One of the joys of Bishkek is its sidewalk book dealers, ruddy middle-aged men who lay Soviet books out on bedsheets and give them away for a buck, two bucks, three bucks. I live in Kazakhstan these days but was over the border in Kyrgyzstan for the weekend when I spotted one of these booksellers with a real beauty: a collection called Kyrgyz National Folktales, packed with woodblock prints and containing, to my delight, three fairytales about falconry.
The first story, The Grey Hawk, was told to Kasymbek Eshmambetov, one of the book’s editors, by an old man named Umarkul Jakiev in a small village near Bishkek (Eshmambetov, I just learned, also edited a whole book called The Hunter with the Golden Eagle: Stories and Folktales – gotta hunt that one down!) In the tale, a poor man captures a hawk for hunting with, but it turns out the hawk can talk, and it tells the man that if he releases him he will grant him any of his desires. Standard folklore material, yeah, but how many folktales tell you how to trap a hawk, net and pigeons and all?
The second story, Japalak’s Wife, is about a beautiful woman who is courted by the khan, an entitled character who can’t believe that she’s married to a peasant. She has her husband, whose name Japalak happens to mean “owl” in Kyrgyz, catch a little owlet himself, and they sew it a hood and feed it and raise it well, until the day when she orders Japalak to take it to the khan’s court and sic the owl on his queen. A strange, scandalous story, and one that comes with a beautiful woodcut print of an owl and its ornamental tomogo hood.
The last story is short, but especially important, as it tells the story of Ak-Shumkar, the most famous falcon in Kyrgyzstan. This bird, a white gyrfalcon, even has a prominent political party named after it, all because it was the faithful servant of Manas, promising after his death to deliver its children to his descendants. Every twelve years, a new bird returns, an echo of the Kyrgyz lifecycle based on the duodecimal zodiac and the belief, occasionally recorded in Kyrgyzstan, that falconry birds should be released every twelve years to mate and live out their days.
The folktales were simple so I could translate them fairly easily to English, and I’ve published these never-before-seen English renditions on the Central Asian Falconry Project’s Scribd site. Have a read and I hope you like them!