Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Libray visitors, Deportation Day, Graduation
The two weeks following my return from Turkey have been filled with visiting Fulbright scholars, the annual memorial day of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars, and Serdar’s graduation. Plus being busy at the Gasprinsky Library—preparing for an upcoming presentation at the annual International Librarian Conference in Sukak in June on English language materials by and about Ismail Gasprinsky; purchasing the equipment for the library funded through the Peace Corps Spa grant we received; working on our upcoming seminar for Crimean librarians on Crimean Tatar language and literature.
The first of the Fulbright scholars, Susan Benz, a U.S. librarian who had previously spent eight months in Ukraine surveying the Ukrainian libraries, came to Simferopol to do a lecture at our library on American library trends for the librarians of Simferopol. I am always in a fog as to whether or not these things are going to get pulled off, but we arrived at the library early that morning, and everything was in place: registration was happening, tea and cookies were being served, the reading room was filling up with the invited guests, the translator showed up on time. Susan’s lecture, accompanied by a powerpoint which she had translated into Russian, was well received. At a Crimea-wide conference later in the day, many librarians were talking about it and wanted to know how they could have a Peace Corps volunteer at their library (since my presence was what resulted in Susan doing the lecture at Gasprinsky). The only downside I saw in all of it was the matter of location. When I first presented the idea to Nadjie, she had said we would have the lecture at the Franco library, as it has a much bigger hall for lectures. Later, it somehow got changed to Gasprinsky, and I was unclear why. Eventually I came to understand it was a matter of politics—that Gasprinsky wanted their name on the publicity as hosting the event. Which I definitely get, as there were often those considerations at the bookstore when we were trying to decide where to hold larger events. However, the downside was that none of the Gasprinsky librarians ended up being able to attend the event, as there wasn’t room. I noticed that fact but didn’t realize how upset at least some of the people were about it, until one of my office mates angrily told me about. She wasn’t mad at me, I don’t think, just the situation. Nadjie tried to placate her by talking about the advantages of the publicity, but she wasn’t buying it. Can’t say I blame her.
The other Fulbright scholar who showed up was Linda Norris, who is in Ukraine doing museum consulting. She was coming down here for a museum workshop and offered to do a oral history workshop for the Peace Corps Volunteers wanting to pursue the oral history project idea. About eleven of us gathered for the workshop, and I think it really helped to get us going on this project. Linda wanted to see some of Crimea, so we spent a few days touring around—the Khan’s Palace in Bahcheseray along with a visit to a master Crimean Tatar jewelry maker where Linda bought a really gorgeous bracelet; Evpatoria, a seaside town filled with interesting places to explore about an hour from Simferopol; Sudak and Novy Svit on the southern mountainous coast. I am becoming quite the Crimean tour guide, though there are still many places I want to explore.
May 18th is the anniversary of the day in 1944 when the Crimean Tatars were deported en masse by Stalin, a tragic event in which an estimated 46% of the population died. Every year since their return, Crimean Tatars have gathered in the central square of Simferopol to commemorate the event and continue to press their demands for a return of the land and homes that were taken from them. This year, 35,000 people were there. They came from all over, including surrounding countries with diasporas—Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazikstan. And (as I found out later or I might have joined them) large groups of people from the surrounding communities (like mine—Ak Mechet) marched together to the center carrying banners. I went to the gathering site in the morning before people starting showing up and ran into Neshet, who comes to the memorial every year. His mother was 16-years-old at the time of the deportation, and her mother (Neshet’s grandmother) died on the train and her little 4-year-old brother (Neshet’s uncle) was separated from her and never found. To this day, no one knows if he lived or died. Neshet’s story is just one of the many tragic stories of deportation, the one I happen to know, but it helps me understand the passion that fueled people’s desire to return to their homeland and that brings them to Simferopol every year to commemorate an event that so profoundly affected their lives. The program began with the traditional call to prayer (that one hears from the minarets daily) and then a prayer by the head Iman of Crimea, followed by the Crimean Tatar national anthem and the Ukrainian national anthem. There were speeches by many different individuals, including Mustafa Jemilev, the legendary leader of the Crimean Tatars, and other government officials. I, of course, understood very little, especially since many of the speeches were in Crimean Tatar language, but I was just so glad to be there, standing next to Nadjie, occasionally seeing someone I knew or recognized, being in a sea of Crimean Tatar people.
The other major event of my past two weeks was Serdar’s graduation activities, which I was so happy to be part of. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this event for kids like him. Unlike in America, they spend their entire school life in one school, attending all their classes with the same twenty or so children, from first grade to when they graduate at the end of eleventh grade. (Next year Ukraine is going to twelve-year schooling). They have the same teacher—called their “school mom”—that follows them from fifth grade on. They have teachers in other subjects, but this one teacher is a constant for them. So getting to a place where they leave all of this, is truly a transformative time for them. The first event is the Last Bell, an Ukrainian wide tradition on the last day of school when all the children, teachers, parents gather outside for a ceremony—dance performances, awards, etc, with the graduating class parading around and doing things like letting off balloons and white doves (there is a whole mini industry here of people who keep homing doves and then rent them out for events like this. When they take off, they just return to their home coop.). I went with Lenura and tried to take some photos and a little video of when Serdar was dancing with a classmate.
That was on a Thursday morning. That evening I went over to their house for a special celebratory meal and gave Serdar my graduation gift, which was mostly American dollars. He was quite surprised—gifting the way we do in America is unheard of here—but I think he got it when I said that I consider him part of my family. Saturday night was the actual graduation which I attended with the whole family plus Serdar’s grandmother (Lenura’s mother—Neshet’s parents are no longer living). It was quite the event, and very different from graduation in America. No caps and gowns, many performances, dancing and singing. My favorite moment was at the end when the headmaster of the school was giving out the diplomas and saying something to and about each student (there were about 60 students, 3 graduating classes). I didn’t understand what he said about Serdar, but it made everyone laugh and the students all cheered. Found out later he told Serdar that once he was in the university, nobody would be telling him to get his hair cut. This was in response to his refusal to cut his hair, despite being threatened that he wouldn’t be able to participant in the performance. They relented on that, but there was a lot of pressure on him from school and his parents, but he held firm. I was secretly proud of him.
There was an all night long party at a restaurant afterwards for the students, parents, and teachers, (mostly just the mothers go--only Lenura went), and then in the morning they all went somewhere to watch the sunrise. It made me feel so good to see him so happy and smiling, and once again, I know how deeply grateful I am to be part of their lives.
So now I think I am mostly caught up with my life here. Much love to all of you.