|Location: Uzbekistan, Southern Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uyghur communities in Central Asia|
|Author: Timur Alexandrov|
|Affiliation: Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge|
Also known as gapkhuri, gapfona in Tajik; gashtak, meshrep in Uyghur
Original Text:Timur Alexandrov, Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge
Gap means ‘word’ or ‘conversation’ in Uzbek. It refers to regular, informal get-togethers over dinner by groups of people, usually of the same age. As an indigenous institution, gaps are common in both urban and rural Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan and other parts of Central Asia. Usually they bring together between three and twelve individuals, but that number may extend to 30 or even more.
The primary aim of the meetings is to enable people to socialise and share information, but some gaps also run a rotating savings fund – an informal safety-net whereby members can quickly access cash for personal use and in case of an emergency. In the wider context, gaps help to build close-knit communities with high levels of mutual trust, reciprocity and support.
Historically, only men attended gaps. Today, women may also attend; generally, however, gaps still tend to be single-sex events. Members are likely to be related to one other through friendship, family, school, residential, professional or other social ties. Many people belong to two or three gaps (Hiwatari 2008).
The practice of such regular face-to-face meetings predates the arrival of Islam in Central Asia. They were held in alowkhonas (places with hearths in rural settings) and money was typically collected to pay for meat, rice and oil (Andreev 1928). With the arrival of Islam in the 8th century, alowkhonas evolved into mosques. Men of all ages could socialise and seek advice from aksakals (elders) in a mekhmonkhona (reception room) (Rakhimov 1990 and 2007). The fact that both alowkhona and mekhmonkhona had heating made it possible for food to be prepared and shared, thereby building on the tradition of collective meals.
Gaps continued to be held during the Soviet period, enabling aksakals to pass on local values, ethics and traditions to the younger generation, along with regional etiquettes of communication and hospitality (Seiple 2005).
At present, gaps are particularly popular in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, and in the Fergana Valley, which extends across eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan. Gaps bring together individuals from different classes and social standing. The social capital derived from gaps translates into various forms of mutual support – it may help to reduce transactional costs related to contracts and official procedures. Informal personal relations between people who are not of equal social status may imply the presence of patronage relations (see blat in this volume). For example, this occurs when a person obtains goods and services with the support of an influential member from the same gap circle.
Gaps are organised according to specific albeit informal rules. They may be held in the home of one of the members, or in a café, restaurant or chaikhona (tea-house) where members can rent cooking utensils and prepare the traditional rice dish, plov. A table laden with exotic food is frowned upon since it is seen as an attempt by the host to show off in front of other members. While the plov is being eaten, conversation normally focuses on social life in the mahalla (local neighbourhood community), current political affairs, personal issues and matters relating to mutual help. Usually, at the end of the lengthy dinner, everyone chips in and makes an equal contribution to pay for food and rental costs. Alternatively, members may take it in turns to host the gap and pay for the meal.
Each gap is headed by a jo’ra boshi (group leader) who must be a respected and sociable individual able to motivate the members and organise meetings. The principle of equality is crucial: if it is not maintained, the gap can elect a new leader. Mutual trust is another crucially important condition and determines who may or may not become a member of the gap.
The practice of gaps has evolved over time to include modern trends such as joint savings funds as a social safety net, and the organisation of gaps among women. Joint savings funds make it possible to raise substantial amounts of cash in a short time. Members hand over to the host an agreed amount of cash at every dinner. In accordance with a pre-agreed rotation list, a lump sum will be handed over to the member whose turn it is to receive payment. In Uzbekistan, this process is known by the Russian term igrat’ v gap (literally, ‘to play in the gap’). How much each individual contributes varies from gap to gap. In some instances, members hand over 50,000 Uzbek Som (about US$ 19); in others, as much as 500,000 Uzbek Som (US$ 190). In gaps whose members are wealthy businessmen, individual contributions have been known to reach as much as one million Uzbek Som. The recipient is free to spend the money as he chooses: on family or personal needs, to launch a small business, or to purchase durable goods. Gap-generated funds may also be used to pay for a wedding toi (feast); this enables families with modest incomes to organise lavish wedding celebrations for as many as a thousand guests.
In this respect, gaps closely resemble the practice of rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs), also known as peer-to-peer lending, which is found in many other parts of the world (see for example esusu in this volume). In the former USSR, the practice was known as kassa vzaimopomoshchi (mutual assistance fund) or chernaya kassa (black cashbox) (Kandiyoti 1998). The major difference between modern interest-free gap loans and ROSCAs is that the latter are aimed only at generating cash, whereas gaps provide social as well as financial benefits. Indeed, the social function remains considerably more important than the financial. For example, some gaps also generate a separate travel fund. This is collected during the year and is spent not on individual travel but on collective trips to the mountains, to sanatoriums, or to rent of dacha (country house).
Women’s gaps trace their roots to the female labour cooperatives of the Soviet era (Bushkov 2002). Like men, women are likely to belong to several gaps. Also like their male counterparts, women’s gaps tend to be formed between neighbours, workmates, former classmates, neighbours and relations; wives often meet, for example, with the wives of their husbands’ circle of friends. Women’s gaps are generally organised according to age: middle-aged women meet together in one group, while young married women and kelins (daughters-in-law) meet in another. Membership of women’s gaps is by invitation-only and, in the case of kelins, the permission of the mother-in-law is also required. Women’s gaps tend to focus on entertainment and recreational activities. Women dress nicely for the occasion and do their best to project themselves as successful and happy mothers, sisters, kelins and wives. The money contributed at female gaps is used primarily to cover the cost of dinner. Anything left over goes to the hostess, to spend on her personal needs. Some contributions may also be generated for joint recreational activities.
Interview data collected by the author during ethnographic fieldwork in the south of Kazakhstan in 2014 found that, for women, gaps help to create a sense of belonging; they also allow participants to keep up with local news. For married women, a gap may be a legitimate reason to be away from home for several hours and spend time with friends. Gaps between kelins provide moral support and advice on family life. Gaps with female colleagues help to expand professional horizons and identify opportunities for career development.
Both male and female gaps enable their members to expand their contacts and build networks beyond the simple gap circle itself. For example, they may mobilise participants to volunteer to help (khashar) other members from the wider local community when, for example, a house is being built. In this way, gaps may be seen not only as a manifestation of comradeship, brotherhood and sisterhood, but also as fertile ground for the creation and maintenance of social capital and civil society.
- Hiwatari, M. 2008. ‘Traditions and the Informal Economy in Uzbekistan: A Case Study of Gaps in the Andijan Region', Acta Slavica Iaponica, 25: 43-66
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