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Sipping the tea of faith in a CyberChaikhana

Copies of CyberChaikhana in MediaNet ready for distribution throughout Kazakhstan. Photograph by neweurasia's Schwartz (CC-usage).

Copies of CyberChaikhana in MediaNet ready for distribution throughout Kazakhstan. Photograph by neweurasia

Editor’s note: neweurasia has been zooming up and down Kazakhstan all week to talk about our book, “CyberChaikhana: Digital Conversations from Central Asia”. Our managing editor for the English site, who also served as the book’s editor, Christopher Schwartz, gives his impressions of the tour. Reactions “have ranged immensely,” he explains, and adds a personal note.

I’m writing this post while in the air between Astana and Almaty. This has actually been my first time in Kazakhstan, and indeed, to the region — as many of our long-term readers will probably already know, academic commitments and financial constraints relegated me to the status of outside observer during my tenure as managing editor here at neweurasia‘s English division and during the writing process of CyberChaikhana. And quite an introduction it has been!

Today I was interviewed by a journalist from a major newspaper — my fifth official interview so far about CyberChaikhana, neweurasia, the media situations in Central Asia and the West, and yes, even WikiLeaks (!), not to mention the five group presentations and the countless impromptu discussions during BarCamp. This weekend, besides presenting at the American University of Central Asia, I may be having two group presentations elsewhere in Bishkek. All in all, Ollie, Askhat and I have been on the move for pretty much a week straight, and I’ve talked with, to various degrees of depth, somewhere in the vicinity of 700 people, if not a thousand.

Askhat and Ollie discussing responses to CyberChaikhana. Photograph by neweurasia's Schwartz (CC-usage).

Askhat and Ollie discussing responses to CyberChaikhana. Photograph by neweurasia

I’ve also been able to spend a lot of time with our team, particularly Ollie and Askhat. Ollie’s contribution to neweurasia is too often overlooked, and Askhat’s commitment to the Kaznet and to his country’s development have been very inspiring, as well as his insights into how our network can improve its teamwork and content have been eye-opening. And that’s to say nothing about the huge effort he’s put into making this book tour happen.

But you’re not reading this post just for a travel log; what about reactions to the book? These have ranged immensely. On the negative side, one reader criticized the book’s very concept, asking me, “Does this really deserve to be called a ‘history’, and not simply a ‘chronicle’?” and a group of Astana-based bloggers have voiced concern that the Kazakhstan chapter is too critical and suffers from a preponderance of my editorial voice. Indeed, in conversations with Askhat himself, I’ve come to see what may be a critical error to the Kazakhstan chapter: our reliance on Russian content as opposed to Kazakh content.

To explain, the fixation on urban space may be, as it were, primarily a Russophonic concern. Moreover, a project like Astana might symbolize two different things to two different readers, namely, the rise of a long-oppressed nation to a Kazakh speaker, and an exercise in authoritarian pseudo-capitalism to a Russian speaker. So, if we do write a second edition of CyberChaikhana, besides possibly rendering the book into Kazakh, we’ll do better in incorporating views from the broader Kaznet, as well.

On the positive side, though, I’ve been met with stunning positive responses, particularly from those working in civil society development and from the young. The most touching experience of all occurred when one girl came to me on Sunday clutching her copy of the book. She said that she had read the entire text the night before and had been totally engrossed by it. I was deeply moved, to the point of not knowing what to say. I’ve been similarly dumbstruck multiple times since, but never quite like I was with this incident.

How to understand the two reactions? At the risk of sounding Orientalistic, the kind of criticism offered by CyberChaikhana, much less its rather post-modern “non-book-ness”, appears to me to be a new or uncomfortable experience for many here in Kazakhstan. However, I’ve also noticed that the ambivalence has been preponderantly from those over 40 years old; those much younger, especially those currently in university, seem to be somehow inspired by what we’ve tried to do with this book.

Photograph by neweurasia's Schwartz (CC-usage).

Photograph by neweurasia

So, I’d like to close on this note: speaking as a member of the Baha’i Faith, I believe that service to humanity is the highest form of worship. Moreover, I believe there is a deep, hard-wired instinct for service built into our species. We’ve all felt it, yet few of us have had the experience of being offered a clear path for expressing that instinct. As I’ve felt the electric reactions of Kazakhstan’s rising generation to CyberChaikhana, it seems to me that precisely such a path may be opening before me.

Ironically, walking that path requires a leap of faith for me. That’s because I always imagined myself, academically at least, as being an Arabist, not a Turkologist or post-Sovietologist. And yet, the evidence is all there, from the way in which the revolutions in North Africa caught me totally by surprise to the excitement and eye-opening experiences of this book tour. I’m now confronted with a choice: to obey the momentum of my career, an energy that is taking me into Central Asia, and to finally merge my academic and journalistic work.

Immanuel Kant once argued that the human being is a creature defined by rationality and decision-making, but that ironically, the highest form of rational choice was no choice at all, but to drink of the tea of faith and do what one has no choice but to do. So, Central Asia, I don’t know what shall come of us together, but here’s a toast to the future.

neweurasia's Schwartz in front of the Baiterek in Astana (CC-usage).


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