05 October 2007

Of neighbors and Ramadan

The elderly Russian woman on the second floor of my building with the tiger-striped cat asked me a few questions that I didn’t understand initially. But we continued talking and I realized she wanted me to go to the shop in front of our building and get her some sausage. I agreed and she gave me a 100-som note, the equivalent of about $2.50, but it was old Kyrgyz currency, smaller and less colorful than the current notes. I imagined her digging it out of her secret hiding place inside the flat, known only to her and her cat.

My neighbor is stooped, white-haired and carries a walking stick she drops a lot because she’s too weak to hold it. She can’t see well either. Her eyes are runny and her gaze unfocused and when people approach, she listens as much as looks. A couple of mornings ago, returning from a run, she was on the landing between the second and first floors trying to retrieve her cat, a healthy, animated male, a little more than a year old,. (Ol’ Boots, as I have dubbed him, fancies himself a singer, most often with the other gatos outside but also when he’s on the third floor looking for a wee saucer of milk.) My frail, pale neighbor was leaning on her stick to balance herself while holding the cat with one arm underneath the “armpits” of his front legs so that they were extended straight up in the air above his head. With his back legs stretched to the floor, the damn thing was four feet high

So I picked up Boots, who seemed to enjoy the ride, and walked up the stairs with her, unlocked her door, and put Boots inside. She was pretty appreciative and I think she may have started to cry. She has become less ambulatory in the year I’ve been there. She’s losing her independence and she knows it. I have only occasionally seen anyone visit her.

When I returned from the shop with the sausage I also returned her 100-som note. She looked at it, then at me, and I gestured her to take it, and folded her tiny hand. I didn’t even know if the store would accept the note. She thanked me repeatedly and there was no doubt she was crying this time.

This is Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and one of the traditions in the capital city is for Kyrgyz Muslim boys in groups of five to ten to approach you in public, or by knocking on your door, and then breaking into song. The expectation is that you will tip them. The song is blessing of some sort, I’m told. (What if they’re singing a warning? Cough it up, Amerikanskee, or we’ll pee on your door!) I have also heard it is bad luck form for a Muslim not to give something. I confess there have been times I have intentionally avoided their cheery faces—it’s not easy being a curmudgeon—but today I opened the door, listened to and enjoyed them, tipped them and applauded.

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