Monday, December 3, 2012



Unknown Sands: Journeys around the World’s Most Isolated Country

When people question the relevancy or the accessibility of classical music, they just show their ignorance (at least, this is my opinion, as a classical musician.) Classical music is deeply embedded in our culture – especially in our entertainment media. Have you heard of Hans Zimmer, Jerry Goldsmith, Dario Marianelli, or James Horner? If you answered “no,” I would suggest that you Google their names. My guess is that you probably have heard – and been inspired by – their music.

Some worry that classical music will be overtaken by other industries – film, television, etc. I am not among them, as I am incredibly excited about the newest developments emanating from the classical music world. Karl Jenkins is a perfect example of someone who effortlessly transitions between commercialism and art. Perhaps most famously known for his Palladio, which was famously used in De Beers diamond television commercials, his Adiemus is truly a masterpiece on both an artistic and intellectual level. Combining musical influences across the world, Jenkins utilizes the voice as an instrument, as there are no lyrics. The absence of lyrics also allows the music to be equally enjoyed by all, despite differences in languages or cultural practices. Christopher Tin is another composer who is changing the classical music world. Well-known as a composer for the music of video games, he won two Grammy awards in 2011 for his Calling All Dawns.

The Silk Road Project is another exciting movement, led by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma (for those of you in the younger generation, he was one of the performers at Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration.)  The purpose of this project is to promote cross-cultural understanding by connecting musical traditions. Similar to the way that the Silk Road sparked innovation and ultimately brought the world together in new ways, this organization seeks to spark innovation in classical music and bring together all the world’s musicians.

The Silk Road is an ever-present aspect in John W. Kropf’s “Unknown Sands: Journeys around the World’s Most Isolated Country.” In referring to the world’s most isolated country, the author is referring to Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan, which is located in the heart of Central Asia, borders on Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the Caspian Sea. A country with one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world and bordering a US war zone, Turkmenistan has only recently emerged as a topic of importance in the West.  However, Turkmenistan is not known as an exemplary country in the region, but rather as “the most Soviet authoritarian of the former Soviet Republics. The Economist magazine had even dubbed it the worst place to live because of its repressive economic and civil liberties” ( page 59.)

Nonetheless, the area of Turkmenistan was of strategic historical importance, as it was located on the Silk Road. From the stomping ground of Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan to a pawn of the “Great Game” of power politics between Russia and Great Britain during the early 19th century, Turkmenistan and its history is deeply interconnected with the history of the Western World.

The author, John W. Kropf, moved to Turkmenistan in the late 1990s, after his wife had been assigned to the United States Embassy in the country’s capital of Ashgabat. He eventually began to work as the Country Director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID.)  They both left the country soon after 9/11 and before the War on Terror in Afghanistan began in earnest.  

The political life in Turkmenistan since its independence in 1991 has been dominated by two larger-than-life leaders. This book, as it was published in 2006, focuses on the first political leader, Saparamurt Niyazov, before his sudden death later that year. (The political life is now dominated by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who was re-elected as President this past year with over 95% of the vote.) Following independence from Soviet rule, Niyazov reverted to a Stalinist way of ruling and established a cult of personality. The author mentions this while describing his first time venturing into the capital city: “There were so many portraits that they looked out at each other from every direction, every angle… The full-length, super-sized, gold statues of him often included a cape. One estimate put the number of Niyazov statues throughout the country in the thousands” (page 25.)

Another interesting aspect which the author mentioned was the development of a Turkmen national identity. The topic of national identity is of particular interest and importance, considering the fact that Turkmenistan was dominated by the Soviet Union in recent history. One of the first actions of Niyazov to create this identity was to purge any and all elements of Russian culture from Turkmenistan. The ethnic Russian minority has experienced prejudice in recent years and many have chosen to immigrate to Russia. The President had also decreed that all official business was to be conducted in the Turkmen language, rather than in the Russian language. Many officials and government workers suddenly found themselves jobless, because the Soviet education system had left them without an educated knowledge of their mother tongue. Niyazov then proceeded to create a new national identity, based on what he claimed to be traditional Turkmen values. As the author worked in both the rural and urban areas, he noted that there is a huge discrepancy between the traditional Turkmen in the rural areas and the government-fabricated traditionalism in the cities. “While he [Niyazov] portrayed himself as the leader of all Turkmen and exploited traditions in his attempt to build a national identity, it was obvious to those outside of the capital who practice these traditions that this was not consistent with his own culture” (page 90.)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Sunday, November 11, 2012



Muslim Youth: Tension and Transitions in Tajikistan


For those who have read this blog or who know me personally, it is extremely clear that I am close to my family. This might stem from the fact that I am an only child. However, I attribute it to something else: I grew up with an understanding of the fragility of life, and thus, treasured each moment I had with my parents.

