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A Spanish chef who loves Kazakhstan is translating the works of the poet Abai

31 august 2015, 18:57
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Jose Luis Velasco became fascinated with Kazakhstan when he was a teen-ager in the 1970s.

Over the years his fascination grew to the point that he learned all he could about Kazakhstan from books and Kazakhs visiting or living in his native Spain.

Although the 58-year-old has yet to visit the country, he’s become such a fan that he’s translated works of the legendary poet Abai into Spanish and Spain’s regional Catalan language.

And his dream is to retire from his chef’s job in Salt, near his hometown of Girona, to open a Spanish restaurant in Kazakhstan. A young Kazakh studying in Spain actually planted the idea in his mind. Salt and Girona are part of Catalonia, four northeast Spanish provinces with a strong cultural identity whose crown jewel is Barcelona.

Jose, right, with some of the team at the Marcos restaurant in Salt, where he is a chef. Photo courtesy of Jose Luis Velasco.

At first all that the young Jose knew about the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic was that it was the mysterious land where Soviet ruler Josef Stalin had sent 152 Spaniards to the sprawling Karaganda Gulag. Most had fought in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 and then in World War II.

Spain’s Nationalist rebels won the civil war. They were fascists, and when the Second World War broke out, some fought with the Germans against the Soviet Union. The Red Army captured many on the eastern front. 

Meanwhile, some of the Spaniards on the losing side of the civil war – troops of the left-leaning Republican government -- made their way to the Soviet Union to fight against the Nazis.

Stalin sent both Nationalists and Republicans to the Karaganda gulag, Republicans because they refused to give up their Spanish citizenship for Soviet citizenship.

The Spain-Kazakhstan connection was even more intriguing to Jose because his Uncle Miguel Velasco was never heard from again after being sent Karaganda. He had been receiving military training in the Soviet Union when the Spanish Civil War broke out.

The first books Jose read about Kazakhstan covered difficult but interesting chapters in the country’s history: a desperate ethnic-Kazakh exodus from China and life in the gulags.

“Kazakh Exodus” was British author Godfrey Lias’ account of 20,000 ethnic Kazakhs’ hardship-filled escape from the Communists who came to power in China in 1948.

Jose also read the book that made Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn internationally famous, “The Gulag Archipelago,” about the Soviet labor-camp system. Solzhenitsyn spent a number of his gulag years in Kazakhstan.

Jose with Jordi, a kitty he found on the street and adopted. Photo courtesy of Jose Luis Velasco.

Another book Jose read was “Karaganda, the Tragedy of Spanish Anti-Fascism.” Published by an anarchist organization that had fought against the Spanish Nationalists, it dealt with the Soviets’ imprisonment of Republican troops and their children in Karaganda.

Fourteen Spaniards died in the gulag. The rest were freed in the 1950s. The Kazakh and Spanish governments finally recognized them this year by dedicating a monument to their memory at the former labor camp at Spassk, which was part of the Karaganda Gulag.

With his appetite for Kazakhstan whetted from those early books, Jose broadened the scope of his reading to include Kazakhstan’s people, geography, history, culture, art, music and other topics.

Kazakhs began trickling into Spain after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, but their numbers soared in the early 2000s. The surge gave Jose a chance to make a lot of Kazakh friends – and they’ve taught him even more about Kazakhstan.

“Eleven years ago, while on vacation on the coast of Girona, I met a person who changed my life forever,” he said.

Before Gulnara Imangaliyev returned to Kazakhstan from her vacation, she introduced Jose to the works of the country’s revered poet, philosopher and composer, Abai Kunanbayev.

A few months after meeting Gulnara, he and a Kazakh woman living permanently in Girona fell in love. She taught him even more about Kazakhstan. The relationship ended later, but the two remain friends, Jose said.

Jose at the Besalu Bridge in Girona, Spain, which was built in 1075. Photo courtesy of Jose Luis Velasco.

Abai, whose influences included the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, lived in the late half of the 19th Century, a time when Kazakhstan society was clan-based.

He railed against what he saw as the village-focused, short-sighted and petty clan system, urging Kazakhs to develop a national and international outlook. In doing so, he helped ignite the nationalism and patriotism that’s a hallmark of today’s independent Kazakhstan.

Abai also pursued more down-to-earth themes: the importance of women, family, motherhood, love, morality and education. Those works, which all Kazakhs can relate to, made him even more beloved.

Jose became smitten with the Kazakh bard. He decided to study Kazakh “to understand Abai’s poems and the lyrics of traditional Kazakh songs. To understand the culture, history and traditions of Kazakhstan, it is necessary to know the language.”

 Jose with the flags of the countries he loves – Kazakhstan and Spain. Photo courtesy of Jose Luis Velasco.

He also decided to translate Abai “because I believe these magnificent works should be known outside the borders of Kazakhstan. Abai marked a before and after in Kazakhstan’s development as a nation. He awoke in the Kazakh people a feeling of love for the homeland, a yearning for freedom and the pride of belonging to a wonderful land.”

Jose began learning Kazakh by memorizing the alphabet, then translating the words of Kazakh television shows into Spanish and Catalan.

Making Kazakh works available in Catalan is important because about a third of Catalonians use it as their mother tongue instead of Spanish, although most know both languages.

Jose also learned Kazakh by watching instructional videos on YouTube.

In addition, “almost every year during the Christmas and summer holidays, Kazakh friends come to Spain and spend a few days at my house – and they help me study and understand the Kazakh language.”

“My spoken Kazakh is still basic,” he said, “but I read and write the language pretty well.”

His first translation was the lyrics of Abai’s most famous song, “Kozimnin Karasi.” “I really liked the melody and wanted to know the words,” he said. The piece is a salute to a student whose thirst for knowledge the scholarly Abai admired.

Here is a lovely version of the tune in Kazakh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWz0mnTz32w.

After “Kozimnin Karasi,” Jose translated a number of Abai’s poems. They included “Ryzbekova,” in which Abai asks those who read his works to keep an open mind toward his ideas; “The Moon Shines on a Quiet, Windless Night;” “Summer;” and “Spring.”

Jose also translated the lyrics of several Kazakh folk tunes, including “My Village, My Song.”

His next project is translating Abai’s signature work, “The Book of Words,” which he’s in the midst of reading. One scholar describes the book as “a philosophic treatise and collection of poems” in which Abai “encourages his fellow Kazakhs to embrace education, literacy and good moral character in order to escape poverty, enslavement and corruption.”

Jose planned to visit Kazakhstan in the summer of 2012, but an unexpected development forced him to cancel.

“I hope my dreams come true soon – that I’ll be breathing the air of the mountains of Almaty,” he said. “I am fortunate to have many friends and acquaintances in Kazakhstan who have long been awaiting my arrival.”

If he has his way, he will give the people of Kazakhstan a gift some day: delicious cooking.

When he retires as a chef in his homeland, he intends to open a Spanish restaurant in Almaty.

The idea came from Zhanel Beldibayeva, whom Jose met while she was studying food technology at the University of Santiago de Compostela in the city of the same name.

Jose Luis Velasco with close friend Zhanel Beldibayeva, whom he met while she was studying at the University of Santiago de Compostela in northeastern Spain. Photo courtesy of Jose Luis Velasco.

“You have Spanish blood but your heart is Kazakh,” Zhanel told him.

Proof of that is Jose’s love of traditional Kazakh music. “I never tire of listening to the dombra music of Kurmangazy” Sagyrbayev, who composed and performed 19th Century folk tunes. “It calms my spirit.”

Jose said he developed such a bond with Zhanel that “she’s never called me by name – she calls me Ake,” which means father in Kazakh. “She is the daughter I never had.”

Although he obtained a degree in occupational workplace safety from the University of Girona, Jose said his “true vocation is cooking, including creating new dishes.” It’s not surprising that he identifies his other passion as “literature, especially poetry.”

After he opens his restaurant in Almaty, he said, his idea “is to live in Kazakhstan in summer and winter in Girona.”

That back-and-forth schedule will enable him to “build bridges and strengthen ties between Catalonia and Kazakhstan. I would spread the Catalan culture in Kazakhstan and vice versa.”

By translating the works of Abai into Spanish and Catalan, he has already taken a giant step toward building those bridges.


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