[’I like freshly fermented horse urine’: Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at
the Toronto Film Festival in character as Borat; photography from The Telegraph.]

by Vernon James Schubel
Department of Religious Studies, Kenyon College

In his famous Orientalist novel Kim the British colonialist author Rudyard Kipling constructs a character who looks like an “oriental,” as he has been “burnt-black by the sun,” but is in reality an Irish orphan boy. His name is Kim and he is a character caught between two worlds. Ultimately he becomes both a seeker of spiritual truth and a spy in “the Great Game” for colonial control of Central Asia. At several points in the novel the question is asked “Who is Kim?” I have often wondered if the novel revolves around an elaborate pun on the word “kim” which in most Central Asian Turkic languages—including Uzbek and Kazakh–translates as “who.”

At this present moment in human history perhaps the most famous Kazakh in the world is not a Kazakh at all. He is “Borat”—the creation of the British entertainer Sacha Baron Cohen, a brilliant physical comedian with an enthusiastic audience in Britain and America. Like Kipling’s Kim, Cohen’s “Borat” only appears to be an Asian. His “oriental-ness’ is a disguise worn by the comedian Cohen in his own “Great Game.”

It should be noted that there are multiple levels of construction to Kipling’s Kim. Kipling presents his readers with an orientalist fantasy of South and Central Asia that is the product of his colonialist imagination. Thus Kipling’s Kim is an artificial Asian in an artificial Asia. And as Edward Said has warned us, we learn a lot more about British colonialism from reading novels like Kim than we do about Asia. The same warning must be applied to Sacha Baron Cohen and his creation “Borat.” Even more than Kim, “Borat” is an artificial Asian from a thoroughly artificial Asia.

Who is “Borat?” (In Kazakh, Borat kim?) As stated above “Borat Sagdiyev” is a fictional character. “Borat” says he comes from rural Kazakhstan. He is a journalist. He travels to the West and conducts mock interviews, sometimes with famous people. Much of the time the people he interacts with do not know that “Borat” is a character. Instead they think that he, like Kipling’s Kim, is a real Asian.” “Borat”—the character—is a virulent anti-Semite, from a nation of anti-Semites. In his most famous bit of schtick he gets on stage at a country western bar and leads a sing-a-long of a song from his “homeland” which goes: “Throw the Jew down the well, so my country can be free.” “Borat” also hates “gypsys.” He is also a misogynist. “Borat’s” misogyny, like his anti-Semitism is not portrayed as a personal idiosyncracy. It is part of “Kazakhstan’s” national character. In his country “age of consent is eight.” Daughters are not given names because “they are girls.” Borat is astonished that in America women can vote, and horses can’t. “Borat” also hates Uzbeks whom he calls “assholes.” And he likes sex—very much. He is a sex obsessed buffoon.

While “Borat” is not real, his creator Sacha Baron Cohen is. Who is Cohen? (In Kazakh, Cohen kim?) Cohen is a Cambridge educated observant Jew from Great Britain. By all accounts he is a studious, well educated, highly intelligent person. He wrote his thesis at Cambridge on issues of ethnicity. He first came to fame in Britain with his creation of the character Ali G, a caricature of young South Asian and white men in Britain who aspire to hip-hop culture. Ali G has been hugely popular in Britain with both ethnic white and South Asian audiences. Cohen’s fans point out that he uses racial and ethnic stereotypes to reveal and illuminate the biases and prejudices in Western society. Well and good. The same can be said for Family Guy, The Simpsons, and especially Dave Chappelle. But given the overtly negative characterization of Kazakhs and Kazakhstan in Cohen’s work there is an important question which needs to be raised about “Borat”: While Cohen shines a light on certain forms of prejudice and racism in “the West” does he also create and continue other equally dangerous prejudices?

“Borat” is supposed to be a Kazakh. But there is nothing remotely Kazakh about “Borat.” Even his appearance is distinctly un-Kazakh. In a recent interview on CNN conducted as a response to the “Borat” phenomena—think of it, CNN goes to Kazakhstan because of “Borat”—a Kazakh looking at a picture of “Borat” says: “There are 150 ethnic groups in my country and none of them looks like ‘Borat’.” Some people have argued that he looks vaguely Turkish, especially sporting as he does the typical moustache of members of the Turkish nationalist right-wing. In fact, it has been argued that Cohen drew in part from the famous Turkish website of Mahir Cağrı for the character of “Borat.” In appearance, he might also be Greek or Bulgarian. Maybe even Arab. But not Kazakh. He also doesn’t speak a language that sounds the least little bit like Kazakh.

Similarly, “Borat’s” Kazakhstan looks nothing like the actual country. In fact, it can be easily demonstrated that Cohen’s comedic construction has almost nothing to do with Kazakhstan. First, let’s take the charge of anti-Semitism. This is a serious charge, worthy of not only satire but condemnation if it were true. But in reality Kazakhstan is probably the least anti-Semitic place in the former Soviet Union. The Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union has praised Kazakhstan for its lack of anti-Semitism. And émigré’s from Alma-aty’s Bukharan Jewish community—which still maintains Hebrew schools and synagogues– speak fondly of their Muslim Kazakh friends. As for the allegations of misogyny, Kazakh culture has always been remarkably egalitarian and in many ways less patriarchal than many other cultures around the globe. Kazakhstan is riddled with neither prostitution nor child marriage. And women have had the right to vote since the 1920’s.

