Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In a Bind

By Alli Sinclair

Billions of dollars, perhaps trillions, are spent every year on hair products and styling. It’s a lucrative industry and is a classic example of us humans obsessing over our noggins. This fascination isn’t new. In fact, the ancient world took this one step further—by altering their skulls.

Head binding, also known as artificial cranial deformation, dates back to 45,000 BC. The ancient Egyptians, Syrians, Maltese, Russians, Germans, and Australian Aborigines have all undertaken various forms of skull “enhancement” by binding their skull or placing cradleboards around a baby’s head to change the shape of their head.

Zip over to the Americas, and you’ll find the Mayans, Incas, and the tribes of the Chinookan and Choctaw people in North America also undertook the custom of deforming skulls as part of their culture. The Choctaw, Chehalis, and Nooksack Indians practised head flattening and on the coastal of Peru, not far from Lima, the Paracas culture had an array of altered head shapes.

Scientists have discovered at least five different shapes of elongated skulls in different cemeteries in the Paracas region. The most remarkable being a site called Chongos, not far from the quaint town of Pisco where the famous cone-shaped skulls were discovered.

Archaeologists specialising in the Mayans have discovered how altered skulls vary, depending on their geography. Skulls found in the lowlands had a slanted appearance, while skulls discovered in the highlands had an erect shape. They’ve even unearthed skulls that have a division down the middle and two distinct holes. The Mayans believed that every object has an essence, including the elements. While the mother was giving birth, the Mayans ensured the house was closed so the evil wind couldn’t harm the baby and as the baby’s soul was no yet tethered to the baby, the infants were even more vulnerable. Binding the baby’s head was akin to creating a roof over one’s head, and therefore a form of protection for the young child that would stay with it forever.

Some archaeologists believe the act of altering one’s skull was to create a “desirable” shape to make the person more aesthetically pleasing and on Tomman Island in Vanuatu, where it is still practised today, elongating the skull signifies intelligence and being closer to spirits. Whether it was for social status, such as an Incan nobleman, or for an affiliation with a tribe, the act of altering one’s skull causes great controversy in the archaeological world and certainly makes for some interesting discussions. Whatever the reasons, humans have always taken great care to alter their bodies, including their hair and head. So next time you go to the hairdresser, be careful what you ask for!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Nigerian Gele Fashion

By Jenni Gate

In Nigeria, women’s fashion has included the gele, or head wrap, for at least 400 years, and most likely longer. It’s thought that in the days before slavery, head wraps were used as a display of wealth when worn by men, and a sign of social status and spirituality when worn by women. The word gele (pronounced gay-lay) is a Yoruba word used by people of southern Nigeria. Other regions of Nigeria also use head wraps. In Igbo culture, the word used for a head scarf is ichafu, The trend for women wearing head wraps has spread across Africa and is also a tradition being passed down in African American communities. A head wrap is not only beautiful, it can also cover a bad hair day, protect the head from the sun, and express creativity.

Browse through gele styles on Pinterest for stunning examples of the art:

Tying a gele has become an art form, and the Yoruba women tie them in the most flamboyant way. The Yoruba, especially, believe a gele makes even an ordinary woman look like a queen. They can be tall, turban-like, intricate, or simply elegant. Geles have become a necessary part of a woman’s outfit for social occasions such as weddings, christenings, funerals, even birthday parties. Because a poorly tied gele can ruin an outfit, there are gele specialists in Nigeria, similar to celebrity hairdressers in the US and Europe, who are known for their fantastic head-wrapping skills. Traditionally, the hair is completely covered by the wrap, leaving just the face exposed. Modern styles often leave a strand or two of hair at the side of the face, or hair gathered to spill out of the back. Prices for tying a gele can range from the equivalent of a few dollars to several hundred for popular gele masters. In Houston, Nigerian Segun Otaleye, also known as Segun Gele, offers tying classes and personal appointments commanding $650 for brides and their wedding party plus $1,000 or more for special occasions outside the Houston area.

