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Book Review: A Memoir of Central Asia with Mass Appeal

Two men sit on a tire on the steppes of Central Asia. (Photo by Robert Kopack)

In a 2013 speech, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about USAID’s support for “democratic institutions in Kyrzakhstan” – a malapropism that conflated Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Although the State Department quickly clarified that he meant to say the latter, his mistake did not go unnoticed in the international community – or by comedians and TV talk show hosts, such as Stephen Colbert.
 
In his book Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016), journalist David Mould sees Kerry’s gaffe as “symptomatic of a more general geographical malaise, caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of countries whose names end in -stan.” If the Secretary of State gets tripped up by Central Asian geography, what does that mean for the average American? Mould, who has traveled and worked in the region for many years, made it his “personal mission” to “add the ‘stans’ in all their complexity to the mental map of readers.”
 
He succeeds admirably. His book can appeal not only to academics and regional specialists, but also to readers who know little or nothing about Stanland, which he defines as “a vast swath of Asia, stretching from Turkey to the western border of China, populated by a bewildering assortment of ethnic groups that give their names to an equally bewildering collection of provinces, autonomous republics, and countries.” The book’s mixture of personal anecdotes, political analysis, historical background, and cultural commentary makes it both an enjoyable and instructive read. Like an actual postcard, it weaves back and forth between topics, presenting one man’s account of his travels; but it also delves deep into important issues, explaining how things got to be the way they are in Stanland and why they are so difficult to change.
 
Take, for example, Mould’s discussion of his experiences teaching media and journalism to graduate students in Central Asia. In the mid-1990s, Mould taught at Kyrgyz State National University in Bishkek on a Fulbright fellowship. He thought he was instructing a class of advanced journalism students, only to be told by a student that he was, in fact, teaching the literature group, most of whom wanted to be poets. More than a decade later, when he taught at Eurasian National University (ENU) in Astana, Kazakhstan, Mould’s reporting class was called children’s literature because the schedule had already been set and, as the assistant dean told him, “no changes were possible.”
 
Mould’s book portrays a post-Soviet educational system in which teachers are not paid a living wage, bribery is common, bureaucracy is rampant, and journalism is often not taken seriously. When he expressed his concerns about ENU to a US Embassy cultural affairs officer, she told him to stop causing trouble – a reaction which “did not bode well for US support of higher education in Central Asia.”
 
Equally fascinating are Mould’s descriptions of daily life in Central Asia. “I may be better prepared … to explain the ‘stans’ to Westerners,” Mould says, “precisely because I am an outsider. What seems normal or unexceptional to people in Central Asia often strikes me as interesting and worth noting.” And so readers are treated to many amusing stories, such as his eating a sheep’s eyeball at dinner; the time his wife used sign language to buy a rump roast; or when a yurt popped up in the courtyard of his apartment complex in Bishkek. Mould recounts these experiences in rich detail that makes this world come alive.
 
One of the few problems with this book is its title. By referring to Stanland, Mould leads the reader to believe that he will cover most or all of the “stans.” But the author spent significant time in only two of them, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. He describes short visits to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, while another Central Asian –stan, Turkmenistan, is barely mentioned. Perhaps a more accurate title would be A Tale of Two Stans.
 
Despite its somewhat limited focus, the book does succeed in raising awareness about this underappreciated region.
 
Indeed, the book’s detailed examination of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan makes Kerry’s verbal blunder seem particularly troubling. Mould continually reminds us that, in spite of their proximity and similar-sounding names, these two countries represent two very different sides of Central Asia. While Kyrgyzstan, which has been called an “island of democracy,” has experienced a great deal of instability and violence in recent years, Kazakhstan, with its long-time president Nazarbayev, is “the most stable and prosperous country in Central Asia, with the highest average standard of living.” One of the more bizarre incidents in the book occurs when Mould meets Melis Yeleusizov, a candidate in Kazakhstan’s 2011 presidential election, who, upon “[e]merging from the polling station in Almaty … informed journalists that he and his family had all voted for Nazarbayev.”
 
Mould uses this incident to raise a provocative question: can stability and democratic practices coexist in Central Asia?
 
The author freely admits that this is not an academic work. Theories of “hegemony, orientalism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and post-other-isms” are important but “make for heavy reading,” and Mould does not want “to let them slow down this narrative.” His approach is concrete and down-to-earth, and chapters are divided into short, pithy sub-sections to make them even easier to digest. With its rich depiction of life in Central Asia and authoritative yet accessible style, Postcards deserves a wide audience, from high school students to secretaries of state.

Stefanie Weisman is a writer living in New York City.

Book Review: A Memoir of Central Asia with Mass Appeal

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