Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What's the Narrative?

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 stans on the map. Which is a shame, because I'd love to be able to say "I'm looking at natural resources in Uzbekistan" without having to draw an air-map to show what I'm talking about.

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