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In the Magazine: Thunder grandmas

Posted on January 24, 2018

This month, the magazine Words Without Borders features writing by Kazakh women, including Zira Naurzbayeva's essay "The Beskempir," a meditation on the lives of Kakakh grandmothers who were brought from "auls," or villages, to live with their urbanized children in cities like Almaty. The adjustment was not always easy: the essay begins with an overheard scream.

Despite their struggles and confusion, there is a fierceness to the grandmothers, perhaps rooted in cultural traditions that emphasize strength. Towards the end of the essay, Naurzbayeva, an expert in Central Asian culture and mythology, notes that:

Indo-Europeans have their male thunder gods, like Zeus or Thor, but the Turkic peoples have a kempir, what we might call a “thunder grandma” today.

Teaching "The Beskempir" 

This essay rewards close reading, with complex and resonant passages such as this one: 

It’s only now that I understand how hard it was for our grandmothers to settle in this strange city of stone, where a completely different set of morals is in force, where you needed to stand in a suffocating line of people for hours on end to receive a five-pound bundle of bones wrapped in cellophane, where your grandchildren might not know a single word of your native tongue.

To get a sense of the culture shock the grandmothers in the essay experienced, students might contrast images of the city of Almaty with those of traditional auls, published in National Geographic. (The auls in the story are in Georgia, not Kazakhstan, but have typical Caucasian features.)

Students might also be interested in hearing Naurzbayeva read the first four paragraphs of the essay, in Russian.

(Listen on SoundCloud)

For background information on Kazakh culture and history, students can look at a country profile on, or a short overview from the Reconsidering Russia blog. (For a full set of resources, visit another story set in Kazakhstan, Alexandr Chudakov's "Arm Wrestling in Chebachinsk".)

If you teach Russian-speaking students, ask them to note and discuss any differences between the original language and the translation by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. Why might the translator have made the choices she made?

For a culminating assignment, students might interview an older relative or family friend, focusing on the themes that appear in Naurzbayeva's essay: moves, life changes, names, and traditions. They can then put their interviews into an essay that reflects on their relationship with the person they describe.