26 July 2019

Alpamıs and Kazakh cinema

Alpamıs batyr

I recently read HB Paksoy’s English translation of (and commentary on) the 1901 Abubakir Ahmetzhanovich Divaev edition of Alpamıs, the archetypal and, in many senses, most important Turkic epic dastan. Divaev, it deserves to be said, is a formidable (and formidably-brave!) Bashkir scholar who bears with him the same mixture of leftist political commitments and complex feelings of national belonging, and that led him to commit to writing this traditional Turkic epic which had been primarily an oral tradition. On the other hand, much of Paksoy’s commentary on Divaev’s work ranges from amusing to grating, giving voice as it does to a Turkish nationalism that is justifiably seen as clueless and arrogant by most or all of Turkey’s neighbours. For example, his insistence that pan-Turkism is an insidious invention of Russian and British imperialists, and his subsequent assertion that the political goal of the Turkic nations should be a commonwealth exactly like Britain’s, seems to embody both excesses. But his scholarly work in translating and parsing the Divaev text of the Alpamıs is a remarkable – and to the English speaker, invaluable – feat.

I was surprised by the Shî’ite, and specifically red Shî’ite, aspects of the story. Paksoy tries to play these down a bit by attributing them to interpolations from an earlier transcriber of the Alpamıs legend, Yusufbek bin Hoja Şeyhülislam oglu, who was apparently a Shî’a Muslim. However, in the tale as presented by Divaev (a Sunnî Muslim), whenever the name of Hz. ‘Alî is invoked, he always comes to the aid of the weaker, the younger, the friendless, the alien, the outnumbered, the wrongful victim of violence. He always thwarts the designs of them who rely on strength or riches or numbers to get what they want. I found this aspect particularly interesting.

Reading the dastan also brought a number of thematic considerations into focus for me, as a connoisseur of Kazakh cinema. The Alpamıs story has absolutely had an impact on the way Mansur and Sartaı are portrayed in the films Kóshpendiler and Jaýjúrek myń bala, respectively – and of course, Jaýjúrek myń bala referenced the Alpamıs explicitly at two points.

In the broad strokes, the Alpamıs legend goes like this. Alpamıs and Gúlbarshın (or Barshın) are born to two beys of the Qońyrat tribe, Bórı and Sary, who at first betroth them to one another, but then have a falling-out. Barshın’s father Sary migrates into the land of the Kalmyks, where he raises his daughter. When Barshın is old enough, word of her beauty reaches the ear of the khan of the Kalmyks, named Taıshy (= taizi 太子, a Chinese title in common use among the Mongols), who tries to coerce her into marriage by sending horsemen to fetch her. One of the horsemen, Qarajan, sees her and falls for her, and a dispute arises. Barshın uses this to her advantage by proposing a race after a six-month grace period – that the fastest rider should win her hand. This does not prevent a battle between Qarajan’s men and Taıshy’s, in which many Kalmyks died.

In the meanwhile, Barshın sends word under her father’s notice to Alpamıs, who is supposed to ride to her rescue. Alpamıs wins the loyalty of a magnificent legendary winged tulpar horse named (Baı-)Shubar, which he enters into the race for Barshın’s hand. During the race, he meets another rider with a tulpar – this is Qarajan. The fourteen-year-old Alpamıs outrides Qarajan on Shubar, then forces him to the ground, where Qarajan wrestles with him. ‘Alî comes to the aid of Alpamıs as Qarajan tries to overpower him with brute strength, and Qarajan is thrown to the ground. He accepts to convert to Islâm and becomes the sworn friend of Alpamıs.

Qarajan offers to take Alpamıs’s place in the race on Shubar, and rides him to Barshın to tell her of Alpamıs’s arrival. Barshın mistakes Qarajan for her chosen champion Alpamıs from a distance, and weeps when she sees not her countryman but a Kalmyk on his horse. Qarajan comforts her, and tells her he will ride in Alpamıs’s stead in the race. Qarajan rides Shubar back to his camp, where his son Dostmuhamed – who has designs on Barshın himself – conspires with the other Kalmyks to bind Qarajan fast as he sleeps, and injure Shubar by driving nails into his hooves. Qarajan awakens, flies into a rage on finding himself bound, takes Shubar and overtakes Dostmuhamed. Qarajan pleads with his son to give up Barshın, appealing to filial piety and offering him many girls like Barshın from his own folk; but Dostmuhamed does not listen to him. Qarajan throws his own son from his horse and kills them both. Qarajan mourns the loss of his son, but the poet praises his devotion to his friend.

