Imaginary Tribes #4

The Qyzyk Nomads

Justin. E. H. Smith

It was not much in the way of pillow talk, but after a night like the one we’d just spent, nothing could surprise me.  “Do you want to hear a folk tale?” Tanya asked. “I  heard it when I was running a polyclinic in Nebit-Dag a few years ago.”  “Tell it to me,” I said.

“Once there was a camel on his way to the capital, to praise Turkmenbashi, the Father of all Turkmen,” Tanya began.  “He came across a dog, who asked: “camel, camel, where are you going?’  ‘To the capital, to praise Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen,’ replied the camel.  ‘Take me with you,’ said the dog.  ‘Come along, dog,’ said the camel.  They walked and walked and along the road they met a goat.  ‘Camel, camel, dog, dog, where are you going?’ ‘To the capital, to praise Turkmenbashi, the Father of all Turkmen.’  ‘Take me with you.’ ‘Come along, goat,’ they replied.  And they walked and walked and they met a mouse. ‘Camel, camel, dog, dog, goat, goat, where are you going?’ “To the capital, to praise Turkmenbashi, the Father of all Turkmen.’  ‘Take me with you.’  ‘Come along, little guy!’ 

“So they walked and walked until they came to a giant pit in the road.  ‘I am the biggest and strongest of all,’ said the camel, ‘I will jump across.’  And he jumped, but made it only halfway, and fell into the pit. ‘I am stronger than the camel,’ said the dog, and he jumped and fell into the pit.  The goat and the mouse jumped in after them. 

“‘Well here we are in a pit,’ they complained, ‘how shall we ever get to the capital to praise Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen?’ But after a while they grew hungry, and forgot about praising Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen.  ‘How shall we decide whom to eat?’ the dog asked.  ‘Here is what we will do,’ the camel replied. ‘We will all cry out, and whoever cries out in the highest voice, we’ll eat him right up.’  And the camel cried out: ‘uuhhh-uuhhh’. And the dog cried out: ‘oohhh-oohhh’.  And the goat cried out: ‘eeehh-eeehh’.  And the mouse cried out: ‘iii-iii’, and they ate him right up.  But soon enough they were hungry again, and the goat said: ‘Here is what we shall do.  We shall all cry out, and whoever cries in the lowest voice, we’ll eat him right up.’  And they all cried out in turn: ‘eeehh-eeehh’, ‘oohhh-oohhh’, ‘uuhhh-uuhhh’, and the goat and the dog jumped upon the camel, and strangled him.  ‘What a feast we shall have now!’ they exclaimed. 

“And they ate and ate for days, but when the dog noticed that they would soon run out of meat, and that the goat was eating far more than his share, he took a portion of the camel’s entrails, and hid them in the corner. And when there was no more of the camel to share, the dog began to nibble upon the entrails he had hidden.  ‘Dog, dog,’ said the goat, ‘what’s that you’re eating there?’  And just then the dog had an idea: ‘I’ve cut open my stomach and I’m eating my own entrails to stave off my hunger.  You should do the same.’  ‘That’s a good idea,’ said the goat, and he cut open his stomach, and died, and the dog ate him right up. Whether he ever made it to the capital to praise Turkmenbashi, the Father of all Turkmen, or not, I have no idea.”

“What the hell kind of tale is that?” I asked when she was finished. “What possible point could there be in telling such a tale?”  “I don’t know,” Tanya replied.  Maybe it’s political.  Maybe it’s an allegory about the Niyazov regime.”  “Is that the autocrat who styled himself ‘Turkmenbashi’?  The one who died of a heart attack last year?” “You don’t know anything,” Tanya answered. 

That wasn’t entirely fair.  I do know some things.  For example, according to Norman Butts, in his ethnographic study of the Qyzyk nomads of the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan, Pastoral Nomads of the Turkmen SSR (Smithsonian Monographs, 1971), unmarried mothers and pregnant teenagers are often married off to non-human entities: trees, mountains, prayer rugs, little terracotta figurines of lions or of soldiers.  The need to match each individual with a spouse is so great among the nomads that often teenage girls who are simply very homely, with missing teeth, or crooked smiles, or uneven breasts, are married off to their father’s old sandals, or to a goat, which then becomes a “man-goat” [erkek-geçi] and may not be eaten for the duration of its life.  When the boys are conscripted in the Turkmen national army, or go off to indulge their lust for war by signing up as mercenaries in some nearby jihad, leaving a dearth of young men behind, girls are made to marry whatever entity –animate or inanimate, celestial or terrestrial, passing or enduring– the elders happen upon.  Thus one girl marries a drinking bowl, and from then on only she may drink out of it; one marries a scrofulous dog, which from then on no one may beat;  and one marries a wispy cloud that evaporates some hours later, and spends the rest of her days a widow in mourning. 

