Free Falling Fowls

May 5, 2010

Something is seriously wrong with birds in Kazakhstan.

They don’t glide gracefully like normal birds do, they fumble and stumble and have the most peculiar flying mannerism. Their take off is wobbly, their orientation desultory. Many a time I had to dodge to evade the wayward trajectory of these demented birds. They lose altitude before they gain it and flap their wings in a frenzy to make up for lost altitude giving the impression that they had just been jettisoned off a plane and were demonstrating an act of Free Falling Fowls.

At first I thought they suffered some sort of gallinaceous ailment, but then later, in reading a book about Kazakhstan, I stumbled across a poignant sketch of a rather enfeebled looking bird.  Scouring the pages for an explanation, the name Semipalatinsk stood out.

Semipalatinsk (now just Semey) is an area in East Kazakhstan oblast and is one of UNICEF’s main focus areas. Which is why it stood out. Semey is where the Soviets conducted their first top-secret nuclear testing operation in 1953. I read through the cataclysmic aftermath of the first testing until I reached the part about the birds. “Thousands of birds were inevitably destroyed in every test. They take wing at the flash, but then fall to the earth, burned and blinded”.[1]

That was one of the first pieces of information I learned that unraveled Kazakhstan’s rich history from its stygian Stan-induced oblivion.

Kazakhstan declared its independence in 1991 and has come a long way since its dismal nuclear testing days. A fruit of the Soviet’s loins, it was destined to follow the rutted course of its fellow Stans and its peculiar fowls, free falling in the quagmire that is the capitalist firmament. And yet today, with the help of oil-money, Astana stands as the shiniest pearl of its president’s wisdom – a president who, despite being in power for almost 20 years, was actually liked and respected (for the most part) by the public. An unfathomable fact to my Mubarak-loathing self.

Curiosity licked with admiration got the better of me as I ineluctably compared everything Kazakh to Egypt.

It started that other day when an unsuccessful attempt to find Astana’s sole museum led me to The Circuis instead. A fellow with baggy pants, baggy shirt, a bling-bling and a tilted oversized cap informed me that there was nothing on that night but there was a Junior Pop Dancing Competition going on right now and would I like to go in? A couple of staircases later, I found myself in what looked like a huge gymnasium rimmed with rows upon rows of seats. A single haloed floorstage stood in the center thronging with funky-looking youngsters. Several hours’ examination confirmed my first impression. This was a dilettante’s version of So You Think You Can Dance Dance Dance.

Holy capitalist brand names like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Kentucky somehow failed to make it through the C2C transition. But pop-dancing made it. Along with the heels and cosmopolitan attire. I thought it very curious how some elements made it across and others didn’t and wondered what was the cutoff and why.

Clearly Egypt is every bit as Western inflicted as Kazakhstan. The streets of Cairo too are satiated with more than their fair share of western dress and labels. One finds the elegant and the fancy. One also finds the architectural monstrosities (New Cairo). Though I have to say Astana’s edifices are quite different in their style with their myriad of bright yellow, stripped, egg-shaped, and pyramid-shaped buildings. Very post-modern.

One crucial difference sets apart Cairo’s westernization from Astana’s. The Tourist Factor.

Being the expat hub that it is, Cairo has managed to cater the needs of its foreign inhabitants all the way up to the baseball games, the Irish Dance extracurricular and the Saint Patrick’s Day delicacies. Of course Cairo, Egypt has McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and even Burger King and Subway (recently). How could it not. There is a substantial expat/tourist-induced demand and the fact that Egypt’s economy is dependent on tourists’ satisfaction made addressing that demand a matter of exigency. In Astana, in contrast, I am perhaps 1 out of 5 non-Russian speaking foreigners. (note: if there are indeed four other NRSFs currently residing in Astana, I have not met them. My statistic is pure speculation founded on the conviction that I can’t possibly be the only NRSF in town). Astana’s initiative thus seems to have been for the most part unilateral.

That said, that doesn’t change the fact that Astana is still the one that lacks character even though Cairo is the one more thoroughly impregnated with a culture that is not its own. I have no empirical data to support this, but in my head I attribute it to the age difference between the two cities.

Astana is a very young metropolis and has yet to inure the demographic rural to urban shift that adds that apotheosized “oriental” quality.  The one that would season a bland Astana with scrumptious Kazakh ancestry soliciting the kind of deference that can only be instigated by history and history alone.  Even the ominous shanties and their bedraggled inhabitants will inevitably work towards ameliorating Astana’s jejune existence. All of which are things that Cairo has in abundance.

What incited my curiosity in the first place, however, was not newfound appreciation of Cairo’s idiosyncrasies. On contraire. It was the realization that the Cairene qualities were worth nothing next to the concrete progress Kazakhstan had accomplished over the past 20 years. Egypt cultivated the western façade to the point of perfection, but at the expense of actual tangible progress. Festering beneath the crust is a decrepit system, purulent and perfidious, on the verge of collapse.

Kazakhstan on the other hand is brilliant. It did in less than 20 years what Egypt couldn’t do in 60.

Traffic lights, nuclear testing, high-heels and stupendous buildings aside, Kazakhstan’s GDP is still 40% less than Egypt’s totaling to $182.3 billion. That said, due to the staggering population difference (15.5 million v. 80 million), the GDP per capita growth is $11,800. Almost twice as much as Egypt’s.

I do not know where they went right and we went wrong. But it was interesting because coming here I, along with most people I know, thought I was coming to a hellhole. Instead I found myself in a progressive, president-loving and traffic-lights-abiding country. Kazakhstan is in many ways what Egypt should have been decades ago. Its nothing short of ironic how little is known about the country. Even more ironic is the type of You-Ride-Camels-To-Schools? formula that even we, Egyptians, prescribe to the country.

I will always remember the demented Kazakh birds.  They were the first thing I noticed when I came to Kazakhstan, driving up from Almaty, and they ended up being the mnemonic device that linked the birds to Semey’s nuclear testing to UNICEF projects to contemporary Astana and the pop dancers with no McDonald’s outlets to the president and so forth. The Free Falling Fowls initiated me into Kazakhstan’s history and for that I owe them this entry.


[1] In search of Kazakhstan, Christopher Robbins, 195-197.

One Response to “Free Falling Fowls”

  1. ben a said

    I’m really enjoying your postings, I also have to keep a dictionary next to me as I learn new words. In my jejune life your blog is delightful. If it were bilingual, ameya/english … oh well, its enough just to just to read your delightful postings and improve my English vocab. Ben

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