He Dreams, and a Nation’s History Evolves - OZY | A Modern Media Company

He Dreams, and a Nation’s History Evolves

He Dreams, and a Nation’s History Evolves

By James Watkins


Because a history that evolves each time it is told tells us more about the present than about the past.

By James Watkins

The legendary figure of Manas dominates the story of Kyrgyzstan, yet no one seems to know whether Manas ever really lived, or when. Nevertheless, he’s a national symbol whose name adorns everything from airports to city streets — like a cross between King Arthur, Genghis Khan, George Washington and Jesus — and his story is told in the Epic of Manas, an oral history of unknowable length. The Kyrgyz people claim — though its age and historical accuracy are disputed — it is 1,000 years old.

An episode from the epic is spoken here by one of a small number of Manaschi, who dream, improvise and study their way to historical enlightenment. 


In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?

Rysbai Isakov
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Today is good, very good. It has been so hot recently, and now it is cooler. It is like an opportunity to breathe has appeared. I am from the south of Kyrgyzstan, where it doesn’t get as hot as this. I moved up to Bishkek when I was 18. That was in 1992.

I’ve never had to do any work that must be done by the hour. I live by no schedule or to-do list. My life is mainly free. Today I do this, and tomorrow that. When someone calls us and invites us to speak, there we go, and we tell them about Manas. I do not know when my next performance will be — where I am called, there I will be, telling.

I teach lessons in “Manas-ology” for schoolchildren — we introduce them to the plot of the epic and explain the meanings behind the different stories. I perform at events of all kinds, and I also participate in many TV programs and national celebrations.

You could say that I am famous, yes, thank God. Sometimes people greet me in the street to say hello. They thank me. There is a national pride behind Manas. Therefore, everyone is very welcoming to me. It makes me very happy.


The legend of Manas forms a central part of Kyrgyz national identity. Pictured: The giant statue of Manas in Ala-Too Square, Bishkek.

Source Ali Asaei for OZY


Who was Manas? That is a very large, multifaceted question. I could easily talk for two or three days about it. Very briefly, Manas was a hero who fought for justice and honesty. He is the reason that the Kyrgyz people persevered as a nation. And, most important, he is a person who does not enter into the framework of human understanding — he was created by God in a different way, with different skills.

He was an extremely fair and kind person. He would forgive his enemies, not to mention everybody else. For example, while in battle, the enemy would tell him that they were tired and needed to rest. He agreed to this. That’s how kind he was. There have been a lot of trailblazing legends throughout history, and each marks a different epoch. But his story reaches to a period of history we do not even know about. The epic traces through very ancient times. If we study it carefully, it refers to events since the time of the dinosaurs.


I started performing the epic when I was about 11 or 12 years old. But it is difficult to know exactly how or when it started. I do not remember from whom I first heard about Manas — because my generation, and the previous generation, we were all raised on the legend on Manas.

I had some dreams about him, and I studied him. Before I began to tell the epic, I got very sick and I suffered greatly. Yes, I went through all the stages to become a Manaschi.

When performing, the events of dreams and reality get mixed, in a sort of trance state. One time, I was performing the epic, broadcasting live on TV, and I fell asleep mid-performance. I remember thinking: I have a responsibility; so many people are watching. What did I just say? — because in a dream you can say anything — Hey, you fool, you have disgraced yourself. Wake up! I tried to wake myself up, and all I felt was fear for what I said. As I woke up, my tongue was still speaking, but I couldn’t understand what I was saying, or what part of the story I was telling. By habit alone, I continued to speak. I could not think about what I was saying, when to stop or what would come next.

The broadcast lasted only an hour. I was probably in this state for about five or 10 minutes. Afterward, I watched the recording. I saw nothing — everything went well.


Manaschi Rysbai Isakov performs for OZY. His Samsung smartphone and laptop case sit on the table in front of him throughout.

Source Ali Asaei for OZY


There is no schedule by which the dreams come to me. Only he knows when he comes and when he leaves! In a dream, you cannot see any person clearly, like you are seeing them in real life. So I’ve never precisely seen the image of Manas in front of me. But it is as if he is looking, from above, though he is not visible. You know that he is watching. It is difficult to describe. It is an interesting world; you will not understand. The dream world, it is closely related to your real life, but it’s some kind of exclusive world. The experience of performing the epic is often like that. It’s a very difficult phenomenon, which is impossible to explain.

I still learn from dreams regularly, but a dream never tells me specifically what happened. That would make it so much easier! If it were so, I could just ask the question of which century Manas lived in, and then I’d fall asleep and see the answer in a dream. It does not happen like that. A dream only provides the reason, the context. The rest is prospecting, studies, research. I read books, listen to other Manaschi and watch recordings of previous Manaschi. I weigh all of that information, let it go through my mind, and it all comes together to build up an understanding.

This is a big world, a whole universe. As we say, food from a large kettle will not fit in a small frying pan, so a person is given only that share of knowledge that is commensurate with his capacity. From the universe of Manas, any one Manaschi is given only the load that he can carry. It’s like how an electric current is distributed within a circuit to minimize resistance. If too much is given to any one element, it will explode. Knowledge is the same sort of power.

Video by Ali Asaei for OZY, edited by Alex Lau.

Text translated from a conversation in Kyrgyz with the help of Alymkan Jeenbekova.

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