Watch Segun Gele work his magic here:

The wrap, one-half to one yard in length, is usually folded in half lengthwise several times until it is about 6 inches wide. The longer the fabric, the larger the head wrap will be. The fabric is wrapped around the head and tied into a knot under the hair at the base of the neck. Depending on the length, the design may start with the middle at the nape of the neck and the ends first tied at the top of the head. The ends are pulled up and wrapped, sometimes twisted and tucked into the folds at the top of the head or tied into a bow at the side. A gele master can wrap and tie various shapes and textures into the design. Professional designs can be formed into a fan, hat, flower, or other shapes. The end result may even look like a dish or beehive.

The fabrics used to make a gele are called aso-oke. The best materials to make a gele are usually stiff, such as damask, taffeta, cotton, or thickly-woven silk. Lace and velvet and other fabrics can also be used, sometimes as a secondary fabric adorning the gele. Colors are bright, reflecting the personality of the wearer.

To see how popular the gele is in Nigeria, watch this video:

The satellite dish analogy is somehow apt to so many of these designs. From the simple to the ornate, they are stylish and fun.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: The Road to Cremona

Our guest today is Judy Hudson, a writer/ photographer who lives on Vancouver Island. Today, she’s writing about Cremona, Italy, which holds a special place in her heart. She first went to Cremona in the 1980’s with her husband, a bowmaker,  to visit their friend Peter who was a student at the Scuola di Liuteria (Violinmaker’s school). They return often to this center of everything violin.

Judy loves to travel and writes travel articles. You can see more of her photographs on her photo website www.judyhudsonphotos.com . She is currently working on her first mystery featuring Rocky and Bernadette, a travel writing and photography team, and plans to set the second book in the series in Cremona.

Roaring over the Brenner Pass, we sailed down the sunny side of the mountains into Italy. The temperature outside the Skoda soared.

The twelve hour drive from Prague to Cremona is beautiful, but harrowing. Trucks go 90 km/hour (55 miles/hour), but BMWs and Mercedes zoom up out of nowhere at180 (110). I brake, ducking in and out between the slower moving trucks. After two hours, my knuckles are white and it’s time to switch drivers. Luckily we have three drivers on the trip, my husband, our old friend Peter, and I.

Peter always has a booth at Mondomusica , the annual violin trade show in Cremona, Italy. Forget your impressions of staid classical musicians, when the Italians are hosting, it’s one big musical party. The real competition is about who can give the most passionate performance.

Cremona is the home of Stradivari, Amati, Guarneri, and the legion of 16th Century violinmakers who founded the still unmatched Cremonese school of violinmaking. Today Cremona is home to more than one hundred violinmakers. Most are Italian, but the Scuola di Liuteria  founded there in 1938, has a large contingent of international students and, over the years, some have settled in the city after finishing the three-year course.

We always arrive in Cremona just as the sun is setting, when the gates of the Fiere, the arena, open, and trucks and vans stuffed with instruments from all over Italy and Europe pour in, ready to set up their booths.

We arrive in our Skoda wagon, stuffed with people and luggage and boxes of shoulder rests. Although he is a violinmaker, because of the logistics involved in bringing instruments from Quebec, Peter only brings shoulder-rests to Mondomusica, a violin add-on that eases the strain on players necks, made by his relatives in the Czech Republic. 

The other vendors, everything from small time makers to international companies like Yamaha, set up elaborate displays in the dramatic red and black booths. We put together our scrounged folding tables and chairs, assemble do-it-yourself IKEA shelves, roll out the latest poster Peter has had made, and last but not least, stick a small Canadian flag high on the end of the booth, a beacon for his regular customers and friends in the rows and rows of look-alike aisles. (For the full flavor of the show, check out my Mondomusica Montage video.)

Dinner is sausage, cheese and beer, European style, then it’s off to Lago Scuro, our accommodation for the week.

The first time I stayed there, Peter had only been there once, the year before. “It’s a castle,” he told us. Sure, I thought. “And a cheese factory.” I tried to picture it, but with no success.

In typical Italian style, the bridge was closed, so we took another bridge, and another road, and got totally lost. The flat back roads of the Po River plain surrounding Cremona were pitch dark, and, to my eye, had few landmarks, just flat fields and the odd, seemingly abandoned clusters of medieval houses.

Half an hour later, we stumbled on the far end of the closed bridge and headed off into the darkness again. But this time with some success. We ended up on a narrow dirt road beside a crumbling stone wall.

