Peace Corps Writers
The Onion Harvest of Kazakhstan (page 2)

The Onion Harvest of Kazakhstan
page 1
page 2

     “We weren’t always poor,” Alec muses, gazing at his land in the distance. “We’re poor now, but when we lived in Georgia we were rich.” He turns around to me and retells a family history that he only knows from childhood stories. “Our house is still there, in Georgia. It’s a big, beautiful house in the mountains. It has grape vines hanging over it and fruit trees, the best land around. My grandfather was the richest man in the region. The whole family lived there before the deportations.” Alec swings his arms to demonstrate the house’s proportions, to portray the vines, the trees. I wonder what sort of mansion he imagines when he thinks of his family’s lost home.
     “We lost it during the exile. We had to give up everything and move out here. But our house is still there. My uncle traveled back to Georgia a few years ago and saw it. Georgians live there now.”
     Alec was born here, in this village in southern Kazakhstan, but his family comes from the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. They are ethnic Turks, part of a minority deported by Stalin after World War II. The entire community of Turks was exiled to Kazakhstan for reasons no one can comprehend. Stalin labeled many ethnic groups enemies, accused of aiding and abetting the invading Nazis, and had them deported en masse from their ancestral homelands. Of those who survived, most were settled in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The whole country is filled with deportees and their descendents — Greeks and Germans, Koreans and Estonians, the occasional Japanese, the ubiquitous Jews. Alec’s people settled here, where he was born. They became collective farmers and integrated into the rural community, never forgetting where they came from but letting history grow into myth.
     A light, misting drizzle begins to fall. “It’s starting to rain,” Alec says, looking up at the sky. “That’s bad.”
     I put my hood over my head and we lapse into an easy silence. We bob along together peacefully, each in his own world, until one of us has something to say.
     The wagon bumps along over rutted ground. From a distance a horse whinnies.
     The drizzle stops. A ray of sunlight peaks out from a break in the clouds. “The sun’s coming out,” Alec says. “That’s good!” He pulls the hat off his head and clicks at his horse tchk tchk!
     Straight ahead I catch sight of an encampment. Three or four tents rise in the middle of the fields. We draw closer. The tents look improvised, flapping canvass sheets tied to metal poles, barely able to fend off the wind, sagging pyramids struggling against gravity. Institutional metal-frame beds stand within, piled high with thin mattresses and blankets. Campfires smolder in makeshift brick flumes beneath black kettles outside of each tent. Dark, amorphous shapes sit pod-like in the fields. As we near the pods flesh out into human forms, men and women, bundled in patched overcoats and woolen hats, sitting on the ground on large canvas mats, digging onions out from the cold ground by hand. Spades in hand, some dig, others rub dirt from the onions with their cracked, bare hands, piling them around themselves on the mats. Men and women, but mostly women, harvest the onions in browns and reds, the browns of their heavy clothing, the reds of their cheeks.
     We reach the camp and shake hands with a wide-smiled Kazakh, his young man’s face nearly hidden beneath a large fur hat. We hand him the bottles of vodka and box of cigarettes, we pay him the equivalent of five dollars, and he escorts us to a patch of land where we may select as many onions as we like. Alec brought three large rice sacks with him. I brought one. Each sack can hold twenty kilos of onions.
     After an hour of bouncing on the wagon it is good to walk around on the ground. We jog around the fields, tossing onions back and forth, catching them in our sacks, rushing around in the brisk autumn air, the pod-people on the ground staring at us as if we’ve lost our minds. The onions are firm, brown little balls the size of my fist. We move to another field with carrots and pick a few dozen remainders, whatever is still in good condition after the first frosts. Alec collects a motley collection of carrots and beets, green onions, and a few tomatoes that survived the recent frost. We spend an hour gathering our harvest and then we are done, our sacks are filled, and we pile them up in the wagon and head home.
     The ride back is as slow and ponderous as the ride out. Alec and I chomp on boiled potatoes and bread, spit-shining and consuming the new carrots and tomatoes. We drift into our own silences, absorbed into the ozone and hay-scented air, the lope and lurch of the wagon. We watch the birds flying overhead and the horse fertilizing the ground in front of us. The clouds part and close, the wind picks up and dies down, rain drizzles and stops. Alec comments on each change: “The sun’s coming out. Now I’m warm.” “It’s starting to rain. That’s bad.” “Oh, the rain stopped. That’s good!” And in such a way are nature’s various phenomena, cycles, and mysteries all classified into good and bad, dark and light, hot and cold, with no intermingling of black and white into gray, except for the gray of the overcast sky.
     Later, sitting in his house, Alec’s mother prepares a hot meal for us. We stretch out on mattresses on the floor, around a low table in the kitchen, a spacious, whitewashed room, the wood-fired hearth warming us from without, green tea warming us within. The room is thick with the smell of baking bread and spices. Pots rattle and hiss over the fire. Alec’s mother offers us fresh bread, homemade feta cheese, and a potato puree with sautéed onions and herbs. She is a round woman with a large nose and raven’s eyes, dressed in black from head to toe. She does not address me directly but speaks to Alec in Turkish, which he translates into Russian for me, asking him if I want more food. We consume our meal and then lean back on large pillows, legs sprawled out, shoes off, hot tea in our cups, the heavy-lidded contentment that comes when, after a day spent in chilly discomfort, one’s seat is finally soft and warm and one’s belly full.
     “If you’re interested,” Alec says, eyes sleepy, “I’ll be heading out for winter potatoes next week.”

After his Peace Corps tour in Kazakhstan Joshua Abrams returned several years later to Central Asia. He is currently working in Tajikistan as Deputy Director for International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), an USAID/State contractor.

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