The Qyzyk tell a tale of a girl who was married off to a figurine. It’s hard to tell what the figurine was supposed to be.  The National Museum in Ashqabat has hundreds of them on display, where they are labeled simply: ‘zoomorphic statuettes’.  The animals have four stubs as legs, a thick, round torso, and a head with a snout and two semicircular ears, but from these features there’s just no way to establish that they’re more cow than horse, or more bear than dog.  It is clear, anyway, that they are not camels.

The statuettes were left by earlier, unidentified inhabitants, and were clearly used by these inhabitants for ritual purposes.  (The truth is that their provenance is a complete mystery.  The only other primitive art they even remotely resemble comes from Gabon in West Africa.) The Qyzyk have no idea what these ritual purposes were, but enough of them have been rooted out of the sand by goats desperately searching for a rare bite of vegetation, or have simply been exposed by the winds, that the Turkic nomads have themselves come to incorporate them into their own social system.  They are, indeed, the only objects in Qyzyk social life that have no concrete use-value whatsoever.  You cannot use them as cooking utensils, you cannot use them to hold down the corners of a goat-hide tent.  You may only use them as decoration in an otherwise perfectly minimalist encampment, or you may rub them as a charm to ward off hoof-and-mouth disease.  Or, at the behest of a female elder, you may marry off a husbandless girl to a zoomorph, so long as it has two perfectly unchipped discs as ears, and four solid zoomorphic legs.  Such a marriage naturally curtails the possibility of future descendants from the girl, but it is believed to greatly increase fertility among the goats, with whom the Qyzyk live in a relationship that from the outside appears so close as to qualify as symbiosis in the rigorous biological sense, and that from the inside appears so meaningful as to make the life of a Qyzyk in the absence of goats quite simply unthinkable. 

Once there was a girl with the straightest of teeth and the most even of breasts.  She had black, black hair like the night that fell to her waist, which by her twelfth year was already round and full, and promised many sons to whomever would be fortunate enough to take her as his wife.  No one saw this promise more than Saguk, a handsome young goatherd.  But the girl’s grandmother was worried about a string of recent deaths among the goats, and in any case she had always suspected Saguk’s grandmother of sorcery.  Her granddaughter was to have nothing to do with the boy.

The grandmother went to her own son, and said: “Your daughter’s waist is round and full now, and many a young goatherd has taken note. You must arrange for her marriage now, or all too soon we will find her ‘married’ on the floor of some neighbor’s tent.”  “I will kill the usurper who takes her away without my consent,” said the girl’s father. “Then we must act now,” said her grandmother, and she pulled a zoomorphic statuette from a satchel hanging at her waist.  The statuette was perfect: not the slightest trace of a chip in the ears, a big, robust torso, and four solid legs, not like those of some scrawny, goat, but like the legs of an unkown beast: a beast with weight to bear. 

“What are you showing me that for?” said the father.  “I need grandsons to tend to my goats, not some figurine!”  “Soon you won’t have any goats at all if you don’t do what I say!” replied the old lady.  “Haven’t you been paying attention?  Half of your goats have been left behind for the vultures, and the rest look ready for the same fate!”  “What is happening?” asked the father.  “Why are all my goats dying?”  The old lady pointed to the tent of Saguk’s grandmother, and that was all that needed to be said.

She held up the figurine and said to her son: “This  has been passed down in our family since before there was a desert.  It comes from those who came before us, who knew how to speak to the animals.  Look at it.  It is perfect.  Your daughter will marry it, and the dying will end.” 

And so a wedding was arranged, and all the members of the encampment, even Saguk’s scowling grandmother, emerged from their tents to watch, and the holy words that consecrate a marriage were spoken by Suqtyk, the oldest man.  Saguk himself was strangely missing, and some were whispering that he had gone off to kill himself in the treacherous dunes. 