“We’re here,” Peter said. I was dubious. Then we passed through a tall wrought iron gate and, under the light of a full moon, got our first view of Lago Scuro. A fortified farm of the 1700’s, complete with a crenellated roofline and turrets.

Peter rapped at the darkened door and spoke in Italian to a man with a big bushy beard who led us into a courtyard. A soft light illuminated an old grape vine winding up to the gallery above. The servants quarters, built two hundred years ago. Enchanting.

My husband and I had a large room furnished in a whimsical blend of mismatched furniture. The bathroom was down the hall, but was new and everything worked. That’s all I ask. We fell into bed.

The next morning I opened the two layers of wooden shutters and swung wide the small-paned windows onto a fairy tale scene. A turret rose just outside our window, backed by a misty garden. Regardless of the sometime inconvenience of staying at Lago Scuro, I’d return anytime for the setting alone.

That and the breakfasts. Lago Scuro (Dark Lake) is an Agriturismo, (www.agriturismolagoscuro.net ) an organic farm B&B, and these were not the normal urban Italian dry-biscuits-and-espresso type breakfast. It’s homemade cheeses, hard and soft, home-cured meats, freshly baked cakes and granola, endless Italian coffee, and milk straight from the cows. I put on a pound a day when I stay there, and I’m sure it’s from the breakfasts alone. On this weekend every year, the B&B is full of violinmakers from all over Europe, who meet every morning at breakfast on the long dining table.

Then back to the Fiere and Mondomusica. The days start quietly—musicians are not early risers. But the students from the Scuola are there first thing, searching out the best wood in the booths of Eastern European wood dealers.

The noise level rises as the crowd arrives and musicians try out the thousands of stringed instruments on display. We escape the bedlam for a few hours every afternoon and head into town to walk Cremona’s medieval streets. The Po valley has been breadbasket of Italy for thousands of years. Recently a Roman road was uncovered, the Via Postumia, from Genoa to Aquileia on the Adriatic. Even in those days, Cremona was an important point at which to cross the river.

Now a refreshingly vibrant city of 70,000, it is not really a tourist town, despite its large, beautiful old center, and 13th and 14th century main square. The storefront windows, in buildings centuries old, display the latest fashions in clothing and home furnishings because, after all, Cremona is less than an hour’s drive from Milan. But the focus of the city is clearly the violin.

We often return to the square for dinner, to sit for the evening in the balmy air, greeting old friends as they wander by, sharing wine and conversation.

Last year, after the cacophonous noise of Mondomusica, the squeaky beds and the night time mosquitoes (the first time for that!), we swore it would be our last trip. But now, as I remember the fabulous meals, the friends we see, and the mist rising from the gardens in the morning at Lago Scuro, I’m sure that two years from now we’ll forget the mosquitoes and hit the road with Peter again, heading for Cremona.   

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Turan, Goddess of Love

By Patricia Winton

Picture a young fifth century BC woman in Volterra or Saturnia or another Etruscan town in what has become Italy. She gazes at her reflection in a polished bronze disk as she prepares for her marriage. She lays the mirror, polished side down, and regards the scene incised on the obverse. She may see Helen of Troy with Paris or another scene from Greek mythology.

More than 3000 such mirrors have been unearthed from Etruscan archaeological sites and dot museum collections around the world. The earliest, dating from the sixth century BC, exhibit scenes from Greek mythology, frequently featuring Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, love, and procreation.

As the Etruscan civilization evolved, the people adopted Greek mythological figures as their own, and Aphrodite became Turan, goddess of love, sex, and fertility. She’s depicted on the mirrors as a beautiful woman, often naked or naked to the waist, with cascading ringlets. When clothed, she wears Greek-style garments with many jewels, and often a tiara. Occasionally, she's winged.

She is sometimes paired with her lover, Atunis (Adonis) at which times she’s portrayed as a mature woman while he’s a boy. She may also have been consort to Laran, god of war. Her festival was celebrated in the summer, and she was revered enough by the Etruscans that their month Traneus (July) was named for her.

Many of the mirrors depict Turan accompanied by doves or, especially, a swan called Tusna. (We know the names of the people and creatures on Etruscan mirrors because they’re usually etched beside the figure.) Scholars believe the swan represents whiteness—perhaps purity. On one such mirror, the giant swan dwarfs Atunis and twists his beak to peck at Turan’s crown.

