What’s the Narrative?

by Asher Kohn on 1/2/2010 · 14 comments

There’s a weird dichotomy between the Orientalizing and Occidentalizing influences of popular (read: non-academic) works on Central Asia. The Kite Runner is probably the most popular of pop history, but it is basically a story of the success of capitalism by infantilizing Afghans, as Matt Miller can say better than me:

The most pernicious element of this novel, however, is also the same aspect that American readers consistently have identified as the most heart-warming and inspiring: the story of the redemption of Amir thorough his harrowing and heroic rescue of Sohrab. In short, Amir, the successful western expatriate writer must leave his safe, idyllic existence in the U.S.; return to an Afghanistan that has been ravaged by the Russians (our Cold War enemy) and the Taliban (the representation of our new Islamic enemy); and rescue the innocent orphaned son of his childhood friend from the incarnation of evil itself, Assef. Amir’s descent into this Other World, a veritable ‘heart of darkness,’ appears to be the only hope for its victims’ salvation.

The other narrative option is that of The Photographer, which is the story of Doctors Without Borders during the Soviet-Afghan war. It tells the story through the eyes of a photographer by way of graphic novel, and is well-worth reading (or looking at: the part drawing/part photograph exposition is pretty impressive). It still lacks much in the way of scope, though. It’s the story of one group of westerners who live among the Afghans in the north, alternately saving some lives and being saved by others. But it’s impossible (or at least irresponsible) to use it to paint broadly. There are no great protagonists or anything. The most heroic Afghan, Najmuddin, is absolutely lost in big cities. In many ways, The Photographer is just an American hipster’s Kite Runner.

And then there’s Shantaram, which is fun and all if you like plucky drug addicts making ends meet in the wilds of Asia.

GoA just put his new Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography up, and that thing is absolutely awesome for academic use, no doubt about it. But there’s no popular concept of Central Asia stateside…even everything I mentioned so far is only Afghanistan. Once you go north, you enter a big, blank, space until Kazakhstan…even if you may want to tell TIME where Kazakhstan is. And it’s worth mentioning Roman Vasilenko’s finest moment as press secretary when he said that Sascha Baron Cohen lives in a one-man country called Boratistan.

I’ve mentioned it before, but Central Asia has no identity stateside, outside of general exotic place of danger. Or corrupt, post-Soviet, dinginess. I’d expect it to stay that way for a while, as long as journalists are being killed by security forces. But everyone who studies the region studies it because there’s something about it they love. For me, it’s the sheer opportunity, the possibility of something huge being created within my lifetime that I can be a part of. That and the mountains.

Unless Bekmambetov gets to direct the Kazakh national epic or something. Maybe some more big and flashy architecture. I’m not sure what else is going to put the Central Asia on the American map. So what books am I missing? What do you tell people when you’re trying to explain the region, assuming academic lit won’t fly?


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– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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{ 14 comments }

hannah January 2, 2010 at 6:17 pm

There’s two questions here: why Central Asia fascinates me, and how I explain that fascination to the uninitiated. For the former, this has been a huge cultural mishmash for centuries, and the complexities are pretty much unknown here. To me, Central Asia provides the connections between empires, cultures, and civilizations that many would assume had no contact with each other until modernity – the region is proof enough to me against the Clash of Civilizations framework.

My friends and colleagues in academia and at State understand this type of fascination, even if their interests lie elsewhere in the world. The rest of my acquaintances fall into two categories: those who accept that I have strange interests, and those who accept that I’m strange. The first group will listen to a nutshell summary of why Central Asia is interesting and relevant, and if they show further interest, I’ll set them up with a few blogs to follow or news pieces to read. The latter’s eyes glaze over after 10 seconds, no matter what I say, and I don’t find that group to be worth the effort to convince.

Matt January 3, 2010 at 9:24 pm

I’m interested in the region for many reasons, but I like to say it’s mainly for the food. With laghman, manti, plov, and the occasional samsa, I have all the reasons I need right there.
When I try to introduce the region the people, either as an explanation as to what I do or in a more general informational sense, I start with what they sorta know. For history, I say it’s that Silk Road region, the place where the Mongols and that Genghis Khan guy were, the setting from some of the stories in 1001 nights like Aladdin. They’ve usually at least heard of these things, seen a pictures or two, maybe even remember something from a high school history class. It’s enough to make the region not completely foreign, and usually makes them interested in learning more and creating some basic context for this stuff they’ve heard of. For more modern issues, I start with the Cold War, Eastern Bloc, Soviet Union, and work my way southeast. Most Americans only have a vague idea, if any, what the Soviet Union was. Explaining they way it worked, which involves explaining the Central Asian republics as well, is usually met with interest, especially by those old enough to remember a lot of the Cold War (“Really, there was more to it than just Russia?” is a pretty common response). As for actual books, Hopkirk knows how to tell a good story and draw people in. The Great Game, Setting the East Ablaze, and Foreign Devils on the Silk Road are all great books for people whose interest you’ve piqued, and are asking for reading material.

oldschool boy January 4, 2010 at 2:41 am

You are missing almost everything. Unfortunately, to attract attention of American audience you need a blockbuster or bestseller. There are no “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” kinds of books, but there is a vast amount of books and stories about Central Asia and from Central Asia, but you probably have no access to it because it is mostly in Russian, although I think there should be English translation of works of, for example, Chingis Aitmatov. The stories you are referring to are by Western authors, and are mostly about Afghanistan, which have only recently became a part of Central Asia in general perception (which was also a surprise for Central Asians themselves and their neighbors). If you keep looking for sources only among Western writers you are going to be reinventing the wheel. If you read novels by Chinghiz Aitmatov, probably the most famous Central Asian modern writer, author of the term ‘mankurt’ that will be a great start. I am sorry, but I do not know which of the local and Russian authors writing about the region were translated into English, but if you can read in Russian and interested in ethnography and particularly original sources, I would suggest reading Chokan Valikhanov, a Kazakh-Russian geographer of 19th century, Russian researcher Nalivkin (end of 19th – beginning of 20th century). Lev Gumilev is translated into English and should be available in the US. The last three may be too academic. If you are interested about the history with regards to WWII, my personal favorite is “Volokolamsk Highway” by Alexander Bek, I even googled its English translation. That is so far it from the top of my head. Again, if you are able to read in Russian you have an access to almost unlimited sources of stories and essays about the region.

