“The Aitys of Birzhan and Sara: A Young Woman’s Voice in Kazakh Oral Literature”

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


In this paper I present a partial poetic translation of "The Aitys of Birzhan and Sara" (Birzhan sal men Sara kyzy aitysy)." This aitys (public improvisatory verbal duel) was held in the late period of Russian colonization, and it was first published in 1898; it is a recording from the Almaty region, of the meeting of the old and venerable poet Birzhan Kozhaghololy, with the very much younger poet Sara Tastanbekkyzy. The aitys is arguably one of the most famous pieces of Kazakh literary culture, as it was transformed in 1946, during the Soviet period, to the opera "Birzhan and Sara," which is performed in Kazakhstan to this day. Part of the reason it has achieved such notoriety, and remains popular to this day, was because of the performance of the young Sara. To her older 'grandfather' Birzhan, Sara sang about her own life and viewpoint as a young girl, trying to navigate the fields of family and marriage. This performance represents one of the key moments in Kazakh history, where the concerns of women were explicitly brought to the fore. The entire aitys runs approximately 1000 lines and the original version is considered to be housed in the state archives of Kazan; in my own partial translation and analysis I focus on the young woman Sara and in her unique ability to hold her own, with the much older and more famous Birzhan. From the methodological perspective of conversation analysis, how does Sara's poetic 'voice' emerge in the context of aitys poetry, and what topics, themes, and dialogues anchor her presence and contribution? Further, in contemporary discussions of oral literature and gender, how does "The Aitys of Birzhan and Sara" reappear as signifier? (Just last year the civil rights NGO Women of Kazakhstan tweeted, "Sara is known as one of the 1st poetress [sic] to fight for #Genderequality"). What story, values, or experience does this historical poetic performance continue to bring to its present days 'audiences'? What kind of cultural, social, and historic lessons, is this oral tradition seen to impart?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCentral Eurasian Studies Society
Publication statusUnpublished - 2019


  • Aitys poetry
  • oral tradition
  • Soviet history
  • Kazakh culture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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