Turan morphed into Turanna, the good fairy of peace and love, who deals out fortune by the use of cards. From Roman times, a winning cast of the dice was three sixes, known as the Venus-toss. Turanna also bestows good luck by means of three cards.

That young Etruscan bride may pick up her mirror again. Perhaps the scene she observes is Aphrodite and Adonis, and she hopes for her own happy future, offering her fate to the figure on the back of her mirror.

I blog on alternate Thursdays at Italian Intrigues Please visit my website at http://PatriciaWinton.com

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tevodas, Rakshasas, and Other Cambodian Lore

By Supriya Savkoor

A couple of months ago, my book club chose to read a novel that I hadn’t yet heard of—In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Cambodian-American author Vaddey Ratner. I must have been living under a rock not to have heard of this critically acclaimed first novel, but I’ll admit, I was ambivalent about this choice as I knew it would require some fortitude to read. It's set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s darkest hour—the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge systematically decimated about half of its own people, through torture, starvation, and, most of all, outright murder. And yet I soon discovered this semi-autographical book is extraordinary, as uplifting and hopeful as it is heartbreaking.

As I’ve told nearly everyone I know, this important book has so many complex facets and layers to it that schools and universities should be adding it to their required reading lists. Which subject? Take your pick—history, psychology, sociology, ethics, religion, spirituality, politics, cultural studies, philosophy, literature, even poetry.

And add one more to that list: mythology, which also happens to be the topic of the week here at Novel Adventurers. (Oh, but how I would really love to expound on all those other topics!)

Ratner’s story led me to a startling discovery—that many aspects of Cambodian civilization were influenced by Hindu myths, legends, and folklore. It’s startling because, while the faith of nearly all Cambodians is Buddhism—a faith that also hails from India, but has morphed into the local cultures and more or less lost its “Indianness”—I could not have conceived of a Southeast Asian culture that's seemingly so different from Indian culture, yet so closely aligned to it. Especially when it comes to ancient Hindu mythology, which is still very much alive in present-day in India and, it seems, in Cambodia as well.

Ratner seamlessly weaves in mythical characters that are often as real as her human ones. She also infuses her story with poetic metaphors such as my favorite, the one about the Reamker

A mural that shows a scene from the Reamker at the
Royal Palace in Phnom Pen, Cambodia. (Photo by hanay)

Hopefully, it’s no spoiler to tell you about the beginning of In the Shadow of the Banyan. We enter the privileged world of our protagonist, seven-year-old Raami, a Cambodian blue blood. Surrounded by her loving family, Raami enjoys all the joy and magic of an innocent childhood. While sitting under a banyan tree (an image evoking the Buddha) in the courtyard of her family’s palatial home, Raami begins rereading her favorite book, the Reamker.

“In time immemorial there existed a kingdom called Ayuthiya. It was as perfect a place as one could find in the Middle Realm. But such a paradise was not without envy. In the Underworld, there existed a parallel kingdom called Langka, a flip-mirror image of Ayuthiya. There, darkness prevailed. Its inhabitants, known as the rakshasas, fed on violence and destruction, grew ever more powerful by the evil and suffering they inflicted.”

I include that passage because, on several levels, it fills me with awe.

The story of the Reamker is surprisingly familiar to me, one that I too had read many times as a child of about Raami's age. It’s the Cambodian version of one of India’s best-known epics, the Ramayana, one of Hinduism’s most sacred texts and one of India's most popular mythological legends, comparable to Greek and Roman mythology. Hailing from ancient times, the Ramayana, is filled with a pantheon of gods and goddesses who have inexplicably human desires and weaknesses. It's part of the traditional Hinduism belief system, while for some (even in India), it's a colorful story steeped in philosophical themes combined with the magic of mythology.

A view of Angkor Wat, the world's largest
Vishnu temple, in Angkor, Cambodia.
The story of the Ramayana/Reamker is also a brilliant metaphor for Ratner’s novel. As the title(s) of the former imply, it's the story of Rama (aka Preah Ream), whom Hindus believe to be a human avatar of the Lord Vishnu. As the story goes, Rama led a happy, privileged life as a prince in the benevolent kingdom of Ayodhya (Ayuthiya). As a young man, he’s banished for reasons out of his control. He spends years in exile, far from home and separated from most everyone he loves. Soon, his wife is abducted by a jealous king from Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka, called Langka in the Cambodian version). Ram eventually returns home but not before a long, bloody war pits all the forces of good and evil against each other and ends in devastating losses for both sides.