The summer when I turned eight years old, my mother entered into the hospital for procedures to make her better. From my child perspective, I did not understand exactly what was going on, but I became more and more worried when a few days spending the night with my grandparents turned into a week, and then turned into an indefinite amount of time. I felt mindless with worry – distraught to the point that all I felt like doing all day was watching cartoons. Even when my mother finally came home, it was not the same: She had lost a ton of weight; she could not eat; she stayed in bed most of the day. As she began to recuperate and as I grew older, I understood that time was precious and that there were very few issues which are truly worth arguing.

That being said, my parents and I really do not have anything over which to argue. They have allowed me to develop as my own unique person. I grew up in a world without the pressure of social conventions. When I listened to opera and no one else did: it was everyone else’s problem. When everyone else had a boyfriend and I did not: it was everyone else’s problem. When I felt stagnated attending private school after my 9th grade year, they went against all social conventions (and against the advice of many family members and friends) and permitted me to become home-schooled and to engage in two years of blissful self-learning.

I guess the reason why this is on my mind is that I will be graduating this year. Once I leave for my Barcelona/Berlin adventure in January 2013, I have no idea when I might return home or for how long. And when I think about it, I am not sad, but rather, eternally grateful for everything which my parents have provided me – most importantly, the flexibility to develop as my own person. This feeling of gratitude overwhelmed me when I read Colette Harris’s “Muslim Youth: Tensions and Transitions in Tajikistan.” One interesting aspect of this book is that the author writes short narratives based on the lives of the people whom she encountered while researching and living in Tajikistan. As the author is a woman, most of the stories she highlights are the stories of women. Reading these narratives, I was struck by the constraints which they faced – constraints based on social conventions, lack of education, limited economic opportunities, etc. Living in a society influenced by both Islam and Soviet rule, these women of Tajikistan face an extraordinary lack of options.

I purchased this book because it seemed the only book available on Tajikistan that was within the price that I was willing to spend and was not too long (after all, I have another 150+ countries to go.) The cover was not promising to be an interesting read. However, once I received the book, I was enthusiastic to learn that is was published by Westview, the same publisher of the book about Qatar, which I read and enjoyed. Once I started the book, I was surprised by how quickly and smoothly it read.

Before I delve more into the points which I found most interesting in the book, perhaps a little bit of background information is necessary on Tajikistan. Located in Central Asia, people from the United States might find it of particular importance, as it borders both Afghanistan and China. Like most of the other “Stan countries,” the political scene is dominated by a charismatic leader, Emomali Rahkmonov. He has been the head of state since Tajikistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1992, retaining control even in the midst of a bloody civil war in the 1990s. When this book was published in 2006, the author noted that, “Together with President Karimov of Uzbekistan, Rahkmonov has long supported the Russian government’s suppression of Islamists. As an extension, he also supports the United States’ war on terror.” (page 16)

This book, however, does not focus on politics or governments, but rather the social, cultural, and religious constraints which affect the everyday people of Tajikistan. Interesting aspects which are mentioned in the book include:

  • Fragmented Identities: In order to discuss the changing identity of Tajikistan in the last 100 years, the author shares the story of an elderly woman who remembers life before the Bolshevik rule. The Russian Empire began its conquest of Central Asia during the late 1800s, however, with Bolshevik control, women were forced to dramatically change their identities. Where before most Tajik people lived in accordance to the Islamic law of sharia, new laws “declared many local customs illegal and pressuring veiled women, found mostly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, to show their faces in public.” (page 37) Women were also encouraged to work alongside men. This sudden change of identity left a gaping hole in many women’s personal identities, thus creating an unstable situation on which Tajik youth to build their identities today.
  • Education: I was struck by the way the education system was described in the book. For many years, Soviets saw education as a means by which to assert control over the Central Asia regions, thus providing them with curriculum which reinforced Soviet ideals. However, the author describes modern education, especially the university system, essentially worthless and corrupt. Selling of university degrees is a common practice. Even if students show up to class, they may not even be taught up-to-date information. (She notes that the textbooks of the university economic department are from the Soviet era and do not teach about the market economy.) However, she notes an even deeper problem in education: collectivist versus individual identity. She states: “For Tajiks, on the other hand, membership in their collectives, of which the most important are family and region of origin, is crucial for their personal identity.” (page 91) While most modern education systems (including the Soviet system) focus on individual work ethic, they have thus been unable to penetrate the Tajik society.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Sunday, October 21, 2012



Tamerlane’s Children: Dispatches from Contemporary Uzbekistan

I will make a somewhat startling admission: I am a faithful viewer of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” To redeem myself for this indulgence, I will say that my interest in Honey Boo Boo comes not only from its entertainment value, but also its important cultural relevancy: Having grown up in the South and frequently shopping at Wal-mart, I encounter these sorts of characters every day and I enjoy the opportunity to see their lifestyles up-close and personal on television.

