Lineage associations in Kyrgyzstan, by Aksana Ismailbekova (Bonn International Center for Conversion)

I have been researching kinship in Kyrgyzstan since 2006 – in my recent book Blood Ties and the Native Son: Poetics of Patronage in Kyrgyzstan,[i] I explored the role of kinship and political patronage in the organization of community through the personal biography of one leader, and argued that such forms contribute to political participation and democratization. I have continued my research on these themes from 2016-2017 as part of the international project on ‘Informal governance and corruption- Transcending the Principal Agent and Collective Action Paradigms’ (funded by the British Academy-DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE)), traveling back to Kyrgyzstan to do an ethnography of informal governance, corruption, and lineage associations. My aim in this project was to find the local patterns of informality, in order to understand how relations of power and influence are organized in daily life.

In July, 2016 an informal gathering of the Cherik lineage association (kurultai) was organised in southern Kyrgyzstan, in Ala-Buka. The Ala-Buka lineage members invited guests from northern Kyrgyzstan (Naryn, Issyk-Kul and Talas) to their village and organised their annual meeting. The whole Ala-Buka village was mobilised to host the guests who came from the same lineage but were representatives from the northern and southern regions. Fortunately, I was also invited to join the meeting of the Cherik lineage associations and observe their gathering. The representatives of the Cherik lineage from the villages of Naryn, in the Issyk regions, as well as those from Bishkek gathered in Bishkek. So I joined this group from Bishkek and we went to Ala-Buka together in a small mini-bus (marshrutka) for 14 hours. The distance between Ala-Buka and Bishkek is almost 700 km. There were almost 80 people travelling from Bishkek to Ala-Buka.

The guests were composed mostly of men, representing each of their village lineages in the Naryn, Issyk-Kul, and Talas regions. So on the way to Ala-Buka, the lineage members discussed many interesting issues related to ancestors, lineage, and belongings of Kyrgyz. Let me give a short ethnographic example here – the topic was discussed why some lineage members of Kyrgyzstan ended up being in the north and the rest in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Apparently, different versions exist on the reasons of lineage’s dispersal and they shared these versions with one another. The age category of the group was wide, ranging from 18 to 85 years old. Many sons had come with their fathers, so that they could learn from their fathers about their seven generations. But there were also several women, mostly daughters of Cherik lineage and wives of some lineage members. There was one daughter, a local journalist. She would write a short report of the event at the local newspaper. Seven mini-buses (marshrukta) were organised to transport the representatives of the Cherik lineage groups from Bishkek to Ala-Buka.

Once they arrived in Ala-Buka, almost a hundred elders of the community greeted the members of Cherik lineage from the north of the country. They hosted the guests from the north in a huge yurt restaurant, seating them in the most prestigious places. As I mentioned elsewhere, the seating place (tör) is linked to the status, authority, and prestige (Ismailbekova, 2017) Three different kinds of food were offered and the guests were taken to host families. The host families offered their guests the highest level of hospitality – dignifying their visit with the slaughter of sheep, providing plenty of food, and providing suitable beds. They treated the guests as if they had known them for years, despite the fact that the majority of the guests had only just met their host families. What linked them so closely was their genealogical relatedness based on sharing a common ancestor of Cherik.

During the dinner the guests and hosts debated the history of their Cherik ancestor and forefathers. Discussions also included different theories about how and why one part of the Cherik lineage had come to be located in north and the rest in the south. Each side shared their own version of the origins of their Cherik ancestors and shared their knowledge. Moreover, they were able to reach a satisfactory conclusion by blending versions of their origin stories. It was agreed that their Cherik ancestor originated from southern Kyrgyzstan, but later one of the younger sons of the Cherik had moved to the north, therefore explaining why they continued to have a presence there. On the following day there was a huge feast with music and dance. Important elders, lineage association members, party leaders and politicians gave speeches. Their speeches related to the honor of the Cherik lineage, and celebrated the honour of being Cherik’s children. For the benefit of the younger generation, the speeches promoted the unity of Cherik by stressing pride in their lineage, endorsed their pride in being part of the extended kin networks, and implored the younger generation to keep the honour of the lineage high.

The honour aspect was expressed in terms of reminding members not to shame the lineage by behaving inappropriately; instead it was proposed that lineage members work honourably (taza ishtegile), discipline themselves (tak ishtoo), and keep their word (sozgo tur). Each lineage member was reminded that he must honour the lineage, because the honour is not linked to him individually, rather it affects the social standing and self-worth of the entire Cherik group. In other words, these institutions have moral messages for their members. Cherik lineage was viewed as the main source of a shared honour. More than a thousand men agreed to follow these rules and pledged themselves to their Cherik lineage. Cherik lineage authorities noted that ‘young people were prone to undertake extreme actions such as drinking to excess, addiction and theft’, but the young people were told to rise above such behaviour.

The speakers also stressed the importance of lineage leaders as representatives in promoting Kyrgyz culture. They mentioned successful members by name, gave a traditional hat (kalpak) to each of them in order to honour them in front of the gathered crowd in recognition of their active public work and for advancing the name of the Cherik lineage. Lineage members from different localities were introduced to the local histories of the Cherik and to the success stories of the lineage’s sons and daughters; their specific contribution to Kyrgyzstan was recounted. Moreover, they also emphasized once more that each member of the Cherik lineage association was willing to help any person who asked for their support or assistance.

These close observations of the functioning of lineage associations are groundbreaking in many ways and thus provide us with the innovative insights at the conjuncture of ‘modernity’ and ‘traditionalism’, leading us to question the validity of those categories altogether. In contemporary associations, current formal meetings, registrations, and slogans become a forum for the discovery and negotiation of lineages, kin networks, and local cultural values that transcend the ages. Kinship cannot be considered ‘of the past’ or dismissed as a form of ‘tribalism’. Rather, in my own project I am showing how kinship is lived in communities today: organizing relatedness across regions and generations has been the main provider of social security for people in Kyrgyzstan. Across Central Asia, it is important to understand how kinship has been a strong mode of coping with social and economic transformation, finding connection, support, and a source of purpose in the present, as well as a direction for the future.

[i] Ismailbekova, Aksana. 2017. Blood Ties and the Native Son: Poetics of Patronage in Kyrgyzstan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press