By Tamim Ansary
I have something to confess: when I heard that my book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes was going to be translated into Russian and published in Kazakhstan, I had an impulse to laugh. I pictured my Kazakh publishers as guys in striped robes, wearing thigh-high leather riding boots, drinking mare’s milk, and reading my book on horseback as they streamed across the steppes, while veiled women peeped out through the flaps of nearby tents. But here is one thing I will never admit. I won’t admit I got these images from the Borat movie.
Then the publisher who had bought the rights to my book invited me to come to Almaty. Well,I gotta’ say. Book tour in Kazakhstan? Who could resist?
It was a 22-hour trip. That much time boxed into an economy seat on Lufthansa Airlines felt like extraordinary rendition in reverse. By the time I landed in Almaty I was ready to confess to anything. I was wishing I had something to confess.
Only upon landing in icy Almaty did I discover that “my publisher” was not a company but a single guy with a laptop and a two-day growth of beard. His name was Nurlan Ablyazov. His office was a chair in one corner of a three-room flat he shared with his wife and kids, right on the grounds of a university called the Institute of Economic Prognosis.
I thought Nurlan was setting up some bookstore appearances for me, but when I arrived he told me that bookstores there had no procedures for hosting readings. Of bookstores, there were plenty. Of readers, lots. But of readings none, because authors never came here. Thing is, Kazakhstan used to be part of one big country and the publishing was in a part called Russia. Then the country broke apart. The publishing was still in Russia, but that’s a different country now.
Today, therefore, in Kazakhstan, publishing is a book-by-book proposition,kinda’ like movies are here in America,now that the studio system has broken down. Someone gets a jones to publish a particular book, gets some sponsor to finance it, then strikes deals with freelance editors, typesetters, and whatnot. My book was sponsored by a former KGB colonel named Igor. Don’t be impressed. In Kazakhstan, it seems, you can’t swing a dead cat in a dark room without hitting a former KGB colonel. I never saw this one. He was away at a martial arts conference. But when Nurlan told this man Igor he wanted his one-and-only author to come help promote his one-and-only-book, the colonel said, “I’ll pay.”
So here I was.
Instead of bookstore appearances I did hi-falutin’ events like a televised press conference at the National Press Club. Nurlan did most of the talking, and I had no idea what he was saying, but it sounded dramatic. He declaimed, he whispered, he shouted. Then it was time for questions, and the first one was directed at me: “Mr. Ansary, are you a scientist?
What the hell? “No,” I said. “I’m not.”
“Then why should we read your book?” the journalist demanded.
I was flummoxed. But the moderator intervened quickly: “He means, if your book is not science, what is the genre? Is it philosophy?”
I thought my subtitle—“A History of the World …”—said it all, but I tried to craft some statement about the relativity of historical narratives. It came out rather garbled, however, because a woman standing next to me started doing a simultaneous translation the moment I started talking. Her voice was much louder than mine, and she was speaking Russian, so it was like trying to think and talk with someone hollering gibberish in your ear. When the translator and I stopped talking, the journalist nodded. “Ah,” he said. Now he understood. “Your book is folklore.”
I had come to Kazakhstan expecting to find a moderately Muslim, Third World Turkic country, but I was wrong on every count. Kazakhstan is a post-Soviet country. Those two features, “post” and Soviet”, trump all others. Say what you will about the Soviets, they built infrastructure and machinery. You don’t have to worry about the water in Almaty. Women are absolutely integrated into public life, no one is wearing headscarves, and every third woman is wearing fashionable boots with five-inch stiletto high heels. In fact, I venture to guess there are more five-inch stiletto heels per capita in Almaty than anywhere else on earth. Nurlan also took me to the ballet one night, and it was not folkloric. It was classical ballet, much like we have in San Francisco—only better. I kid you not.
Turkic? Well, some of the people look kinda’ Asiatic, but many don’t. My translator Zuare spoke passionately about the “soul of the Kazakh people” and declared that the government should declare Kazakh the national language; but when I asked if she herself wrote much in Kazakh, she admitted she didn’t speak the national language. She and everyone she knew spoke Russian. If you want to get around in Kazakhistan, learn Russian. Maybe it’s different outside the cities. I don’t know.