“O desert sands,” Suqtyk intoned, “O winds, blow hither. O sky, O quenching water, O hearty meat, nourish the loins of these two, your children, that they may bring forth generations of goatherds, stalwart and hawk-eyed.”  At the mention of ‘generations,’ the father elbowed his mother and gave her a look of concern, but the old lady snapped back: “That’s what he has to say, you fool.  That’s what he says at every wedding.”  He thought he saw Saguk’s grandmother crack a mischievous grin at the mention of the same word, but he knew better than to contradict his own mother, and kept silent.

So the father stood back, and allowed everything to proceed according to custom.  He left his own goat-hide tent for the night, and went to sleep in his brother’s tent (which on any other occasion would have been strictly taboo, as this sleeping arrangement exposes him to the wiles of his sister-in-law [tügül].  Qyzyk sisters-in-law are notorious for seducing their husbands’ brothers on their niece-in-laws’ [qåzäqlar] wedding nights as their oblivious husbands snore).  His daughter retired to his own tent with the figurine, as tradition demands.

She set it on the ground beside the blankets, lay down upon them, and began, as she did every night, to think of Saguk.  She imagined him kissing her, and gently removing the lace that held her hair atop her head.  She had heard her grandmother and father whispering before the marriage, about Saguk’s own grandmother, but had understood very little.  She also understood little of what had transpired that very day, what the significance of this little statuette was for her life, what exactly the trinket meant with respect to the one thing that mattered: the future, with Saguk. 

She thought of him so intensely she could barely stand it.  She thought for hours, and could not sleep.  At last, she decided to do what she had always done on sleepless nights like this: to go out and stare through the flaps of Saguk’s tent, and watch him in his gentle sleep.  She sprang up and headed for the flap, but was stopped by a voice from beside the bed.  “Where are you going?” it asked.  The girl was stunned, and did not dare move. “I just. I had to go… you know,” said the girl.

“Let down your hair,” said the zoomorph.  And the girl reluctantly let down her hair.  She shook it out, and it fell down to her buttocks.  She kept her eyes closed and shook her head in long full swings, and she told herself that when she stopped, and opened her eyes again, the statuette would speak no more. 

“Take off your robe,” said the zoomorph, when the girl stopped shaking her head.  And the girl began to cry. “But you’re just a figurine!” she said to him. “A figurine made of earth!”  “I am your husband,” said the zoomorph.  He stared at her with a threatening look in his eyes, and the girl, trembling with fear, took off her robe. 

“How is it that you have eyes now?” she asked him, folding her arms in front of her to conceal her even breasts. “‘Before you were but the vaguest form of an animal.”  “That is not important,” the zoomorph replied, smiling.  “Come over to me now, upon the blankets.”

“How is it that you smile now?” she asked him. “Before you had no mouth at all.” “That too is not important,” he replied.  And she went over to lie with him upon the blankets, closing her eyes in fear, praying to the night sky that when she opened them the zoomorph would speak no more.

“How is it that you are a man now?” she asked, when she lay down on the blankets and felt him pressed up against her.  “Open your eyes,” the voice said, and when she did the girl saw not some brute statue, but her own Saguk.  She rejoiced, and pressed him to her.  “How did you get here?  How did you turn yourself into that statue and marry me?” “My grandmother,” he replied. “She knows the real secrets of those who came before us. The figurines are not for decoration. They are not charms to keep the goats from dying.” “What are they then?” asked the girl, smiling. “They are vehicles of souls,” Saguk said. “My grandmother stole the figurine from your grandmother’s satchel last night, and spoke some words I did not understand, and the next thing I knew I was an animal made of earth!” “What was it like?” asked the girl, beaming with joy and wonder. “It was worth it, my love,” he replied, and then they began to kiss, and spoke no more.

Saguk’s grandmother peeked in beneath the tent flaps, and could not keep herself from cackling.  The girl thought she heard something, and became still.  “It’s just the wind,” Saguk whispered to her. “Just the wind blowing hither, bringing forth generations of goatherds!”  And the two of them laughed and laughed, and held each other tight.  And off in the dunes the goats searched in vain for even so much as the rudest leaf, as a kettle of vultures –who enjoy no prominent place in Qyzyk folklore, though they are as abundant in the fearsome, life-hating Karakum as any wretched beast– circled greedily about them.


Previous installments in the Imaginary Tribes series may be found here:

Imaginary Tribes #1: The Yuktun

Imaginary Tribes #2: The Yamkut

Imaginary Tribes #3: The Lomi-Ek

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, go to