A Writer Writes

The Onion Harvest of Kazakhstan
by Joshua Abrams (Kazakhstan 1996–98)

    THE WALK TO ALEX’S HOUSE has become a familiar ritual. The bus drops me off on the wide two-lane street, potholed and empty of traffic. I cross the street and climb up a cracked road bordered by walled courtyards and fruit trees. At the corner with another narrow lane I greet the old Kazakh woman who sells sunflower seeds and chewing gum from an abandoned concrete block.
         I turn the corner and walk past mortar-and-straw houses. The Muzhiki, the Men, are already at their places, arranged around a bench in front of one house, grizzled and middle-aged, already drunk at ten o’clock in the morning. I stop and greet them, shaking hands with each. I put my hand on my heart and refuse a shot of vodka and excuse myself.
         Alec is almost ready to go when I knock on his courtyard door. “It’s about time,” he says, smiling. I am half an hour late. We shake hands, my soft palm crushed by his calloused paw. He is shorter than I but wiry and strong.
         We finish hitching the wagon to his horse. Alec lays blankets on top of the wagon for us to sit on. He brings out a lunch of fresh bread and a bag of boiled potatoes for us to eat on the road. I take out two bottles of vodka and a box of cigarettes from my backpack and hand them to him. He tosses them into the wagon. We climb aboard and set out for the fields.
         Alec’s wagon is hand-built of wood with two rusty metal wheels rolling on a wooden axle. We sit on either side of the rim on blankets, twisting our bodies to face the road. Alec holds the reigns loosely, whistles and clicks his tongue tchk tchk at the horse to keep her on track.
         The horse takes us to the town’s edge and we exit the village. We climb over a rise and an empty, rolling expanse stretches over the horizon. The late October sky is a uniform gray. My hands and nose are cold but the slow bob of the wagon, the chilly air thick with smells of earth and sod, distract me from the chill. A soggy wind passes over us. In the far distance to the south, the jagged silhouette of mountains is visible.
         Other people are out today, other wagons trotting along the rutted paths through frosty vegetable fields, on their way to buy winter supplies or on their way home, wagon beds stacked with sackfulls of vegetables. It is onion-harvesting season and we are on our way to buy our winter’s supply. Alec invited me to come along with him last weekend, the last time I was visiting from the city. “It’s cheaper than buying them every week at the bazaar,” he explained, “and you’ll have onions all winter long.”
         No matter that I live in the city and have no place to store a season’s worth of onions. I will keep my sack here in the village, in a shed with my friend, Aaron, another American, and bring some back with me every time I visit.
         Alec and I are friendly through Aaron; we are not close but he is an easy man to be around and I always enjoy his company. Whenever I come to visit Aaron Alec is there, helping him to chop wood or dropping by to watch television in the evenings. We are the first foreigners he has ever met but he accepted us right away with a shrug and a smile, viewing Aaron simply as his neighbor and me as his neighbor’s friend, without the undue giddiness that many here show before the Exotic.
         The horse walks at a slow trot around a small hill. We pass fields of cabbages. We pass fields of carrots. We pass barren apple orchards, peach and pear orchards, many of the trees reduced to stumps, chopped down for firewood. The whole of southern Kazakhstan is close to bankrupt, unable to pay its bills. Gas has been turned off; blackouts plague the cities and villages. There will be no hot water this year and no heat. The villages are a little better off, with their wood-burning stoves left over from the days before municipal gas was piped in. Back in the city we suffer in cold apartment houses, families forced into the courtyard to cook over open fires. As people search for fuel, the orchards suffer.
         We turn the hill and a chill breeze hits us. “It’s getting cold,” Alec says, pulling a wool hat out from his coat pocket. “That’s bad.”
         Alec points past the hill, to the distance in the Northwest. “I have some land over there,” he says, smiling. “I got it when the collective farms shut down a few years ago. I’m dreaming about the day when I can start farming it.”
         “Why can’t you now?” I ask.
         “I can’t afford it,” he says, unperturbed by his hard luck. “I don’t have the equipment. And I have to help my family with their land. And I still need to get married.”
         “I thought you were engaged.” Alec has been courting his girl for some months and will marry her as soon as she turns eighteen.
         “I am. I’m negotiating with her family right now. We’re thinking that I might just steal her. That way we can avoid an expensive wedding.” Stealing brides is coming back into fashion in Central Asia, an old practice banned under Soviet rule. A girl who worked at the local state store was kidnapped a few weeks ago and has not been seen since. One day she was there, the next day she was gone. “She’s married, now,” the old, gold-toothed Tajik woman who worked with her giggled, when I inquired where she was. “She put up a good fight,” she added. If a man kidnaps a woman and forces her to spend the night in his home, that’s it, they’re married, and her family would refuse to take her back if she refuses. If a girl is unlucky enough to attract the wrong kind of suitor, she can find herself grabbed and thrown in a car, forced into marriage, her life in an instant changed. Alec’s version is more civilized, a kind of eloping, a romantic, practical form of marriage agreed to by the woman. Others, like the girl from the store, are not so lucky. Consent, while ideal, is unnecessary.
         “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.