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A mysterious Kyrgyz kalpak in Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships

Written by on Tuesday, 16 July 2013
Culture and History, Kyrgyzstan, Photoblog
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I’m freshly returned from an impromptu vacation to Croatia. It’s an intriguing country, a borsch soup of Germanic, Slavic, Christian, and Communistic ingredients. The geographical and aesthetic diversity is quite surprising, ranging from the Mediterannean-like qualities of Istria and Dalmatia, to the Velebit’s sunbaked, naked seaward side and misty, wooded landward side, to the abruptly Continental interior around Zagreb.

I intersected with two close Belgian friends, a couple from the Antwerp area, in Zagreb. There’s something gloomy and mirky about the Belgian national character — they are, in a sense, the most “Slavic” of the Northern Europeans, and just about every Belgian bookshelf has a copy of Dostoevsky. So, it was no surprise that the boyfriend had little patience for my proposal to see the Museum of Na├»ve Art; rather, he was most curious to see the Museum of Broken Relationships.

The museum is basically an exhibit of the detritus of ruined relationships. The concept is basically therapeautic, with normal people donating symbolic totems of past loves as an act of recovery. In the confrontation with other people’s stories, you the viewer are supposed to reflect upon your own past failedrelationships. One also can’t help but feel simultaneously impressed and disturbed by the daringness and transparency of the donators, who frequently include important identifiers about themselves and their ex-lovers. Some of them were clearly quite conscious of this, directly explaining their motivations to the viewer: revenge on an ex, sharing with strangers to facilitate mutual exorcism, hoping the ex would learn the truth, etc.

The relics (or “artifacts”, as the museum calls them) are arranged in various ways: by psychological theme (e.g., exorcism, as in the case of the notorious “ex-axe”); sometimes by subtext (e.g., many of the Yugoslavian contributions were used to demonstrate the role of historical context in interpersonal intimacy); and sometimes by the manner of “breaking” (e.g., death, as in novelist Veronica St. Clare‘s moving account of how her husband’s murder led to her own journey of self-discovery and empowerment).

I must say, save for some remarkable moments of uplift (e.g., a video interview of a Yugoslavian women who fell in love with a solider during the Second World War), for the most part the museum’s a profoundly unhappy experience. I was perturbed by the intense egoism that characterized most of the relationships in the exhibit. The “ex-axe” was an extreme case in point, specifically the way in which the lover left the narrator, and then the way the narrator took out her revenge on the ex’s belongings. It only further confirmed for me a desire which has been brewing as of late to stay far away from romance, at least until such time that I can actually be selfless and other-centered. As for my friends, the boyfriend really enjoyed the museum (yes, enjoyed! *sigh ahhh Belgians). The girlfriend clailed that she also enjoyed it, but she laughed in a way that struck me as ambivalent when I remarked that it was an odd place to take a date on a foreign adventure.

In the “history” (i.e., war) section, I was surprised to discover none other than a Kyrgyz kalpak. It’s dated March 2005 – October 2006 in Bloomington, Indiana. As a matter of simple induction, the two people connected by this hat were almost certainly involved with the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asia Studies or the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, which are based there. Here is the donator’s explanation which accompanied it:

This artifact is called a kalpak (“hat”) in the Kyrgyz language. I have donated this hat because it identifies, literally and symbolically, the role I inhabited in the context of our relationship. This was the last hat I wore. She gave it to me in March 2005 and I wore it as we performed music together — a sad Kyrgyz love song of longing and lament. Now when I think about her, all I feel is longing and lament. These feelings can be woven into great and beautiful music, but they are terible to carry in one’s heart, day in and day out. Leaving this kalpak behind is therefore terribly necessary for me if I am ever to put to rest the memory of lost love.

Having experienced my own Kyrgyz “lost love” (albeit, one far more brief than this one), I’m very intrigued and would really like to know the story behind it. If anyone has information, send me an e-mail: schwartz [at] neweurasia [dot] net

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