Qarajan rides the bleeding, wounded Shubar over the finish line, but Alpamıs beholds his horse collapse from the wounds in his hooves. Qarajan and Alpamıs bring the bleeding horse to Barshın, who pulls the nails from his hooves, soothes his wounds with warm water and cares for both horse and rider until they are again healthy. Alpamıs takes Shubar on practice rides until he fully recovers his strength and speed. Then Barshın takes Alpamıs to her tent and they are wed, with Qarajan in attendance as witness.

Taıshy-khan will not accept the outcome of the race, nor relinquish his claim over Barshın. His advisers tell him to set a trap for Alpamıs in a wrestling match. Taıshy invites Alpamıs to the match, and tells Alpamıs can have Barshın if he can best ninety of his wrestlers. Outnumbered and surrounded by the khan’s warriors, Alpamıs prays to God and girds himself up for the wrestling match. Again ‘Alî comes to the aid of the fourteen-year-old boy, and he overthrows one wrestler after the other. All the Kalmyks leap upon Alpamıs at once in an attempt to kill him, and one of Taıshy’s men, Kókaman, treacherously draws his bow and tries to shoot Alpamıs in the back. Only then does Alpamıs draw his sword, take Barshın up with him, and ride away on Shubar.

Divaev’s 1901 version ends with Alpamıs, Barshın, Qarajan and Sary all returning to the land of the Qońyrats in triumph. However, Paksoy adds an appendix relating longer versions of the same story. In these versions, Taıshy rustles all of Bórı’s cattle in revenge, and Alpamıs is forced to return to the Kalmyk lands to get them back. He is captured for seven years and held underground, where he escapes with the help of a shepherd as well as Taıshy’s love-struck daughter. There follows an episode similar to the homeward return of Odysseus. Alpamıs returns to Qońyrat to find a usurper, Ultan, ruling his homeland. The Telemachian son of Alpamıs, Jádıger, acquaints him with the situation. Ultan has reduced Alpamıs’s father Bórı to penury and destitution, persecuted Jádıger, oppressed the Qońyrat and is courting his wife Barshın. Alpamıs, disguised as Ultan’s father Qultaı (the same man who had given him Shubar), meets Ultan at the feast wherein he is supposed to marry Barshın. After some repartee with his wife, ‘Qultaı’ discovers that she has, like Penelope to Odysseus, been faithful to him. Thereupon he throws off his disguise and slays Ultan, restoring justice to the Qońyrat and reuniting his household.

Again, reading Paksoy’s translation of the 1901 Divaev Alpamıs drove home to me how remarkably the two epic films produced by Kazakhfilm follow the basic storyline of the dastan even as they reference it. In these ‘official’ filmic retellings of the dastan, the Kazakhs clearly understand themselves to be the heirs of the Qońyrat; and the they-us distinction drawn between the Qońyrat and the Kalmyks clearly parallels that between the Kazakhs and the Dzunghars (who are historically the same people as the Kalmyks). The Kalmyks are ‘godless’, greedy, lascivious and treacherous; while Alpamıs and Barshın – faithful Muslims, hospitable, true to their word, possessed of both physical and moral bravery – embody the virtues of the Qońyrat. Paksoy underscores in his commentary the political subversiveness and national awareness-building potential of the Alpamıs legend. Indeed, the filmmakers of Kóshpendiler and Jaýjúrek myń bala seem to have had the same thought. There a clear line is drawn in epic tradition between the characters of Alpamıs to Abylaı Khan / Sartaı, and thereafter by extension to the Big Bread, Nursultan Nazarbaev himself – the batyr who presided over the independence and unification of the Kazakh people.

At the same time, the Kazakh films that I have watched so far demonstrate that the modern Kazakh national consciousness is particularly sophisticated, not one-dimensional in the slightest. The dastan-derived national mythos clearly still has sway over the popular imagination. The heroes of the films of Ermek Tursynov, Kelin and Shal, hearken back to a decidedly præ-Islamic set of Kazakh virtues, better-suited to survival in an unforgiving taiga clime. There is also a crypto-Christian, Russian-influenced folk tradition which values the underdog-heroism of Shıza, whose virtues rest more in his cagey ‘foolishness’, his ‘simple’ desire to do right by his family and his sense of fair play; one can also see Gagarin and especially Nazira in Baikonur as fitting this mould. These are all ‘ideal types’, of course, and I deeply suspect an average Kazakh watcher of these films would find not only substantial overlap between all three models of ideal Kazakh manhood or womanhood, but also echoes or subversions of the same basic dastanic themes.

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