Kayrat, or Gheyret in the Uyghur pronunciation, is a small town in southeast Kazakhstan, which lies an hour’s drive east from Almaty. The town is 80% Uyghur, but it is home to many different ethnicities: Kazakhs, Russians, Turks, Azarbaijans and Germans, though many left after independence, even a few remaining Crimean Tatars who were transferred there in the 1930s. In this region there has been a lot of intermarriage, and local people joke that the area is an ethnic “compote”: a mixed fruit jam. Twenty years ago, Uyghur was the dominant language here, but things have gradually changed.
There are few prospects for young people in this town, and many young men now work in Almaty in precarious jobs such as builders or drivers.
Bekhitshat is the “judge” (qazi beg) of the meshrep. He is one of the luckier ones; his young family is settled in Almaty, and he holds a good job as foreman for a construction company building luxury flats in Almaty. He goes back to Gheyret regularly for meshrep and weddings. He describes how the Gheyret youth meshrep was set up:
In 2013 our elders told us that there was too much drinking and smoking in the neighbourhood, and not enough respecting each other, and the youngsters needed to sort themselves out. So we got together a group of young people and made a Youth Committee. We went to different towns and attended different meshrep: the Almaty and Nur meshrep, and meshrep from other regions. Then we got together the young people from our neighbourhood, and we said, if we play meshrep we can save our customs and understand our culture; and we set up our meshrep.
2013-yilliri chong akilirimiz «medeniyitimizning yoqilishigha sewepchi boliwatqan mehelining ichide haraq ichish, tamaka chekish, bir-birini hörmet qilmasliq oxshash tertipsizlikler köpiyip ketiwatidu, yashlarning beshini qoshush kerek» dëgendin keyin, bir top yashlar yighilip, Yashlar Komitetini qurduq. Biz sheherlerge berip, meshreplerni körüp, «Almuta», «Nur» meshreplirini, rayonluq meshreplerni körüp, bizmu mehelimizde balilarni yighip, meshrep oynisaq, shuning arqiliq orp-adetlirimizni saqlap qalsaq, medeniyitimizni körsetsek dep, meshrep qurduq.
Tonight’s meshrep is scheduled to start at 8pm, as most of the meshrep members must drive back from Almaty after finishing the day’s work. Due to some last-minute problems with the local authorities, the venue has been moved to the neighbouring town of Bayseit.
A late booking in a restaurant means that the gathering is held in a crowded room adjoining a noisy disco, but the young men are in good spirits as they gather outside. They are proud of their meshrep. They took part in a meshrep competition held in Almaty in 2018, and won runner’s up prize; an impressive achievement for the meshrep of a small town like Gheyret.
As they enter, the meshrep members, or Thirty Boys (ottuz oghul) as they are properly termed, wash their hands with water poured from a ewer; they pass through the door, hand on heart, saying “essalam aleykum,” and sit at the long table laden with fruit and snacks. The three meshrep law enforcers (pashshap beg), holding wooden rods (gultayaq), are in charge of upholding order and keeping the mood light with their jokes. The meshrep starts formally with speeches and a prayer, then soup is served.
Two musicians arrive; both older men invited from the neighbouring town of Malway. They play tambur and dutar long-necked lutes, and sing classic folk songs from the Ili valley: Song of the Caravan and Black Sheep Eyes.
One of the members has arrived late: a serious transgression of the meshrep rules. He gives a speech to apologise: he had to drive here from Almaty and got caught in the city’s traffic. During the break he shows us a board holding photos of the local football league. He works as a foreman for the transnational tobacco company Philip Morris: a big employer in the area which is a major centre for tobacco production. He persuaded the company to build a football ground for Gheyret, and one of the meshrep’s big successes is its prize-winning football team.
In the second part, the pashshap beg encourage meshrep members to show off their ability in Uyghur language and culture, by reciting poems or singing a song.
The finest singer among the meshrep members is Adiljan, a carpenter by trade, who lives and works in Almaty and comes back to sing at meshrep and weddings at the weekend. He sings an emotional song which delivers a powerful message of survival in the face of adversity. His voice is strong, and resonates above the thudding beats of the disco next door and the hooting of cars in a wedding procession outside.
“Untuma” (Don’t Forget)
Nishaning’gha tegmey oqung Bilinmise baru-yoqung Omer tolup yashalmaysen hich qachan Ya mertlik bolalmastin Yeqilghanda turalmastin Ozge qedem tashalmaysen hich qachan Yashash uchun kelgenningni untuma
When your bullet misses its target When no-one knows if you’re alive or dead When you can’t live life to the full When you can’t be generous When you fall and can’t stand up When you can’t take a step forward Don’t forget, you came into this world to live
Another of the meshrep members, Abduljan Aznibakiev, has published a book of his own Uyghur language poems. Bekhitshat has memorised one of the poems – an ode to their hometown – and he recites it for the meshrep members:
My birthplace, my beloved Gheyret, Your water is clear, your soil is rich. Your people are prosperous, Your riches will never leave you.
Tughulghan yurtum, bushugum Gheyret, Baghringda taptim bekhit hem amet. Baghu-etizing keng tasha, korkem, Yadlaymen seni yurekte abet.
My birthplace, my cradle Gheyret, From you I found my fortune and opportunity. Your orchards and fields are broad and beautiful, I will always praise you in my heart.
The third part of the meshrep is for the Court (dawa-dastur). The table is pushed to the side, and the chairs are arranged around a carpet. The judge has made a record of misdemeanours in his notebook, and four meshrep members stand before court to face judgement. Their crimes are minor: failing to serve properly, taking food out of turn, or talking during music. Some confess their crime, others claim innocence. There is a lively discussion with a lot of joking, but this collective decision-making is ruled by strong etiquette. Each speaker raises his hand for permission and says, “Essalam aleykum, respected Thirty Boys, my Lord, with your permission …” (Essalam aleykum, hormetlik ottuz oghul, begum bashliq, ruhset bering …)
Those who have committed a crime must pay a penalty. Again there is a heated discussion around the appropriate punishment. One member is asked to name four Uyghur heroes. Another tries and fails to name four Uyghur poets, and is made to crawl around the carpet braying like a donkey while the pashshap begs beat him on the behind with their gultayaq.
The main purpose of playing meshrep is discipline. For example, now people who used to drink, or smoke in front of their elders have stopped. The elders say, “Look after the meshrep started the young people have learned how to greet us.” … After young people start to play meshrep they look at things differently. For example, young people who speak Russian to their parents, or young people who went to Russian school, they start to understand who they are. If they have Uyghur written in their passport they start to think, I am Uyghur, I belong to a great nation; they start to accept that.
Meshrep oynashning mexset asasiy balilarni tertipke sëlish. Mesilen, hazir burunqidek haraq ichishlar, chonglarning qëshida tamaka chëkishlar toxtidi. Chonglarmu «mana, meshreptin këyin yashlar salam bërishqa bashlidi» dep yürdi. … Meshreplerge berip yurgendin keyin balilarning hayatqa bolghan közqarishi özgerti. Mesilen, ata-anisi bilen Rusche sözlishidighan balilar, Rusche oqughan balilar meshreplerge berip, özining kim ikenligini chüshendi. Pasportida Uyghur degen yeziq bar bolsimu, men Uyghurkenmen, bir chong milletkenmen degen chüshenchini qobul qilishqa bashlidi.
The meshrep ends with big bowls of milky tea made with brick tea and curds: the local favourite. Its name is “prepared tea” (etken chay) but here they say “etkgen chay – ketken chay” (prepared tea – tea for parting). It will sustain the meshrep members on the late-night drive back to Almaty.