Can a nation literally construct its own identity? Kazakhstan has been trying, and its efforts raise very serious questions about the power of aesthetic and urban space. CyberChaikhana‘s chapter for Kazakhstan, then, should be of interest to both philosophers and students of urban planning alike.
This chapter was both easy and challenging to write. Easy because Kazakhstan is so readily symbolizable by its ambitious construction projects, especially its new capital, Astana, as well as the fact that the Kaznet is singularly focused on this topic. Challenging because Kazakhstan is not entirely alone in this respect — Turkmenistan’s Ashgabat immediately comes to mind, e.g., this post by Annasoltan — and because the theme overlaps with CyberChaikhana‘s chapter on national identity. I had to find something unique to say that couldn’t be said for Turkmenistan or the rest of the region.
The result is a journey as much through the process of city- and nation-building itself as through Kazakhstan’s quest to erect an identity. More than most of the other chapters in CyberChaikhana, Kazakhstan’s chapter makes heavy use of the comments from readers of the Stanosphere. I think the chapter came out very well in the end, but you’re the judge, so let me know. By the way, many of the buildings mentioned here, including Norman Foster’s Khan-Shatyr, are now complete. You can view the finished city by reading Nuraika’s photo-essay here and here.
As with the Tajikistan chapter, we’ve previously published an earlier phase of the Turkmenistan chapter rough draft. Again, the message hasn’t been change as much as better elaborated: Turkmenistan’s experiment with neo-Stalinism has left deep scars. Okay, so that’s not an original message at all, but our spin is to approach it from digital, philosophical, and generational angles not otherwise explored by other media agencies reporting on the country.
By the way, the image accompanying this post, by Flickr user dhammza, was published on its home site with the following poem. Although it was not written about Turkmenistan, reading it I’m struck by how it could almost have been written from Niyazov’s own viewpoint at the end of his life, a tragic man in a way, whose pathological narcissism has become a state ideology and seems to threaten the very soul of Turkmenistan.
“Look at me now, a shadow of the man I used to be…
Look through my eyes and through the years of loneliness you’ll see…
To the times in my life when I could not bear to lose
A simple game.
And the least of it all was the fortune and the fame…
But the dream seemed to end just as soon as it had begun…
Was I to know?
For the last thing of all that was on my mind
Was the close at the end of the show.
The shadow of a lonely man feels nobody else…
In the shadow of a lonely, lonely man
I can see myself…”
We’ve previously published an earlier phase of the Tajikistan chapter rough draft, but that was over a year ago. Since then, Tajikistan’s gone through a parliamentary election and the latest phase of the Roghun saga. The chapter’s basic message hasn’t been changed: the people have Tajikistan have manifold reasons to despair but also to persevere, while their government struggles to follow its own better angels — or succumb to its devils.
“Sisyphus“, by the way, is ancient Greek legend concerning a man cursed to forever push a boulder up the side of a mountain. Ever time the summit seems within reach, the boulder rolls back down the mountain. Ben and I thought this was an apt metaphor for the struggles of Tajikistan, for it captured the way in which mountainous geography and the existential struggle to survive have come to define the nation since the end of its civil war.
Our release of CyberChaikhana‘s chapter rough drafts continues. Today we unveil the chapter on nationalism and national identity, entitled, “The Way We Weren’t”, wherein we explore the many ways Central Asia’s republics have tried to build mythologies about themselves, and the debate and dangers surrounding these attempts. It’s not as academic as the religion chapter, but some of the content herein is pretty heady, particularly the material by Annasoltan, whose nation, Turkmenistan, embarked upon an extremely radical path of self-creation.
We toyed with the alternative title, “Finding Neverlyandii”, taken from the nickname some Turkmen students use for their nation, but we thought that might be too obscure. The title we did end up using actually comes from an episode of the Australian science fiction show Farscape. Sometimes called the “first post-modern space opera”, the show dealt deeply with themes of culture shock and fragmented identity. During this particular episode, more is revealed about the inner workings of the main villains, the totalitarian and militaristic society called “Peacekeepers”. The Peacekeepers are intentionally a caricature of the Soviets, and even their official logo is nothing more than a simplified version of a Soviet propaganda poster entitled “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” by Russian artist El Lissitzky.
Next up we’ve got the Kyrgyzstan chapter, alternatively entitled, “Bloody Blooms” or “Wait for the Wheel”. This chapter was among the most difficult to write, as circumstances in Kyrgyzstan are so fluid at the moment that Ben and I feared being rendered out of date by the time the book is published. So, we decided to focus on precisely that, and what meaning all the instability has for this young nation.
Up next is Uzbekistan, an enigmatic country if ever there was one, and sometimes as much for the people inside of it as out. Originally we were going to entitle it, “The Enigma,” but Ben and I came to the conclusion that, “The Long Loud Silence” best fits the conundrum Uzbekistan presents to the world — and to itself.
The writing phase of the CyberChaikhana project is finally coming to a close. Over the summer I penned the last chapters. A that remains to do now is to finish the chapter on gender, and then to do a final review and harmonization of the total manuscript.
Throughout this week, I will be releasing the rough drafts of the remainig chapters. Today I begin with the history, current status, and meaning of religion in the region. This is perhaps my favorite topic, and the chapter as it currently stands is definitely the most academic of the entire book. Good luck! ;-)
Update: So, CyberChaikhana is approaching the end. No photos to share this time around, but while hunting around the Stanosphere for CyberChaikhana material, I came upon this really neat student blog from Kyrgyzstan. The academic who heads it up runs her own blog, called The Golden Road to Samarqand, a.k.a., “Thoughtful Spot”. I intend to get in touch with her to find out when — and if — the student blog project will resume.
Update: I’m in the Hague with Ben, working on the remainder of the CyberChaikhana manuscript. This time around we’re focusing on the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the whole question of national identity in Central Asia. Fun stuff, as you can see from the photos (again, click “Read More”).
Update: The project’s deadline was pushed back to later this year, but it perseveres nonetheless! Two weeks ago Ben and I were working on what currently exists of the manuscript (half!) and reviewing some of the graphic mock-ups.
Today, I just finished revising the Tajikistan chapter, which has now been fleshed out to include our coverage on the Roghun and lawsuit controversies. I had to suffer hours upon hours of gruesome Flemish folk music to do it, but hey, the people of Tajikistan have suffered far worse. ;-)
Click on “Read More” if you want to see yours truly working hard on CyberChaikhana in one Leuven’s cafes.