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IN FRATERNAM MEAM
Thursday, December 07, 2006
THE REAL KAZAKHSTAN
The hit comedy Borat portrays as a backward, poverty-stricken country rife with sexism and anti-Semitism. Is it?


Taking the Joke
When Borat first showed up on British and American Television, Kazakhstan officials threatend legal action, and they pulled the plug on the character's ".kz" internet domain. But it seems that even Kazakhstan are now warming to Borat. "It's just comedy really", says a Kazakh fan. Remarked one diplomat; "People are smart enough to understand thatit's all fictinal movie about fictional character". Indeed, Kazakh officials of late have stopped complaining about Borat and are trying to make the most of the attentin. "Borat has made people more aware of Kazakhstan and he helps spread information." A Kazakh travel company has started running tours called "Jagshemash!!! See the Real Kazakhstan", Jaghemash is a nonsense word often uttered by Borat.

Where is Kazakhstan?
A former Soviet Republic. Kazakhstan lies directly between Russia and China. It's not hard to find on a map; Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, roughly the size of Western Europe. But with a population of just 15 million, it's a largely empty land of steppes, deserts, and forbidding mountains - majestic, but not necessarily inviting. This desolation made it an ideal place for the Soviet Union to build gulags,test nuclear weapons, and dump toxic waste, and large swaths of the country are uninhabitable. About half of the population lives in a handful of modern cities dotted across the country.

Who lives there?
The population is quite diverse, comprising 130 nationalities and ethnic groups. About 50 percent are ethnic Kazakhs - Asians descended from nomadic Mongol tribes - while 30 perdent are Russian. Most Kazakhs neither look nor sound like comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat character, who appears Eastern European and speaks gibberish blend of Polish and Hebrew. Kazakhs are 47 percent Sunni Muslim and 44 percent Russian Orthodox. About 30,000 are Jews, who arrived in large numbers during the Holocaust. "Kazakhstan people saved hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Second World War," says the country's chief rabbi, Yeshaya Cohen. Contrary to Borat, Kazakhstan is one of the least anti-semitic nations in the region, with many synagogues and warm relations with Israel. "If you want to look for anti-semintism in the world, it's not hard to find", says Ran Ichay, Israels' ambassador to Kazakhstan "But this is one of the only places on earth where it doe'snt exist."

So Kazakhstanis aren't uncivilized ignoramuses?
Not at all. The country has a 98 percent literacy rate and a large well-educated middle class that is quite tolerant of gays and otehr minorities. Laws against homosexuality were struck down in 1997, and gay bars operate openly in most cities. Economically, Kazakhstan is Central Asia's greatest success story. Vast oil. gas, and mineral deposits have made it prosperous, and the government has also diversified into manurfacturing and even tourism. Poverty has declined steadily since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Kazakhstan has become an important ally of the West. President Bush recently thanked Kazakhstan for its "continued assistance in the war on terror"; it notably has arrested suspected al Qaeda members who occassionally wander in from less stable bordering nations.

What do Kazakhs do for fun?
In the countryside, Kazakhs have retained many traditions of their nomadic ancestors, many having to do with horses. National sports include Kumis alu, in which a rider must pick up a handkerchief at full gallop; kuuz ku, in which a man on horseback chases a woman for a kiss while she fends off with a whip; and kokpar, a form of polo in which riders fight over a decapitated goat carcass. Kazakhs also eat horsemeat and drink kumyss, fermented mare's milk. This may have inspired Borat's claim that Kazakh wine is made from fermented horse urine. "I have tried Kazakh wine, and I can tell you it is defintely not", Eric Weiner said in Slate.com "It just taste that way".

Are the cities more cosmopolitan?
IN their manner, Kazakhstan's capital Astana, is being built virtually from scratch as a "metabolic, symbolic eco-city for the 21st century." Over the last decade, architects from around the world have been deesigning fanciful buildings, monuments, and gardens in an effort to transform the recently barren landscape - where winter temperatures drop to minus 104 - into the planet's most futuristic city. The centerpiece is a 344 foot tall steel "tree" topped by a 300 ton glass ball that serves as an observation deck. Inside the orb is a palm print embedded in a gold an silver triangle. Placing your hand in it causes the Kazakh national anthem to play. "Astana inspires two conflicting emotions", one Western banker remarked, "hilarity and jaw-dropping awe".

What kind of political system does Kazakhstan have?
It's technically a democracy, but only technically. Kazakhstan is ruled by its autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has run the country since the late Soviet era. Kazakhtan has never had free and fair elections, according to international observers. Nazarbayev, 66, won his vote recent seven-year term in 2005 with 91 percent of the vote. He has cxonsolidated power by ranting himself the right to dissolve parliament and preside over the Supreme Court. Press crakdowns are common and oppostion leaders have been jailed, exiled, or murdered. One was recently found dead of multiple gunshot wounds; police ruled it a suicide. "Democracy in Kazakhstan is a facade," says human-rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis. Still, given Kazakhstan's stability and prosperity, most citizens see their leader as strong but benevolent. Nazarbayev's daugher is being groomed to replace him.

Kazakhs would accept a female president?
Sorry Borat, but yes. Although Kazakhstan shares much of Central Asia's patriarchal bearing, attitudes toward women are latively modern. Women are reprsented in every profession, including in the military and government. Kazakhstan gave women the right to vote on Aug. 26,1920, the same day the United States did. Gender equality is not quite absolute, however, especially in marriage. Polygamy is still practiced in some remote areas, and Borat's approach to wooing Pamela Andrson - by trying to carry her away in a sack - is, in fact, and old custom. Althugh the traditional practice of kidnapping brides is now outlawed, many couples still enact such abductions as a pre-wedding ritual. "You can do that", says Roman Bassilenko, a spokesman for the Kazakhstan Embassy; "if you want to do it for fun".


(Source: THEWEEK NEWSMAG DEC.'06 issue)
posted by infraternam meam @ 12:06 AM  
2 Comments:
  • At 6:22 AM, Blogger Sidney said…

    Interesting facts. To be honest I knew nothing about Kazakhstan. Thanks for the info.

     
  • At 11:39 AM, Blogger Andre said…

    cool coool cooool!!!

     
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