Sound familiar? Yes, it sums up Ratner's telling of the Cambodian genocide, with young Raami as a sort of avatar of the noble Ram. Raami is exiled into a world filled with rakshasas, in the form of Pol Pot’s vast army of soldiers, and tevodas, angels who are perhaps counterparts to the mythical devas that fend off the devil’s rakshasa minions. Raami’s father is frequently compared to Indra, the powerful god of thunder and lightning, who also happens to be the king of the devas (the good guys). And, of course, even after it was all over, there
                                                                                 were no winners.

For thousands of years, the story of the Ramayana has been performed in
plays and dance all over Southeast Asia. This photo, a postcard scan, 
shows the Royal Ballet of Cambodia performing the Reamker in the
courtyard of the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh sometime between the
1900s and 1920s. This particular postcard depicts a scene from a battle
between Rama and Ravana. Starting in 1900, F. Fleury published
a series of postcards featuring such scenes from the Reamker in China.
The publication year of this postcard is unknown, but it is suspected to
be taken during either King Norodom's reign in Phnom Penh or during
the early years of King Sisowath's reign. Author Vaddey Ratner herself
is a direct descendent of Sisowath royalty.

The rest of Ratner's novel is likewise steeped in the Hindu mythology I grew up on, albeit with a Cambodian flavor.

One other surprise entailed references to the old animal fables known as Jataka Tales, filled with morality lessons. These short stories, which some historians say inspired Aesop’s Fables, had titles such as The Monkey King’s Sacrifice, The Mouse Merchant, and The Demon Outwitted. I'd always presumed the Jataka Tales to be purely Indian, so I was surprised to learn through In the Shadow of the Banyan that the Jataka Tales are equally well-known all over Southeast Asia. Considered to be a recounting of the Buddha’s previous births, in both human and animal form, the stories impart the virtue and wisdom of the Buddha as he appears to us in all his worldy forms (and, of course, teaches that god is within all of us).

 Po Romem, Hindu temple from the Cham era
near present-day Phan Rang, Vietnam.
(photo by Irdyb)
All of this cross-cultural exchange, it turns out, occurred because, for a few thousand years starting in the first century, Hinduism dominated as both a religion and a culture in Cambodia—and to varying degrees, in modern-day Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia (see my related post here), Java, Bali, Vietnam, and even the Philippines. Hindu kingdoms across this region were later described as “Indianized” kingdoms or states, part of a “Greater India” or “Farther India.” India’s influence, however, was entirely cultural, not connected in any way to politics or government. (Historians have called this India's "cultural expansion" and even "cultural imperialism.")

Much of Southeast Asia's oldest sacred texts, literature, and philosophy were written in the ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Pali. Though these languages are now archaic (used only in sacred Hindu and Buddhist texts), modern-day Southeast Asian languages still retain vestiges of them. Southeast Asian names in general also sound a lot like Indian ones. And it's said that the name of the country Singapore, known as the Lion City, is based on the Sanskrit words simhah for lion and puram for city. (Simhah puram sounds a bit like "Singapore," right?)

For thousands of years, Southeast Asian kings stylized themselves after Indian devarajas, or god-kings, a bit like Prince Rama from the Ramayana. These kings took on royal, Indian-sounding names, such as Jayavarman VII (Cambodia) and Wikramawardhana (Java), and consulted Brahmin priests from India before making big decisions, such as going to war or relocating a capital. They performed the Hindu ritual ceremony known as a puja. Some even adopted the infamous caste system.

These kings also erected numerous temples and statues—many of which survive today—in honor of Hindu gods and goddesses. Cambodia has preserved one of the world’s only two temples dedicated to Brahma as well as the world’s largest Vishnu temple, Angkor Wat, located in Angkor.

The Hindu kingdoms of Southeast Asia flourished for about a thousand years, before, bit by bit, they began infusing more Buddhist beliefs in with their Hindu ones until, eventually, Buddhism prevailed. As I learned from Ratner’s amazing novel, remnants of the region’s Hindu past still linger and inspire. And the title of In the Shadow of the Banyan suggests that despite all that young Raami, and Ratner herself, experienced, a higher force had protected them all along.

