Sunday, April 21, 2013

Lessons in Life...From the Moscow Circus.

The Djigits of Central Asia -- Knights of Islam

[Note concerning the week's events.]  Probably not the best week to be visiting central Asia, but then I really do not have issues, antagonisms, unfounded fears, grudges; any need to resent the entire Islamic world.  I actually do not give theology much thought outside the historical context of religion in the world's many cultures...and clashes.  Yes, a metaphysical marriage exists -- a powerful one, but since I do not believe in any version of God, nor the man-made interpretation of the many perceived doctrines of Gods, I tend to disregard most mortal translations -- of any stripe.  However, given that premise, I do have a few highly personal issues with some of the more radical adherents of Islam, or for that matter, any sectarian group or belief system that supports a linkage between a message of compassion and the violence of random, politically motivated acts.

For you see, this broader sectarian zealousness did kill a friend of mine in the WTC debacle...a Muslim I might add.  One of the very disciples of the same Islam directing the actions of the man sitting in the cockpit.  My friend was a man that had spent his rather abbreviated life practicing what much of the Quran teaches...and as I am told, the Bible mirrors in its own message of love, compassion, and quite sadly, the coercive message of absolutism.  Adherents of both faiths know well how these sacred words can get lost, misappropriated; perhaps struck redundant in a blinding moment of anger or hurt.  Messages twisted and perverted by political agendas; personal gain.  But the truth for me is that I live in history.  That means I look for answers in the origins of the question.  And no, it doesn't make senseless violence (from whatever distant camp), any more palatable.  Yes, I grieve for lost lives, but I will refuse to accept the rationalizations pouring from the ecclesiastical palaces who shout of a righteous dogma while their loyal congregations merely tithe with the coin of the realm -- unwilling to convert those gentle words into deliberate and singular action.  And for those who attempt to usurp this broader message in order to legitimize the right and wrong of the thing...there is none to be found.  There is only the hope of ending a cycle -- one person at a time saying, "Enough."]

When elephants fight…it is the grass that suffers.

                                              Kikuyu proverb

 a story of other people, other times. One that sadly holds parallels beyond the mere love of horses.

Only 1000 Years to Get from Here To There...


The Long, Slow Road from a Grand Entertainment:  
The wonderful thing about horses is how, over history, they have helped shape the geo-political landscape of the world we know today.  Kings, princess and moguls often get most of the credit -- scorn as well, perhaps but the great earth-shakers of our past -- with their vast and terrible armies -- would not have wandered far without the greatest single tool in their arsenal:  the horse.  And while these armies spread carnage and bloodshed to the far corners of an emerging civilization, they also left in their wake, the science, religion, technology, art and philosophy of distant and unknown lands.  The cultural pollination of an entire planet.

In 1988, and again in 1989, I was granted the rather incredible opportunity to spend a couple of weeks with the Moscow Circus while it was touring in the United States...courtesy of a thaw in the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States -- Mikhail Gorbachev's diplomatic overture he coined Perestroika.  Out of this rare opportunity, I produced a number of articles, including pieces for both EQUUS magazine and The Chronicle of the Horse, both quoted here. My initial assumption was that I would be visiting the Russian version of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show...only with trapeze artists, bears and the occasional clown.  I also had no idea that this story would introduce me to the Islamic world -- a history marked by rapid expansion, great cultural influence, harsh defeats and always: the faith.  
  [Note: Original articles in bold; not always in context here.
 Current annotations will be *italicized.]

It has often been said that when it comes to horsemen, the common ground is wherever a horse happens to be standing.  Similarities in the relationship between man and horse, be they Soviet or American, cross cultural barriers as easily as modern man crosses a continent.  The 1988-89 American tour of the Moscow Circus, featuring equestrian acts overseen by trainer Tamerlan Nugzarov, proved that with the horse as diplomat, there is little room for politics.  The Russian performances, based on horsemanship of the first order, spoke in a language as understandable to Texans as to Soviet citizens.     

