Joke on Borat as Kazakhstan ‘makes benefit’ tourism

“Jagshemash!!!” Kazakhstan is belatedly turning the joke on Borat, using the blundering fictional reporter as an unlikely prop to “make benefit” its tourism industry.

Embracing the maxim “if you can’t beat them, join them”, a Kazakhstan-based tour company has pounced on Borat’s conquest of Hollywood to lure Americans keen to find out what the country is really like.

Intrepid travellers will not find oafish natives drinking fermented horse urine, practising anti-Semitic rituals or gays just freed from a requirement to wear blue hats, as described in British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s smash-hit movie.

Instead, they are promised sizzling sands, glacial Alps, virginal nature scenes and the burial mounds and rock paintings of an ancient civilisation.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the tour contrasts with the frosty reaction from the Kazakh government before the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan took America by storm.

“We are hoping many Americans will want to engage in ‘cultural learnings’ of that unknown ‘glorious nation’ for their own ‘make benefit’,” Marianna Tolekenova, executive director of Sayat Tour, said in a press release.

More than 100 potential tourists have contacted the firm since the “Kazakhstan vs Boratistan” tour was announced late last month.

At first, Kazakhstan frowned on Borat, arguing that he defined the country in almost prehistoric terms even as it served as an ally in the United States war on terror and scooped up US investment.

Now that the film is a hit, officials see a belated opportunity.

“The only true fact in the movie is that Kazakhstan is a geographical location; it is not the actual Kazakhstan he shows,” said Roman Vassilenko, press attaché at Kazakhstan’s embassy in Washington, US.

“It is a satire of a country very different than Kazakhstan.”

A steady flow of Americans have called Vassilenko to find out how to visit Kazakhstan and to check out some of the more ludicrous claims in the film.

A Kazakh foreign ministry spokesperson told the media in Almaty a year ago that Baron Cohen may have come up with the Jew-hating, misogynist newsman specifically to damage the oil-rich former Soviet state.

Kazakh officials were also embarrassed when Borat shadowed President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visit to the US and talks with President George Bush in September.

Baron Cohen, in Borat Sagdiyev’s ill-fitting suit and bushy moustache, hijacked the visit with a mock press conference outside the embassy and marched a gleeful press corps pack to the gates of the White House.

After sparring in character with the Kazakh government, even Baron Cohen is giving Kazakhstan a break, in a rare out-of-costume interview, in the latest edition of Rolling Stone.

“The joke is not on Kazakhstan. I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist — who believe that there’s a country where homosexuals wear blue hats and the women live in cages and they drink fermented horse urine and the age of consent has been raised to nine years old.”

Last month, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliyev signalled a new approach.

“I would like to invite him to our country. Here, he can make a number of discoveries: that women not only are allowed to sit inside buses, but drive their own cars; that our wine is made from grapes; and that Jews go freely to the synagogue.”

For many Americans and other foreigners, Kazakhstan is a vague spot. Kazakh diplomats will privately admit that it is just one of the former Soviet “-stans” to many outsiders.

The Kazakh ambassador to London wrote in the Times this month, “Let me admit it: We Kazakhs owe Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat’s creator, a debt.

“In a sense, he has placed Kazakhstan on the map.”

Still, Baron Cohen may need a haven, after some unwitting subjects of his movie were less than amused to find themselves on the big screen.

Two college students in California filed a lawsuit and say they were duped into appearing in the film under false pretences.

People living in a Romanian village used as a location for Borat’s supposed home in Kazakhstan claimed they were exploited by the filmmakers.

Though Kazakh officials have decided to exploit Borat, their embrace of the Gypsy hunting sexist buffoon is still at arm’s length.

At an embassy reception on Wednesday, graced by Washington luminaries such as veteran Senator Orrin Hatch and Bush’s public diplomacy czar Karen Hughes, Borat was persona non grata, though he must have been on everyone’s mind.

As the ambassador gave a speech about US-Kazakh relations, however, two Central Asian diplomats snatched a hushed conversation at the back of a reception room.

“Jagshemash!” whispered one, using the catchphrase of Kazakhstan’s supposed second-best television reporter, and raised a glass of wine. “I like!” his friend answered, thumbs up, Borat style. — AFP

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Stephen Collinson
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