(A post-script: I'll be writing a follow-up to this post in 2 weeks, when we cover book reviews. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit Vaddey Ratner's web site, www.vaddeyratner.com, or connect with her on FaceBook. Most importantly, read her book! I'd love to hear your impressions.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Who You Are and Where You Live

By Kelly Raftery

My post today is a follow up to Saturday's post in which I provide an overview of the independent countries of the former Soviet Union, to help readers make sense of the recent media reports regarding the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Specifically, the two suspects in that crime are ethnic Chechens who were partly raised in Kyrgyzstan, with one of them being born there. The media's reporting on their cultural heritage has been a mixed bag, and in many cases, erroneous.

One of the comments I received in response to that post was from one of my fellow bloggers:

“... even after reading your post, I’m still puzzled as far as why these kids would/did not identify more with Kyrgyz culture, even despite the complicated geo-political history in that region. They were born and raised there (at least one of them), presumably went to school there, learned the language, mingled with the locals, etc. And it wasn’t the brutality of the Kyrgyz that forced Chechens to relocate there but that of the Soviets, right? Seems like there are plenty of governments that wronged various countries (the British in India, for example) but now there is cross-immigration between the people of both cultures and the past is the past, the subsequent generations are less bothered by what came before. Why is it so different in Kyrgyzstan, do you think?”

I will preface this by saying I am not an expert nor would I claim to be about the Caucasus. That area is complex and full of nuances of which I am completely ignorant. I have traveled in the area, but never been anything more than a tourist. 

A Dagestani Man from Historic Photos
So instead I will respond to you about ethnicity and identity in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union, because I think that is really the essence of your questions above. You ask, “Why is it so different in Kyrgyzstan?”  It is not a situation limited to Kyrgyzstan; these dynamics play out throughout the former Soviet Union and are not exclusive to any one country or area.

One’s ethnic identity in the Soviet Union was (and is) a very concrete, non-malleable thing. Here in America, at some point, the immigrant children or grandchildren identify more closely with being “American” than to their heritage of origin. I am three generations removed from my immigrant roots and the degree to which I identify with the Irish-American community (for example) is my choice. Until my son took up dancing, my involvement with that community was limited to green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. 

Russian Girls
When I lived in Russia, people would identify me as American, and then when they heard my Russian language skills they would begin to probe where my family was from, because of course I had to have some sort of roots in the Russian speaking world, with such a facility for the language, such understanding of the culture and people. I told them that my father’s family was from Ireland and my mother’s family left Pinsk, Belorus, but both families had immigrated to America over 100 years previously. Most Russians would then say, “Ah ha! We knew you had roots here!” and be satisfied.

What I did not say was that my mother’s grandparents were fleeing the Pogroms (and other anti-Semitic policies) against Jews. Why did I not say that?  Because I knew that self-identifying as Jewish in Russia would then create a local identity for me that came with its own baggage, one that I did not want to carry, apply a stereotype I resisted and would transform me from being “an American” to being “a Jew.” I have it very easy; after all, I am an American who can conveniently hide behind a very Irish name.
Kyrgyz Family

But the people who were born and raised in the Soviet Union cannot pick and choose how to self-identify. Their ethnicity (and, by the way, there Jewish is an ethnicity, not a religious choice) is stamped in their passports, can be heard in their names and seen on their faces. The moment I heard the names of the bombers, saw their faces, I understood that they were from the Caucasus region, as did every single person from the former Soviet Union. And, every single person from this area has a set of ideas and stereotypes about Chechens and Dagestanis (the accused bombers' mother is Dagestani ethnically, and the parents are currently living in Dagestan, a small area of Russia that borders Chechnya) that were then applied to these two young men, based on their ethnicity.

