Establishing a new meshrep in an Almaty suburb, 4 July 2022

Meshrep gatherings are widely viewed by Uyghurs in Kazakhstan as tools for community building and education. As Qurban Oktyabir, a long-standing meshrep member based in Almaty, explains:

We meet together in order to create solidarity among our people. People get to know each other through meshrep; they learn right from wrong, they how to act properly. We have a saying: first send your son to school, then send him to the meshrep.

Meshrep in Kazakhstan are exclusively male. Uyghur women in Kazakhstan organise separate but equally important groups known as chay which serve similar goals of community organisation and education for young women (see Harris and Karimova 2022). 

The meshrep revival in Kazakhstan came as a direct result of community concerns for the continuity of Uyghur identity and community in the 2010s. Karlen Maxpirov, a respected community leader and key member of our research project, explained how these goals have underpinned Kazakhstan’s meshrep revival:

Our Kazakhstan Uyghurs have been looking for the best way to sustain our culture and community for a long time. We held many meetings to discuss the problem, and meshrep is one way we found to do this. We’ve done a lot of work over the past 10 years. We organised a big city-wide meshrep every year for seven years, to draw in our young people. We didn’t just teach music and customs, we also taught our young people how to organise, how to come together.  Now we are organising a new youth meshrep group in Qaraghay neighbourhood made up of boys aged 12 to 17. Our meshrep elders are going to support them.

The plan to initiate a new meshrep group in one of Almaty’s poorer outlying Uyghur suburbs came as a result of discussions during our research trips to Kazakhstan in 2019, but it was implemented only in 2022 after two years of intermittent lockdowns and the cessation of most community gatherings.

Qaraghay (Karagayly) is situated in the southwest corner of Almaty, at the foot of the mountains. It is a district of apple orchards, a mountain village only recently designated a suburb of Almaty. 

The plan to form a new meshrep in this neighbourhood was made possible because of the presence of Bexityar Ismailov a local school teacher and experienced meshrep member who has undertaken to lead gatherings and teach the group how to play meshrep. He explained the circumstances and the history of the community, tracing its roots back to the early Soviet period:

A man called Kibir Ushurov first led Uyghurs to live here in 1927. Back then this was a kolkhoz (collective farm) called Chapayev. Today there are 250 Uyghur families here. They are doing well. They send their children to study at a nearby Uyghur school. Every family has their own plot of land in the neighbourhood. There are traders, small holders, a glass maker, and some people raise animals. 

The first meeting of the new meshrep is held in the garden of a big house at the village crossroads. They will continue to meet with Bextiyar for a year. After that the community hopes that the group will be able to continue independently. Several Uyghur community leaders – including Karlen Maxpirov and Yar Muhammad Kibir, former leader of the council of Uyghur Yigit Beshi (neighbourhood heads) – have turned out for this inaugural meeting, lending their weight to the initiative. Bextiyar explains the community’s thinking in supporting this new meshrep group:

Our fathers and grandfathers played meshrep; they were farmers, that was how they relaxed in their free time. Now the times are different but we play meshrep to remember our customs, to teach young people how to relate to their elders, how to take responsibility for their community, how to help each other. We need our young people to gather together. After this first meshrep we want them to continue to meet every two months. We’re going to support them. We’ll talk to their parents and make sure they keep coming. We’re going to teach them about Uyghur culture, music, history, Uyghur language, and Dawa-Dastur (the meshrep’s informal court). 

The boys seat themselves around a large carpet in the garden and the meshrep begins, punctuated by the roar of heavy trucks passing along the main road of the village hauling goods up and down the mountain. 

In the first segment, Bextiyar explains the rules of the meshrep: how to sit properly, the importance of turning up and being punctual, how to ask permission to speak, and the meaning of Dawa-Dastur: the informal court when members who have transgressed the rules of the meshrep are judged and punished by being made to perform comical skits. 

Then they elect the meshrep Begs (leaders). Bextiyar consults the boys over each choice and asks them for nominations. Several of them struggle to speak in Uyghur and revert to Russian. The oldest boy is chosen to be Meshrep Beg. A guitarist is chosen to be Dari Beg (organiser of the entertainment). Bextiyar asks him to sing a couple of lines of his own composition, which turns out to be a hip-hop style Russian language song. “Next time we want dutar and melody,” says Bextiyar. A bright looking younger boy who says his dad used to play meshrep takes the role of Köl Beg (organiser of the food). He says he can cook, and even make hand-pulled laghman noodles. 

Then it’s time for dancing. They have invited a group of students who are learning Uyghur instruments at the Tchaikovsky Academy in Almaty. The musicians play dance songs and the boys stand in a circle. They giggle nervously and attempt some fantastically awkward moves. The older men step in to show them how it’s done. 

Finally the elders deliver short lectures. Yar Muhammad tells them about the importance of meshrep, how it teaches them to be men and to serve the community. Karlen Maxpirov lectures the boys on respectful behaviour. He speaks first in Uyghur then switches to Russian to make sure the message is getting through. 

The boys are unused to this level of discipline and they clearly have some way to go in terms of traditional forms of Uyghur socialisation, but they are interested. We will continue to trace the development of the Qaraghay meshrep over the next few years. Will the boys sustain this newly forged social group? Will they seek out traditional culture, develop their Uyghur language skills and learn Uyghur dance, or will Russian language hip-hop become the medium for new forms of Uyghur community and solidarity in this Almaty suburb?