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!  



100 Letters Home: My Two Years in Kyrgyzstan

As I am graduating from college this year, I have been the constant recipient of one ominous question: “What are you going to do with your life?” I am getting exhausted with this question, because I have no idea how to answer it. A year ago, I had grand plans of things I wanted to do. But, life has a way of changing things suddenly and, despite my best efforts, my plans have become somewhat unraveled. Although I am incredibly task-oriented, I have been forced to do something which I find a bit uncomfortable: have no plans for my future following graduation.

I have to admit, I am taking it in stride and, in many ways, I find having no plans for the future somewhat therapeutic. Even the way in which I view the world has changed: Instead of focusing on checking things off the list, I am appreciating every single thing and following-through to see what sort of opportunities it might open for me. I am hoping that my natural enthusiasm, intellect, and creativity will open up doors following graduation.  Life will lead me to exciting and unexpected places that I simply cannot plan for myself at this time because I don’t know what they are yet. At least, this is what I keep telling myself…

In the meantime, it seems like everyone is giving me their opinions of what I should do with my life: competitive scholarships, graduate school, internships, jobs, etc. I am always polite as the recipient of these suggestions, although I do not see the connection of many of these ideas with my personal interests. One suggestion that has been mentioned to me several times is that of joining the Peace Corps. Perhaps I would have given this suggestion more consideration if I had not read Emily Ross’s “100 Letters Home: My Two Years in Kyrgyzstan.”

While I have the utmost respect for people who are able to go to rural areas of developing countries for work, I do not think that this would be an appropriate place for me to spend an extended amount of time. I recognize that my concerns are so trivial in comparison to the major issues of the world, that I hate to expose them (in fear that they might diminish my blog): I feel deprived if I do not get internet access on my phone. Now that I have a Twitter account, this dependency has gotten even worse. If you see me walking around campus, it is often with my Android in hand, devouring the news and current events posted on my Twitter feed.

I chose this book for the Global Book Challenge after having read some pretty heavy material about countries in the Middle East. I decided that I would like to read a more casual book – perhaps a memoir. To be quite honest, this was a mistake. I eventually chose this book, based on the description. The format is a letter format, as the author writes about her experiences and challenges abroad living in Kyrgyzstan, where she works as an English language teacher as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Emily Ross’s book shares what it is like for someone to move to another country without knowing the language – taking language courses, having problems going out to buy things, and bonding with other US nationals with similar experiences. She shares her own personal growth – growing more confident in herself and her abilities. There is a place for a book such as this. However, it is not the best book if you want to gain knowledge about the issues facing a country such as Kyrgyzstan. I learned nothing about the government or current challenges in society. On the other hand, I did not learn anything really positive or unique about the Kygryz people, as the author did not have anything very positive to say in her letters home. Instead, she would express her frustration with certain issues, such as the meat served at every meal (she starts her Peace Corps as a vegetarian), the lack of privacy in her home stay, and the importance of alcohol at social functions. She spent about half of the book, stating her overwhelming desire to return home, but in the Afterword, she said that she was happy she stayed after all was said and done.

I will share a couple of the cultural tidbits which were mentioned in the book:
  • Marriage in Kyrgyzstan: “The tradition… is that men choose a woman and kidnap her. Depending on who you talk to, a woman is or isn’t given an option to leave. If she stays three days, they are married” (page 19.) 
  •  Religion: “People here in Tamichi don’t appear to practice any religion. There are no mosques or churches here. The Kyrgyz and everyone else in the former Soviet Union were forced into atheism during the 70 years of communism” (page 60.)

I am hoping to find another book about Kyrgyzstan, which I can read and write a new review (which would subsequently replace this one.) If you have any suggestions, please let me know! Also, please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!