“Knowing who’s the heads of these small, insignificant states around the world – I don’t think that is something that is critical to focusing on national security and getting this economy going.”

I’m late to the game, so I’ll let others address the fact that Uzbekistan is not small and certainly not insignificant to our national security, and I don’t think there’s anything new to say about the unfortunate American tendency to argue – brag, even – that we’re ignorant only because we are pragmatists who devote our mental energy exclusively to important issues (and, implicitly, educated enough to know what is important and what isn’t – so, see, still smarter than you!). Or about dumb-ass Republican presidential hopefuls.

Instead, I’d like to point out the use of –stan as a marker for distant, unknown or unknowable, insignificant, foreign-in-the-strongest-sense-of-the-word lands. This surely influenced Sasha Baron-Cohen’s decision to pick on Kazakhstan in Borat, probably played a role in David Brody’s choice of Uzbekistan (although it was a good choice, since it is important to U.S. security interests) in the interview above, and provides the kernel of humor in Cain’s joke.

Why does –stan function this way? From a linguistic perspective, it makes some sense. There are only seven sovereign states that end in –stan – fewer than end in –land! – but they’re all clustered in one part of the world, and they share surface cultural similarities that, say, Swaziland and Switzerland don’t.*Add to that other -stan place names that occasionally bubble to the surface of the collective consciousness – Kurdistan, Rajasthan, Hindustan, Uighurstan – and it starts to seem like there really are a ton of foreign, unknowable -stans popping up. The tendency toward short words in English accounts for the pronunciation challenge (and the Uzbeki-beki-beki part of the joke) – we generally do poorly with long words, so lot of these names look challenging, and a few do have odd clusters of letters, such as -kh- or -zs-. Plus, this is honestly not a part of the world Americans had much cause to learn about (cause we’re pragmatists and we only learn things for a reason, duh) until, oh, 2001 or so.

Of course, like most conventional wisdom, this –stan balloon is pretty easy to pop. The –stans aren’t multifarious, all the same, or hard to learn about. In fact, there are only five sovereign –stans that you don’t know about yet (if you don’t know about Afghanistan and Pakistan, I’m sorry, I can’t help you), and they’re quite easy to keep straight. As for why bother, that’s a question only you can answer, but here are some reasons a non-pragmatist might want to learn about Central Asia:

Silk Road history, prehistory, Turkic peoples, Persian peoples, steppe peoples, the Soviet Union, mountain climbing, made-up ethnic delineations, horsemeat, yurts, Orientalism, mosque architecture, language politics, and being a know-it-all.

So, here, I made some flash cards for you. It will probably take more time and brain cells to print them out and glue-stick them onto index cards than to learn the material. You’re welcome.

Kazakhstan

(Is “Kazak-stan” easier? Fine. That’s how they say it in Kazakh.)

Biggest country by land area in Central Asia; mostly steppe; large enough Russian population that Russian is a national language; most stable and democratic of the ‘stans, and also doing the best economically, with huge natural resource reserves. It’s the closest politically to Russia, although it also courts China, with which it shares a border. It inherited most of the physical leftovers of the Soviet space and nuclear programs, but went nuclear-free in the 1990s.

Kyrgyzstan

(Too hard to pronounce? Try Kirgiz-stan.)

Small, poor and mountainous; was the darling of the U.S. after the Tulip Revolution in 2005 deposed President Askar Akaev and replaced him with Kurmanbek Bakiev. Unfortunately, that revolution went the way of the other color revolutions, and in 2010 there was another uprising – partly prompted by rising gas prices and a Russian smear campaign on Bakiev – which led to massive riots and violence against ethnic Uzbeks in Osh, in the south of the country. A provisional government took over; elections for a permanent president are this month. US air base at Manas.

Turkmenistan

The most mysterious -stan, due to extreme restrictions on speech and the press; post-Soviet dictator Niyazov made a golden statue of himself that rotates to face the sun, wrote a garbled philosophical work called Ruhnama that was, until recently, mandatory reading in schools, and was replaced at death by his dentist, Berdymuhamedov. If that name is too long for you to memorize in one go, break it down: Berdy – Muhamed – ov. The country has become only marginally less restrictive since the changing of the guard, although the golden statue was reportedly removed.

Uzbekistan

(This one seems to cause trouble, too. Ooze-becky-stan.)

The biggest -stan, with a population of almost 30 million. The dictator’s name is Islom Karimov; he is, ironically, the least Islam-friendly of all the -stan rulers. State-sponsored watered-down Friday services, harassment of imams, and closure of mosques are all designed to keep radical Islam at bay. Karimov has many other human rights abuses to his name. Environmental and human effects of the cotton mono- culture established in Soviet times have been devastating. Major cities include Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent. Ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Tajiks can be a problem.

Tajikistan

The southernmost and only non-Turkic Central Asian -stan; the language spoken here is a variety of Persian. Was crippled by a years-long civil war after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is still the poorest of the post-Soviet -stans, with few natural resources aside from the water of its rivers. Attempts to dam the Syr Darya river to generate hydroelectric power have met with a lack of funds and resistance from downstream Uzbekistan, which needs the water for crops and has plenty of economic clout.

*-stan is of Persian origin, which explains, in case anyone was wondering, why all of these Muslim-majority countries are named that way, but none of the Arab states are.

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