Frankly, “Borat’s” Kazakhstan does not exist. The real Kazakhstan’s history is much more somber and sobering than Cohen’s fantasy. In the 19th Century the Muslim Kazakhs endured a brutal colonization by the Russians. In the last century nearly a million Kazakh’s died in the wake of the famine created by Stalin’s collectivization program. Kazakh’s were shipped to the front in World War II and used as canon fodder. (I suggest Chingiz Aitmatov’s wonderful novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years for a more realistic and compelling literary construction of Kazakhstan.) The actual Kazakhstan is simply not nearly as “funny” as “Borat’s” Kazakhstan. At least Kipling’s Asia existed in the imaginations of the colonizers. What Cohen has done is to create a completely fictitious place, and then give it the name of a real one.

One wonders why? If “Borat” were identified as a Turk or a Greek or a Bulgarian he might be less offensive. Enough Europeans and Americans have traveled to those places and met people from them that “Borat’s” boorishness could be easily viewed as the idiosyncrasies of a particular individual. In fact, characters that look and sound like “Borat” pop up from time to time on Turkish sketch comedy programs. The problem with “Borat” is that he is put forward not as an individual, but as a representative of a sick and buffoonish culture. He speaks for “his people.”

So why choose Kazakhstan? Perhaps Cohen needed the name of a relatively “unknown” place to grant credibility to his creation. He likely chose Kazakhstan for its remoteness. It has the advantage of being relatively “unknown.” After all, Kazakhstan has a population of only 15 million (roughly half ethnic Kazakh and half ethnic Russians). There is no large Kazakh immigrant community in “the West.” Few Europeans or America travel to Kazakhstan—either on vacation or for business. For Europeans and Americans “Kazakh” is a nearly empty sign waiting to be filled.

But if “Borat” is not a parody of actual Kazakhs, who or what is being parodied? Like Kipling’s India, “Borat’s” Kazakhstan must resonate with something in the biases of “the West” or it would be unintelligible. Is there an ethnic or religious group with a reputation in the West for anti-semitism and misogyny? Is there a group that is thought of as having a “hard time coming to grips with modernity?” It seems to me that part of the construction of “Borat” rests on Western stereotypes about a perceived inherent anti-Semitism and misogyny of Muslims. And that is perhaps why Cohen chose Kazakhstan, because Kazakhs are not only post-Soviet they are also Muslim. “Borat” plays on the worst stereotypes of Muslims. This is the dark side of “Borat.” Some have argued in Cohen’s defense that most people in North America and Europe don’t even know that Kazakhs are Muslim. And interestingly “Borat” never identifies himself explicitly as a Muslim. But even the most geographically illiterate person knows that “Borat” comes from a country that ends in “stan.” Like Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan is clearly a place where Muslims live. Most dangerously, the character of “Borat” suggests that even if a Muslim looses his orientalist “beard and turban” and dresses like a westerner the suit will be ill-fitting. And his anti-Semitism and misogyny will never really go away—they are part of his core nature.

Cohen is a smart and funny man. It is hard to believe he consciously intended to construct an identity for the people of Kazakhstan that is insulting and demeaning or, even worse, that he intentionally built that character around the ugliest Western stereotypes of Islam and Muslims. After all, Cohen’s clear antagonism towards homophobia and anti-Semitism shows that he is aware of the danger of people with power constructing the identities of those without it. So why does he do it? Perhaps Mr. Cohen as a minority himself feels that he is incapable of constructing a reality that could harm others. Or perhaps, he thinks this is all innocent fun. After all “Borat” is so over the top that only “an idiot” could think he was “for real.” But there are a lot of “idiots” in the world who fall for Cohen’s characters—look how many people sang along with “throwing the Jew in the well. Unfortunately, right now “Borat” has all the power in the equation of knowledge. More people know more “facts” about “Borat’s” fictional Kazakhstan, than know anything at all about the actual Kazakhstan.

My fear is that the images of “Borat’s” Kazakhstan are drowning out the real Kazakhstan, just as Kipling’s construction of India has blotted out the reality of India for millions of westerners who still think his books tell the truth about India and Indians. Of course, Kipling wrote Kim believing he was showing the real “Orient” and did so to prove what he saw as the ultimate superiority of “the rational West” over “the mystical East.” Cohen, on the other hand, knows that he is constructing a false “Orient” and does so to show the “West” its flaws. But in both cases the actual people of Asia become mere pawns in the literary “Great Game” of western artists.

[Professor Schubel teaches courses on Islam and Muslim Asia at Kenyon College. He has studied in and written about Central Asia, and had the great good fortune to visit Kazakhstan while an IREX fellow in Uzbekistan in 1995-96.]