I’m very excited about flying to Abu Dhabi today for the Falconry of Festival, an impressive international meeting hosted by Dr. Nick Fox. I’ve been invited to give a talk, and for the first time I’ll be speaking about falconry in Kazakh art.
To celebrate the occasion, I’ve launched a new mini-website, a simple photo album of falconry paintings I’ve collected through vigorous web sifting.
While visiting a friend in Kazakhstan’s capital last week, I dropped in on Yerlen Ospanov, the Acting Director of the Association for National Sports. I first met Yerlen at the IAF meeting in Qatar, where he struck me as an ambitious young man who cared a lot about his country and its culture.
Yerlen sits at the head of the falconry bureaucracy in Kazakhstan. His organization is financed by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, and they work to promote not just eagle hunting but traditional horse racing, wrestling, and more. But falconry is most dear to Yerlen’s heart, and last year he helped organize an international conference where falconers came to Astana from all over the world. What I most admired was that the Association had just published a text on falconry, Sayat Qustary, that had been written by Kazakhstan’s most famous ethnographer decades ago but never published in its full form. It was to go to falconry schools around the country to serve as a kind of textbook. Preserving that kind of traditional knowledge is very important, and it’s heartening to see that it’s taken seriously as such a high level.
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!
I had fond memories of the librarians in Bishkek. My first trip there, during my Fulbright year in 2010, I went to the National Library of Kyrgyzstan with my research assistant Abay and we were waited on hand and foot. Maybe they were just super thrilled to have a foreign scholar asking about texts nobody ever touched, but the librarians helped us find falconry books with what seemed like personal fascination, scouring their shelves and delighting every time they found another musty hardcover to stack before us. They even let me take photos of some of the books, hush hush, and when they found that the library had a digital copy of one of them, they put it on a flash drive for me. Then I was struck by tragedy: the hard drive where I kept all these finds was corrupted, and the devotion of my new librarian partners was rendered futile. The books were gone.
I was back in Kyrgyzstan for the Salburun Festival, and at last I found a moment to redeem that awful accident. The librarians didn’t seem to remember me this time, but they were smitten at my attempts to speak Kyrgyz and again took up my mission with aplomb. I was led to a computer room and personally introduced to its attendant, who then searched the catalog term by term for the kind of material I was looking for. I certainly could have done this myself, but the personal service was of course appreciated. When we finally found some results, the librarian working in this 21st century computer lab had to go over to another wing of the library and bring back a stack of index cards from the mid 20th. These cards led me to the archive, where the books had to then be retrieved by another librarian lady.
Sitting in the narrow hallway of the archive, I was able to take a few pictures for my bibliography, but I’ll need to go back to the library with some more time on my hands to really dig into the texts (I came late in the afternoon, and the booklords were all itching to go home). What I did find was wonderful. I’ve added these all to the Other Texts section, but here’s the short-and-sweet. The first was a vanity project from the late Issyk Kul falconer Sagymbai Zarnaiev, A Guide to the Art of Falconry, Eagle and Falconry Husbandry, Training and Hunting. A falconer from the next generation, Aldayarbek Abdybekov, also put out his own manual, called The Falconer, and that was the second book I was able to find. I had found a digital copy before of the third book, Kyrgyz Falconry, but this was the first time I saw it in print. My last find was fictional, a book of short stories about falconry by the famous Manaschi Sayakbai Karalaiev.
Documenting these works for my bibliography, I was thrilled by the existence of new sources, but I was also hit by the vertigo of knowing that here were four big books that I knew I may never have time to really sit down and fully digest. They were all in Kyrgyz, a language I’m still shaky at, and though I could photograph the covers, the bulk of the texts still lay unread in Bishkek’s library. What I hope, perhaps unrealistically, is that there might be some falconry enthusiast somewhere down the line who gets excited about the work I’ve already done and wants to dive into the literature themselves. If they do, I can promise them one thing: the librarians are there to hold your hand.
The bürkütchülör, or eagle hunters, of Kyrgyzstan are world famous. In my Fulbright research on Kyrgyz falconry, I tried to understand the roots and implications of this fame, and I worked almost entirely with bürkütchülör. Lately, I’ve been regretting that I didn’t spend more time speaking to falconers who flew smaller birds of prey, like goshawks, peregrines, and sakers. On September 4th and 5th, a couple dozen falconers came to the lake town of Cholpon-Ata for the 2nd annual International Salburun Festival, and I took this opportunity to photograph and interview several of Kyrgyzstan’s overshadowed hawkers.
Nurbek, 23 years old, Bosteri, Issyk Kul province.
Nurbek was strikingly tall and unflinchingly serious. When he was a boy, he became interested in falconry. Though nobody in his immediate family practiced, it was somehow his fate, as his great great grandfathers had been falconers and bürkütchülör, too. On his fist was a saker falcon, a year old, still quite small, he said, that he would use to hunt ducks and pheasants in the winter. Last winter he had a different bird. Nurbek would take a new one every year, training, hunting, and releasing on a compact schedule.
Melisbek Barpyev, 40 years old, Talas.
Melis spoke Russian better than most of the other falconers, and he was a gregarious subject, chatting up foreign falconers with conviction. Other falconers, like David Tsaro from Georgia, were concerned that his one-year-old goshawk was too thin, and it had some bumps on its legs that were disconcerting. Melis argued that he was just trying to get the bird at a good flying weight, that it was perfectly normal that it hadn’t molted that summer, and that he had fashioned special velvet bumpers to protect the jesses from rubbing against the troublesome scabs. He had years of experience, he insisted. When he was little, his parents were often gone, and his grandfather would feed him with the chukhar partridges that he would catch with his hawks. When he got old enough, in 6th grade, he took up his grandfather’s tradition himself, catching a red-footed falcon, or jagalmai. Now he was a proudly experienced kuschu, or goshawker.
Eldiyar Tulumbek, 33 years old, Kara-Oy, Issyk Kul province.
Eldiyar learned how to hunt from his older brother. His father and grandfather weren’t interested in falconry, but his brother learned from his friends and passed it on. He caught his goshawk in the mountains with a net and a pigeon. It was young, he said, only a month or two old, but he didn’t know yet whether it was a male or female.
Argen Altynbek, 16 years old, Chon-Oruktu village, Issyk Kul province.
The young falconer Argen stood shyly with his 2-year old peregrine, wearing a t-shirt that read “Muslim Terrorist” and a denim glove that looked too big on his skinny arms. He wasn’t enthusiastic about being interviewed, speaking little Russian, but when Sheikh Zayed from Qatar came and asked if he could come to Chon-Oruktu to see how his peregrine flew, Argen nodded with confidence. Peregrines were relatively rare at the festival, and the boy must have known he was special.
Azim Shaibyrov, 9 years old, Bokonbaevo, Issyk Kul province.
Young Azim won first place in the falcon division with his juvenile peregrine, but it wasn’t his first brush with fame. His father, Talgar, is perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s most recognizable eagle hunter, and he and Azim even appeared together in the Daily Mail. With a predator in one hand and a trophy just as large in the other, Azim was bashful, uncomfortable with the burden of being the face of Kyrgyzstan’s falconry future. It was a good sign, though, to see that Talgar’s young prodigy worked well with both eagles and peregrines. Falconry in Kyrgyzstan would remain strong and diverse well into the next generation.