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May 31 2013

Central Asia's ‘Weird, Sad’ World Records

As Turkmenistan celebrates a recent Guinness World Record award for the highest density of white marble buildings, Caravanistan writes about the “weird, sad, and revealing” world records held by other countries of Central Asia.

May 04 2013

‘Uzbek Princess’ in Social Media

Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the infamous President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, is very different from the children of the leaders of other countries in Central Asia. A Harvard graduate, she has served as Uzbekistan's ambassador to UN in Geneva. She has also launched a pop singing career, a fashion line, a perfume, and a charity. Karimova is also very active in social media, and her provocative Twitter posts and photos shared on Instagram often raise eyebrows among the mostly conservative audiences in Uzbekistan and other countries in the region. Blogger Ayana Seidimbek presents [ru, en] a collection of the most controversial posts and images the ‘Uzbek princess’ has shared in social media.

May 03 2013

Central Asia: From Zhirinovsky With Love

Despite being the major destination for Central Asian migrant workers, Russia is famous for regular intolerance towards ‘non-Russians’ residing within its borders. Hate crimes based on race and ethnicity are not rare in the multinational federation, and migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus are the usual victims [ru] of racist sentiment. Aware of deepening anti-migrant feelings, many of Moscow's politicians look to boost their capital among voters by promoting right-wing policies. But there is always one politician that goes a step further than the rest.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party, is a combustible MP famous for making statements that are neither liberal nor democratic. Long-accustomed to playing the fool in domestic politics, Zhirinovsky's April performances seemed designed to send the entire Central Asian region into non-comic uproar.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, image from the LDPR's website, used with permission.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, image from the LDPR's website, used with permission.

His assault on the peoples of the area began with a proposal in the Russian parliament to relieve [ru] the Kyrgyz Republic of the Issyk-Kul, a picturesque lake ringed by the awesome Tien Shan range, in order to pay off the large debt the former Soviet republic owes Moscow.The following week he was at it again, ranting [ru] at Central Asian migrants on a political talk show.

While Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs laughed off [ru] the suggested lake-for-debt deal, a number of Kyrgyz internet users failed to see the funny side of the suggestion.

Under a YouTube video of Zhirinovsky's parliamentary speech, bekturel commented [ru] :

Иссык – Куль он захотел. Ни одной кыргызской лужи не получите! Долг мы вернем, только не водой, и не землей, а бумажками.

So he wants Issyk-Kul. You will not get a single Kyrgyz puddle! We will pay off our debts, not with water or land, but with [paper money].

‘They are like slaves…’

Russia's parliament ignored the proposal of the ‘showman of Russian politics‘ and ratified a write-off of the $500 million Kyrgyz debt without confiscating any national treasures. But Zhirinovsky did not stop at that and, a few days later, made another colorful performance [ru] at a political talk show on Rossiya, a state-owned television channel. During the show, Zhirinovsky spoke of the need to introduce visa requirements for nationals from Central Asian states, who currently do not need visas to travel to Russia. He also indulged [ru] in expressive descriptions of Central Asian labor migrants:

Им не надо жилья, страховок. Oни как рабы крепостные, спят в подвалах, едят любую гадость.

They don't need accommodation or insurance. They are like slaves or serfs, sleeping in basements and eating any filth.

Zhirinovsky Banner

Banner of Zhirinovsky-led LDPR, reading “LDPR for Ethnic Russians!” Imabe by Ilya Radnets, used with permission.

The majority of people commenting under the YouTube video of the debate agreed. A user under the nickname ‘nekto1rublik' wrote [ru]:

давно пора уже ввести самый жесткий режим для их въезда вы посмотрите на улицы наших городов скоро на нас уже будут смотреть как будто мы не у себя дома кругом одна чернота сколько можно то уже….а те которые уже приехали нужно в вагоны и желательно грузовые и в Таджикистан!!!!!!