Tamerlan, like many of these Djigit riders come from the vast
steppes of Central Asia-- the Caucasus's. It is a tribal region,
primarily Islamic, but with many other cultural, ethnic and
 religious influences as well.  Much like  present-day
 Afghanistan in its never-ending complexities.
Nugzarov is a fourth-generation horseman.  Raised in soviet Georgia, near the Caucasus Mountains, he has trained horses and horsemen for nearly 30 years. "I learned everything from my father," Nugzarov says, "just as he learned everything from his."
Tamerlan Nugzarov, a Soviet Artist of the State
Perhaps that fact alone separates the ideologies of two very different worlds.  While Americans pursue the future with a zealous passion, many Soviets find solace and a proper place in time by following the well-established trail set by their ancestors.  And the road to the circus, much like the one that leads to American rodeo, is based on the culture and history of the people.

*Important to remember that in 1987 (regardless of a warming in relations), security was tight -- mostly due to the ongoing concern over possible defections -- a thorny issue on both sides.  I was always accompanied by a woman identified as a 'cultural affairs officer.'  Definition:  KGB with jewelry.  In the two sessions I had with the Moscow Circus, the first was while the Soviet Union still existed, the second following the collapse. 
Horses have always played a major role in the Moscow Circus, which was making its first tour of America in more than 10 years. This year's troupe, like the previous tours, is a condensed representation of the more than 137 separate circuses that comprise the Moscow Circus.  Unlike its American counterparts, the Soyuzgocirck, as it is called in Russia, is a cultural institution, entertaining more than 70 million Soviet citizens a year and employing over 24,000 people.  And in the hearts of the citizenry, it is of equal stature with the best of theatre and opera.
*Central Asia has always  been extremely tribal in nature, to the point that one could easily assume that the inhabitants hated just about everybody.  In purely geo-political terms these tribes never recognized any form of national boundary up until the forced consolidation within the USSR.  The various tribes and confederations extended into China, Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Balkans and much of southern and eastern Russia.  Of note, these groups were often lumped together historically as Cossacks, though that distinction is far from accurate.  The entire  region has a long history as a migratory and trade route, often coveted by foreign powers for the immense fertility found throughout its immense and diverse geography. This created the vast cultural diversity of the region and perhaps the fierce independence of the inhabitants.

 That spirit was quite evident well into the 20th century when these groups fought a long and protracted action against the Bolshevik forces during the Russian Revolution.  And contrary to popular mythology, many of these regional groups actually joined elements of the German Army in World War II (XVth SS Cossack Cavalry) -- not so much  'for' Germany, as 'against' the Soviet Union.  This resistance continued throughout the 20th century, through the collapse of the Soviet Union and beyond. Uzbek, Kyrzig and Chechen nationalism -- as well as many other ethnic minorities continue to agitate, sometimes violently, for greater autonomy or complete independence from Moscow -- and concurrently, an appeal to the eastern powers in Beijing, as many of these ethnic groups (as in the case of Inner and Outer Mongolia), are separated over the many arbitrary border disputes by the greater powers.  More on this as we try to recount a story that becomes more complicated by the day.      

Djigits of Another Era

*To quote: "In the dramatic history of the Uzbeks, the Lakai were inveterate scene stealer's.  Today's Lakai are proud of their historic roles as horsemen, fighters and brigands.  Though few in number and poor in resources, they never hesitated to challenge greater powers.  Emirs, tsars and commissars attempted to annihilate them, foreign travelers maligned them.  Their neighbors, with good reason, disliked them."  Oh, and as a side-note, many migrated into northern Afghanistan over the last century -- many joining the ranks of the Mujaheddin....aka, the Taliban, fighters with very different roots, bound in the common denominator of removing outside interference in their homelands.  A seductive appeal in a largely illiterate population.   
"The riders train themselves."  Nugzarov continues.  "The tricks they think up themselves.  What is good is that the state provides them with everything.  It pays for rehearsal, for training, for everything.  At home we have rehearsals every day for three hours.  It is simple.  Practice is much better than theory."

