www.boratonline.co.uk

The Unofficial Borat Homepage

The Unofficial Borat Homepage

Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United Kingdom

As reported in The Guardian Wednesday 4 October 2006

Offensive and unfair, Borat's antics leave a nasty aftertaste

Sacha Baron Cohen exploits the west's ignorance of Kazakhstan to the full, but his jokes are racist and slanderous

Erlan Idrissov
Wednesday October 4, 2006
The Guardian


 
Humour can be used to defuse tensions and heal divisions - as Tony Blair demonstrated to brilliant effect at the Labour party conference. But if it exploits ignorance and prejudice it can have quite the reverse effect.

I fear that the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of Borat Sagdiyev, whose new movie opens here next month, does not understand this. Baron Cohen possesses a great comic talent and remarkable inventive powers. So inventive, in fact, that in creating Borat he has also created an imaginary country - a violent, primitive and oppressive place which he calls "Kazakhstan", but which bears no resemblance to the real Kazakhstan.

Borat's most striking features are his rudeness, ignorance, racism and chauvinism. He is a pig of a man: stupid, belligerent, charmless. In one show he asks a dating service for a girl with "plough experience". He says that in his country women are kept in cages, and that wives can be bought from their fathers for 15 gallons of insecticide. He proudly declares: "In Kazakhstan we say, God, man, horse, dog, then woman, then rat."

In what is probably the most offensive of Borat's jokes, he invites the audience of a Tucson country and western bar to join him in a song called Throw the Jew Down the Well.

Kazakhstan is in reality an increasingly modern, prosperous secular state. Although the population is predominantly Muslim, we have many synagogues, not to mention churches of several denominations. Kazakhstan has a small but thriving Jewish community. The chief rabbi of Israel, John Metzger, has praised my country for its tradition of openness and tolerance. So indeed did Pope John Paul II during his visit in 2001.

Why has Baron Cohen chosen Kazakhstan as the vehicle for his comic talents? Kazakhstan is the size of western Europe. Far from being a backwater, it is set to become one of the top five oil producers in the next decade; in the past six years it has had an annual growth rate of about 10% and, over the past three years, the proportion of those living below the poverty line has fallen from 25% to 16%. There is growing appreciation of Kazakhstan's importance in the fight against terrorism and of its role as regional economic and political pace-setter.

But, sadly, it is still the case that few people in Britain or America know anything about Kazakhstan or can even locate it on a map. They are in no position to judge whether Borat or his movie is remotely credible or fair. Baron Cohen exploits this ignorance to the full.

We are an easy target. Borat could have been made the citizen of a country with a truly awful record on human rights - say Afghanistan in the days of the Taliban. But that would have been risky for Baron Cohen. Many Kazakhs who have seen Borat on television have been offended and incredulous. But the critics of my country, including Baron Cohen, are more likely to receive an invitation to address their concerns at an expenses-paid conference in Kazakhstan than they are to receive a fatwa.

Nor does Kazakhstan have the advantages of a well-connected diaspora to defend its interests in the same way as Israelis, Palestinians or Armenians. Again, Baron Cohen could have caricatured a powerful developing country - like Turkey, Brazil or India - but there would have been sharp reactions, perhaps even at a political level.

Moreover, one strongly suspects that had the racist remarks uttered by Borat come instead from his Ali G gangster-rapper character, a representative of Britain's race relations industry would have been straight round to the studios with an angry protest. While it is clearly not permissible in modern Britain to caricature certain ethnic groups or to ascribe racist or sexist views to them, it is apparently permissible to present the people of Kazakhstan as a bunch of rabid Jew-haters and serial sexual molesters.

Some British friends who know Kazakhstan tell me that the misrepresentation is on such on absurd level that I should not be concerned. I am tempted to reply: if the only things that millions of people knew about your country originated in the anarchic and slanderous imagination of a TV comedian, wouldn't you want to see the record put right?

There is a further reason why Baron Cohen causes injury and offence. Under Stalin's forced collectivisation in the 1920s, about half the ethnic Kazakh population were deported or starved to death. In the early 1940s, entire populations of "anti-Soviet" peoples - including Tartars, Chechens, Ingush, Volga Germans and Koreans - were dumped in the Kazakh steppes. The one positive outcome of the forced population movements is that Kazakhstan has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Just over half of the 15 million population are ethnic Kazakhs, about 30% Russian, and the rest from a dozen different nationalities. There are more than 100 different ethnic and religious groups.

Given what we have been through as a nation, racial and ethnic tolerance is regarded as a practical necessity and part of our contemporary identity. It is no exaggeration to say that the stability of the modern Kazakh state depends on a shared recognition that we must do nothing to disturb the harmony among this complex mosaic of peoples. Consequently, Kazakhs generally do not care for racial slurs or think much of those who indulge in them.

Britain prides itself on its sense of fair play. By all means laugh at Borat if you will, but I suspect that once you know something of the true Kazakhstan his antics will leave a nasty aftertaste. Indeed, you may not laugh at all.

Erlan Idrissov is Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United Kingdom

london@kazakhstan-embassy.org.uk


As reported on Kazakhstan Embassy website Monday 2nd October 2006

QU: Another issue which is quite interesting for outside audiences, but will not be discussed by the Presidents. Nevertheless everyone is talking about a film coming out in November, called Borat, which satirises a Kazakh character. Why can't Kazakhstan just laugh it off, why do you take it so seriously?

ACT IDRISSOV:

"First I do not agree that we are taking this seriously. I want to make it very clear to the listeners of your programme: The story is that the Kazakh government is trying to litigate Sacha Baron Cohen, or the story is that we are putting a lot of money to stage PR campaigns, or that we are raising this issue in our talks with President Bush, or that the government has special sessions to discuss the Borat issue. These are all false stories. I rather invite in the same spirit the listeners of this programme to take it as another joke. It is not true and we take it as a comedy. And in fact I think that Sacha Baron Cohen is not mocking Kazakhstan, he is actually mocking the prejudices, the bad taste and huge ignorance of certain groups in the societies in the West."

 

www.boratonline.co.uk Return to top of page