When your roommate is bride-kidnapped

The Road to Emgekchil, the village where Merim was taken.

The Road to Emgekchil, the village where Merim was taken.

Last night my roommate was bride-kidnapped … it was dark, she went out, “I’ll be back soon. She won’t cry,” she said of her 18 month old daughter, whom she left behind. The kid, of course, starts wailing the second her mother closes the door. Three hours later, Merim hadn’t come back. My research assistant—with whom I’m living and who is a relative of said roommate—and I had gone to sleep. And some unknown man bangs on the door, comes in, takes the sleeping baby, and disappears without explanation (we later found out it was the kidnapee’s little brother). Ummmmmm. We call Merim 5 times, 6 times. Finally she picks up and says, “I’ve been bride-kidnapped. I’m in Emgekchil [a tiny village about 40 minutes away from where we were staying and, coincidentally, where I’d been earlier in the day to interview aksakal judges]. Call my mother.” And then the phone is shut off, hasn’t been turned on since.

Soviet war monument in Emgekchil, KG.

Soviet war monument in Emgekchil, KG.

We couldn’t reach her mom until this morning (Victory Day, a big-deal Soviet holiday celebrating the end of WWII). “Yes, Merim was bride kidnapped. She sat. We’ll come and take the baby’s things this morning.” The phrase “she sat” means that she consented … the way a bride kidnapping works is that the man and his friends trundle you off in a car, then his female relatives mob you at his house, put a wedding veil over your head and tell you to sit. If you keep the veil on and sit, you’ve consented. If you don’t sit, they’ll keep on trying for hours. Once you’re worn down, the guy comes, has sex with you and that’s it. So … Merim is now a bride.

A bunch of things were weird about this, even from a traditional Kyrgyz perspective. Often kidnapees are young virgins, i.e. the most desirable and most easily intimidated of women. Merim was young – 21 – but she had a baby and claimed to have been married (she told us her husband was off working in Moscow; now I think they were either divorced or never married). She also was clearly going on dates with whoever it was that kidnapped her. Why he didn’t just ask her to marry is beyond me. Or maybe he did ask and she refused, another not-uncommon set-up for a bride-kidnapping. (Recall Aika, my host sister, and the ‘no means yes’ moment with her suitor).

Emgekchil town hall. We visited and interviewed the town's Court of Elders the day before Merim's bride kidnapping.

Emgekchil town hall. We visited and interviewed the town’s Court of Elders the day before Merim’s bride kidnapping.

So now we (assistant and I) have an apartment, with all of Merim’s stuff [the remnants of a 20-something single mom’s life: port-a-potty, make-up, a few potatoes, onions, and photos of her not-long-ago college clubbing days]. But no Merim, no baby. It’s weird. And we have to go back to Emgekchil on Monday to do more interviews, which is going to be even more weird (Is Merim in this house? That house? What does her husband do here? How are her new relatives treating her? What will to happen to the baby?)

Main mosque of Naryn, the town where we're living.

Main mosque of Naryn, the town where we’re living.

So … that’s life. For the past couple of months I’ve been living in rural Kyrgyzstan, where apparently such occurrences are normal. My goal has been to find and interview judges scattered throughout the villages. So far we’ve done roughly 40 interviews with judges of the Courts of Elders, and we have 3 more months to go. As far as the research results: I’ve been surprised by some of the cases these courts are dealing with. For example, many people are still arguing over contracts written over 25 years ago, during the haphazard privatization that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. In one case, there were so many people claiming ownership of an ex-kolkhoz’s – a.k.a. collectivized farm’s – library that the town (on the aksakals’ suggestion) donated it to the local mosque. The mosque turned it into a madrassa. This is surely not in accordance with standard Kyrgyz property law, but I think there was skepticism on all sides that any of the claimants’ documents were real … bribery and forgery are big problems here. We visited the madrassa. It’s a little mud-brick building that’s still abandoned.

The MadrasaMost of the cases in the rural areas involve what we would call drunk and disorderly conduct: wavery, angry, drunk men swearing at their neighbors, beating their wives and breaking store windows. [Side-note: not sure what the laws are on freedom of speech here, but the aksakals certainly consider swearing a punishable offense, even if the swearer isn’t drunk]. In contrast, in Bishkek (the capital) the majority of cases were about water damage from neighbors’ leaking pipes. Lots of old Soviet apartment buildings there, falling apart.

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