*Here is where we both have an an attack of naivete and play the party line for Ms. KGB.  Later, in private, over a cup of tea, we discussed the difficulties and challenges of maintaining the horses -- life itself  in the Soviet state.  One that appeared to be crumbling under its own weight as we spoke. We both smiled...a silent kind of agreement and let the conversation wander to the acts themselves... the horses and those small details in the performance that the audience never knows about.  After all, it is show business to those folks in the stands.

[Flags of the 'stan's.'  From the Indo-Iranian (Persian) word, stanam, or staan; it denotes the "land or country of"...a nod really to the tribal origins of its inhabitants.] 

Nugzarov's act incorporates a little elementary dressage, a good deal of trick riding and just enough sword play to keep it interesting.  The horse's gallop in a 30-meter (44-foot) ring, with banked surfaces, coated in rubber -- and the dimensions are important.  As Nugzarov explains it, "There are 11 to 13 gallopades [strides] to the circle.  The horse is moving very quickly, so it seems to the audience that there is great speed.  Actually, they are fooling the audience, and if the circle were bigger, it would seem much slower.  But of course, the smaller circle is much more difficult."

The rubber surface is meant to cushion the horses and flexes in any direction when a leg rotates on it.  Nugzarov admits to some problems with ankles and shoulders on the horses, but after five months of touring, and more than a few [equine] teenagers in the group, all seemed sound  and performing well.  Nugzarov said, "The horses cross-canter, mostly because of the diameter of the circle, but also to accomodate the riders rolling under them."

The horses are all picked out personally by Nugzarov as 2-year olds.  "We buy the horses and begin training them and strengenthing their muscles.  They begin training at 3.  A horse is strong enough at this age.  At 2 they just do ground work.  I choose them by their height, by their strength, and by their muscles."

The horses all work to the left, because as Nugzarov states, "this is how they are still in their mothers.  From the beginning, it is natural for them to turn to the left."  However, the horses are sometimes rehearsed going to the right, and at home they are ridden outside, often on the streets or in the fields.

      The horses:  Because of deeply rooted cultural beliefs, as well as a training philosophy, Nugzarov works only with stallions.  "Nature protests against castration, and the horse loses his fire," he says.  "It is not the right way.  The audience feels that the horse is not as beautiful or as real."

It may be a measure of of his ability and his patience that eight stallions can live and work in the confines necessitated by a long tour.  The horses live in over sized tie stalls, each within easy reach of the next horse.  Most tour facilities require that the horses warm up backstage in the equine version of afternoon gridlock.  Cooling out requires the same degree of tolerance, and the eight stallions tend to regard each other as companions rather than rivals.

*I actually rode one backstage in the warm-up phase of the act.  Their behavior was exemplary -- not what one would expect.  And as a nod to the horse's needs, they always performed last -- giving the grooms and trainers full use of the facilities for cooling them out. The horses were kept barefoot, maintained quite well.  One 'trainer' (I note this as they do not refer to themselves as riders -- only trainers), also handled the farrier work.  His tools were typical of Soviet manufacturing: abominable; his rasp had no teeth left. In the spirit of good foreign relations....he left with GE nippers, Victoria knives, a box of Bellota rasps and a hoof stand -- a tool he had never even seen.  Ms. KBG was a little chagrined...later I brought her flowers and Ghiardelli chocolates.  The interviews improved after that.  If anyone actually believes that the average Russian was ever brainwashed...fully indoctrinated to the party line...a good little communist -- think again.  When faced with no tangible options, you 'go along to get along.'  Nugzarov's chief concern was finding enough rubles to keep his horses, his troupe and their families intact.  Oh later, Ms. KGB passed me a note in broken English: "Can you get this panties, hoses I maybe...I will pay you okay."  Super power diplomacy does have its moments.  

