It might sound trite to declare it, but it’s absolutely true that my world has expanded through participating in AMICAL 2018. Kyrgyzstan and all the places between Philadelphia and Bishkek are now on my enhanced mental map, and I’m now happily aware of this phenomenal network of international liberal arts colleges across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. What a gift to join this generous, creative, welcoming community of “amicos” for days of exploration – of digital literacy models, of continuous evolution for liberal arts curricula and learning spaces, and of the Land of Forty Tribes and its history, culture, and terrain.
Angie Popova, the organizing committee, and all of the people who helped to host us at the American University of Central Asia were thoughtful about every aspect of our visit, from ensuring smooth transportation and comfortable lodging for us to introducing us to the arts and traditions of Kyrgyzstan to setting up tours and trekking opportunities to offering hospitality at every turn.
The campus building at AUCA sits elegantly facing and mirroring the Ala-Too mountain range. The interior space is elegantly designed to bring the community into connection and to accommodate the full spectrum of curricular and co-curricular activities for the institution. Art infuses the building – from the multi-lingual mural in the area where we met each day for refreshment breaks, to the ropes reminiscent of yurt straps that criss-cross the stairwell to the sculpture representing traditional Kyrgyz shoes out front, to the string art representing the building itself in the conference room, to the exhibit on chewing gum that transformed a typical blight of any school into creative output. Henry Myerberg, architect of AUCA and also of Bryn Mawr College’s Carpenter Library, was on the program and with us for the conference, and it was a joy to meet him in Central Asia.
The conference days at AMICAL were well-designed to allow for robust sharing of ideas and information, active learning and reflection, and even connection with colleagues around the world who were interested in highlights from the meeting, but unable to attend in person. This commitment to Virtually Connecting was an impressive element of the conference, facilitated on site by Nadine Aboulmagd. The days and evenings were also infused with fantastic experiences unique to Kyrgyzstan, including the construction of the yurt in the campus courtyard, the chance to hear a manashi perform a portion of the Epic of Manas, the Kyrgyz and Russian dancing and singing at the Ethno-Complex Supara, the Osh Bazaar and the Museum of Fine Arts tour, and so much more packed into the visit.
I loved the Birds of a Feather sessions, including the one on monuments and graffiti across international contexts convened by Evelina Kelbecheva, after which we spontaneously decided to make a trip to the Ata-Beyit Memorial Complex in Chong-Tash, organized in agile form for us by Angie. This was a special experience in that we had the opportunity to learn about several layers of Kyrgyz history from 1916 to 1938 to 2010, and we also enjoyed a gorgeous afternoon in the sunshine, soaking in this moving set of memorials and also seeing new parts of the world from new perspectives. As we drove out to Ata-Beyit, we stumbled across a buzkashi match in progress and piled out of the van to see this sport we had read about in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. A fierce player on horseback galloped over to us in intimidating fashion, and we understood through Angie’s translation that we were not, as we feared, encroaching on their cultural practice, but rather watching from the wrong side of the pitch since the paying tourists were sitting on the other side. We retreated to our van, but not before seeing the players score a goal by placing the sheep’s body on a circular clay or concrete platform with tires around the circumference.
The day trip to Burana Tower and the Kegety Gorge was a perfect way to spend a final day in Kyrgyzstan with wonderful new colleagues and friends, among the burial markers with enchanting character and the mountains that are home to horses and snow leopards, wildflowers and waterfalls.
I’m deeply grateful to Jeff Gima and Alex Armstrong and the AMICAL 2018 program committee for inviting me to this year’s conference and very happy to have connected with this community, where the conversations went deep, and the joy in sharing common goals and interests among a group with richly diverse backgrounds was completely inspiring.
And this was the perfect sign that greeted me when I landed at the airport back in Washington, DC….