That being said, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is the only entertainment show I watch on cable television, as Netflix is my go-to source for entertainment. One of my favorite shows is the original, black-and-white Twilight Zone series. Although I love Twilight Zone for its entertainment value, I find that this series (like Honey Boo Boo) has important cultural relevancy. The series lasted for five years – starting in the late 1950s and ending in the early 1960s. This era is certainly evident in the themes and conflicts of the episodes – the struggle for individualism, the strong anti-authoritarian government sentiment, and the destruction of war.

There are so many cultural phobias manifested in this series. I always find it interesting when the episodes feature the post-apocalyptic world after nuclear fallout. When discussing this with my father, he shared with me how he and his friends would pretend war and surviving nuclear fallouts when they were children. (Imagining young children in the present day playing “nuclear fallout” is an interesting and strangely comical thought  to me – as nuclear weapons are not taught until somewhat late in children’s education and primarily in a historical context.)  

I mention the Twilight Zone because it makes me think about the cultural phobias which manifest themselves in our modern media – the lone gunman, terrorism, and religious extremism.  As a US American, I cannot stress the cultural impact which 9/11 has made on my country’s population. I know that it has made a tremendous impact on me and the way I view the world. When I was young, my parents took me to the restaurant, Windows on the World (on the top floor of the North Tower.) Subsequently, watching the towers collapse on the television screen felt like a violent and personal attack.

9/11 has been a central feature in many of the books that I read about the Middle East. However, I assumed that once I entered into another geographical region, such as Central Asia, that 9/11 would no longer have such significance. I assumed wrongly. Although modern media often focuses on foreign relations with countries in the Middle East, the countries from other regions have played large roles in the War on Terror. One example of this is the country of Uzbekistan, which shares a common border with Afghanistan. In the early years of the War on Terror, Uzbekistan provided the United States with access to the K-2, or the Karshi-Khanabad airbase. This gave the United States a regional presence and access to any location in Afghanistan within two hours. (Interestingly, Uzbekistan ordered all United States forces out in 2005, following the United States’ condemnation of the Uzbek government’s human rights violations.)

I had no idea that there was a country named Uzbekistan before I started researching it in order to purchase a book for the Global Book Challenge. When I started reading Robert Rand’s “Tamerlane’s Children: Dispatches from Contemporary Uzbekistan,” I was surprised at the interest level and quality of the book. The author lived in Uzbekistan for several years, working as a journalist as his wife worked in the nation’s capital of Tashkent as a United Nations employee. His cultural insights are really fascinating and perfect for anyone wanting a brief introduction to the particularly current issues facing this country, and even the Central Asia region in general. Despite being consumed with studies, I devoured the book in two days.

I will particularly focus on two topics of which I found to be of considerable interest: government and religion in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek political life is dominated by the president, Islam Karimov, described in the book as, “tennis amateur, former Soviet Communist Party boss, and the first and only president of the Independent Republic of Uzbekistan” (page 4.) He is perhaps most well-known in the western world for the violations of human rights which have occurred under his regime. Interestingly, the War on Terror was a perfect excuse for him to consolidate his power through force. Religious extremism and political dissent had been two issues which he personally faced – having been the target of car bombings in 1999. Blaming extremists, “the President initiated a security crackdown that continues to this day… mosques have been stripped of loudspeakers to mute the public broadcast of the call to prayer, and thousands of Muslims have been jailed for professing their religion in a manner unsanctioned by the state” (pages 6-7.)

According to the author, the government takes on an authoritarian role, as citizens are unable to even criticize the President. Human rights are of utmost concern to the international community – it was this issue which deteriorated the relationship between Uzbekistan and the United States. In May 2005, government forces killed as many as 500 protestors in the Andijon Massacre. The summer of 2005 was marked by unprecedented violence, as Uzbek citizens tried to bring about change to power, similar to the way neighboring Kyrgyzstan had toppled the regime of Askar Akayev earlier that year.

Another interesting topic discussed in the book is that of religion. Uzbekistan is over 90% Muslim, but religious freedoms are limited by the state. Uzbekistan has a strong Muslim heritage and is actually the resting location of the oldest known copy of the Qur’an in the world. However, life under Soviet control had its impact, and the political atmosphere has not allowed the return of religious freedom. In short, Uzbek citizens are forced to live in a secular, Islamic world.

To bring this post full-circle: I would venture to argue that a cultural phobia in the United States is that of religious extremism. We applaud secularism in the Muslim world. However, do we promote and applaud secularism to the point that it diminishes the importance of religious freedoms? How do we, as citizens of a nation fighting religious extremism, reconcile our own fears of extremism and our nation’s role of the defender of rights?

