Updated Friday, Nov. 3, 2006, at 4:57 PM ET
First, a disclaimer: My wife and I recently adopted a baby girl from Kazakhstan, so my interest in researching whether Sacha Baron Cohen's new film, Borat, presents a realistic portrayal of the formerly obscure Central Asian republic is more than academic. After all, would you want your daughter associated with a urine-drinking, wife-beating, cow-punching, sister-f*cking, prostitute-ridden, anti-Semitic nation?
Having said that, I assure you I kept an open mind while doing my research. My conclusion: Borat's Kazakhstan bears little resemblance to the real Kazakhstan. Little resemblance, but not no resemblance. Here is a rundown of the many things Borat gets wrong about Kazakhstan, and the few things that he gets right.
Let's start with the man himself. Borat is not a Kazakh name (though there is a name Bolat). No one in Kazakhstan greets you with "Jagzhemash," which is most likely gibberish or mangled Polish. The official language in Kazakhstan is, not surprisingly, Kazakh, although Russian is widely spoken. Among the country's large ethnic Russian population, Russian is the only language they speak. And, oh yes, khrum is not the word for testicles, in either Russian or Kazakh.
Ethnic Kazakhs are related to the Mongols, and are direct descendants of the most famous Mongol, Genghis Khan. Kazakhs look Asian. Those in Borat's home village, however, look as if they are Eastern European. This can probably be explained by the fact that they are Eastern European. The opening scene was filmed in a village in Romania, not Kazakhstan.
Borat is a raving anti-Semite, fond of such Kazakh traditions as "The Running of the Jew." This is the characterization that most ranklesthe Kazakhs, and for good reason. When it comes to religion, Kazakhstan, a majority Muslim nation, is remarkably open and tolerant. Kazakhstan has several synagogues and diplomatic relations with Israel. Here's what the National Conference on Soviet Jewry has to say about the country:
Anti-Semitism is not prevalent in Kazakhstan and rare incidents are reported in the press. None have been reported in the last two years.
And, for the record, there is no such event as "The Running of the Jew" in Kazakhstan.
In Borat's Kazakhstan, nearly every woman is for sale. Borat's own sister was voted "number four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan," a fact of which he is evidently proud. Borat's portrayal is, of course, wildly exaggerated, but prostitution is a real problem there. In the 1990s, Kazakhstan was a big exporter of prostitutes, and human trafficking was a problem. Now, given wealth amassed from the oil boom, prostitutes are even more popular, and the country is importing them, as well. Every evening, one street in Almaty is packed with prostitutes looking for customers, and newspapers devote pages of classified ads to "massage girls."
Borat portrays a country where women cannot vote or drive and are treated like property. In the real Kazakhstan, women, unlike horses, do vote and drive. They also run ministries and corporations, though they enjoy less equality than women in, say, Sweden.
In Borat's Kazakhstan, popular sports include cow punching and "shurik, where we take dogs, shoot them in a field and then have a party." In reality, Kazakhs, like most of the world, prefer soccer. But they also like horsemanship, wrestling, and, occasionally, buzkashi (literally "grabbing the dead goat"). In this popular game (a precursor to polo), players on horseback try to control the "ball"—the headless carcass of a goat or sheep. Then they have a party.
Food and Beverages
Borat claims that traditional Kazakh wine is made from fermented horse urine. I have tried Kazakh wine, and I can tell you it is definitely not made from fermented horse urine. It just tastes that way. However, Kazakhs, a nomadic people, do have a fondness for horse products. A popular dish is kazy, or smoked horsemeatsausage. Kazakhs like to drink kumyss, fermented mare's milk, which can supposedly cure anything from a cold to tuberculosis. In the country's vast steppes, people also drink shubat, fermented camel's milk. My Lonely Planet guide finds the camel's milk "less salty," but most Westerners find both drinks—how you say?—disgusting. They have the same reaction to mypalau, which is made from sheep's brain and served, eyeballs and all, to "honored" guests.
Relations With Its Neighbors
Borat takes several jabs at "assholes Uzbekistan." At one point in the film, he refers to Uzbeks as "nosy people with a bone in the middle of their brains." Disparaging comments aside, Borat is right that many Kazakhs dislike the Uzbeks, and the two nations have squabbled over territory in the past.
Borat, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, claimed that Kazakhstan's major exports are potassium, apples, and young boys to Michael Jackson's ranch. Not true. At least about the potassium and Michael Jackson. Kazakh apples are famous, and, in fact, the name of the country's commercial capital, Almaty, literally means "place with apples." Kazakhstan's main export, accounting for about half of all foreign earnings, is oil. The Tengiz oil field is one of the largest in the world.
So, what is an obscure Central Asian nation to do when faced with a satirical onslaught, not to mention a worldwide publicity campaign? At first, Kazakh officials responded the old-fashioned, Soviet way: with paranoia and thinly veiled threats, shutting down Borat's Kazakh Web site and intimating that lawyers would call. Lately, though, they've taken a more measured approach, taking out pricey ads, touting the nation as an attractive investment and a land of religious tolerance. And in the there-is-no-thing-as-bad-publicity department, a Kazakh travel company has started running tours called "Jagzhemash!!! See the Real Kazakhstan."
What will I tell people, post-Borat, when they ask me where my daughter is from? I will proudly say she is from Kazakhstan. It is niiiiice. Big country, peoplegood. People big enough to laugh at themselves. I like. You like?