By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006
So you're an immigrant from a place in Central Asia few Americans have heard of, when suddenly a movie comes out and all anyone wants to talk about is your homeland.
You'd be happy, right?
Well, suppose the movie depicts your homeland as a semi-feudal village with rituals such as "the running of the Jew" whose most successful state television reporter, Borat, wears his underwear (or less) in public while on a cross-country quest to have "sexy time" with Pamela Anderson.
Not so happy now?
"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," which opens today, is the latest from British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who uses the "Kazakh" character's politically incorrect (and often blatantly racist and sexist) attitudes to elicit similar sentiments from Americans he meets.
If the movie shows Americans in a bad light, it also poses a challenge for the 600 or so Kazakhs in the United States, half of whom live in the Washington area. Most take it for granted that Americans have no clue about their country, a former Soviet republic that borders Russia, China and three other "stans": Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It has 15 million people and is four times the size of Texas.
"I say I'm from Kazakhstan, and they say 'uhh,' " said Kairat Nitkaliyev, 26, a graduate student at George Washington University. "There is no reaction."
"The blackboard is pretty blank on Kazakhstan in this country," said John Towriss of Silver Spring, who has three adopted Kazakh children. "I might as well say I adopted them from the planet Zorgon."
Soon, though, that might no longer be an issue. Americans will hear plenty about Kazakhstan and its (fictional) traditions of drinking fermented horse urine, awarding trophies to prostitutes and hitching women, instead of oxen, to carts.
Because the movie targets a young audience, it will fall largely to young Kazakhs to disabuse Americans of these "cultural learnings."
"Kazakh people don't have cows in their house," an indignant Aliya Winker, 13, a Kazakhstan-born eighth-grader at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, said after watching a clip from Borat's Web site. "They don't drink water from toilet bowls. . . . It's hurtful, and it makes me feel a little upset."
Gerda Khodorovskaya, 14, a ninth-grader at Arlington's Wakefield High School who moved to the United States from Kazakhstan six years ago, does not plan to see the movie but plans to set people straight about her country.
"I just heard that there's this dude with a really weird accent, and they marry their sisters and the whole place is trash and it smells, and they live like [it is] 200 years ago," she said. "It really got me mad."
She's not the only one. The movie has drawn angry reactions from the Kazakh government and led to a skirmish between the Kazakhstan embassy in the United States and the movie character. But on this side of the Caspian Sea, things have calmed down. Embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko said local Kazakhs break into two camps.
"The first group of people think it's outrageous, disgusting, a perversion of our traditions. The other group think that basically it's a satire -- not of Kazakhstan but a satire of U.S. anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia."
Vassilenko said he has switched from the first camp to the second. But he and Baron Cohen (always in character as Borat) have sparred in the media. "He called me an 'Uzbek impostor,' " Vassilenko said. "And I called him 'not a Kazakh.' "
In September, the Kazakhstan government took out full-page and half-page advertisements in major U.S. newspapers, highlighting the technological achievements and cultural offerings of the oil-rich land. Vassilenko, who helped write the ads, said they were not in response to the movie.
So why did Baron Cohen choose Kazakhstan? "I think because Kazakhstan was a largely unknown country," Vassilenko said. "And because the Americans and people in the West have a hard time recognizing one 'stan' from another."
Perhaps hoping to remedy this, the Kazakh deputy foreign minister recently invited Baron Cohen for a state visit. And a Kazakh tourism company is seeking to capitalize on the publicity with a "Kazakhstan vs. Boratistan" tour that promises "opportunities to meet and interact with the real Kazakhs" and try "kumyss, the deliciously tasting Kazakh traditional drink made from fermented horse milk."
Not everyone in Kazakhstan is so sanguine. Some have threatened to kill Baron Cohen if he shows up there.
But in America, Kazakhs are keeping their cool.
"If we react to his show, it will just increase his popularity, so I'm going to just ignore his claims that we drink fertilized horse urine," said Nitkaliyev, adding that he and his Kazakh friends plan to see the movie. "I hope that people in the U.S. are clever people and understand it's not true. But I think there is some percentage that will think it is true."
Several Kazakhs said they were baffled about why a British actor, filming on location in Romania, picked their country for his unsavory attentions.
"He doesn't even look Kazakh," said Gauhar Abdygaliyeva, another GWU graduate student. "People look Eurasian there. He looks Bulgarian or Romanian or whatever."
Yerzhan Mukashev, 32, a University of Maryland doctoral student, said "Borat" did not sound Kazakh. "I haven't heard such a name," he said. "It sounds like maybe Uzbek or Uighur."
"Maybe he was financed by some interested groups," Nitkaliyev said.
Watch out. To Borat, those are fighting words.