When Ali G went to Kazakhstan (or how a cult comedian fell out with an entire country)

Trouble is brewing down at the Kazakhstani embassy. The First Secretary is up in arms over a new character from Da Ali G Show. He's already complained to Channel 4. And now he wants to tell the world what his homeland is really like
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Kazakhstani embassy is a pokey diplomatic hidey-hole just a stone's throw from London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Its interior is in keeping with the travails of a former Soviet republic trying to make it in the modern world: a little stuffy and outmoded in the manner of a Seventies hard-currency hotel, but also home to a palpable sense of optimism. The chandeliers and leather sofas are pure communist kitsch, and the boardroom-esque table looks like it was pilfered from some ransacked party HQ, but the Kazakh flag - a sky-blue affair also featuring a gold insignia - is draped proudly under a picture of this eight-year-old country's sole president to date: Nursultan Nazarbayev, a man whose name is often coupled to worrying phrases such as "a firm grip".

This week, the embassy is throbbing with rage. The appearance on Channel 4's popular Da Ali G Show of a character named Borat Karabzhanov, a rather unreconstructed Kazakh journalist who tries to make sense of UK culture despite a deeply primitive mindset, has led to a flurry of irate pronouncements from the Diplomatic First Secretary, Talgat Kaliyev. Under the headline "We Hate Ali G (Says Kazakhstan)", Monday's Sun quoted him as follows: "We can take a joke like anyone else. But this has gone too far - it's a form of racism. We want Borat banned."

The employment of old-school state censorship might be taking things a little too far - but you can see Kaliyev's point. Borat - as played by Sacha Baron Cohen - hardly conjures up images of a country hurtling purposefully into the 21st century. In one episode, he explained to a gaggle of animal-rights protesters that the Kazakhs delight in shooting bears because it makes them feel "manly". Earlier in the series, Borat informed the viewing public that the average Kazakh male likes nothing better than to watch a nude female wrestling bout. He's badly dressed, mustachioed and socially clumsy beyond words: a little like Ali G, in other words, but without the satirisation of racial tourism as an ethical get-out clause. Indeed, imagine the same character portrayed as, say, a Pakistani, and it becomes clear why Mr Taliyev is in such a lather.

In person, the embassy's First Secretary (his calling card says "Second Secretary", but it's scribbled out and corrected) himself embodies one of the ways in which Baron Cohen has got his research wrong. For Borat looks Arabic; and Kazakhs, as proved by Mr Kaliyev, are an Asiatic people, akin to the Chinese and Mongolians. Kaliyev is also an impossibly dour, deep-voiced man who seems reluctant to display anything in the way of humour - which only makes his outrage seem more seismic.

"My country is a young country," he says, "so you have to understand that we are sensitive to such matters. We do not like the behaviour, the manners of this character. He has no idea how to behave in society, asking such questions as he does. We are a secular, modern state, not a state of such barbarians. If this were in a newspaper, this would not be so bad because people might forget it the next day. But this is broadcast to a huge audience."

Kazakhstan, one can only assume, was arbitrarily plucked from the air on account of the fact that precious few people know where it is or how its people live (this in addition to the fact that the British mind finds words with a "z" in them inexplicably amusing, and if there's a hard "c" sound also involved, more's the better - witness "kazoo"). In fact, a quick flit through the country's history proves that it was rather insensitive to pick on Kazakhstan in the first place: oppression, genocide and countless other grisly horrors have helped define the Kazakhs' recent history. Inaccurate British character comedy is probably the last thing they needed.

Kazakhstan is described in my guidebook as "a previously blank patch of the world from where Soviet scientists catapulted rockets into orbit, exploded 15 nuclear bombs a year and hatched crazy agricultural plans". Most strikingly, it is a country the size of Western Europe that contains a population little bigger than that of Holland. Until the early 20th century, its people were uniformly nomadic. But the Soviet empire had other ideas, and forced them to stay put, renounce Islam, work in the service of communism, and look after an ever-growing flood of political exiles. The means employed in pursuit of all this were monstrous: Stalin's regime killed one in three Kazakhs. In the words of Bohdan Nahaylo and Victor Swoboda, authors of Soviet Disunion, "relative to the size of their population, the Kazakh holocaust exceeded that of any other nation".

By now, Sacha Baron Cohen - who, let us not forget, is Jewish - may be feeling a little queasy. There's more to come. Kazakhstan was chosen as the research centre for the Soviet nuclear-weapons programme, and in and around the nuclear-testing range at Semipalatinsk, Soviet forces performed more than 500 tests. The result was thousands of deformed and stillborn children and a leukaemia epidemic.

That the Kazakhs, who rub shoulders with a sizeable population of ethnic Russians, along with a sprinkling of Germans and Ukrainians, have managed to claw their way out of such a trauma-strewn history is creditable indeed. Their enviable oil reserves help but, according to Mr Kaliyev, their national character is equally important. Forged during their nomadic period, the Kazakhs' identity has miraculously remained intact.

"Tolerance is the most important thing," he says, without missing a beat. "You have to remember that we are a nomad people. And the first law of nomad people is, if you have a guest in your house, you should never ask him where he came from, what his name is, what he is doing here. You must give him a meal first, then ask him questions. That is a law. So, national characteristics are hospitality and tolerance."

That might sound like so much tourist brochure hyberbole, but one simple fact gives it the ring of truth. While countless former-communist successor states have all but dissolved in gore-splattered strife, Kazakhstan has managed to preserve a creditable degree of order and social harmony - no mean feat considering its ethnic split and the presence of both Islam (in a very secularised version) and Christian belief systems.

Cynics might suggest that Nazarbayev's "firm grip" has something to do with such serenity, but Mr Kaliyev traces it to a seemingly genetic liking for peace and quiet. "We are not aggressive people," he says. "We have never held any wars with our neighbours. We were the object of aggression, yes, but we do not wage it."

Only on errant British comedians, it seems. Mr Kaliyev has now drafted his formal complaint to Channel 4, and seems hell-bent on avenging the cultural bruises that might have been inflicted on the Kazakhs' good name by the man he refers to as "Cohen". He has a burgeoning tourist industry to worry about, after all.

"Oh sure!" he says, suddenly lightening up. "We are trying to do that. The problem for people is the distance. From London, Kazakhstan is eight hours. But when you come to Almaty, the former capital, you will be impressed by the mountains. [Suddenly he sounds wistful] The mountains, the mountains... we have brilliant opportunities for ski-ing, mountain bikes, some extreme sports. Hunting, fishing, horse-riding, golf clubs..."

And do you have the infrastructure to support all that?

"We are trying to do it, yes. We have plenty of land."

The landscape is not Kazakhstan's only potential draw. Its ethnic music is fascinating: a mixture of Eastern European instrumentation with a noticeably oriental melodic sense. The country is also proud of its art, which apparently synthesises folk forms with an angular, off-beam sensibility that may betray the influence of pre-war European art (although that opinion is founded on one piece of sculpture proudly displayed by Mr Kaliyev, placed just under the picture of the president).

Before phoning Thomas Cook, however, would-be tourists should bear in mind that some Kazakh customs might be more difficult for the average Briton to swallow. According to the country's sole on-line tourist guide, meat dishes such as kazy, shuzyk, zhal, zhaya and karta are delicious indeed - but they're also made using the country's seemingly staple diet of horse-flesh.

There is, however, one feature of Kazakh national life that proves once-and-for-all that real-life Borats would probably get on better with the British than Sacha Baron Cohen suggests. For like us, as a cuppa sipped by Mr Kaliyev proves, the Kazakhs are one of the few nations on earth to put milk in their tea.