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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

 

Yurts are delightful

Inspiration: Bush to hold talks on Ali G creator after diplomatic row
Images: Google image search

Not surprisingly, Ali G's new Borat film has greatly upset the Kazakh government. President Nazarbayev has arranged meetings with President Bush in order to discuss ways in which Kazakhstan's image can be improved in America. There is talk of a "PR blitz" with both television and print components. Though some people may scoff at President Nazarbayev's missing sense of humor, I think he has a point. Does the average American know anything about Kazakhstan? I doubt most people could find it on a map, let alone understand its complex cultural history. Fortunately, I took a class on this in college.

The Kazakhs are traditionally nomadic people - not to be confused with barbarians because those were the Mongolians. Just kidding! Anyway, the Kazakhs along with the Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Turkmens, were essentially colonized by the Russians. Colonization attempts began under Peter the Great in 1715 with the first expedition to the Kazakh steppe. Around 1884, colonization of all the Central Asian countries was completed with the takeover of what was then known as Turkistan. Though life was not great under imperial rule, it was much better than under the Soviets. While the tsarists generally allowed the nomads to stay nomadic, the Soviets forced them to settle. Because 'the state' was the major Soviet religion, everything possible was done to undermine traditionally nomadic social structure. For example, traditional shamanistic rituals and folk medicine was discredited, not really for the sake of public health, but in order to remove shamans and healers from positions of social power. Though Stalin did not slaughter as many people in Central Asia as he did in other parts of the Soviet Union, people still suffered. Now Kazakhstan is struggling to reconcile its proud nomadic heritage with its desire to be taken seriously by the rest of the world in the post-Soviet era. End of history lesson.

As for nomadic culture, it is not as 'backward' as you'd think. For example, the Kazakh government is most upset about the scene in which Borat makes out with his sister before leaving for America. The uninformed viewer may not actually assume Kazakhs are still incestuous today, but he or she may believe it was accepted in their society in the past. However, this is not at all true. Back when there were nomadic tribes following exact migration patterns throughout the year, there were gatherings of different tribes in the warmer months for the purpose of matching up singles in tribes far removed from each other. Hardy nomads did not want incestuous dilutions of their gene pool. These people had to (and some still do) get up at 4 or 5am, milk the camels and goats, cook dinner, maintain the yurt, batten down the hatches in the event of a sandstorm, watch the children, watch the elderly, braid rope out of camel hair, milk the camels again, etc. Members of the British royal family are far, far more likely to make out with their siblings than the Kazakhs are!

In any case, Ali G is hilarious and I'd encourage anyone to see his movie. But just remember Kazakhstan (and the culturally similar Kyrgyzstan) actually does exist, and it is pretty damn cool.








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