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Sary-Ata Meets the Sheikhs

January 9, 2014

From September 2010 to July 2011, I was priveleged to work in Kyrgyzstan on a Fulbright Fellowship, documenting falconry practices for a research project I had called “Kyrgyz Berkutchi and the Maintenance of Traditional Knowledge.” My nearly-a-year as a Fulbrighter was a charmed time in my life, when I had the freedom to travel through a small, beautiful country, work with an assistant, speak extensively with hunters and grow familiar with their way of life. The grant ended but the dream didn’t die, and after two years of American purgatory I returned to Central Asia in June of 2013. All summer I was studying in Almaty, Kazakhstan, but by the fall, I was back to where I had started. I was able to see my beloved Kyrgyzstan again, and my beloved Lake Issyk Kul.

The Lake, as it’s intimately known, was where I did most of my research. As someone new to the world of Kyrgyz falconry, I wanted to find a guru, a teacher to share his knowledge, and I found one in Sary Satylganov. I called him Sary-Ata, or Grandpa Sary. He was an 83-year old master who had been working with birds of prey for seven decades, and he lived on The Lake, in an adobe home, in the remnants of a collective farm called Ak Sai. I stayed with Sary-Ata’s family several times over my charmed Fulbright stint. I grew quite close to them — to Rustam, the grandson who trapped and shot as well as he hawked; to Ermek, the great-grandson who brought me a dead pheasant once when I asked for a pillow; to their taigan dogs, who we nicknamed Bow Wow and Bow Meow. Then, I was gone, and it wasn’t until September that I saw my Kyrgyz grandpa again.

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That month there was a Salburun Festival in Cholpon-Ata, and Sary-Ata likes to attend those things. Perhaps that’s because when he shows up to the show, he’s flocked by younger falconers, all itching for his expert advice. He’s a star. When I showed up at this festival, two years since we said goodbye, Sary-Ata saw me and smiled like I had shown up right on time. I caught him up a bit in Kazakh – he didn’t seem to wonder where I had learned a Central Asian language, or why I was speaking Kazakh to a Kyrgyz guy. The language barrier was still thick, but we always found a way of overcoming it. Sary-Ata would just pat my hand and nod, and somehow that was enough.

Meanwhile, a group of falconry diplomats, we could call them, had arrived from the IAF, the International Association for Falconry, and this time they were the stars of the occasion. There was Gary Timbrell, the Secretary from Ireland, Willem Vrijenhoek from Holland, and three Arabs from Qatar – Zayed, Mohammad, and Ali. Almaz, the Salburun ringleader, was tied in knots catering to the guests needs (I was happily drafted into service as an interpreter), and the media were there in numbers to speak with this delegation from abroad, this delegation that had come to see what Kyrgyz falconry had to offer.

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It was curious to see Sary-Ata, a humble man from a collective farm, surrounded by such an international hubbub. When he posed for pictures with the sheikhs, it seemed unreal, like they were painted onto a canvas and he was sticking his head through a cutout hole. The foreign falconers gathered in a conference room for a televised meeting, but Sary-Ata turned down his invitation. Instead, he sat drinking tea with some other older men, all looking patiently bewildered by their surroundings.

The festival and conference were held at a kind of open-air museum called Rukh Ordo, which means “Spiritual Center” in Kyrgyz. Small chapel-like buildings stood in a circle, one for each of the world religions, but the prime real estate, fronting The Lake, was dominated by shrines to national figures like Sayakbay Karalaev. He was an oral poet, a reader of the epic Manas first and foremost, but he was also an authority on falconry with golden eagles. An art gallery nearby in the complex featured a giant mural of a man calling an eagle, but the man wasn’t standing like a hunter —he was seated like a meditating sage. Falconers like Sary-Ata, the place seemed to say, were not just providers or hobbyists. They were holy men.

In this park devoted to the sacred Kyrgyz past, falconry was a central icon, and the foreign visitors came to pay their respects as if on pilgrimage. There was a parade for the spectators, but my Kyrgyz grandpa, sitting on a lawn with his fellow elders, went practically unnoticed. He wore no halo and required no reverence. The sheikhs watched the show and Sary-Ata melted into the scene.