The saying goes, “You learn something new every day.” The other night, I had the privilege of being a guest for dinner in a local Kyrgyz household, and the conversation turned to some other Americans that had worked with this particular Kyrgyz family in the past.
“When his parents came the second time, they remembered how much meat we had eaten the first time they came and how we had old, poor-quality knives, and they brought us a set of knives as a gift,” Aigul says to me, getting up to show me the knife set in a nice wooden block. “But when he gave it to us, we have a tradition,” she continued, “If someone gives you a knife, you must give them something back for it. It is a cold weapon. So depending on what they’ve given you, you have to give them maybe a sheep or even a small horse, or a goat or even just money.”
I wasn’t sure I knew what a “cold weapon” was, but it was clear that a knife fell within the category (according to the dictionary, “cold weapon” is the term for a sidearm), and that the tradition in Kyrgyzstan involves giving a gift in return.
“Why do you give them something in return if the knife is just a gift?”
“We always pay for a knife, because if someone gives you a knife as a gift, it means that you will become enemies. It is a cold weapon, after all. So you have to give them something. We never give each other knives as gifts.”
Curious, I pressed on. “In the United States, often a father will give his son a knife, maybe when he is 8 years old, or 10 years old, for his birthday. Do you do that here?”
The husband piped up quickly, “No, of course we do not give them knives. Ever. Maybe down in Southern Kyrgyzstan where they are influenced by Uzbek culture – because you know that every Uzbek carries a knife at their side – but here Kyrgyz people don’t carry knives. It is a sidearm, y’know. But we do give each other какое-нибудь русское слово здесь.”
Confused, I sought clarification, and Aigul jumped up to get hers and show me. Turns out, they were talking about a Swiss Army Knife, which is apparently perfectly okay to give to someone else, since it isn’t really a weapon.
One last point adds a little humor to the story: both times I’ve been in Aigul’s house for dinner, I’ve made a comment about the butter knife being a weapon when it was handed to me…