It is high time to introduce the strictest regime for the entry [of migrants from Central Aisa]. Look at the streets in our cities. Soon we will be looked at as if we are not at home, there is blackness everywhere. How much more can we take?… Those who have already arrived should be put on trains, preferably on cargo carriages, and sent to Tajikistan!!!

The comment voted most popular came [ru] from a user ‘CSKA Ultra', whose name refers to the group of right-wing football hooligans supporting the football team CSKA Moscow:

ЗА визовый режим с чуркостанами.

I am for a visa regime with Churkostans ['Churki' is  derogatory slang for Central Asians].

Later during the same debate, Zhirinovsky argued that the Taliban might “trample on Tajikistan” and ”hang [Tajik President Emomali Rahmon] in the center of Dushanbe”. This statement provoked mixed reactions, earning the politician some respite from Tajik internet users who oppose their country's regime. But it led the Tajik parliament to register a complaint [ru] with the Russian ambassador.

‘You all have 15 children…’

Zhirinovsky concluded [ru] one of his anti-Central Asia rants during the talk show with some damning stereotypes:

Все бывшие советские республики живут лучше нас. То есть Россия через 20 лет снова всех кормит. Они все откормленные, все одетые и едут сюда погулять, бандитизмом заниматься, понасиловать. Естественно там у них работы не хватает, но эта причина ваша, это ваша релишия, у вас по 15 детей. Если  у вас как у русских будет один ребёнок, вы вообще не будете думать о России. Пускай все Таджикские семьи имеют два ребёнка в семье и проблемы никакой у вас не будет! Тоже самое узбекистан и весь исламский мир

All post-Soviet countries live better than us. Twenty years [after the break-up of the Soviet Union], Russia feeds everyone again. They are all well-fed and well-dressed, and they come here to have a good time, to do banditry, and to rape. Of course they don't have enough jobs at home; but that is your fault, [the fault of] your religion. You all have 15 children. If you had only one child, like Russians, you would not even think about Russia. Let all Tajik families have only two children and you will not have any problems! The same [concerns] Uzbekistan and the whole Islamic world!

During his long political career, Zhirinovsky has earned the reputation of an eccentric, populist, and nationalist politician. Born in Kazakhstan, the son of a Jewish lawyer, he still has some close friends in Central Asia and remains something of a contradiction in terms. Only 6 percent of Russia's electorate voted for him in the 2012 presidential vote that secured Vladimir Putin's re-election as head of state.

Given these discrepancies, it has often been suggested that Zhirinovsky is a kind of diversion for Putin's United Russia party: a way of soaking up nationalist votes without offering a credible alternative to the ruling elite. That refrain was echoed [ru] by MrFury1984 under a YouTube video of Zhirinovsky on another television show, where he was asked to change his profession:

Да жирик не хочет быть у руля ))) это много ответственности , он часть пирога имеет от бюджета.. и радуется )))

[Zhirinovsky] doesn't want to be in the driver's seat ))) That would be too much responsibility. He is happy getting his piece of the budget pie )))

That is good news for Central Asian migrants in Russia, but the plain fact that Zhirinovsky is supported by thousands of people is a reason to be concerned. YouTube user ‘Anonim Anonimov' writes [ru] underneath the video of the talk-show with Zhirinovsky:

А были ли фальсификации на недавних выборах если Жириновский из передачи в передачу побеждает адекватность с подобным перевесом? Может у нас и вправду с народом просто что-то не то?

Maybe there were no falsifications during the recent elections if Zhirinovsky goes from debate to debate winning with such massive margins? Maybe there is really something wrong with our people?

April 25 2013

‘Addictive’ Social Network is Back in Uzbekistan

After going offline for about a week, the top Russian-language social network service Odnoklassniki has become available again to tens of thousands of users in Uzbekistan. Blogger Doch’ Bukhari (Bukhara's Daughter) explains [ru] why Internet users in the Central Asian country choose this social network over other ones and why the network is “addictive like a drug”.

