World News

Nationalist resurgence fires up Kyrgyzstan's traditional storytellers

TALAS, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - For hours now, Doolot Sydykov has been sitting on a platform in the middle of Bishkek’s main square, half-singing, half-speaking, eyes closed and rocking from side to side.

The sight of Sydykov in a trance-like state, dressed in traditional Kyrgyz garb and a fur hat, is striking. But every Kyrgyz will know that he is reciting the Epic of Manas, a poem half a million lines long about the history of their homeland, and that he is one of the manaschi, the professional storytellers who have passed it down over the generations.

The epic is recited at many public events, including at the political rallies which ultimately toppled the Bishkek government two months ago, bringing nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov to power.

Last month, Sydykov, a well-known manaschi, launched a challenge to promote his art by reciting the Epic of Manas non-stop for over 14 hours on Bishkek’s Ala Too Square. Other manaschi performed similar feats, with one reciting the poem on top of a mountain 4,000 metres above sea level.

The poem strikes a chord with the current mood, recounting the story of a medieval military and political leader credited with reuniting scattered Kyrgyz tribes and reclaiming their homeland in the northeastern part of the Tian Shan mountain range.

“To Kyrgyzstan, Manas is sacred,” Sydykov says.

Sydykov’s campaign to promote Manas coincides with a nationalist resurgence in Kyrgyzstan’s society and politics. Even before Japarov’s rise to power, a right-wing movement gained prominence whose name, Kyrk Choro (Fourty Knights) is a reference to the Manas epic.

Reporting by Marlis Myrzakul uulu; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky