Helen M. Faller

Helen M. Faller

Independent researcher


On board a Turkish cultural cruise I took in July 2000 from Kazan, Tatarstan to Ufa, Bashkortostan – both in Russia – was the much-loved Tatar singer Färidä Kudasheva, a small woman with a benevolent gaze, auburn hair, and the high cheekbones and round cheeks typical of Eurasian Turks. One evening after dinner Färidä apa gave a concert in celebration of her 80th birthday. When she began to sing, instead of smiling and looking each other in the eyes as they had during previous concerts, the audience members, tightly packed together in the ship’s stuffy hold, sat somberly without moving. Hints of tears glinted in their eyes. Their gazes were still, uncharacteristically disconnected from the present moment. The songs Färidä apa sang were slow in tempo and minor in key. A mournful accordion accompanied her voice. About halfway through her performance, Färidä apa stopped singing and explained that she had decided to sing only mongly jyrlar – ‘mongful’ songs – that evening. An hour later the concert ended. The Master of Ceremonies came on stage and thanked Färidä apa profusely for her performance. People from the audience started presenting the singer with gifts. Before placing the gifts in her hands, smiling, they shifted their gazes once again to those in their immediate surroundings. Each person congratulated Färidä apa on the occasion of her 80th birthday and thanked her for the concert. She received each gift with a kiss or an embrace.

Like the raft in Huckleberry Finn, the ship created an environment temporarily free from quotidian social inequities. Tatars could be free to be Tatar without having to worry about offending Russians. Although several passengers didn’t speak Tatar, those who did had no need to calculate whether or not it was appropriate to converse in that language. The repeated creation of this cultural space had an enduring effect on participants, who would plan and save throughout the year in order to take the cruise again and renew the feelings of joy and belonging they experienced during it. Due to the coincidence of being able to take pleasure in being Tatar and to speak Tatar freely, the cruise reinforced Tatars’ generally held belief that culture resides in language. It encouraged people to engage in what they feel to be the most Tatar kinds of behavior and provided them a forum to talk about, create, and experience mong.

Mong is a generalised feeling of grief-sorrow, a type of melancholy song, the sorrowful melodies that animate thosesongs, the sentiment singers tap into and transmit, the emotion audience members experience, and a subject of ideological talk. Always sung in a minor key and often accompanied by accordion music, mongful songs are marked by long-held, deeply resonant notes carried best by strong, clear, versatile voices that sonorously sound the songs’ sad lyrics. Typical mong lyrics concern feelings of sorrow and loss expressed metaphorically through an emotional description of a scene from nature. Their lack of specificity connotes that they belong to the nation as a whole, as opposed to individuals. In being laden with an untranslatable mournful nostalgia, mong bears a similarity to the Portuguese musical genre fado. And while mong’s musical qualities differ profoundly from those of the American blues, young Tatars aware of parallels between US and Soviet history sometimes refer to it as “the Tatar blues.”

Mong provides a revealing insight into the structure of Tatar emotions. Unlike other Tatar social situations, when listening to mongly jyrlar, it is permissible to withdraw your gaze and allow tears to well up in your eyes. Listeners disconnect their attention from their surroundings and contemplate the grief-sorrow of their inner worlds. Thus, while mong is an intensification of the essence of normative Tatar emotionality, it is also separate from daily behavior norms that dictate attentiveness and a focus on the positive.

Mong also offers a counterexample to widely accepted theories of nationalism, which posit that people of the same nation imagine themselves to constitute a unified, undifferentiated, homogenous whole. While mong taps into, produces, and reproduces feelings that unite Tatar-speakers as a nation who have suffered collectively, it generates feelings of collective suffering precisely because individuals are encouraged to understand mong in diverse ways. Tatar-speakers almost universally say they experience mong the same way and consider themselves to be talking about the same phenomenon when they discuss it. However, their diverse understandings of mong allow them to express their individual worldviews. The inflexibility of mong’s form, along with the song lyrics’ non-specificity, makes multiple interpretations possible. Tatars see no inconsistency in this, considering it both common sense and common knowledge that variation occurs.

Perhaps mong’s most significant quality is that it is understood to be something Russians do not have nor care to learn about. Tatar-speakers often say that Russians do not have a word equivalent to mong and therefore cannot understand what it means. However, recognising mong does not require linguistic knowledge, just curiosity about its existence. Thus, saying that Russians have no word for mong in actuality glosses Russian indifference to mong and the insult to Tatar cultural values that that indifference implies. This mirrors other relationships between Tatars and Russians, colonial in that Tatars know all about things Russian, while Russians are largely unaware of any but the most superficial aspects of Tatar culture.

While singing mongly jyrlar is losing popularity among urban youth living at a remove from the rhythms of village life, it nevertheless remains part of the habitual activities of their city-dwelling parents and those relatives who remain in the villages. Moreover, even young urban Tatar-speakers feel that mong is a core feature of Tatar identity.

Kaz Kanaty (Swan's Wing)

Kaz kanaty kat-kat bula.
Ir kanaty ak bula.
Chit irlärdä küp iöresäŋ,
Tugan ileŋ yat bula.
Chit irlärdä küp iöresäŋ,
Tugan ileŋ yat bula.

Goose wings are many layered.
The male goose is white.
If you walk in a foreign land for a long time,
Your homeland becomes strange.

Listen to a performance of this song by Färidä Kudasheva on YouTube.


Äy, mökadäs mongly sazym,
Uynadyng sin nik bik az?
Sin synasyng, min sünämen,
Aerylabyz axrysy.
Ochty dön’ya chitlerennän
Tarsynyp küngelem koshy.
Shat yaratsa la jihanga,
Yat yaratkan Rabbysy.

Ah, my sacred mongly saz,
You played such a short time?
You are broken, my flame is snuffed,
We are separated in the end.
Flying around the edge of the world
The bird of my heart was pinched.
Even if God created happiness on earth,
It would still be alien to me.

Kyr Kazy (The Wild Goose)

Kyr kazlary ochty, kürdegezme
Havalarga menep kitkänen?
    Kyr kazy
    Idellär chitendä.
    Yalgyz bashym minga chiten lä
Beläsengme, dustym, sinäsengme
Aerylular kilep jitkänen?
    Kyr kazy
    Sularda uinyi shul.
    Yalgyz bashym gel sine uilyi.
Balaly la kazlar su echendä,
Balasyzlar suniy chitendä;
     Kyr kazy
     Idellär chitendä.
     Yalgyz bashym minga chiten lä.
Aerylabyz, dustym, sinäsengme,
Sagynyrsyngmy mine chit ildä?
     Kyr kazy
     Sularda uinyi shul.
     Yalgyz bashym gel sine uilyi.

The wild geese have flown away, have you seen how they rose up into the air?
     The wild goose
     Is on the edge of the Idel [Volga River],
     My lonely head aches so.
Do you know, my friend, do you feel it
The separations that are about to take place?
     The wild goose
     Plays so in the waters.
     My lonely head forever thinks of you.
The geese with goslings are in the water,
The childless ones fish on its edge;
     The wild goose
     Is on the edge of the Idel,
     My lonely head aches so.
We’re parting, my friend, do you feel it,
Will you miss me in a foreign land?
     The wild goose
     Plays so in the waters,
     My lonely head forever thinks of you.


Mong is explored in greater depth in my book, Nation, Language, Islam: Tatarstan’s Sovereignty Movement

Those who may be curious to learn more about my future research on Silk Road foodways can do so at www.mosaiqa.com