstrates her own lightness of touch and humour evident throughout the book.

It is really interesting to learn about the politics and history of this country, part of the former USSR (so remote Rough Guide hasn't found it yet'); but the abiding sense I've taken from Revolution Baby is of the writer herself.

Now living in Tockington, close to where she was brought up, Saffia Farr engages us with accounts of how vulnerable she felt expecting her first baby in a grey, grimly poor country.

We share her very real concerns (like worrying about being infected with AIDS from a less than hygienic blood test) but admire her ability to just get on with living.

And soon, the vertical concrete shoeboxes, inside one of which is her home apartment, become fascinating and even attractive - "I started to appreciate that tenements had different architectural styles; curves and crosses of concrete repeated over facades to create striking geometric patterns." Saffia's photographs deserve more exposure than the reproductions in the centre of this book.

The supporting cast in Revolution Baby is the Bishkek International Women's Club, a bizarre but comfortingly constant collection of ex-pats'. Playgroup' is the backdrop to Saffia's maternal pre-occupations ranging from holding out against having a nanny to Baby Tom's delayed' walking ability.

No review of the book would be complete without mention of the Kyrgyz food and drink that sounds so unappetising to western' ears - koumys (fermented mare's milk), parts of sheep's heads and plaited horse intestine sausages for instance. "The meat hall at Ortosai bazaar is not somewhere to visit if you are verging on vegetarianism."

And the pervading presence of vodka is intriguing - Soviet influence untouched by Islamic sensibilities in this region buffeted by so many greater powers.

In the book's Forward', Brigid Keenan recommends Revolution Baby to anyone who has ever had to travel abroad with a spouse. (Saffia is in Kyrgyzstan with her water-engineer husband Matthew.) I think the book has a much wider impact than this - I look forward to reading more of Saffia Farr's writing.

(Review in italics by Emily Thwaite, for which grateful acknowledgement is given.)

Flying regionally in Central Asia is probably not the safest thing in the world. That being said, fellow travellers have described it as being rather exciting and so with a degree of trepidation I take a plane from Bishtek to Dushanbe, in neighbouring Tajikistan.

The planes that fly between Bishkek and Dushanbe are all local (Tajik Airlines) and are quite small, seating fewer than 50 people, goats, etc.. The flight itself is quite dramatic, as the planes fly at a low altitude over the very dramatic Fergana Valley and Ayni Pass. A one way ticket cost $150, although cheaper options are probably avaialble if you know where to look…

The flight arrives into the international airport in Dushanbe. This is a not the most welcoming experience! The arrival gate, in the Customs Area, is a free for all, with fellow passengers pushing to get ahead in line. Customs and border enforcement can be seen blatantly receiving bribes and the arrival area is without electricity when I arrive...although fortunately it is daytime.

Thus I arrive in Tajikistan ready for the next leg of my journey, “Hurramabad” by native author Andrei Volos. This book is actually a series of novellas that describe various perspectives on the 1992 civil war that followed independence – largely from the viewpoint of the Russian community who suffered some of the worst violence and many of whom fled the country as a result. The Hurramabad of the title is a city, which is a very thinly disguised depiction of the capital Dushanbe.

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