The Missing Footnote: Korpe

by Mirgul Kali


A child playing hide-and-seek behind a stack of korpes

My earliest childhood memory is of my brother Samat and myself sitting in the smaller room of our one-bedroom apartment. It’s evening, and the darkness, descending on the room, imparts a sense of unease and danger. These feelings are mixed with joy and mischief: Samat and I are sitting on top of a tall stack of thin, folded mattresses called korpes, which we’re about to send toppling. We move our bodies back and forth, shaking our unsteady perch, and a moment later, we are flying towards the floor, caught in a giant mass of unfurling korpes. We scream and laugh, tumble and roll in the soft, messy pile, exhilarated at having found such a simple yet utterly enjoyable way to play.


It is not surprising that the korpe, an essential attribute of Kazakh life, appears in my first memory. While the word is also used to describe a comforter-like blanket or jamylghy korpe, I will mainly talk about the tosek korpe—a long, relatively thin wool or cotton mat encased in fabric and used for sleeping or sitting on. When I came upon the word in Baqytgul Sarmekova’s short story “The Black Colt,” I wondered how to translate it. A sleeping mat? But how would one know from this description that korpe is thinner than a Japanese futon mattress yet nicer-looking than an American camping mat? A long woolen pad? Should I add a footnote clarifying that a korpe has a fabric cover, one side of which is decorative and the other unadorned?


“Korpe” seems to be a modified version of the Old Turkic “kurba”—an adjective used to describe a plant, fruit, or domestic animal that appeared or was born later than expected. [1] In some regions of Kazakhstan, the word is still used to refer to the youngest child in the family. Perhaps in the past, the soft and fluffy wool of late-born lambs served as bedding though today, korpes are usually made of sheep wool or camel hair. Once sheep are shorn or camel hair is collected, the wool is washed, dried, beaten, and carded. The prepared product is then placed inside a fabric cover, the open end of the cover is sewn, and the korpe is quilted. Modern korpe makers buy processed wool and use carding and quilting equipment to finish the bedding. Korpe covers usually have a face, made of fancy cloth or patchworked or embroidered fabric, and an underside, for which a sturdier, plainer material like cotton or silk is used. In addition to tosek and jamylghy korpe, there are also besik korpe (a cradle mattress) and atkorpe (a saddle pad). A set of korpes of various types and sizes is an essential part of a bride’s dowry.


When I was growing up, we didn’t have a bed in our house. Our entire family slept in the living room, and at bedtime, we would lay korpes on the floor side by side, each complete with a pillow and blanket, for every member of the family. My parents slept next to each other at one end of the room, my youngest brother was in the middle, and Samat and I were on the other end. All three of us kids were “rollers”: in the morning, we would often find ourselves lying on the bare floor in a corner or by the door. I still remember a distant cousin, who once came to stay with us for a month and who never moved during sleep. Samat and I would wake up early and watch him for hours, marveling at this miracle of constancy and self-control. When everyone was up and done with breakfast, it was our job to fold all the bedding and stack it on top of a weathered trunk that once belonged to my great grandmother. The tower of bedding had to be put together thoughtfully: the wider blankets and comforters were carefully arranged at the bottom, the korpes, folded in a particular way, went next, and the whole thing was crowned with pillows, the smallest ones at the very top. Years later, when my parents could afford to buy qonaq korpes—nicer, more expensive mats encased in beautiful silk covers and reserved for guests—we had a second korpe stack, in the folds of which my mom would put away money and Samat and I, now adolescents, would stash things we didn’t want others to find. The korpe stacks were also a great place to hide behind to read or cry. On weekends, my dad would unroll a korpe to take his afternoon nap, and my mom spread another next to his to do her sewing or knitting. And when we watched movies in the evenings, our sofa often remained empty while we lay or sat on a couple of korpes in front of the TV.



Parents of Ruslanbek Zhubanazarov, who died during the political unrest in January 2022 [2]


Here, in the U.S. I don’t have a single korpe. I contemplate bringing one back every time I visit Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, korpes take up a lot of space and are inconvenient to carry, so I always opt to lug books home rather than bedding. But I try to spot a korpe whenever I read Kazakh news or watch a Kazakh movie. Colorful yet unassuming, it’s always there in the picture—stacked on top of an embellished trunk, ceremoniously unrolled during the presentation of a bride’s dowry, placed beneath parents whose son was killed by Kazakh police during the January 2022 protests, or sitting underneath a group of women demanding their relatives in Xinjiang be released from prison. Korpe is always there with Kazakh people—in youth and old age, in comfort and celebration, in good times and bad.


Women in front of Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan demanding freedom for their family members in Xinjiang [3]


[1] Ginatullin, Marat. Motivologicheskii Slovar’ Kazakhsckogo Yazyka. Almaty, Izdatel’stvo LEM, 2016.

[2] A still from a video on Azattyq.org website: https://www.azattyq.org/a/funeral-of-protestor-in-aktobe-region/31694817.html

[3] Photo from Baibolat Kunbolatuly’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=173905344927092&set=pb.100069228811144.-2207520000..&type=3