When Nurlan drove me around Almaty to sight-see, I felt like I had flown 22 hours and never left America. Almaty had tall, drab buildings like ones you can find in any big American city. Here, though, we call them housing projects. In Almaty, big, drab buildings had nothing to do with poverty. There was no poverty. The whole city felt slightly south of middle-class. In fact, Almaty felt like one vast, slightly shabby, public university campus, where everybody lives in dorms, and all the facilities are sorta’ everybody’s and snd sorta’ nobody’s. That’s the Soviet part of Post-Soviet.
At one point I asked Nurlan, “Doesn’t Almaty have any bad neighborhoods?”
“You want see bad nieghborhoods?” said Nurlan. “I take you to bad neighborhood.”
He took me to a jumble of blocks where every building was a grandiose house, every house looked distinctly different, and each one was a mansion with turrets and colonades. “How could this be a poor neighborhood?” I gasped.
“Poor? You never said poor,” Nurlan protested. “You said ‘bad’. This is the neighborhood where the bad people live.”
Maps show Kazakhstan as part of the Muslim world. And I did see one mosque, but it was a museum. Also, I did meet one practicing Muslim—an old stenographer, blind in one eye, who discovered Islam after retirement and lamented that no one else knew how to perform Muslim prayers, not even his own children. “The government should do something,” he fulminated. “
“Couldn’t you teach them?” I suggested.
“Me!” He was flabbergasted. “That is not my job,” he protested. “That is the government’s job!”
It was a weird thing to say in Kazakhstan which, as far as I could tell, had no real government. Everything was still running, more or less, but on momentum. Everyone with a job was self-employed. They were either a robber or a baron. Foreigners were flocking in to grab at minerals, and if you happened to be standing near some oil, copper, or uranium you were a businessman. This was the “post” part of post-Soviet. Every few blocks, you saw a gash cut out of the city with bulldozers, where someone had started an ambitious construction project and then run out of money and abandoned it. Nurlan showed me the underground bomb shelter the president’s daughter had tried to turn into a shopping mall. It looked like an open-pit strip mine in the middle of the city. “If you want to build shopping mall,” Nurlan mused, “don’t to start with bomb shelter.”
When we were done with my book tour, Nurlan took me home and made me some tea. This was an elaborate ritual that began with rinsing the leaves on a stone slab and ended half an hour later with pouring about a teaspoon of tea into a cup no bigger than a thimble. He told me he had been studying tea for six or seven years. “I am only at the beginning.”
A couple of mysterious characters then dropped by: Vladimir and Igor, they were called. Vladimir ran some kind of spiritual summer camp by a lake in Kyrgyzstan. He gave me a book he had written in which he had used the I-Ching and the Mayan calendar to predict “every important event of the past ten years!”
Predicting the past did not strike me as much of a feat.
Igor claimed to be an astrologer–“a real one.” He wasn’t Igor the KGB colonel. This was a different Igor. Only his name wasn’t really Igor, he confided. It was Leo. Actually, it wasn’t Leo, it was Gary. Anyway, his last name was Levin. No, actually it wasn’t, that was a pseudonym. You see, he was kind of hiding out in Kazakhstan. From Putin. He wouldn’t say what he’d done to piss off Putin, but one of his anecdotes involved smuggling something heavy from Moscow to Germany in a briefcase.
“What was it?” I asked naively.
“Metal,” he said with a sly smile. “Very very heavy metal.”
No, he wasn’t the colonel, but he knew that Igor. In fact, the other Igor was sponsoring a movie he was planning to make, a documentary. He was going to lead an expedition along the old Silk Road from China through Afghanistan and Iran. He wanted a talking head who knew each country to come along and do narration. He had not read my book, but when he heard about me from Nurlan, he thought I might be the guy for the Afghanistan part. So he went to the KGB-Igor and said, “Can you bring this guy over? I want a closer look at him.” This, it turns out, was the actual reason the colonel had funded my book tour. I was auditioning for a part in Igor’s movie. I passed: Igor/Leo/Gary said he wanted me. I said I’d think about it. That’s how we left it. I boarded the plane and Kazakhstan turned into a dream. Last I heard, my book was doing well over there Here in San Francisco, I might be just another obscure writer, but listen up, you all: I am HUGE in Kazakhstan.
Copyright 2016 Tamim Ansary. All Rights Reserved.