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Saturday, October 20, 2012



Kazakhstan: Surprises and Stereotypes after 20 Years of Independence

Being raised by an artist has both its advantages and disadvantages. One of the major disadvantages is that my mother made me into an art snob at a very early age. Some of my first memories are of my mother taking her college art history books off the shelves to read to me. I would sit with her on the sofa and listen, as she taught me about negative space, focal points, color wheels, contrast, movement, texture, and perspective. When we would go to museums or art galleries, she would ask me to apply what she taught me to critique the works of art.

Visual arts are not only cultural activities for pleasure or enlightenment – they are an integral part of our modern, industrialized world and a central part of our capitalist economy. Through my mother, I learned an important lesson: if something is not aesthetically appealing, people will not buy it. Humorously, I will note that I got the “Artists are the most important parts of any organization or company. You can have a terrible product, but once an artist gets a hold of it...” speech every single time we drove past McDonald’s “Golden Arches.” (To this day, I am not sure if her speech was undermining to the Chicken McNuggets, praising to the logo, or a mixture of both.)

Every instance my mother heard the “Don’t judge a book by its cover” phrase, she would recoil in disgust. In her opinion, if someone put enough effort to make a book cover visually appealing, then the content of the book is worth consideration. Needless to say, when she took me to the bookstore as a child, I was encouraged to utilize book covers in order to decide which books I wanted to bring home.

I bring up this topic as an introduction to my book about Kazakhstan, “Kazakhstan: Surprises and Stereotypes after 20 Years of Independence,” by Jonathan Aitken. Needless to say, when I saw the cover of this book come across my computer screen, I wanted it. It features a photograph of the purple and green lit Khan Shatyr, which is a recent shopping complex described as “the world’s biggest tent.” This is located in the capital city of Astana.

An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to the creation of the capital city of Astana. The decision to make this the capital city was indeed somewhat of a controversial decision. Following the creation of Kazakhstan as an independent state after the fall of the Soviet Union, the natural choice for a capital city was the Kazakh cultural mecca of Almaty. Described as a “cornucopia of culture” in the book, Almaty has a rich cultural history. (I will digress to note that Almaty is also the home to the Abay Opera House, which was founded in 1934.) However, “Nazarbayev [the President of Kazakhstan] was dreaming of a capital city proclaiming the symbolism of a newly independent nation. He wanted to build a parliament, a supreme court, a ministry of defence, a ministry of foreign affairs, a diplomatic quarter and presidential palace” (page 102.) Hence, Astana was founded as “one of the world’s most unusual and idiosyncratic capitals” (page 104.)

Although this book is described as a book about Kazakhstan, I found the book to be more about its President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. (As some background information, Nazarbayev has dominated the political sphere in Kazakhstan since before the fall of the Soviet Union. He has served as the country’s President ever since the country gained independence in 1991. In the recent elections of 2011, he was re-elected with over 95% of the vote.) In fact, the author actually wrote Nazarbayev’s biography entitled “Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan.” In my opinion, he has a difficult time separating the country and the people from its political leader. There is not a chapter in this book where Nazarbayev does not play a central role.

The author also seems to be somewhat biased through his support of the Nazarbayev government. While I understand that his opinions constitute a legitimate point of view, they never seem to challenge the leader’s actions. One example of this includes a passage on page 96: “There are over two hundred daily newspapers and magazines published here, many of them hostile to the government although rarely critical of the President personally, a prohibition which is enshrined in the constitution.” The author finishes the paragraph with a quote from the chairman of a Kazakh journalist association, stating that they do not feel as if freedom of the press is violated through the current set of laws (an assertion, which as a US American, which I have difficulty believing.) The author often talks about the support of the President among the Kazakh people, but never shares the alternative voices in the country.

While I will not criticize Jonathan Aitken and the material which he chose to cover, I do believe that there were more opportunities to share alternative voices in the book. The author states that there is a diverse population in Kazakhstan, but instead has covered predominately the life of one – that of the President Nazarbayev.

Nonetheless, I did learn a lot about Kazakhstan from this book, as it covers a wide array of political issues. The most interesting chapter was entitled “Nuclear Past, Nuclear Future.” This particularly delved into the issues of the Soviet’s nuclear development program. In short, “throughout the nuclear arms race of the Cold War era, Kazakhstan became the Soviet Union’s weapons laboratory. Between 1949 and 1989 tests took place at the rate of one every three weeks. There were 752 explosions, 78 at ground level, 26 in the atmosphere and the remainder underground” (page 76.) As one can imagine, these tests had effects on the health of many of the Kazakh people. When Kazakhstan gained its independence, it found itself “custodian of over 1,200 nuclear warheads for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)” (page 78.) The author later notes that this number is greater than the number of warheads controlled by Britain, France, and China combined. Nazarbayev was the first President to “voluntarily renounce the possession and use of nuclear weapons” (page 75), an action for which the author gives him significant praise.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!