21st Annual Nicholas Poppe Symposium Held at UW
by Natalia M. Wobst
On May 9, 2009, scholars gathered again to celebrate the legacy of Professor Nicholas Poppe. The Poppe Symposium on Inner and Central Asian Studies was an all-day event held at Denny Hall. Poppe, respected professor and scholar of Mongolia at UW's Far East and Russian Institute (predecessor to the Jackson School and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations), passed away in 1991 at age 94. There were six different presentations focusing on a central theme of globalization, which spanned the region from Mongolia west to Xinjiang (East Turkestan); Kyrgyzstan; Uzbekistan; and Kazakhstan. In front of the podium was Nicholas Poppe's 1983 Studies on East Asia: Reminiscences opened to the title page, so that Poppe's black and white photograph peered out into the filled, sunlit room.
The symposium opened with a short welcome address by UW Professor Ilse Cirtautas, who introduced her colleague, Professor Emeritus Jerry Norman of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature. Norman, whose tenure overlapped with Poppe's for about twenty years, recalled his humor, life experiences in and relating to Mongolia and Central Asia, curiosity “about almost anything,” and generosity to all.
To frame the topic of the day, Professor Stephen Hanson, Vice-Provost of Global Affairs and former Director of the Ellison Center, rose to speak about “Aspects of Globalization.” He articulated three types of globalization: socio-cultural; infrastructural; and institutional. Hanson feels that this distinction is necessary to understand what role Global Affairs offices have in the context of the 21st century. That is, they are assigned only the task of institutional globalization: making formal rules for global socio-cultural interactions (type 1), facilitated by ever advancing human interaction, travel and communication networks (type 2). Thus, Hanson concluded that global space is being constantly reorganized, and needs to be discussed and not feared.
After a coffee break, where among other foods bagurak, a traditional Central Asian fritter, was served, Professor Cirtautas returned to the podium as the first presenter of the day on “Uzbekistan's Encounter with Globalization,” where she spoke of increasing signs of global influence, asking, “What does it mean that we are starting our sentences with Men (“I” in Uzbek)?” Traditionally the modest Uzbek, Kyrgyz or Kazakh only referred to himself with a personal suffix at the end of the sentence.
Next was Simon Wickham-Smith's presentation entitled “Chingis's Posse, Or Why Mongolia Loves Hip Hop” was a departure from his usual scholarship and translation of Mongolian literature. His conclusion was that Mongolian hip hop differed quite notably from its Western roots. “No matter how young and rebellious you are,” he said of Mongolians, “you know a bunch of traditional songs.”
After lunch, the crowd reconvened for Stanley Toops' presentation about “Aspects of Globalization in Xinjiang (East Turkestan): The Political Geography of the Uighurs.” A professor at Miami University in Ohio and University of Washington alum, Toops spoke about the contested histories of the Turkic Uighur, the titular nationality of the Xinxiang Autonomous Region, emphasizing the importance of locality and place to these people and their political identity, even in the face of growing globalization. This was perhaps the timeliest of the topics discussed at the Poppe symposium -- Toops noted, “What China will be in the next 50 years remains to be seen.”
Following Toops' presentation, current PhD law student and former Fulbright Scholar in Kyrgyzstan David Merrell looked at “How to Preserve Traditions in a Global World: The Case of the Council of Elders in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan”. In his presentation, Merrell compared the legal counsels headed by elders in both Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. The international community has begun to discuss institutionalizing the jirga or the shura in Afghanistan, due to the respect that they hold among the people and the economic efficiency of a state system, which favors reconciliation over retribution. Merrell too advocated the potential that such a transition might work, keeping in mind that this has been done before when the Kyrgyz aksakal were incorporated into the Kyrgyz judicial system.
David Merrell was called up to the podium again after a second brief intermission, to receive this year's Nicholas Poppe/Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association Prize for Best Student in First-Year Uzbek.
Continuing in the celebration of growing Central Asian scholarship, Jipar Duishembieva, PhD Candidate in Near and Middle Eastern Studies and native of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, presented “A Look at the Past: Reflections of Social Changes in Osmanaly Sydykov's Tarikh-i-Shadmani (1914).” Dushembieva looked at the importance of a peripheral, rural writer who had largely been ignored until his book was republished in the 1990s. Faced with Russian and later Soviet colonialism, it is important to look at “distinct positions” that people took in responses to the world around them.
The final presenter at the Poppe Symposium was Arman Ikhsanov, Exchange Graduate Student from Atyrau University in Atyrau, Kazakhstan, who spoke about positive and negative effects of the Tengiz Chevroil company presence in his home town in a speech entitled “Globalization, Oil, and the Environment in the Caspian Sea Region of Kazakhstan.” Ikhsanov spoke first about the ancient respect of natural resources, such as oil and gas, and the pride of joint ventures with foreign guests. He contrasted this with his own experiences of yellow skies and getting sulfur in his eyebrows. Until governments step forward to protect their people, Ikhsanov explained, the negative effects of globalization will continue to be felt in the waning health of its citizens.
Before the evening came to an end, four UW students from Central Asia who studied at the UW last year were invited up as a group panel. The panelists -- Dilbar Akhmedova and Saodat Khakhimova (from Uzbekistan); Shyngys Nurlanov and Arman Ikhsanov (from Kazakhstan) -- agreed that their national identities were largely constructed by the Soviets, and that real identities had been inherited from tribes. The four addressed their identities at home, as well as their newly found camaraderie with Central Asians (Turks and Afghans!) now that they were on the University of Washington campus. “They are my brothers,” one of the panelists said. A member of the audience asked if they all still knew their tribal affiliation. This was more likely for the Kazakh panelists than the Uzbeks.