I was born in 1986 in the village of Karabulak in the Zaysan district of the East Kazakhstan region. When I think back to my childhood, I realize that I didn’t really have one. We (at least, my peers and I) didn’t have carefree playtime as children. This was because our carefree and lively time coincided with Kazakhstan gaining independence. During those years, the country was going through an economic crisis. Consequently, the situation for the population was not very bright, and many had to survive. I remember the introduction of the national currency — the tenge. We would go to the store and pay with 1 tenge featuring the image of Al-Farabi. At that time, bread was rationed. The lack of basic necessities greatly affected me. I always worried that we would run out of flour at home. Not only our house, but our neighbors also experienced the taste of scarcity. People in the village had no money, so we would exchange various products with each other. Material difficulties — the lack of money, bread, clothing — only toughened us and motivated us to work.
My mother is from Tarbagatay, and my father is from Zaysan. My father was stylish in his time. When he met my mother, he had long hair and a hat. In addition, my father worked as a foreman and owned an “Ural” motorcycle. My mother, who did not finish her studies at the conservatory, married him. She took care of all the household chores and was the perfect wife. My father also loved my mother very much and supported her in every way. When I was studying in the city, he once asked me to bring an umbrella for my mother. That’s how much he loved her and protected her from the sun.
My parents were very hardworking — my father was skilled, and my mother sang beautifully and played the dombra (a traditional Kazakh musical instrument). My father made saddles, chests, dowry items, and much more. And my mother was a housewife who took care of her three children. She was neat, loved comfort and beauty, and also did embroidery. In general, she was a jack of all trades and could turn anything she touched into something beautiful. My mother also helped my father mow the grass, herd the cattle, collect firewood, and gather manure. If my father was building a barn for someone, my mother would be right there handing him bricks. She helped him with sowing and harvesting millet. With the money earned from selling millet, we would buy whatever we wanted. Their example of hard work helped me understand that bread earned through one’s diligence is sweet. No matter how difficult the work may be, it will be justified in proportion to one’s diligence. Our parents instilled in us the value of hard work and always rewarded us for our accomplishments. «Snickers,» «Bounty,» «Yupi,» which many only saw in commercials, and the clothes we wanted — they bought everything for us. «You worked tirelessly, and it’s your merit,» they would say.
On the facade of our house hung a sign that said «model family.» And it was true — my parents were hardworking, artistic people. All three of us girls had excellent grades and participated in various Olympiads. No school event would take place without us. In addition, we took care of the cleanliness of the courtyard and tended to my mother’s flower beds. Every meal wouldn’t start until my father did, as my mother instilled this tradition in us from childhood. It was a kind of ritual. On our birthdays, we would sit with a candle (there was no electricity back then) and congratulate each other with poems and songs. My father dedicated a poem to me that started with the line, «My little black daughter.» Then the three of us would put on a concert for our parents.
Our village was very close-knit. Every year on Nauryz, we would compete with other streets. And we always tried to win. My father would display his crafts, and my mother would wear traditional Kazakh dresses and cook Nauryz kozhe. As the evening approached, a concert would start, with my mother singing and my father putting on a play. One time, my father made fake mustaches out of goat’s wool and lost them on stage. I love art in general. In my childhood, I participated in a competition called aitys. My father even paid for my trip to the contest with money saved for bread. As a result, I won the grand prize and a cash prize of 5000 tenge.
Now let me tell you about my grandparents. Unfortunately, I never met my mother’s or father’s fathers. They passed away before I was born. But I received the love of my grandmothers. Grandfather Kaliolda was repressed, but later rehabilitated. Being the eldest in our dynasty, I was raised by my grandmother Mafruza. Until I was 5 or 6 years old, I slept next to her. She spoiled me a lot. As much as I loved her, I must say that she had a stubborn character. She never let us go beyond the gate and was jealous of other children. In her free time, she taught me sewing, placing a thimble in my hands.
