Almaty, Kazakhstan as Ecotone by Debbie Gegenheimer

(I am pleased and grateful to introduce Debbie Gegenheimer as a guest blogger for this site.)

As I consider Caroline Fairless’ concept of “space between,” I am drawn to the experience of being with my family in Almaty, Kazakhstan soon after it became an independent country. In 1996, we moved literally across the world from our Boston area home to Almaty, which lies within one degree of latitude from Boston. I lived there for several months that year and returned for a visit in the summer of 2010. For me, Almaty was actually a sort of ecotone, a “space between” many pairs of spaces on many planes.

Geographically, Almaty is an ecotone, even though it is a city about the size of Philadelphia. The southern edge of Almaty is cradled by majestic mountains that are almost ubiquitously visible at the ends of long streets of mid-rise and high-rise buildings throughout Almaty. Beyond the northern city boundary, the land stretches toward the steppe. The outlying areas could hardly differ more, and each is amazing.

In the winter of 1996, a thick smog crept over the city each day around mid-morning, permeating the air until evening, but both the mountains and the steppe were free of it. Last summer, I am happy to say, the only things that ever obscured the beauty of the still snow-capped mountains were the occasional clouds that brought cleansing rain. From a vantage point above the city in 1996, the smog delineated Almaty from the mountains and the steppe. It looked as if it were an ecosystem unto itself, separate and distinct from everything around it. Of course, it was not; Almaty was very much connected to the surrounding environments. In 2010, with clear air, the three spaces flowed, one into the other, as the waters from melting snow do in spring. The land was wonderfully whole.

Figuratively, Almaty had been my very own  “ecotone.” It was neither the place spiritually that I left behind in Boston, nor the spiritual space I would eventually enter in Northern Virginia. Rather, it was a space in between in which becoming was possible. Neither place was transformed by my stay in the “space between.” Yet, I was transformed because God was particularly palpable to me in the confluence of that specific space and that time. Within that spiritual ecotone, I was neither the local Episcopalian I had been, coming from a Roman tradition, nor was I yet the global Anglo-Episcopalian, infused with some of Orthodoxy’s mysticism and understanding, that I would increasing become in the years following 1996. It was a time of intense being; it was a time of intense, life-altering transition.

These decades since the beginning of Kazakhstan’s independence seem also to have been a sort of temporal ecotone for religious belief for that country. As I understand it, few in the population had the opportunity to freely worship before independence. The joy people found in exploring belief in God (or in defending their unbelief) was palpable in 1996.

For instance, I can recall a particular cab ride during which the question that was uppermost on the driver’s mind was whether or not my friend and I attended a church. He was not trying to save our souls, and he was not being nosy. He was just so very excited about the whole concept of God and religion! He was eagerly, joyously claiming and learning about his own Muslim heritage and seemed to want us to be able to partake of the same joy he felt.

That conversation was memorable, not because it was unusual at the time, but rather because it was so different from what would have transpired in a cab in Boston. It was hardly the first time that year in Almaty that a casual conversation among strangers had begun with a reference to religion. That which was most holy was always present. If it was not wholly obvious, then it was at least peeking through the surface, much as the mountains were poking through the smog of the early 1990s, giving anyone, who cared to look, an awareness of their solid existence just beyond physical perception.

While I do not have first hand knowledge of how Muslims have developed their faith communities in Kazakhstan since independence, I can speak to the vibrancy I feel when I am with Orthodox Christians in Kazakhstan. No longer the church that had been described to me as a one in which only the elderly could worship during the time when children of the 1950s were growing up, the Russian Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan is now flourishing as a Church full of youth and their parents as well as their grandparents and great grandparents. The haunting, ancient prayers and music, and the evocative, awesome pageantry draw one into the holy and close to God. I see a richness of worship and a depth of faith that is transformative.
It could be said, therefore, that Kazakhstan has also been a “religious ecotone” in the last couple of decades as faith’s expression has been allowed to blossom.

My experience teaches me that Kazakhstan, a predominantly Muslim country, is a place where people with differing religious beliefs, or lack of belief, live in peace with mutual understanding and respect. (Christmas, for instance, is a national holiday even though Christians are a minority.) Such tolerance, I believe, is key to the peaceful future of our world. I believe —I hope—that we and those in Almaty with whom we have shared common times and spaces— whether for as short a time as a cab ride across town or for as long as the span of lifelong friendships— will engage the world at large and the worlds of our faith communities in ways that allow transformation because, in part, of our time together in that spiritual ecotone.

People in all countries dream of world peace. That is the social ecosystem for which striving humanity hopes. I believe that Kazakhstan is one of various places around the earth that can offer an experiential glimpse into that future. Those are the places that are the ecotones between our world’s past social ecosystems and the world’s future, universally peaceful social ecosystem that we all eagerly anticipate.

About the two images: Debbie Gegenheimer holds the copyright for both. In her own words:

The two photos were taken on the same evening, from the same flat, of the same sunset! One was taken facing the mountains and the other from a different room that faced toward the steppe. It very much felt as if we were in a “space between, ” through which the sun’s light set.

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