Thursday, September 28, 2006

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Why are there no anti-Borat riots in Kazakhstan?

The New York Times' Steven Lee Myers looks at a question that I've wondered about from time to time -- what do the people of Kazakhstan think about Borat? The answer appears to be surprisingly liberal:

There is no Running of the Jews here. No one greets you with the expression “Jagshemash,” which is either nonsense, garbled Polish or mangled Czech; it’s hard to say. The country’s national drink is not made from horse urine, though fermented horse milk, or kumys, is considered a delicacy. (It tastes like effervescent yogurt.)

There is almost nothing, in short, remotely truthful in the satiric depiction of Kazakhstan popularized by Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who plays a bumbling, boorish, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic Kazakh television reporter named Borat Sagdiyev.

And yet Borat — Mr. Cohen, that is — has managed to infuriate and confound the country’s officials. Their attempts to respond, to set the record straight, have resulted only in more attention here, where Borat’s antics, shown on British and American television and on the Internet, now make the rounds like samizdat from the long-gone days when the country was part of the Soviet Union....

“There is an unwritten rule that the president’s personality is never criticized,” said Baryz Bayen, a correspondent and editor for TV 31, a privately owned channel in Almaty.

Last fall Mr. Bayen prepared a six-minute feature on the controversy over Mr. Cohen’s MTV performance that included clips of the skit depicting Mr. Nazarbayev, borrowed from Russia’s NTV channel. Mr. Bayen cited a history of political satire dating to Molière and recalled an old refrain from Soviet times: “I have never read Solzhenitsyn, but I condemn him absolutely.”

“I do not feel any false patriotism,” said Mr. Bayen, who, like all ethnic Kazakhs, bears no resemblance to Borat whatsoever. “I saw portions of his show, and I can say it is funny.”

TV 31’s executive producer, Yevgeny Grundberg, said he hoped to send a correspondent to interview Mr. Cohen in character, reversing the roles in Borat’s acts, where his mock interviews have duped some subjects. So far, though, Mr. Cohen has not responded to his offer. He said Mr. Cohen’s satire was hyperbolic at best and wildly off the mark at worst but nonetheless served as an antidote to the articles and broadcasts that appear in official state media, where Kazakhstan is forever harmonious and prosperous.

“Most people take it normally,” he said, noting that those who have seen Borat remain a minority with access to the Internet or satellite television, where “Da Ali G Show” appears on Russian MTV, which is on cable television here. “The nation has changed enough for that.”

It is interesting that this Muslim country can take Borat with a grain of salt, whereas other jibes at Middle Eastern values provoke a more... frenzied response.

[Borat does not poke fun at Islam, whereas Mohammed cartoons do. You're comparing apples and oranges!!--ed. Maybe... except that nationalism can provoke just as much passion as religion, so I think the similarities are more important than the differences.]

Oh, and you can see the trailer for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan by clicking here. As for Borat's reaction to the Kazakh government's denunciations, click here.

posted by Dan on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM


It seems to me that viewers understand Borat to be tongue-in-cheek and even endearing. If anything, the Cohen satire is great publicity for Kazakhstan, which is not exactly well-known in much of the developed world.

posted by: Anon on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

it may help that borat's version of kazakhstan bears no resemblance to the real thing. the joke in every borat skit i've seen is not on kazakhstan, it's on the americans he interviews who display a profound bigotry and ignorance about the world.

the lack of reaction may also be because most kazakhs have never heard of borat.

finally, kazakhstan is not a majority muslim country (it is 47% muslim). not that i think that is why there aren't any borat riots. but i thought i should still point it out

posted by: upyernoz on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

I doubt Borat engenders any interest in Kazakhstan, any more than Polish jokes made people interested in Poland. Borat is like a modern version of Ubu Roi, the demented play by Alfred Jarry about the king of "Poland". Kazakhstan is like Poland in Jarry's play--it represents no place...

Kazakhstan should resonate with us in the West because of it's oil. It's an important country and worth learning about.

Borat is hilarious, but he's more about AMerica than Kazakhstan...

posted by: RWB on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]


I lived in Kazakhstan for three years and loved it. It ain't the Middle East. Sure it is corrupt as hell, but the people are lovely and the scenery around Almaty ss stunning - my office was a 20 minute drive from the wonderful ski slopes. Plus, the women are the most beautiful in the world (even my wife agrees and she is from Kyrgyzstan) and they dress accordingly. You are far, far more likely to see a MaxMara miniskirt in Almaty or Astana than you are to see a woman in a veil.

In much of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, historically Islam had a pretty light touch arriving only in the 18th century. In the villages animist traditions remain strong. The Saudis pumped a lot of money into mosque building in the 90s and made some inroads among disaffected youth, but by and large the population is pretty secular. Russian and Soviet traditions are probably as strong as any Muslim traditions.

While the Kazakh government gets in a tizzy about Bolot every now and again, I think most Kazakhs have a good sense of humor and know how to take a joke.

posted by: SteveinVT on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

"except that nationalism can provoke just as much passion as religion"

I don't think that applies to Arab and Central Asian countries.

In these countries folks are more passionate about religion than about the rather new and artificial nations.

