April 24, 2010

Disclaimer: I meant for this entry to be a short and light introduction to my experience by reliving one of the several funny episodes I encountered. Instead it turned out kind of long, melancholic and generally not to my satisfaction. But oh well.

I waited for the countdown of the 75 red seconds that stood between me and my breaking my own record. Nine and half minutes from my apartment building to the UNICEF office building. That day it was green all the way.

I was standing impatiently at the largest crossing that separated me from the office.  A wave of nostalgia overcame me as I remembered the tactful weaving in and out of traffic that Egypt’s lack of traffic light discipline instilled in a Cairene street-crosser. It required skill and gave one character and status. And, for the most part, it separated the natives from the outsiders. Here, we were all equal. No skill, no thrill. Boring.

And so far that’s how I generally perceive Astana. Insipid in its ultramodern façade that palliates any hint of character.

Astana in Kazakh means “capital” and ever since 1997, fulfilling the wishes of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, it has replaced Almaty as the capital of Kazakhstan.  Astana, like most of Kazakhstan, used to be a desolate village in the heart of the characteristically featureless steppe. Its architecture used to be Soviet in character – strong, hard, practical, unaesthetic – and it reflect a communist past. Though the small cottages were forlorn in their solitude, narrating their own communist history of Kazakh suffering and hardships, they still glistered with the deferent patina of bygone days.

Days that were now being erased by the rapid influx of capitalist rejuvenation. A sad botox-like effect as almost no trace is left of those old cottages. The only reason I could tell what they looked like before is because I took a fifteen-hour road trip from Almaty in the South to Astana in the North and was able to get a sense of what the actual country is like. Astana residents and Kazakhstan books confirmed that impression.

The capitalist infiltration was reflected not only in the buildings, but the people too. Everyone is so elegant. You can here the rangy click of a heel echoed by thousands of others creating an urgent, business-like feel to the city. All the women wore severely high-heeled boots. Whether they were young or elderly, mothers with their newly-borns or lovers with their significant others, slim, stocky, attractive, unattractive – all women wore high-heels.

Which ultimately made me feel more of a frump.

Realizing that I had overpacked my suitcase with thick books instead of clothes, I find myself in a mild predicament at the office. Most of the women there have a sophisticated sense of style with carefully manicured nails, powdered cheeks, and glossy lips. And of course the boots. I stand out like a sore thumb with my only pair of flat, beige, worn-out boots caked with dried chunks of snow and mud. At first I was slightly self-conscious. But then, after exploring the possibility of buying new boots, finding out they were way too expensive (like most items in Astana), and having my boots laughed at by the lady in the store, I decided to just let it go. Despite the occasional setback when I find my flat boots trailing mud in the otherwise spotless office – an incident that inevitably rekindled my former self-consciousness – in general my unfashionable sense of fashion did not greatly hinder my integration in the office.

I can’t say the same about the city though.

Still standing at the crossing, finally the green countdown begins. Twenty-five seconds. I walk to the office thinking that today was not going to be a good day. Unlike that other day when miraculously every time I reached a crossing, the lights would turn green for pedestrians, which I took as a good sign. That made me think The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Nigh-time with the autistic boy and his red and yellow cars.

I sighed as I anticipated the loneliness, which had thankfully been absent (for the most part) that past week, being resurrected that night.

That was last night. After making myself an almost-tasty-but-not-quite dinner, I sat on my uncomfortable bed listening to the familiar drone of cars parking and un-parking and the still unfamiliar buzz of inscrutable language. The soullessly flamboyant Astana spirit reasserted itself in the night as friends gathered, their laughter perforating Astana’s buzzing silence. I went to bed thinking that Astana was probably not as dreary as I thought it was. That it was just a diffident young city that has been forced to go through a lot in recent years. Maybe it just needed coaxing in order to show its true colors. Like a dowdy kid that suddenly hit puberty and started experimenting with newly acquired beauty traits. Maybe I just need to give it a chance. Maybe.

3 Responses to “ΛcΤaΗΛ”

  1. ben A said

    Hey dundun, great posting. I never realized that street crossing in egypt was such sport but I’ve always thought that masr did so well in kora because of daily training in traffic avoidance which other countries missed out on. I look forward to hearing more. Ben

  2. Khaled Morshedy said

    Hows everything ?? “The capitalist infiltration was reflected not only in the buildings, but the people too. Everyone is so elegant.” i thought it wasn’t like that at all, i was picturing it more of a tent, some camels and sand hahaha..
    I’m impressed, i didn’t know that u wrote that good, i really enjoyed reading you’r experience there and laughed a lot about how u felt “more of a frump” although i had to google frump for the definition haha…
    Keep it Up

  3. YEHIA said

    This is so nice and so lively. I am so happy your constructing a prespective for this new experience. It is a great way to compensate your sense of lonlienss. We miss u so much. At the end of your trip you can pile up these articles and try to publish it.

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