August 2020, Kazakhstan
The Almaty meshrep has played the leading role in the meshrep revival in Kazakhstan over the past decade. It began in 2009, led by Meshrep Beg Burhan Tajidinov, based on models of meshrep from the Uyghur homeland. It serves as a model for other meshrep groups in Kazakhstan. Burhan is invited by new groups to show them the rules; how meshrep should be organised, and how they should be played.
The members of the meshrep are known as the Thirty Boys (ottuz oghul). Most of them are professionals, business men, and community leaders. Many hold the formal role of neighbourhood head (yigit beshi), and hold responsibility for community affairs in their local area. An important part of the work done by the meshrep is to promote community cohesion and action. Burhan explains:
When we organise meshrep like this we can get things done. If someone says they need some help, we get together to discuss it, and we can usually help them. We help writers with publishing their books … If people come to the Thirty Boys, we try to help them. If a family has some trouble and there’s no-one to sort it out …
The other goal of the meshrep is to promote Uyghur language and culture within communities in Kazakhstan. Burhan explains:
We need to know our mother tongue. Someone who has studied in the Uyghur language turns out a Uyghur. He perceives his nation differently. If he studies in another language, he might look like a Uyghur on the outside, but inside he’s completely different. So we should respect our mother tongue … Someone who plays meshrep knows his own history, art, and customs. If he doesn’t know his roots, it’s a problem for the nation.
On 25 August, 2019, the Almaty Meshrep gathered in the home of Tarim (Osman Tarimov), a retired Uyghur businessman. His family has an illustrious history – his grandfather was a commander of four regiments under the East Turkestan Republic – and the family moved across the Soviet-Chinese border several times over the course of the early-mid twentieth century before settling in Almaty in 1959. They built the family home in Gorny Gigant, which is now the richest part of Almaty, in a stunning location with views over the mountains.
Photo: joking at the Almaty meshrep
A meaty noodle soup is served to the assembled men, and the guests are formally introduced. The Pashshap Beg, who is in charge of discipline during the meshrep, stands at the side of the table holding his wooden rod (gultayaq) ready. After the food they move to the garden and sit around a dasthan (cloth) laid on the grass to enjoy joking and music.
They are entertained by some of the top Uyghur musicians in Kazakhstan. The group is led veteran musician Adiljan, himself a member of the Yerkend meshrep and master of the traditional regional repertoire.
Photo: Adiljan enjoying a joke
Adiljan is joined by two younger musicians, both trained in the Almaty conservatory: Nurum – who is a member of the Almaty meshrep, and also plays in Diyar Ensemble – plays the tambur, and Dilyar, a rising star from a musical family in the town of Bayseit, plays satar. Nurghun has brought along his young son, who gamely attempts to play along on guitar. Later, they accompany the professional singer, Farhat Molotov, in another classic Ili folk song.
After the music, and a short break, it’s time for the court. This is an important part of the meshrep, where members are accused, judged, and punished for minor misdemeanours. Burhan explains:
With rules there is discipline. Without rules there is no discipline. That’s why we’ve stuck tight to the rules since the start. Otherwise there’d always be misunderstandings and problems. We try to do things properly. Our rules are oral; we set them from the beginning. It’s not allowed to be late, for example. When you are a member of the Thirty Boys you have to show respect to the others.
Today, one of the members is accused of leaving the meshrep early last time. He left, claiming he had to meet an old friend, promised to bring his friend back with him, but didn’t return. He is judged guilty, and is punished by the traditional pantomime of “eating dumplings.” He sits in the middle of the cloth; one man holds his arms tightly behind him, while the Pashshap Beg forces him to mime eating dumplings, eating watermelon, and swimming. It is brilliantly executed, the members laugh heartily, and the accused takes the punishment in good part.
The young son of the host’s family and his friends have been making too much noise in another part of the garden, and disturbing the meshrep. They are summoned to the gathering for a lesson in proper behaviour, and taught how to shake hands with an elder, how to pour water for guests to wash their hands before eating, how to serve tea, and how to lay out a table cloth. Burhan comments:
Meshrep have an important role in training the young. Young people only get knowledge from school. Meshrep teach customs, rules, and life experience. There are lots of punishments. They watch them, they learn from that, they know the difference between black and white … People who have seen meshrep lots of difference with those who haven’t. In terms of etiquette, customs, self-control, world view, they’re balanced in every way, they’re good people. If I was to suggest one thing that people who don’t play meshrep are lacking, it’s that they don’t know how to perceive things. People who have played meshrep know how to perceive things. They know how to listen. They’re completely different from others.
The members return to the table to eat lamb pilau and listen to more music. After the food comes dancing, an essential part of the meshrep. The men take turns to perform an informal paired circling dance, strutting and smiling.
Finally it is time for the formal handover from today’s host to the host of the next gathering. They make short speeches, a tray of apples is passed from one to the other, and an apple is handed to each member. The Pashshap Beg hands his rod to the future host to keep safe until their next gathering. It is a gesture of trust, and a guarantee.
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