A friend of mine once told me that despite the fact that she is half Russian on her mother’s side and her passport reads “Russian” as ethnicity, her name reflected her non-Russian heritage and identified her as a minority ethnicity, because Russian names are formed thusly; first name, patronymic (derived from one’s father’s first name), last name. So, as an example, a typical Russian name would be Oleg Vasilievich Ivanov. This person’s sister’s name might be Anna Vasilievna Ivanova. Those middle names mean that their father’s name is/was Vasili. A formal name in the Soviet Union included these three names; this was and is one’s legal name. If one is introduced for the first time in a formal setting, one's full name would be used, including the patryonimic.
Central Asian Jews

Say that one’s mother is Russian, and one’s father is not–-not only would your last name remain identifiably not Russian, but your middle name would also show that your father was not Russian as well. And, being of a non-Russian ethnicity in Russia, you would be subject to teasing, harassment and pressure to assimilate (particularly for those who are half Russian), leaving behind all vestiges of your “non-Russianness” behind. In short, other ethnicities had to be more Russian than the ethnic Russians themselves. And, that assumes that you could pull off “looking Russian” in the first place.

The ethnicities of the former Soviet Union are extremely diverse–-the Russians, Belorusians, Ukrainians, and others are caucasians with European features. Others, primarily from the Caucasus region are typically dark haired, dark eyed and more similar to Italians or Greeks. Central Asians look Asian with their dark hair, darker skin, and eye folds, though perhaps not as Asian as what we Americans typically think of as Chinese or Japanese. I included some photos of the various ethnicities in this post. More historic photos of various ethnic groups of the Russian Empire taken before the turn of the last century can be found in the Prokudin-Gorski Collection at the Library of Congress. In the former Soviet space, you are immediately identifiable when someone looks at you or your passport, or even by the sounds of your name or your accent. Stereotypes and ideas about each of these ethnicities are part of the collective consciousness and how people order the world they live in.  These are not just Russian stereotypes but more or less universal stereotypes about the peoples of the former Soviet Union.  Kyrgyz or Uzbeks or Georgians have set ideas about Tajiks, Turkmens or Armenians as well as Russians, Ukrainians, et al. 
Russian Settlers to the Caucasus

For these reasons, asking a Kyrgyz why the Chechens in Kyrgyzstan did not and do not identify with Kyrgyz culture is an absurd notion. My husband’s response is, “Of course Chechens (or Russians or Volga Germans) in Kyrgyzstan don’t identify with Kyrgyz culture--they are not Kyrgyz.”  Nor would a Kyrgyz in Russia identify with Russian culture, despite the fact that he might be a citizen of the Russian Federation. As I noted in my last post, I used to ask all non-Kyrgyz I met in Bishkek a question:  “Who sent you here, the Tsars or the Soviets?”  I knew who to ask because I could tell who was ethnically Kyrgyz and who was not. I had a friend in Bishkek named Oleg whose family had been exiled to Kyrgyzstan under the Tsars more than a hundred years ago. Were I to ask him if he was Kyrgyz, or identified with Kyrgyz culture, he would laugh, look at me and say something along the lines of, “Look at me, can't you see? I am Russian, not Kyrgyz.”  I never knew a non-ethnic Kyrgyz person who actually spoke the Kyrgyz language, or identified with the Kyrgyz culture no matter how long his family had been there. Kyrgyz have expressed appreciation to me for my very elementary Kyrgyz language skills because “Russians never bothered.”   

The Emir of Bukhara - identified as Uzbek
Keep in mind, too, that the dominant culture of the Soviet Union was "Soviet culture," not local or ethnic culture, with a heavy influence of Russia thrown in. So, the culture that the parents of these young men in Boston were born into and brought up under (at least until 1991) was Soviet culture, their grandparents were Soviets, but also Chechens. Then, all of a sudden, there was no Soviet Union, Soviet culture and history was rejected as false. Their family looked (as did all the peoples of the Soviet Union) to their ethnic roots, their heritage. So, they went back to their ancestral homeland of Chechnya, and war brought violence and bloodshed. To escape those horrors, they returned to safer and more stable Kyrgyzstan for a while, where a new and equally foreign Kyrgyz culture was starting to reassert itself, before finally going to Dagestan for a short while then on to America.

I don’t know whether these young men identified themselves as American, Chechen, Dagestani, or “from Kyrgyzstan.” (Though I am sure that they would not identify themselves as Kyrgyz, as has been reported by the media.) I am not sure these boys themselves knew with whom to identify or whether they felt like they belonged anywhere.

And maybe that is the root of the issue–-that entirely human desire to want to belong to something, to someone, to a group, to a people, to a place and how elusive that sense of belonging seemed to these young men.