March 25 2013

‘Foreign Ideas’ as Extremism in Central Asia

On Registan.net, Noah Tucker speculates about what is wrong with the way Central Asian governments deal with religious activity that is not sanctioned by the state:

[I]n former Soviet Central Asia there is little debate that the root problem [of extremist beliefs] is “foreign ideas,” defined so broadly as to become a target of opportunity for both every political purpose and every local policeman or official’s ambition. Any sign of dissent from state policies or ideology <…> can be enough to bring the wrath of the state, sometimes with great violence.

March 06 2013

Harlem Shake Rocks Central Asia

Harlem Shake, the latest global Internet meme craze, has arrived in Central Asia. Neweurasia.net shares a compilation of the best Harlem Shake videos from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Blogger Sanjar writes:

With this cultural virus we clearly see that if people want to have fun, nothing will stop them. Fighting with Western influence or restrictions on YouTube will not  help the authorities.

February 06 2013

Open Access and the Complexity of Digital Rights

How do ways of thinking change through time and space?

British anthropologist Jack Goody posed this question in ‘The Domestication of the Savage Mind’, his 1997 publication covering new forms of communication within society. According to his study a culture which transmits its knowledge orally does not think in the same way as a writing-based culture.

Today, this is compounded by a new method of knowledge transmission – digital technology. We communicate on the internet by combining oral and written forms. Thanks to this technology, still new on the scale of human history, the transmission of knowledge – that is, data – is continually expanding as in a interconnected matrix. If this space was constructed by each of us, then there is a fundamental question to be answered. How should we use the internet? This question covers many issues. Should the sharing of all types of data be authorised? Who can access which data and under which conditions? Who should have oversight and control over it ?

Labyrinth made with 2500 burning tealights, Wikimedia Commons – License CC-BY-SA

Freedom of information versus exclusivity

According to modern thinking, knowledge has its roots in research. Scientists and academics, the thinkers of society, set up this culture and record in the cultural memory notions of official truth. This knowledge is communicated through the bias of institutional and governmental publications. Sarah Kendzior, specialist researcher based in Central Asia, commented on this:

Academic publishing is structured on exclusivity. (…) publishing in prestigious venues was once an indication of one’s value as a scholar. (…) Today, it all but ensures that your writing will go unread.

Digital thinking does not seem to work this way, however. On the internet, official knowledge is mixed up with the flux of global data and treated like any other information. Freedom is overcoming exclusivity.

Most of the scientific journals are now available online. However, they exist purely as landing screens for purchase, and do not utilise extra functionalities of the internet such as discussion forums, links and direct access. It is also common practice for scientific commercial editors to give the location of PDF articles and ask for a large payment to access them. For example a six page article was offered for $39.95 in a journal edited by Elsevier.

Dan Cohen explained the reasons for such a barrier on his blog:

What we did not anticipate was another kind of resistance to the web, based not on an unfamiliarity with the digital realm or on Luddism but on the remarkable inertia of traditional academic methods and genres—the more subtle and widespread biases that hinder the academy’s adoption of new media.

Open Access

In the face of this academic resistance a group of researchers, mostly made up of those working on or with the internet, called for free availability to digital publications from publicly-funded scientific research. They called this the Open Access project. This was the background behind the guilty verdict handed down to Aaron Swartz by the American government in 2011. He was found guilty of downloading nearly 4.8 million scientific articles via an MIT server, articles which were being sold by editor JSTOR, and which Swartz could have put online to be available to anyone.

Aaron Swartz à un meetup Wiki  à Boston par Sage Ross

Aaron Swartz at Boston Wikipedia Meetup, Sage Ross on Wikimedia Commons – License CC-BY-SA

However, the general public were only made aware of his actions to promote freedom of information following his suicide on January 11, 2013. This unleashed a wave of solidarity from many academics who have since freely distributed their scientific articles in PDF format. The initiative took hold with Redditthis proposal from Micah Allen, a Danish neuroscientist, on Twitter with hashtag #PDFTribute started by Eva Vivalt and Jessica Richman.

