‘Qyrq Qyz’ projects girl power through an ancient epic at BAM
Thousands of years ago, 40 teenage girls — warriors armed with bows, arrows and a fighting spirit — defended an island in the Aral Sea from foreign invaders. Such is the legend of “Qyrq Qyz,” or “40 Girls,” an epic poem that has persisted through thousands of years in the remote desert that today lies athwart the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Today the Aral Sea, much of which was drained away by Soviet irrigation authorities, is almost gone. And the female warriors who once protected the Aral are now absent in a region where religion dictates male dominance.
But the story is an enduring facet of Central Asian culture that most people there are still familiar with, says Saodat Ismailova, an Uzbek filmmaker who collaborated with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in a hybrid musical presentation of the epic poem at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on March 23 and 24. A dark stage, traditional stringed instruments and haunting vocals framed rich visuals shot in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan.
Using the Zoroastrian elements of earth, air, water and fire as a framework, the musicians in Ismailova’s production relate the tale of Gulayim, the 16-year-old daughter of Allayar, ruler of the semi-nomadic Karakalpak people. Allayar gives Gulayim land on the island of Miueli, where she and 40 female companions train in the arts of warfare.
When Allayar is killed defending his fortress, Sarkop, against the Kalmyk horde, many of his people are led away in captivity. Meanwhile Aryslan, a knight from Khorezm, the neighboring kingdom, pursues Gulayim as a love interest. She demurs, inviting him instead to join her in fighting the Kalmyks to avenge her father. Gulayim and Aryslan triumph in their campaign against the invaders, uniting their two kingdoms to cultivate a nation rooted in peace and compassion.
This story about 40 young women standing up to oppression comes to the stage at an opportune time. There’s little doubt that American women around the world are reaching the peak of an ascent that’s been in the works for years. Women’s struggle for equality goes back too far to deserve the condescension of assigning it a beginning.
In America, women reached critical mass early last year, making their voices heard as hundreds of thousands of women gathered the morning after the president’s largely reactionary supporters had cleared off of the never-quite-full National Mall on inauguration day last year. What started as the muffled rumble of discontent has crescendoed since then, becoming intensely focused as #metoo has picked up steam. Patriarchal power figures who seemed invincible a few years ago have begun to fall before the scream of pent-up rage.
It shouldn’t be surprising that catharsis was so long in arriving. A male-centric narrative has dominated cultures all over the world for millennia now. Here in the U.S., where more than two thirds of the population counts itself among the adherents of Christianity, we operate within a general system of values that has at its root a story about woman tempting man into weakness and destruction. More than half the world celebrates patriarchal Abrahamic religions, and much more of it hews to the same line under the guises of other faiths that tend to sideline women to support roles.
But there have been moments in history and literature when women have surmounted built-in cultural prejudice to claim positions of leadership. Cleopatra went head-to-head with the Roman Empire, Joan of Arc led the French to glory in the Hundred Years War and, much more recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel has led Germany to greater prominence on a chaotic world stage.
Outside the examples of singular female leadership, historical examples of wider matriarchal orders like the one alluded to in Qyrq Qyz are rare. Some Native American communities are known to have fostered matriarchies, but they existed within the broader context of patriarchal infrastructure.
Acknowledging that Qyrq Qyz has always been about female empowerment, Ismailova says she wished to present her rendition of with a fresh “girl power” perspective. Her updated presentation of the ancient epic begs the question, what would happen if a group of young women were to rise up against a patriarchal order to establish a society along lines of freedom, justice, compassion and prosperity?
We got a little taste of that on Saturday, when strong-voiced young women from Parkland, Fla. and other parts of the country took to the stage to speak out against gun violence. Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, delivered an inspiring speech calling attention to women of color who had fallen prey to gun violence, and put the powers that be on notice.
“My friends and I might still be 11, we might still be in elementary school, but we know,” she said. “We know life isn’t equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong. We also know that we stand in the shadow of the Capitol and we know that we have seven short years until we, too, have the right to vote.”
The dusty, mostly white, male order that sits firmly entrenched at the apex of American society is doing everything it can to maintain its grip upon the power it holds so dear. But if the events of the past year serve as any example, this has been an awakening of a type the country hasn’t seen in a while — a wild, exhilarating one with the potential to change the world. Women couldn’t even vote in this country until 1920, now there’s a good chance that they could upend everything that’s been upended.
Pay attention in the coming weeks, months and years. A lot is going to happen. As I watched Wadler and other young people speak last weekend, I tried to imagine them years from now, after they’d accomplished meaningful advances in social justice as well-established leaders. Wadler acknowledged her privilege — she doesn’t come from a poor family — but pointed out that she’s in a position to speak for others who can’t speak for themselves. To me, she sounds like a real-life Gulayim, one willing to struggle in order to vanquish oppressors and foster justice and compassion in a world that’s tipped too far toward the cynical.
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