Nathan January 4, 2010 at 8:52 am

You’re kind of helping him make his point. Those of us westerners who either are aware of translations of Russian and Central Asian literature or can read it in Russian or another local language have a “narrative” for Central Asia that’s not “an exotic, ungoverned place of danger.”

For good or ill, it’d probably take a blockbuster of a book or movie to change this impression quickly. However, there’s been a very slow shift in the perception of Mongolia and Mongolian history that’s been accomplished through touring museum exhibits, some popular academic literature, increased scholarship, travel literature, and Mongolia’s promotion of itself.

Noah January 4, 2010 at 8:52 am

I agree with Oldschool that if you open up the Russian sources there’s a lot more there, but once you cross that line obviously you’d better not stop and start figuring in the actual body of Central Asian lit written in local languages. As far as the old Russian vostokovedy go, though, Valikhanov and Nalivkin shouldn’t be mentioned without Barthold–who can be read in English. Daniel Brower’s work (like Turkestan and the Fate of the Russian Empire) is a way to access a lot of that stuff, particularly Nalivkin, in English and see how it functioned as part of the larger Russian colonial narrative.

I actually don’t recommend Hopkirk to people, though I’m not going to get into it and turn this into a pro/anti Hopkirk post, but I will say that thanks to him a number of the old travelogues and autobiographical pieces that he used as sources were republished and are available in new paperback editions. There are a lot of cool older books like The Man Who Would Be King or The Spy Who Disappeared that are fun to read and might get people excited about discovering the region.

This is all to say, though, that the book I recommend most to people who are interested in enough to read one book about CA is Monica Whitlock’s Land Beyond the River: The Untold Story of Central Asia. It’s not only a great book full of interesting stories, it’s one in which the author allows a lot of very interesting people in the 20th century history of Central Asia–or their direct descendants and relatives–to tell their own story. So if you want the story of Hindustani from his own son, it’s here, and so is everything from jadids and the basmachis to settled calm of the 1970s Soviet Union and the chaos of the Tajik Civil War. I think it’s really a wonderful book, it’s a quick read (and a page-turner at that) and I can’t see many people putting it down and still not understanding what it is about Central Asia that makes people interested.

shohmurod January 5, 2010 at 8:34 pm

This is unrelated to the thread, I am just trying to reach Noah.

Noah, what do you think about this as it relates to a recent conversation we had:

Uzbek court overturns Baptist fines
http://townhall.com/news/religion/2010/01/05/uzbek_court_overturns_baptist_fines

Noah January 6, 2010 at 9:43 am

I think it’s “nice” of the court to cancel the very stiff fines, but since they didn’t overturn convictions, these people are still convicted criminals under Uzbek law, so it’s hardly a satisfactory resolution. There’s a longer discussion here to be had about the law and its affect on society, but just like the Hopkirk discussion I didn’t want to get into above, I don’t want to throw Asher’s post completely off the rails.

You can get my email address from Nathan, by the way, and we can discuss this directly if you want.

Ian January 4, 2010 at 9:50 am

I was going to say Monica Whitlock, but Noah beat me to it. It’s a book that really should be brought back into print (and one to be emulated if anyone wants to write about the Kyrg-Kazakh-Xinjiang parts of Central Asia in a similar way)

Jakob January 4, 2010 at 11:52 am

I just finished “Cancer Ward” by Solshenitsyn which is set in Tashkent. Although the book itself does not deal with Central Asia (it’s customs, life …) as such, it captures some characters (patients from the ward from different areas) and especially the last chapter when Kostoglotov leaves the hospital, wanders around Tashkent and then leaves on the train to UshTerek left me with images from my own experiences in Xinjiang (I have never been to Uzbekistan). It’s to much about other issues to be an explicit introduction to Central Asia but as an add-on to the reading experience does in the last pages give some good insight.

Jay January 8, 2010 at 12:33 pm

“Cancer Ward” is a must read for me to help understand what Soviet Central Asia is like from one perspective. And it also really makes you miss Shashlik if you haven’t had it for awhile.

Nick January 4, 2010 at 12:43 pm

The Railway by Hamid Ismailov always deserves to be bigged-up (and not simply because I reviewed it for neweurasia way back when…) since it seems to be less-influenced by Russian literature and more by Magic Realism, with heady doses of sufi hagiography thrown in.

David M January 4, 2010 at 2:17 pm

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/04/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

A January 4, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Just finished the “The Wasted Vigil,” which, though not without its own problems does blow “Kite Runner” away and mostly avoid the kind of critique expressed by Miller above. Also Afghan-centric though.

Jakob January 4, 2010 at 4:29 pm

I didn’t read the Kite Runner, but “Wasted Vigil” doesn’t really picture Afghanistan as a narrative intro into Central Asia but rather expects from the reader some reading into EoA’s list mentioned. I assume … Otherwise I guess it will “just” leave a very powerful impression of the place it’s set at but no “stateside” view.

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