Today I offer the last of my Deleted Scenes. But, to go out with a bang, this scene was deleted twice, a few years apart. Can you tell which came first? (ostensibly the weaker of the two) All those guessing will be put into a raffle (your name, not you yourself) and the winner will win an eBook of my Second Edition.
Though we missed the grand opening of the new mosque, I find myself once again amidst the rolling hills of the little village of Ulatau, thanks to Assem. With us this time are Tolganay and Gulzhahan, their husbands and children, and Gulzhan.
We come in a large van, Tolganay’s husband driving, and I sit directly behind him. This vantage point gives me a clear sight of not only the oncoming traffic–literally, as most drivers in this country don’t seem to stay in their own lane–but also of the bottles of beer he consumes as we barrel down the road. Darkhan is in the front passenger seat, with four-year-old Duman on his lap. There are no seat belts in Kazakhstan.
Tolganay’s husband isn’t a bad driver, just fast. And his beer doesn’t seem to have impaired his driving. He passes just as cavalierly, whether he can see the road ahead or not. The practice here is to pass whenever you want to, and if there’s a car coming, it’ll get out of the way. There’s room for all on these narrow pot-holed dust paths.
I’m getting very good at accepting what I cannot change.
This visit most of us stay at Assem’s mother’s house. It has two large rooms plus a good size kitchen. Gulzhan and I sleep in the large room with a sofa. It’s where the family sets up their dastarkhan when it’s time to eat. The pile of blankets on the floor will form my bed. The three other couples and their children will sleep in the other large room. The outhouse is behind the barn. I don’t know where the mother or the brother who lives here will sleep. I don’t need to know either.
Saturday night we go up into the hills for a Kazakh picnic. The men have brought the makings of shashlik and after building a fire, they grill chicken kabobs. The weather is pleasant, not too hot but warm enough to want to be outside. There are no birds here. I hadn’t notice that at my last visit in December; but now in spring, it’s striking.
Another young couple join us, old friends of Assem’s and Burhlan’s, with their two children. Everything is so comfortably relaxed. Some take the children for a run through the nearby birch woods, others talk quietly, a few take naps. I sit on a blanket with my teachers and take pictures of them. I want to never forget this moment; it is so peaceful. I could do anything and not be judged at all. I could nap if I wanted; I could stay quiet; I could talk a blue streak. Whatever, I’d be accepted and wanted. This is the circle of friends I’ve been looking for.
It’s 6:30 when the shashlik is ready and we devour them, plus the myriad salads. There’s bottled water and different juices and beer.
I’m stuffed when we finally get back to the house and I lie on the sofa in the main living room and quickly fall asleep. It’s a solid nap, lasting a good hour or more. But I’m awakened by voices and movement. They are setting up their dastarkhan — the eating table — even though it’s close to 9:00.
I grab my camera and snap photos of the family setting the table, noticing mostly how full I still am from the chicken shashlik. I snap more pictures of the family bringing out the salads and realize I haven’t quite woken up from my nap on the sofa. I’m trying to get pictures of the little ones, most of them snuggling up to their parents, but I hear them calling me to sit down and realize they’ve set a place for me and there’s a plate of food already at my place.
I set down the camera and sit down. That’s when I see the eyes staring up at me from my plate; eyes staring at me from a small burnt pot roast.
“Oh my god; it’s the head!” I scream without thinking. I guess most people scream without thinking. If we were to think first, we’d be less apt to scream.
I know how important food is to the Kazakh way of life. What I’ve learned only recently is that it’s more than the food; it’s the act of eating, the process, the giving, that’s important, holy even. It’s all about the “how” rather than the “what.” Feeding guests takes on a spiritual fervor. They don’t just want to please you or make you happy; they certainly don’t want to show off. Feeding a guest is a point of honor. They pull out all the stops for their dastarkhan — literally the “laying of the table” — even if it may mean having only one meal a day for the rest of the week or month.
Their insistence to “eat, eat,” — Kushai, kushai, both Hadija and Dina would say to us often — I now understand. It’s their job to make certain we, the guests, never want for anything. If we don’t really want it, that’s not important. There’s no “clean plate club” here. We don’t have to eat it; they just have to give it.
I believe they are truly happy to have guests. That’s first. Their job, as they see it, is for their guests to be happy. How much food they fit on the table is a sign of their own prosperity, it’s true. That’s the origin of spreading the fried bread directly on the tablecloth: a symbol of their general wealth. The general goal seems to be to have no part of the tablecloth showing.
And of course, offering the sheep’s head is a sign of respect and honor to the guest. It is something I’ve waited for since before we even left Dulles Airport two years ago. Now it’s here. Now it’s mine and all I can utter is a horrified, “Oh my god, it’s the head.”
And I forget to take a picture.
“Oh my god; it’s the head!”
As the words fly thoughtlessly out of my mouth, Assem grabs my plate and hurries it back to the kitchen, out of sight. Only then, in the silence that follows, does the enormity of my faux pas hit me.
I’ve known of the ritual of the sheep’s head for almost two years — before we ever stepped foot in this country. To be asked to carve and distribute the head of the sheep is the highest honor a visitor can receive. But as special occasion followed special occasion with no sheep’s head offered, I began to think it was another myth: A good story and perhaps true at one time, but a custom no longer practiced as Kazakhstan moved into the 21st century.
I can’t say I had no warning. “Come back to see us in the spring,” Assem’s brother-in-law had said at my visit last December. “But bring your husband. We’ll kill a sheep for you.” But Woody hadn’t come with me this time either, and I put the idea of a sheep-killed-just-for-me out of my head.
It was smaller than I ‘d expected, no more than four inches across at the temple, the color, a composite of muted browns — not unlike a burnt beef roast. It was the eyes staring straight at me that did it. That’s when the words tumbled out, so unnecessary, so inappropriate.
Now, I’m mortified — for my hosts as well as for me. Not only have I insulted everyone here, I feel a deep disappointment of an experience now lost to me. I would have been great too; I know the routine: ears to someone, usually a child, who does not listen; tongue to someone who perhaps talks too much or not enough; eyes, cheeks, the entire head carved and distributed around the table by the honoree — the symbolism far outweighing any nutritional benefit I’m sure. Yes, I’ve really blown it.
An empty echo of silence surrounds me. What have I done! I’m adrift, dissociating enough to know I must remember to breath.
Soon enough, the cacophony of voices breaks through my daze. I look around the table for Gulzhahan and see her smile at me, tenderly I think; I hope; but she says nothing. Assem says something in Kazakh as she returns to the room and everyone laughs.
“I am sorry, Janet,” Assem begins. “It was too much.”
I want to protest. Sorry for what? I’m the one who’s committed the sin. I’m the one given the honor and I may as well have slapped her brother-in-law in the face. I’m the one who’s missed a chance to do something really different — exotic.
“No. I am sorry,” I plead. “Please bring it back. I want to do it. I can do it. Now I’m ready.”
“No. We didn’t prepare you. We frightened you. We are sorry.”
I’m ambivalent once again. I want to have had the experience; I don’t necessarily want to have it. And they know this somehow.
The sheep’s head comes back to the table and Assem’s brother-in-law carves it up. I get a cheek.
I want to know what the cheek represents. I can’t get the word “cheeky” out of my head.
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