The horses used for the dressage portion of the act [cadre noir] are half Arabian and half English import.  For the most part, they resemble a small Warmblood with an Arab head.  The vaulting horses are mostly Akhal-Tekes, a breed of horse that is as old as the Russian culture itself.  At about 16-hands, they are the largest horses in the act and are well-known for their unique bronze color.  Also in the act are a Hanoverian, a Budyonny -- a relatively new Russian breed, developed as a cavalry mount -- AND an American Quarter Horse that joined the circus during its 1978 tour.  During that tour, a Denver attorney presented Nugzarov with a Western saddle and bridle.  Ten years later, he still rides with the saddle in his act -- though it has been battered by the years of hard riding, he steadfastly refuses to replace it. 

This ain't no Russian horse...
*Ah yes, the mystery horse from Texas.  Seems someone swapped a couple of equine passports and one of the troupe's Akhal-Tekes failed to go back to Russia. (An equine defection.)  Akhal-Tekes are coveted in much of the world as endurance horses.  Unfortunately, due to their origins in central Asia, most are EIA reactive -- meaning they cannot pass a Coggin's Test.  Hence, they can't be imported even though they are not exhibiting the disease or capable of transmitting it.  However, once out of ear-shot of Ms. KGB, Nugzarov confessed to a little horse trading -- Texas style.  And yeah, a Dallas lawyer was in the middle of it. The rest, as they say is, "Classified."   

In other circles, where performers use horses as Nugzarov and his riders do, the animal might come to be regarded as nothing more than ceremonial accompaniments.  But Nugzarov allows no prima donnas.  Each rider (trainer) must also wrap legs, clean stalls and tack, warm up and cool out the horses and participate in three hours of rehearsal daily.

Of course there are also some risks.  "Yes, there have been injuries," Nugzarov says, "but they have not been major.  After all," he adds with a hint of Russian fatalism, "the hardest injuries are those to the soul."   

Backstage...Not Very Different from Your Average Horseshow...Schooling Time!
And after each performance, all the horses get their own head of cabbage as a reward. No, not carrots or apples...a cabbage.  Russia, ya know.

Needless to say, the horse has always played a major role in the region, a part of the world where cultures mingled, clashed, integrated, sought or had nationhood forced upon them -- all with dissimilar results.  Over time, the term Cossack (Kazahk), has often been used homogeneously to describe the horsemen of the Caucasus region.  More accurately, the term is Djigit, for it is more a matter of equestrian tradition, than ethnicity, though in certain regions, the Cossack title has been claimed and accepted in the regional nomenclature over the course of time.

Much of this 'mixing' of cultures was the result of the Arab invasions (8th century), the Mongol incursions of the 1200's -- the eviction of the Persian (Iranian) influence -- another factor in the continuing sectarian split between the Sunni and Shi'a factions within Islam; later Turkic influences of the Ottoman Empire.  And of course, the consolidation efforts of Tsarist Russia itself...a model that the new USSR was happy to adopt.

Yet throughout their turbulent history, the horsemen of the 'staans' remained true to their roots in horsemanship and their fierce sense of  unbridled independence -- often bartered for at a terrible price.  Quite often these horsemen became mercenaries for the greater powers surrounding them -- hired guns to the tsars, sultans and khans, i.e. knights; in much the same sense of the Christian Templars -- for the word Cossack has always meant, "free people," and for a couple of centuries they actually succeeded in the bargain, defending the borders of the land, the needed social stability for a greater state; above all, the faith.

But oddly, a single event in a distant and unknown land sealed their fate in the 19th century:  the American Civil War.  Yes.  King cotton.  The north had been cut off from cotton stocks in the south and had turned to Russia for its needs.  The Tsarist government, short on cash and tired of Uzbek recalcitrance --invaded the south,  taking over the southern cotton producing provinces.  They never left.  And 5 decades later, the Bolsheviks followed suit -- suffered greatly at the hands of the Cossack cavalries, but eventually prevailed -- mostly due to political infighting among the Cossack's themselves. And the repressive policies that followed ( over a1/2 million or more of the federated Cossack peoples -- murdered), the imperialist attitude of enforced monoculture demanded by Moscow, collectivization of agriculture and the greatest insult of all:  the forced abolishment of Islamic traditions  -- all leaving a deep and lasting scar, a resentment that continues to this day.