In addition, my grandmother often talked about the war, poverty, and labor in the rear. They often went hungry during the war. I remember a phrase my grandmother said: «You can get bread by stepping on the Quran, but you cannot get the Quran by stepping on bread.» At that time, the ideology of Soviet power was based on atheism, and the word Quran and religion were forbidden. Perhaps that’s why my grandmother shared this thought with us. In general, my grandmother knew the value of bread. Later, she moved to live with our aunt, my father’s sister. When I was already studying at the university, my grandmothers passed away. When I was told that my grandmother had died, it seemed like the connection with her was forever severed…
In my childhood, I couldn’t pronounce «nagashy apa» (mother’s mother), only «baba nazdy.» She was cheerful and very generous, and a smile never left her face. She never spoke harsh words to her children. Maybe that’s why I always felt safe in her presence. When I lived with my grandmother Mafruza, there were often quarrels in the house between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law, the daughters-in-law and the sisters-in-law. When my father left home, his relatives, especially his sister, put pressure on my mother. At that time, we were young and didn’t know how to protect our mother. Overall, these conflicts had a negative impact on me and increased my fear. I still don’t understand why they acted that way…
Nowadays, women have grown mentally and spiritually. They know how to defend themselves, maintain personal boundaries, and respect their mothers-in-law, building peaceful relationships with everyone. And the modern youth are different, they engage in sports, eat healthy. I am pleased that they are conscious and come to this realization on their own.
This year marks 20 years since I graduated from school, and recently I visited my hometown. We had a week-long program dedicated to the 20th anniversary. As part of this, we made a gift to our hometown. All the graduates showcased their achievements. We celebrated the anniversary at a very high level.
My hometown, Karabulak, is a place where Kazakh traditions and customs are still preserved. There aren’t many Russians in our village, and even if there were, they spoke Kazakh. After my father’s death, we left the village. And for 13 years, I never went back there. After a long time, finding myself there again, I felt like I had escaped from there once. Because, in reality, I never properly said goodbye to my loved ones. After my father, my mother got sick. We had to urgently treat her, so we brought her to Ust-Kamenogorsk. We had to leave the village urgently.
My mother passed away after a 7-year illness. After her death, her mother’s health deteriorated. It is not easy for a mother to endure the death of a child. My grandmother couldn’t bear it and passed away at the age of 70. In general, there is always an invisible golden bridge between a mother and a child. This is also called an emotional connection. We, as children who grew up in a Kazakh environment, did not study psychology. Therefore, we did not develop internal resilience. We were very close to our parents. When my mother died, it hurt me deeply. I realized that I would now be the support for my younger sisters. At that time, I was over 30 years old, already married, and had a child. But when my mother died, I felt lonely in this world. It was difficult for me to make decisions. In these difficult times, my spouse helped me a lot.
So, after 13 years, under the pretext of the 20th anniversary, I went to the village. I saw my hometown, which hadn’t changed, people were welcoming me very warm, lifting me up, remembering my parents. It had been 15 years since my father’s death and 5 years since my mother’s return. We studied the Quran and provided food to others. Then, it seemed to me that a heavy burden had fallen off my shoulders. I was extremely happy and grateful to have people who remembered and spoke only good things about them. It was as if I had solved a forgotten puzzle and regained incredible energy. No matter how you live in Almaty or how much you see abroad, you will never forget your past, your origins. It turns out that returning to your deep-rooted origins gives you incredible strength. Perhaps, if this had happened 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have understood it with such clarity. After visiting my hometown, silence reigned within me…
Things made by my dad’s hands can be found in every home. Hearing the villagers say, «when your dad left, we were in trouble,» filled me with pride.
My dad used to write to me when he was in the oncology hospital. His letters would say, «My bird, Bulbul, how are you? Can you bring me a watch to check the time while I’m receiving treatment? If you don’t have money, I won’t be offended.» The last time I left the hospital, he said, «I’ll go straight to the village.» I told him to wait , but he insisted on leaving that day. As he got into the car, he said, «Bulbul, my dear daughter, I won’t complain. You are a good daughter. Well done!» And then, for the last time, in the car, he thanked me and said goodbye. After his trip to the village, his condition worsened, and he passed away.
My dad never told us «no.» In the 90s, only a few people had dolls. So, my dad carved one out of wood, inserted a nail for the nose and eyes, unraveled some sheep’s wool, and made a doll for his daughters. We never heard the word «no.» Instead, we grew up knowing that if there is a desire, anything can be done. That amazed me. Now, I can’t accept «no.» I often tell my child, «be hardworking, always be sincere,» just like my parents told us.
Interviewee: Bulbul Khalkhanbayeva
Interviewer: Gulnaz Tulenova
Editor: Ainur Yermakhanova
Translator: Diana Tsoy-Davis