Turkey and Iran might be the only Muslim country with a strong nationalism.

posted by: Atlantiker on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

I lived in Kyrgyzstan for 2 years, and SteveinVT gets it exactly right. The Kyrgyz and Kazakh (basically mountain and steppe elements of the same group) tend not to be at all passionate about Islam. While the Arabs made it to the area in the 8th c., they didn't last long and didn't leave much behind. Also, add Bishkek to the list of wonderful places for miniskirt-watching...

posted by: Jake on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

I see possibilities for a new international index: ranking countries that on the one hand, have been affected enough by western values that women wear miniskirts, but on the other hand, are still underdeveloped enough that a dollar goes a long way.

posted by: NotMe on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

I used the Borat trailer during a blogging workshop in Almaty I was at a couple weeks ago and everyone seemed to find it funny. The other most common opinion, I was told by some folks who have lived there for a while, is to not understand what is supposed to be funny about it.

posted by: Nathan Hamm on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

"Borat is hilarious, but he's more about AMerica than Kazakhstan"

It is more about America - and British snobbery. Borat is one of Sacha Cohen's characters that exist to incite "plain American" reactions that are fit, or are edited to fit, in the tv format which appeal to British senses of snobbery and superiority.

Borat in himself is funny because Cohen plays it hammily to the live US subjects in turn playing to British expectations. Part of the humor is implicit British misuderstanding of American cultural cues, such as politeness. Another cultural factor not explained is the presence of the camera and how Americans react in social situations with that presence - they play along. For example, his oft shown scene in a honky tonk prompting the locals to respond to an anti-semitic Kazakh song. If the filming was hidden there would be another reaction - first a bottle in the mouth for bad singing.

Still Borat is funny in his own right. Not funny is Cohen's American rapper persona Ali G. If he didn't try to pull off the imitation as a serious immitation in America it might work. The failed cultural cues are evident to most Americans. If you are British, how do you react to an American trying to imitate a Scottish accent? Borat has a degree of self-deprecation, Ali G. is smug superiority. That's why he bombed on MTV and elsewhere. The American appeal is to narrow elites uncomfortable with the majority of Americans. The type of people who don't like country but who feel obliged to dictate or opine that Americans should listen to the Dixie Chicks.

Last night after Jake Tapper's love piece for Borat it was interesting to see Craig Ferguson's show. He is Scottish and has a recurring bit where he imitates a Western American Cowboy car salesman type. He doesn't play it serious, plays it camp and the audience loves him - their is not an iota of anti-American or class hostility to him.

Saying that, Sacha is a smart guy and may be laughing to himself how he has suckered the British public by appealing to their biases and priggishness. The Kazakhs are convenient foil because none they are far away, there is little fear of retribution. ... Let's see Sacha play the role as an Arab...

posted by: Karl on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

Sure it's funny to use Borat to make fun of Americans, but does Cohen even realize that his character is nothing like a Kazakh - it's just a rehash of every Eastern European stereotype?

Some people don't realize Kazakhstan is in Asia.

posted by: b. phillips on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

Sure it's funny to use Borat to make fun of Americans, but does Cohen even realize that his character is nothing like a Kazakh - it's just a rehash of every Eastern European stereotype?

I always thought that was part of the joke, though - most Americans/Britons just hear the "-stan" at the end and kind of squish it into one vague, Eastern European mush. The character wouldn't work well against anyone who actually knew anything about Kazakhstan, because he's really at his best when he's playing off the ignorance and eccentricities we take for granted in the West.

posted by: Christmas on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

"Turkey and Iran might be the only Muslim country with a strong nationalism."

You should add Egypt to that list, too.

posted by: Adam on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

I spent a month in the hinterlands of Kazakhstan (Kostenai) adopting my son, and have another story of religion there. In downtown of the regional capital, there's a huge mosque, and a huge Russian Orthodox church, both built in the early 1990's just after independence. Our translator explained that as soon as the Soviets left, international religious organiations started sponsoring these huge building projects. One of them allegedly altered its architectural plans so it would be a few feet taller than the other. So they're on the same block, just like the Methodists and Presbyterians in my New England home town, and in another parallel to New England, according to our translator, hardly anyone goes to either or them.

Kazakhstan also refused to join the International Red Cross for many years because it refused to choose between the Red Cross and the Red Crescent symbols.

The Borat character will annoy only the few Kazakhs who travel in the West. He may, however, make life difficult for my three-year-old proud Kazakh son in a few years when the character becomes known within the peer group.

posted by: arthur on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

I think Mr. Drezner just flaunted that seem deep understanding of "Muslim" culture that led him to endorse our glorious adventure in Iraq. Huzzah!

posted by: sglover on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

I wonder how a character who protrays Kazakhstan as populated by irredemably savage barbarians can possibly be considered funny against a historical background of multiple genocides committed against the Kazakhs over the 20th century, motivated by, well, the belief that the ethnos was irredeemably savage and barbarian.

I'll laugh at Borat when I start laughing at jokes about Jews, Asians, and women. (Not gays; that's my in-group.)

posted by: Randy McDonald on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

In the service of comedy, some wrongs are permitted.

posted by: perianwyr on 09.28.06 at 02:45 PM [permalink]

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