After-thoughts and Analogies as History Travels Over Time: 

Ethnicity in Afghanistan. Parallels Abound.
I have often wondered if Presidents, Secretarys' of State, Defense...Senators, Congressional types...ever seriously look at the histories and cultures of the peoples they choose to meddle with, depose, bomb...dis-enfranchise?  And the same question for all the tail-wagging pimps in mainstream journalism who posture some passionate loyalty to the truth, but sell it for a dime to the board of directors -- the whores upstairs that spin current events into a political fairy tale of their own choosing.  At a profit.
They say the Cossacks were brigands and mercenaries, who only owed a loyalty to themselves, their lifestyle and beliefs; the land beneath their horse's hooves.  And that they defiantly defended that 'turf' by any means necessary -- from deception to violence.  Mostly they just wanted to be left the hell alone in the world they had created.

And today?  What of these Mujaheddin, the Qaeda?  The Chechen nationalists, Uyghurs in northwestern China -- Uzbek's, Armenians, Palestinians in the West Bank...just about everybody in the old Yugoslavia?  The Oglala Sioux, the Apache and Comanche perhaps?  A fair comparison I think. Tribes and groups thrown together by colonial and imperial desires by those with the power to dictate the terms of life to entire populations of other human beings.  And we wonder at the resentment...or in the arrogance of our pride, don't bother to notice -- instead, quick to condemn the violence on its face, on some vague moral ground.  Never considering what these maligned groups have experienced over the last century or more of a forced and incredibly brutal occupation.  When the playing field is hopelessly skewed...negotiation via violence is all that is left.       

That was the question that should have been put to Osama bin Laden two decades ago.  What do you really want?  I doubt anyone bothered to ask.  And the Taliban?  We already burned them once before.  And the Saudis?  They have always been forced to tip-toe between the Wahhabist movement (a belief that bin Laden claimed, but did not practice), and the international political reality around them. You don't get the money without the strings. This House of Saud had always reigned by approval -- not necessarily decree, when it comes to the wishes of the Wahhabi majority.  So in effect, like many members of our own American Congress, what sells in Washington, might not fly too well around Kansas City.  Riyadh isn't much different.  Thin ice and getter thinner every day.  And for the most part, bin Laden was the Saudi's mercenary, their diplomat in the courts of the desert...a fellow who could keep the peace with the Wahhabist's or let the Bedouin tribes burn the royal palace to the ground.  In Libya too, he held the cards to keep Qaddafi in power, the Cossack mercenaries of old, his fundamentalist army, his global Wahhabist movement was now viewed as more powerful than the political states themselves. And his violent actions, the orchestrated attacks -- playing to his audience, threatened the kind of retaliation that no regime could survive, oil or not.  So he had to go.  But the damage was already done, any notion of moderation, swept from the table in this well-orchestrated Jihad...the origins of which, like the Cossacks perhaps -- largely forgotten.  But then, the world's media pundits are happy to fuel the flames, while academic assessments go unnoticed:
The militant Islam of Osama bin Laden did not have its origins in the teachings of Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab and was not representative of Wahhabi Islam as it is practiced in contemporary Saudi Arabia, yet for the media it came to define Wahhabi Islam during the later years of bin Laden's lifetime. However "unrepresentative" bin Laden's global jihad was of Islam in general and Wahhabi Islam in particular, its prominence in headline news took Wahhabi Islam across the spectrum from revival and reform to global jihad.62]

And to think...all of these intricate winding paths started over a conversation about the history of one man, his job in life and the horses that share his journey. More Presidents and Senators should take in a quiet afternoon at the circus.  Just might learn a thing or two in the process.