Borat couldn't be further from the truth: The Central Asian Spring Festival blooms into life at UCL
1,300 students and guests in traditional garb attend a celebration of Eurasian culture
Monday 24 March 2014
Yelden Sarybay emerges from a yurt, wearing a bandana, a heavy chain round his neck, over a gold-embroidered deep blue velvet wrap. He calmly watches as a plastic tent on the far side of UCL’s packed main quad is blown apart by London’s sharp March wind. Yelden has helped mastermind 2014’s Central Asian Spring Festival, organised by students in London from across Eurasia, hosting stalls from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Tatarstan [a republic in Russia], serving food and cultural education.
Originally from Kazakhstan and currently studying at SOAS, he has the U.S.-inflected tones of international education. “It’s fun and challenging, because we have six organising societies and its hard to co-ordinate and balance interests.” Yelden laughs. “Story of the region really, but celebrations like this unite us.”
You celebrate what you can at the moment. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has cast this former Soviet region into instability, and no-one here much wants to think about what Putin might do next. We are students, they say. It’s scary, but let the politicians deal with it. Better to enjoy the spring equinox festival of Navruz [other spellings also apply], Central Asia’s New Year party.
The celebration of Navruz can include pots of grass, sweet pastries, bowls of gold fish and boiled egg-smashing competitions, in various combinations. It was Andrey An’s idea to bring these traditions to the UK. Born in Uzbekistan, he moved to Kazakhstan at 15, and is now an investment banker. His parents are Korean. Andrey started the London Spring Festival when he was a UCL student. In 2008, it attracted about 300 people. This year there were 1,300. No longer an organiser, Andrey nonetheless likes to stay involved: “I kind of feel like it’s my little baby.”
Arailym Aukenova, President of City University’s Kazakh Society, is wearing white, symbolizing new beginnings. In a floaty dress, white fur and bare knees, the maths and finance student is a dazzling ice empress. “It’s like spring, we’re awakening,” she explains. “You feel it’s New Year. Nature is really awakening!” In the blizzard-beaten plains and mountain countries of Eurasia, you can imagine the elation. Last year the London festival got snowed on, and had to move into a hall. Happily, this time around, save a light mid-afternoon shower, sun prevails.
Arailym is passionate about sharing this celebration. “People can see how beautiful can be Kazakh girls,” she jokes, adding: “I want it to be in Trafalgar Square. I think British people should know more about this Nooruz.”
It’s true that Brits don’t know much about Central Asia, which suffers the cultural curse of Borat, a shortcut between the “-stan” suffix and a mankini. Asserting their true cultural identities, the students demonstrate traditional dances and music, a sort of classy Eurovision show featuring lots of fabulous ruffles and hats.
Ayan Sagynbek Kyzy is UCL’s sole Kyrgyzstani student. She performs on her komuz, an instrument on the spectrum between guitar, ukulele and box; her long, elegant fingers deft over the strings.
“For three years, I didn’t meet any Kyrgyzstani students,” says Ayan, which was “quite lonely”. She’d never been outside Kyrgyzstan before. “I didn’t even know you could use Oyster! I was using coins.” Last year she founded and became president of Kyrgyz Students in the UK, which has about 150 members and fund-raises for charities in Kyrgyzstan. Ayan is studying BSc economics: “I need to know how to help my country in the future.”
“I’m proud that I’m Tajiki,” says Hasan Nasimov, a business management student at Birkbeck: “We are like brothers to each other. I was grown like this, to help others.” Hasan is from the capital, Dushanbe. “It’s very beautiful, you can Google it and see.”
He adds: “Did you know we have the biggest flag in the world? It’s 163 metres. We beat the record of Guinness!”
I also didn’t know that Dushanbe has the biggest mosque in Central Asia, the biggest library, and the biggest tea house is under construction. “And we have the cleanest water in the world. People come here to buy it.” At first, Hasan found London “rainy.” “But the people are very kind, very polite.” He encouraged me to try Tajiki food. There was a dense queue for Uzbek plov, a meat and rice delicacy.
Yelden got the second-last cup of tea and stood back to watch the conga lines and Uzbek polka. “Kazakhstani students have a bad reputation in clubs,” he’d said earlier. “They like to party.” Now that this was apparent, he looked content. “It’s the spring equinox, yo. Bounce.”
Several hours later, a girl in a Chelsea-blue velvet Azerbaijani dress skips through Bloomsbury with no shoes on.
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