Saturday, February 09, 2013

Poet Fights to Maintain Mongolia’s Nomadic Culture

Jonah M. Kessel for The Wall Street Journal

Gombojavyn Mend-Ooyo was born into a nomadic family and fears Mongolia is losing its appreciation for that life. ‘It’s really difficult to bring back lost culture once it’s gone.’
ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — As a student in the 1980s, Gombojavyn Mend-Ooyo formed a secret literary society and wrote poetry filled with traditional nomadic themes at a time when Mongolia, then a communist state, was trying to suppress those values.
Today he is considered the country’s poet laureate, and an important figure in the fight to retain its traditional culture. As its fast-growing economy puts its modernization into overdrive and draws its population away from its nomadic roots, he has his work cut out for him.
Jonah M. Kessel for The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Mend-Ooyo’s poetry often evokes the Mongolian steppe.
“It is a big shame for us that the country is so focused on mining, at the detriment of herders and the traditional ways of life,” says Mr. Mend-Ooyo, 60 years old, sitting behind his cluttered desk in an old Soviet building in Ulan Bator. “It’s really difficult to bring back lost culture once it’s gone.”
Born into a nomadic family, he spent his early years moving across the steppe, herding goats and sheep throughout the day and listening to his elders play traditional music on horsehead fiddles at night. “We would move 20 times in a year,” he says. “Nomads feel the land has spirits and a soul, so we have songs about each new place we move to.”

Riding horses since the age of 3, Mr. Mend-Ooyo grew up when Mongolia was under Russian control. His father taught him the indigenous Mongolia script by drawing it in the snow that fell outside their circular tent, or ger, during the long winter months — “since classes at school were taught only in the Russian-influenced Cyrillic script,” he says. The family prayed nightly in secret, hiding their Buddhist statues in a box during the day.

As a teenager in the countryside, he got interested in writing, thanks in part to Dorjiin Gombojav, a controversial poet and translator who had alienated officials in Ulan Bator. As punishment, Mr. Gombojav had been sent to teach at the rural school Mr. Mend-Ooyo attended.
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