What Borat gets right and wrong about Kazakhstan.

What really happened.
Nov. 3 2006 4:57 PM

The Real Kazakhstan

What does Borat get right and wrong about his native land?

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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 horsemeat sausage. 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.

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Economy

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, people good. People big enough to laugh at themselves. I like. You like?

Eric Weiner is author of the forthcoming book The Geography of Bliss, to be published in 2008.

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