Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Crimean Tatar Pre-Wedding Feast

My landlords/neighbors’ oldest son, Abdul, is getting married September 18th. There has been much talk and preparations for the wedding for quite some time. I am invited, of course, and I have been looking forward to attending—my first time to a Crimean Tatar wedding! By all accounts, they are quite the event, and include all night eating, dancing, and toasting. Despite the fact that Crimean Tatars are Muslims, they still do a lot of drinking, kind of like the Turks. The joke is that there is nothing in the Koran about not drinking vodka. Last fall Server (the father) and Abdul moved 140 bottles of vodka into my house to store for the wedding that they had gotten on sale somewhere (the vodka has since moved out to the bride’s parents house).
Two weekends ago there was a large gathering at Maia and Server’s house, a traditional part of the pre wedding ritual where the two families exchange presents, and the imam comes and blesses the couple. 45 guests were expected—relatives, neighbors, friends—and many of the relatives showed up the night before and spent the weekend. Earlier in the week I had offered to help with the cooking, so I spent much of Friday next door in the kitchen with Maia and her sisters, daughter, and mother, chopping vegetables and meat, getting ready for the early morning feast preparation the next day.
One of the traditions in Muslim culture for a large ritual gathering such as this is to slaughter a goat, or in the case of the Crimean Tatars, a sheep, to provide meat for all the dishes. Maia had told me that her brother-in-law was bringing a sheep to slaughter on Friday, but somehow the reality of that hadn’t sunk in until I came home from work Friday afternoon and glanced into the back yard, and there was a sheep, laying under the tree, staring at me with his woeful (or so I felt) eyes. I really didn’t want to be present for the actual slaughter, so I disappeared into my house for awhile. When I came out later, the brother-in-law and nephew were hacking away at the sheep carcass. Two cooking fires had been started and large wok-looking pans were placed on them to cook the food needed for the feast. Later that evening, a delicious mutton soup was made for the neighbors and relatives who had gathered to help with food preparations.
After watching them for awhile, I went inside and started helping the sisters chop and peel vegetables—mounds of carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic—taking out time to have coffee and green tea and of course, talk. We also got a tour of the refinished upstairs bedroom where the new bride will live with her husband and examined all the gifts that will be exchanged between the families. We had all gathered in the central room to do that, including Maia’s 80-year-old mother who along with everyone else, plopped herself on the floor. I was amazed at her ability to so easily sit on the floor—clearly this is something she has done all her life, unlike us Westerners. I know my mother would not have been doing that at her age. I also found out later that Maia’s mother speaks very little Russian, that she only knows Crimean Tatar and Uzbek. She is the first person I have met for which that is true, though I gather it is not uncommon among older Crimean Tatars who lived here before the deportation. I thought about how wonderful it might be to do an oral history with her. I will talk with Siyare, Maia’s daughter, about the idea when she comes back from working on the coast at the end of the summer.
One of my other jobs that evening was grinding of sheep meat to be used to make dolmades (stuffed peppers) the following day. As I was chopping up chunks of meat to be fed into the grinder, I thought of that living creature whose eyes I had looked into not so long ago, and whose body I now held in my hands and was making preparations to eat. Not since I was a child on my grandparents farm and watched the caged up chickens before their slaughter (one of which I let loose and got into big trouble) have I been so close to the connection between animal life and the meat I eat. Maybe it is the connection with mammal’s that is so profound, as I have also frequently caught fish and killed and ate them. I just couldn’t—and still can’t—get the vision of that sheep’s face from my mind. I tried to thank the sheep for giving its life so I can eat, but somehow, I don’t think it is enough. But I continue to eat meat at my neighbors’ homes and when I go to Crimean Tatar restaurants. Perhaps this experience will help me to remember what it is I am eating and to be consciously thankful that an animal has given its life for my food.
The next day dawned early and hot. I slept in, despite comings and goings in the other room of my house, as I discovered later that furniture was moved in to make room for all the guests. By the time I went next door, all the food had been prepared and the festivities were in full swing. I tried to help with serving, etc. but I was clearly to be treated as a guest and was escorted upstairs to dine with all the women. I hadn’t realized that was going to happen, so I felt way under dressed for the event, but no one but me seemed to mind. Quite a feast was laid on the table. Plates of fruits, olives, cheeses, and sweets. A thick mutton soup was served and then the dolmades along with leposhka, the traditional Crimean Tatar bread. Afterwords, there were platters of cookies, cakes, and candies, and tea and coffee were served. It is the Crimean Tatar tradition to serve first Turkish coffee and then green tea. When I asked about this, someone told me it was because in Crimea before the deportation, people only drank coffee. But in Uzbekistan coffee wasn’t available, so they drank green tea. So when people came back to Crimea, they began to serve both!
I spent several hours trying to talk with everyone—luckily I met a woman who is an English speaker at the neighborhood school, and though her conversational skills weren’t great, she could help in the interpreting when my limited Russian failed me. Finally I went back to my house, enriched by yet another Crimean Tatar experience and full of love for this wonderful culture I have found myself in.

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