Reemphasizing everyday traditions in Central Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic

As most of the world has resigned to staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increased emphasis on rediscovering traditions, customs, and familial connections. The coronavirus has forced humanity to contemplate what it means to be human and find value in small daily tasks. For many Central Asians, the sense of family and community were already present because of the strong connections forged through shared customs and traditions.

Naturally, most of these customs and traditions take place in large, community-orientated events, such as circumcision celebrations, weddings, and religious gatherings. However, the pandemic has forced all Central Asian governments to put restrictions on large gatherings of people, making it difficult, if not impossible, to perform important rites of passages in Central Asia’s many cultures. Nevertheless, many still find ways to pay homage to these life milestones through small, culturally important daily tasks.  

Hospitality is a hallmark of Central Asian culture—paying respect to elders, peers, and guests is customary. Yet, no matter the country, the pandemic has forced habits and customs to change. Typically, when greeting one another, members of the same gender shake hands, generally for several seconds to show respect. In the south of Kyrgyzstan and throughout Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while shaking hands, the left hand will be placed on the heart, and in Kazakhstan, both hands are used for handshakes. COVID-19 has made these kinds of greetings difficult; many individuals are worried about contracting the virus and will offer warm smiles instead of shaking hands. Congregations and parties—grand recognitions of Central Asian collectivist cultures—have been replaced with smaller events in the home, which serve the same function but on a smaller, safer scale.

One cultural staple that has similarly seen a shift is food and gathering for meals. Since many cafes and tea houses have closed, the home has once again become the meeting place for friends, relatives, and other guests.

Many place great importance on large meals, particularly when there are nationwide celebrations and many guests. Yet, most of these celebrations were forced to adapt to the times, or were outright cancelled, which is shocking, as that has not happened in many years. For example, Qurban Bayram—the most important feast in the Muslim calendar, where a sheep is sacrificed and shared with friends, family, neighbors, and the needy as a religious rite—was not celebrated as it typically has been in years past in any Central Asian country. Normally, a sheep would be sacrificed and divided into three parts, so it may be shared with neighbors, friends, family, and the needy; however, the pandemic made this kind of exchange impractical. Instead, this year in Kazakhstan, the spiritual directorate held an online session where Kazakhs could watch an animal sacrifice. Although the meat sacrificed could not be distributed, broadcasting and watching the sacrifice was a way to maintain a semblance of normalcy and honor tradition. Navruz, another important holiday celebrating the vernal equinox, was only celebrated by Turkmenistan and Tajikistan this year. However, after these celebrations both of these countries entered various levels of lockdown.

When celebrating holidays in the typical large-scale fashion became restricted in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, many still chose to celebrate in more modest ways at home, including making the traditional sweet drink, sumalek, and having small feasts with family. Although governments have tried limiting gatherings, feasts are still prepared if guests arrive, with customs differing in each country. In Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, meals are typically eaten on the floor. In Turkmenistan, meals are eaten on the ground on a cloth called “sachak,” and guests should be careful not to step on this cloth, as it is believed to be sacred. In Uzbekistan, depending on the day of the week, different foods will be prepared—Wednesdays, chuchvara; Thursdays, osh. In Kyrgyzstan, an animal will typically be sacrificed; honored guests receive the head, mid-positioned guests receive the ribs, and younger guests receive limbs and ears. The pandemic has allowed for a greater focus on these subtle, yet cardinal rules and for traditions to be learned and practiced as most stay indoors and gather with loved ones.

As more Central Asians are forced to remain home, traditions involving the household have similarly been reemphasized. It is customary for homes in Uzbekistan to be swept only in the early morning or daytime, not after sunset. In addition, laundry cannot be done on Saturdays, and if possible, doing laundry every Wednesday for 40 consecutive weeks increases the likelihood of becoming rich based on local lore. In Kazakhstan, according to tradition, it is not auspicious to go outside on Tuesdays or Fridays; so going out on these days is limited. In traditional Tajik homes, carpets are the focus of the room, sometimes being the only furniture present; they bring the family together for meals, discussions, and other events. As such, they are cleaned each day and stored in chests. Many elders in Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, find it unhealthy to sit on the floor, so most events will take place by other means.

The list of customs goes on. What is important is the reemphasis placed on these customs, and their impacts for a post-COVID-19 world and future generations. The home has always been a source of pride and comfort in Central Asia, and with COVID-19’s societal restrictions, traditions within homes have received even more attention to ensure the important cultural qualities of hospitality and community are passed on.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided insight into the importance of smaller tasks as homages to the typical ceremoniousness and high-spiritedness of collectivist Central Asian cultures. Public feasts, weddings, parties, and so forth—critical to the preservation of Central Asian cultures—have been replaced with smaller events in the home. In the short term, large events are going to be nearly impossible to have due to government and health restrictions; therefore, these smaller traditions will become more central to Central Asian society. As such, at-home dining and around-the-house chores have been given a newfound importance.

Focusing on traditions and customs allows for individuals to focus on building personal connections and provides necessary distractions from news of the pandemic. As more people stay home, these smaller traditions can be passed onto younger generations to ensure they are carried on. Although COVID-19 has given pause to festivities and assemblies, it has simultaneously highlighted how traditions can live and be passed on within the house—a benefit to all. 

The author would like to thank Michael Tannous for his help with grammar editing

Ryan Schweitzer

Ryan Schweitzer is a graduate of Columbia University and an alumni of the Fulbright program in Uzbekistan. His research interests include security, identity formation, and nationalism in Central Asia

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Blue Domes

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: