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Elmira Köçümkulkïzï

In the summer of 1999, after having studied in the United States for five years (I visited my family every summer during the preceding years) I returned to my hometown, Kïzïl-Jar in southern Kyrgyzstan and married my high school sweetheart. We had gotten engaged in a traditional way when I had visited my family the summer before. Then I returned to Seattle to continue my studies at the University of Washington while my fiancée, Alï, stayed in Bishkek, capital city of Kyrgyzstan, and completed his military service. We set the wedding for the next year, because I had promised I would definitely return after year and marry him. Since both of us had been away from each other for a long time — i.e., five years — and since both of us have a deep respect and love for Kyrgyz nomadic culture, our relatives and people in our hometown felt that we deserved a special wedding.

Every time I visited Kyrgyzstan before I married, people would tell me that, unlike many Kyrgyz girls who study abroad, I had not changed much or become Americanized. Some Kyrgyz would openly tell me to marry an American, become a citizen and enjoy my life in the States. Since I had stayed in America for five years, many people did not believe that I was going to marry my high school sweetheart. When people found out that I intended to marry him, they thought that we would have an elaborate modern wedding where I would wear a western-style white wedding gown and be driven around town in a fancy car. To their surprise, it was just the opposite; we married in a traditional fashion. I wore a “wedding” dress in a traditional style and a shökülö, i.e., a cone shaped headdress with a veil on top. Instead of driving in a fancy car, I went to my husband’s house on horseback; my colorful dowry, which consisted of hand-made traditional felts, rugs, blankets, cushions, pillows, and clothes, was transported by a camel. The groom, his “best men” and my sisters-in-law all came to fetch me on horseback also wearing traditional clothes. Both families erected yurts in their courtyard for the wedding. My elderly great aunts and paternal grandmother wore traditional headdresses (eleçek), and sang traditional wedding songs to me before I left for my husband’s house.

Unlike many contemporary Kyrgyz weddings, my wedding incorporated many traditional elements and rituals that are no longer practiced among the modern Kyrgyz. People described our wedding a “kïrgïzcha toy” (Kyrgyz wedding) or “ilgerkidey” or “eskiche toy” (a wedding like in the past or an old-fashioned wedding). My American friends who saw the videotape of the wedding described it as a “fairy-tale” wedding. The fact that my husband wore a traditional robe and a round fur hat and I wore a white dress and the traditional shökülö worn by brides in the past, and the fact that we rode especially decorated white horses and were accompanied by our friends, sisters, and sisters-in-law created that “fairy-tale” scene of olden times for many people in the town including ourselves. We had all the necessary ceremonies and rituals to complete our marriage. Among the main customs and rituals were: kalïng, paying of the bride price by the groom’s parents; slaughtering of a horse for the feast; kiyit kiygizüü, a gift exchange (mostly clothes from head to toe) between the in-laws; öpkö chaptï, a ritual with a newly slaughtered goat’s raw lung which is used to hit the backs of the bride and the groom who sit back to back; koshok aytuu, singing of the wedding song; sep berüü, giving the bride’s dowry and loading it onto a camel; kïz uzatuu, viewing of the girl/bride; offering of koumiss to the köch, nomadic movement (in our case it was a wedding “köch” or caravan) from pasture to pasture; kelin kirgizüü, welcoming the bride to her new home; sep jayuu, displaying her dowry for people to see, nike kïyuu; a Muslim ceremony carried out by a mullah to legalize the marriage between the couple. The highlight of the wedding was koshok aytuu, the ceremony of singing the wedding songs to the bride just before she leaves her home.

Why a “Traditional” Wedding?

It was my personal idea to include almost all the traditional customs and rituals at my wedding in modern times. Usually among the Kyrgyz it is the parents who decide what kind of wedding their children will have. My parents were very supportive of my idea and were excited to incorporate those traditional elements and themes, for it was realistic to organize them in our town. Since my husband is from the same town, it made more sense to use horses instead of cars. Finding horses was not a problem, since many people there own horses. My maternal grandfather loaned me his favorite white horse which he rode and trained for traditional horse races. The groom’s side had to find horses and traditional clothes for the groom, his best men and sisters-in-law. Although finding horses was easy, it was a bit difficult to find traditional decorations and harness for them, because nowadays very few people decorate their horses for special occasions. For my horse, we were able to gather different parts of the silver-plated harness, such as bridle, reins, saddle mattress, saddlebag etc., from my relatives and aunts who had saved the horse decorations from their own weddings in 1940s. My grandmother made a special körpöçö, blanket for my saddle, and my mother gave her own white saddle bag which was given to her as a dowry when she married. According to tradition, in the past every bride was supposed to bring with her a saddlebag full of small gifts to give to her husband’s female relatives.

Why was it important for me to have a traditional wedding with horses, camels, traditional clothes, koumiss (fermented mare’s milk), and yurts? It was my nomadic childhood experience in the mountains with my grandparents that led me to have the “fairy-tale” wedding. It was indeed a fairy-tale Kyrgyz wedding in modern times, but it would have been an ordinary wedding about sixty or seventy years ago.

My Nomadic Childhood

Since the time I stopped going to jayloo, summer pastures, with my paternal grandparents to live in a yurt and to drink koumiss, I have been living with a strong desire to go back to the mountains where I spent most of my childhood. When I was one year old, my parents had given me to my paternal grandparents to be raised by them in the mountain pastures where the air was cool and fresh and where dairy products, including koumiss, were abundant. It is common among the Kyrgyz for the young couple’s first child to be raised by the grandparents. My Kyrgyz ancestors had all been all nomadic herders. My paternal grandparents as well as my great uncles and their families used to go to the mountain pastures with their cattle every summer and live in yurts and make koumiss. They would leave their permanent winter residence in early May and return to it again in late October. During these six months, we would change pastures five or six times in search of good grazing land for our cattle. There were about seven people, including me, in my grandparent’s family, and we all lived in one yurt. When we moved from pasture to pasture loading our yurt and other belongings on horseback, my late grandfather (he died on March 19, 2003, while I was in Kyrgyzstan), carried me on his horse. He kept me inside his ton, a traditional leather coat made from lamb’s fur, to keep me warm. My grandmother always carried a bottle of koumiss in a saddlebag to give me when I cried, for I liked koumiss already when I was a baby, they say. My love for horses and foals comes from my childhood experience with them. I remember when my grandfather milked mares for koumiss, I would help him to tie the mischievous foals to the jele, or hold the special long wooden pole, called ukuruk, which is used to catch mares, while my grandfather milked them. When the buckets were full, I would hand another empty bucket to my grandfather, put aside the full bucket and enjoy licking the foam of the mare’s raw milk with my fingers. When I think about it, I can still feel the taste in my tongue. I would also help him ferment the mare’s milk by beating it with a special wooden stick called bïshkek. As children, we would take turns stirring the koumiss in a chanach, a leather container made from goat’s hide, because koumiss needs to be whipped constantly for a whole day.

There were a lot fun things for children to do in the mountains. Every day in the morning, after the cows had been milked, we children would drive them down the valley away from their calves. We would spend our day playing games on green, wide pastures by picking flowers and by feeding baby birds in their nests located along the bank of the rapidly flowing large creek. Every other two or three days, we would go to the pastures where our cattle grazed to gather dry dung for fuel. We would also go into the woods to collect firewood, but would end up eating ïshqïns, a sour green plant and coloring our fingernails with a special plant’s liquid, called endik. Sometimes we gathered herbs such as kiyik ot, i.e., deer’s herb, for only deer eat this fragrant herb. We would also help our parents to make qurut, dry sour curds. During clear nights with bright moon and stars we would join our older sisters and brothers and other young people from the neighboring camp to play our favorite traditional game called ak çölmök, which is played by moonlight on an even green meadow. As small kids, we would spy on our older sisters and their “boy friends” during the game, which required searching for a white stick. Our older sisters would chase us home.


Very often, after the evening meal, all the small children in the camp would gather in our yurt to listen to my grandmother’s stories . . .

Thus, all of these wonderful childhood experiences and memories (except those sleepless nights with painful tooth-aches) from my nomadic life in the mountains lay behind my desire to have a traditional wedding reflecting scenes and customs of nomadic culture. Also, before I came up with the idea of having a traditional wedding, I had asked my grandmother about her own wedding, and she told me that she and her dowry were transported to my grandfather’s village on horseback. She told me that a wedding song was sung to her before leaving her village, and her horse was beautifully decorated with silver harnesses. So, I was inspired by her wedding story.

Unlike me, my husband did not have any experience of nomadic life. However, like many other Kyrgyz children he also grew up with his paternal grandparents in the village. His respect for oral tradition and nomadic culture also comes from his grandparents’ education, for they too led a nomadic life before becoming settled. His grandfather was able to read and write; so he read him Kyrgyz oral epics from published texts.

Weddings during the Soviet Period

The seventy years of Soviet/Russian rule brought many changes to traditional Kyrgyz culture and lifestyle. The Soviet government outlawed some important customs and rituals associated with marriage ceremonies. For example, the tradition of paying the bride price to the girl’s parents was considered a backward custom which “sold women like cattle.” Wearing of traditional clothes also was ridiculed during the Soviet period, for it represented the primitive nomadic past. Traditional wedding ceremonies were replaced by a Soviet-style wedding which is called in Russian “komsomol’skii vecher,” i.e., “Communist Youth Wedding,” or in Kyrgyz “qïzïl toy,” a red wedding. At such weddings the bride and the bride groom dressed in a western wedding gown and a black suit with a white flower on its collar, and their friends and relatives would sit at long tables, eat food, sing songs, and dance to Russian and western pop music. Since this kind of modern wedding has become very popular in Central Asia, the second part of our wedding party, which took place at my husband’s house, was in that fashion or, as the people in my town call it, a “stol toy,” a table wedding, or “vecher,” an evening party.

However, during the Soviet period in rural areas, not all traditional customs and rituals were forgotten. Traditions such as giving the bride price by the groom’s parents and a dowry by the bride’s parents, and a gift exchange between the in-laws were practiced, but on a smaller scale, because people did not own many cattle as they had in the past.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, many non-Russian nations developed more pride and interest in their native culture and traditions. Many Kyrgyz, including scholars and historians, began to respect and value old customs and traditions and became interested in learning about their history which had been distorted by the Soviet/Communist ideology. My wedding thus is part of a more general movement to revive and preserve our nearly-forgotten traditions.

To learn more about scenes from my wedding, read the descriptions below and click on the thumbnails to view the video clips.

Video Clips

In this clip, according to a Kyrgyz tradition, my sisters-in-law and sisters are braiding my hair and helping me to put on my wedding dress and decorations. Traditionally, the bride’s hair is braided into kïrk chach, forty braids. Since I did not have long and thick hair, I told my sisters-in-law to make only four braids. On the tips of my braids I wore my paternal grandmother’s old silver hair decorations which she herself had worn when she married. My wedding costume is not a 100% traditional or authentic Kyrgyz bridal dress. It is a more modernized and stylized version of it. The shape of my shökülö, headdress, is traditional. In the past, some brides wore shökülö, some simply wore a big white scarf thrown over her head covering her face. In order to meet expectations people had for a “bridal” look, I wore everything in white. Were I to have the wedding again, I would wear a more colorful dress, vest and a shökülö.

While I was dressing, the groom with his best men and sisters-in-law arrived at our house on horseback. The groom’s parents and other close relatives had arrived about half an hour before them by car. My sisters-in-law met the groom and his “delegation” and invited them into the yurt in which a special dastorkon, a large table cloth filled with food, was spread for them. In the same yurt my colorful dowry was stacked behind the tör, seat of honor, which is opposite the entrance of the yurt. My new clothes, also part of my dowry, were hung inside the yurt. After tasting some food, the groom and his jenges came into the room where my jenges had been hiding me. As a tradition, he and his jenges gave a köründük, price/money to my jenges to see my bride’s face. Some bargaining was involved. In this clip you see us sitting in the yurt with our jenges, friends, and younger sisters. According to custom, the younger sisters of the bride play a special role. They sit next to their jezde, brother in-law, and press down his knees, pinch him or poke his leg with a needle in order to get some presents from him. My sisters were too shy to do these things to their jezde, who gave them small presents from his pocket before they began pinching him. The dastorkon was filled with all kinds of foods and sweets such as candies, melons, watermelons, nuts, and different kinds of traditional bread.

Among all the ceremonies and rituals, the singing of the koshok, a farewell song to the bride, was the highlight of the wedding. The night before the actual wedding day, my two great aunts, my mother, i.e., paternal grandmother (I call her “Mom” because she raised me from the age of one until the age of six), and another distant aunt who sang the main wedding song to me, were preparing their eleçeks, traditional headdresses to wear on the next day during the singing ceremony of the wedding song. It was interesting to watch them making eleçeks by wrapping the long pieces of white cloth around each other’s head. They did not remember exactly how it was done correctly. So, they were making fun of each other. All four women wanted to participate at the singing ceremony. At the same time, however, they were a little bit shy to wear the headdress and sing in front of many people. They were also trying to recall the words of the wedding songs which they heard in the past. Since the singing of the wedding song was held in a traditional setting, i.e., inside the yurt where the bride was sitting with her girl friends and jenges, it was quite appropriate for the elderly women to put on the eleçeks to match the context of the scene. I could tell from people’s eyes that they were all, including the men, excited to see these traditional themes of the wedding.

Traditionally, when the wedding song is sung to the bride, only women are allowed to be inside the yurt. Men usually do not take part in it. The singing of a wedding song marks the change of the girl’s status from a girl to a woman or daughter-in-law. Marriage represented a significant turning point in a girl’s life, and the wedding song was a ritual which confirmed that major tuning point. It also designated her final separation from her parents and relatives. In the past, when the Kyrgyz still led a nomadic life, it was important for the bride to be counseled by her women relatives, who gave advice to her about how to be a good daughter-in-law and how to deal with domestic problems. Through wedding songs the bride’s relatives expressed their emotions and feelings. Among the nomadic Kyrgyz one should not marry within one’s own tribe or clan until seven generations have passed. In the past, Kyrgyz women usually married a man from another tribe which lived in a far away place. After marriage, the new bride became a member of her husband’s family, and because of a distance, she could not visit her own family as often as she wished. Therefore, traditional wedding songs give that impression of being far away and feeling lonely and homesick.

At my wedding ceremony, when it was time for me to leave my house and family, the groom and his best men in the yurt were asked to go outside. The big tablecloth filled with all kinds of food and spread in front of us on the floor was put away. All my women relatives, including young girls, as well as the groom’s mother, aunts, and sisters-in-law were gathered inside the yurt in which I was sitting with my dowry to listen to the wedding songs. I was sitting on the seat of honor, which is the place opposite to the door, wearing my modernized traditional wedding gown and a cone shaped hat. Someone handed me a handkerchief to wipe my tears, because they knew that the bride is supposed to cry when she is sung to a wedding song. I became nervous because the inside as well as the outside of the yurt was filled with women and children. The felt coverings of the yurt were folded up so that those who did not fit in the yurt could watch and listen. I could see people staring through the wooden frame of the yurt. All of the people, including men who were standing outside and especially myself, were eager to experience this long-forgotten ceremony. We were all waiting for my elderly women relatives who were supposed to sing the wedding songs to me. Finally, the four women came into the yurt wearing their white eleçeks which they had made a night before. All of this was being videotaped by my cousin. My distant great-aunt Kïnatay, who is known as a koshokçu, a master-singer of wedding as well as mourning songs, was given the honor to start the song. One of my jenges made her a comfortable seat by folding one of the traditional mattresses. Aunt Kïnatay sat herself in front of me with a handkerchief in her hand and began her song in a sad melody which sounded similar to the traditional melody of a mourning song:

Kulaalï degen shakta bar,	The buzzard resides on branches,
Kuda da bolmok narkta bar.	Becoming in-laws is our tradition.
Kïrgïyek degen shakta bar,	The little hawk resides on branches,
Kïzdï da bermek saltta bar.	Marrying a girl off is our tradition.
ukuruk tiybes kaçagan,		Now, you’re like a horse which can’t be caught
				with an ukuruk,   
Urugung bashka jasagan.		You’re destined to go to another clan.
Kamçi da tiybes kaçagan,	Now, you’re like a horse to which a whip cannot reach,
Kalkïngdi bashka jasagan.	You’re destined to go to other people.
Kanatïn kakpay jem jegen,	Is there a bird like the hawk,
Karchïgaday kush kayda?		Which eats grain without flapping its wings?
Akïlï menen til bilgen,		Is there a maiden like Elmira
Elmiraday ele kïz kayda?	Who is wise and who knows the language [i.e., English]?
Tumshugun kakpay jem jegen, 	Is there a bird like the falcon
Turumtayday ele kush kayda?  	Which eats grain without making its snout messy?
Chet elge barïp til bilgen,	Is there a maiden like Elmira,
Elmiraday ele kïz kayda?	Who studied abroad and learned the language?
Ak kagazdï eey karalap,		By writing on a white paper,
Chet elde gana jürdüng aralap, 	You have traveled in a foreign land,
Jazgan kagazïngda kata jok,	There is no error in her writing, and
Singdim Ayçüröktön kemi jok. 	My sister is as beautiful as Ayçürök. 
Boz torgoy eleng bierde,	You were a gray skylark in your house,
Bolup da berdik tiyerge.	Now we’re giving you away to them.
Kïzgaldak eleng biyerde,	You were a poppy in your house,
Kaalap da berdik tiyerge,	Now we’re voluntarily giving you away.
Chong atangdï men aytsam,	If I’m to talk about your great grandfather,
Chong atang eldin ulugu,	Your great grandfather was a great man,
Öz atang suudun tunugu.		Your own father is the purest of water.
Altïndan kïlgan kupaday,	If I’m to talk about your uncles,
Abalarïng men aytsam,		They’re like horse harness plated with gold,
Ala barchïn shumkarday.		They’re like eagles turning into hunting birds.
Kümüshton kïlgan kupaday, 	If I’m to talk about your uncles,
Abalarïng men aytsam		They’re like horse harness plated with silver
Kök ala tuygun shumkarday.	They’re like grayish grouses and gyrfalcons.
Suu tübündö sülüktöy.		If I’m to talk about your brothers,
Akelering men aytsam,		They’re like leeches under the water,
Suurulup chïkkan külüktöy.	They’re like stallions running ahead of the herd,
Köl tübündo ele sülüktöy,	If I’m to talk about your brothers,
Akelering men aytsam,		They’re like big leeches under a lake,
Körnöödö chïkkan külüktöy	They’re like stallions that win the race.
. . .  

Since the ceremony was a unique experience to many people, after my aunt finished her song, the men and women who were left outside asked us to come outside to the sörü sörü and sing to the microphone so that everybody could hear the words. Unfortunately, when we did it outside, it almost turned into a show and became a bit noisy. One of my distant uncles was holding the microphone at the women’s mouths, which made them feel uncomfortable. My aunt did not mind doing it again outside. My other great-aunts and grandmother could not finish their song, because the microphone stopped working. But they all got the chance to sing a few lines to me. My grandmother was able to sing only several lines, because she could not hold her tears back while singing to me. Here is her short symbolic message to my mother in-law or to her kudagïy:

Kudagïy, 			Kudagïy,
Sarï atka tumar tagïp al,	Hang a protective charm on a yellow horse,
Salkïn bir jerbe bagïp al.	And take good care of her in a cool place.
Kudagïy,			Kudagïy,
Kök atka tumar tagïp al,	Hang a protective charm on a gray horse,	
Kölökö jerge bagïp al.		And take good care of her in a shady place.
Kudagïy,			Kudagïy,
Ak uchuk berem saptap al,	I’m giving you a white string of thread,
				Please put it through the needle yourself,
Ak shumkar berem taptap al	I’m giving you a white falcon,
				Please train her well yourself.

This common piece from Kyrgyz traditional wedding songs has very nice metaphors. The new bride is being compared to a young untrained horse, a falcon and a threadless needle.

My great-aunt Anarkül was nervous and she also sang only several lines expressing a short symbolic advice to me:

Jelbir-jelbir ot küysö,		If the flames of the fire burns too strong,
Jan balam,			My dear child,
Eteging menen öçürgün.		Extinguish it with the skim of your dress.
Jaman-jakshï kep uksang,	If you get scolded with bad words,
Jan balam,			My dear child,
Külküng menen keçirgin.		Just excuse them with your smile.

These verse lines are also taken from traditional wedding poetry. Most of the verse lines of the above wedding songs represent the formulaic language characteristic to Kyrgyz oral poetry, in particular here wedding poetry. Like other traditional Kyrgyz wedding songs, the wedding songs that were sung to me have a mini-plot. It starts out with a traditional opening formula common to a wedding poetry:

The buzzard resides on branches,	
Becoming in-laws is our tradition.
The little hawk resides on branches,
Marrying a girl off is our tradition.
This camel was the only one in our town, and he was used for transportation. The owner of the camel didn’t have the time to wash and decorate him; he and his camel just made it in time to load my dowry. Loading the camel is men’s work in Kyrgyz nomadic culture. In the past, when Kyrgyz still led a nomadic life, the parents of the bride gave as dowry a new yurt with full inside and outside decorations. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have a yurt to give. Otherwise it would be have been loaded on the camel on top of the dowry which you see. The colorful shïrdak, appliqué felt, was hand-made by my grandmother especially for me. My own mother also gave me two other shïrdaks from her own dowry which she had saved without letting it eaten by bugs.

In this clip you see the bride walking and crying. My jenge and my paternal grandmother are escorting me outside the gate where my horse is waiting. My own mother couldn’t come near me because she was afraid that she would start crying as well. Traditionally, as in American culture, the father helps her daughter to get onto her horse. I was told by elderly women that I should hug my father and cry before getting onto my horse. Tears came quite naturally, because I’m my “daddy’s girl,” as Americans say. I felt very sad at that moment. You also see the groom being helped to mount his white stallion.

Altogether there were about twenty horses and one camel carrying my dowry. As you can see, the side of the road was filled with people and young schoolchildren who simply decided to take the school off that day to see this particular scene. Traditionally, the bride’s horse is led by one of her close jenges, who is also on horseback. One of my jenges led the camel.

On our way to the groom’s house, friends of my parents met us on the way to offer us koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, because it was the koumiss season. Koumiss was brought from the mountains and was sold in our local market. In the past, when people moved from another, other people stopped them and offered them food such as koumiss, ayran (yogurt), and bread and wished them a safe trip.

In this scene, we are arriving in the groom’s house not on horseback but on foot. Traditionally, it is considered impolite for the bride to enter the courtyard or to approach the yurt if it were in the mountains of her in-laws. So, as we approached the groom’s house, we were told by the elders to get off our horses and enter on foot. Again, women and schoolchildren in their neighborhood surrounded us. As we entered their courtyard, the musician, who was my husband’s younger brother, started to play a popular modern wedding song accompanying himself with a Yamaha. As a bride, I bowed to people who came to greet us. We got lots of hugs, kisses and blessings from elderly women. The camel knelt to the ground to unload my dowry. The owner of the camel received gifts such as a kalpak and a waist sash from my mother-in-law. We went straight into the yurt erected for the bride and for her dowry. The groom’s grandmother gave a special blessing to us and all of us said “Oomiyin!” (Amen!) by stroking our faces with both palms.

A traditional köshögö, bridal curtain given by parents, was hung inside the yurt for me to sit behind. The girl who sat next to me is Noor, an American volunteer from New York who lived in southern city of Jalal-Abad for two years. She learned Kyrgyz very well and also how to play the komuz, a traditional three-stringed instrument. My jenges and sisters unwrapped my cushions, mattresses, pillows, felts, and shïrdaks restacked them in my new yurt and also hung my clothes for the women of this neighborhood to see. In comparison to other brides’ dowries, mine was a lot smaller. I did not want to have too many beddings and felts, because they need special care, especially the wool felts and shïrdaks. I had to return to the United States to resume my studies.

The wedding reflects my true personal feelings towards the nomadic life and culture in which I grew up. I still have a deep spiritual connection with my past childhood experience in the mountains. I am very grateful to my grandparents for taking me in, teaching me the wisdom of nomadic philosophy, and instilling in me all the traditional nomadic customs, values and beliefs while living in the mountain pastures of our ancestors. All of these penetrated deeply into my blood and played a key role in shaping my personal identity as a Kyrgyz woman. Through this special wedding, I hope that my townsmen learned more about their unique nomadic heritage and develop more appreciation and respect for their traditions and customs which were labeled as backward and barbaric during the Soviet period.

I wanted to share with you my wedding and the Kyrgyz nomadic life and culture in which I grew up, because the more we educate ourselves about other peoples and their culture, the more we develop respect towards each other’s way of life and worldview. Many often “the others” and their cultures get misinterpreted by westerners and western media, and it is important to listen to and learn from the “others” themselves about what they think about their customs and traditions.

© 2004 Elmira Köçümkulkïzï