Nevertheless, the Open Access movement is not so recent on a digital time scale. Started in 2001 by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, it grew at the heart of a global desire to open up cyberspace. Although the concept reached the United Kingdom and certain universities in Ireland and even Kenya, as well as the core of the European Commission who made it one of its priorities for 2020, the bulwarks of American research refused, with a few exceptions, to adapt:

 @sarahkendzior : Academic paywalls are part of a culture of fear. Fear of engaging with the world instead of insulating oneself from it. #pdftribute

According to digital thinking, a scientific article is written to be shared and debated over. By reproducing the traditional model, the commercial editor refuses a free access model, perpetuating a method unadapted to cyberspace. A method whereby information remains restricted to certain populations, a method with strict rules denying all communication between the researcher and the public. A method running the risk, in the first instance, of non-recognition by peers, of marginalisation at the core of their community or even legal proceedings.

The free availability of scientific data is forged from inspiring examples. Free access allows wider circulation of information between scientists from different disciplines and different regions, as noted by Sean Guillory, an historian specialising in Russia:

A very wide gap of communication, access, and dialogue exists between the knowledge scholars in the “west” produce about Eurasia, and what scholars “over there” produce.

Free access also benefits non-scientific people, to return to the example of Sarah Kendzior:

With one paper uploaded on Academia.edu, Sarah Kendzior helped Uzbek refugees find a safe haven abroad. With another upload she brought the world of contemporary Uzbek literature into the lives of Midwestern teens.

According to the Finch report, published June 19, 2012, the barriers posed by the old commercial model restrict innovation, growth and other benefits which can follow on from research. The digital world, complicated though it is, differentiates itself from its predecessor by its egalitarian nature, the idea that everyone should be free to access the information they seek. This is the democratic freedom behind the Public Domain Manifesto:

In a period of rapid technological and social change the Public Domain fulfills an essential role in cultural participation and digital innovation, and therefore needs to be actively maintained.

France's Digital Cultural Heritage for Sale

In France announcement of a signing of agreements between the Bibliothèque Nationale and private companies was made on January 18, 2012. This played into the same debate over access to knowledge for all, a cause supported by many French groups and associations, as in this appeal on Framablog states [Fr]:

Ces partenariats prévoient une exclusivité de 10 ans accordée à ces firmes privées, pour commercialiser ces corpus sous forme de base de données, à l’issue de laquelle ils seront mis en ligne dans Gallica, la bibliothèque numérique de la BnF. Les principaux acheteurs des licences d’accès à ces contenus seront des organismes publics de recherche ou des bibliothèques universitaires, situation absurde dans laquelle les acteurs du service public se retrouveront contraints et forcés, faute d’alternative à acheter des contenus numérisés qui font partie du patrimoine culturel commun.

These partnerships see 10-year exclusivity granted to these private companies, for the commercialisation of this bodies of work in database form, from which they can have online access to Gallic, the digital library of the BNF. The principal buyers of access licences for this content will be public research organisations or university libraries, an absurd situation in which public servants find themselves constricted and forced, due to lack of alternatives, to buy digitised content which forms part of our shared cultural heritage.

The agreements behind this private digitisation restrict access to knowledge which, because of its history, ought to belong to us all. This archival process and digital re-appropriation of cultural data, financed by rich institutions, transposes and imposes a way of exploiting the human mind on the public space that is the internet. It is not a matter here of misunderstanding the nature of the internet, but rather of a commercial stranglehold on part of our heritage. In other words, these privatised digitisations are actually taking control of a part of cyberspace and occupying an intellectual space that belongs to all mankind.

The development of a digital way of thinking – with a strong emphasis on the public space – is challenged by the lack of imagination for innovation from both modern and traditional thinkers. However, something has changed since the dawn of the digital age. Today, it is the democratic intelligence that own the technological tools which give us access to human knowledge until now cloistered by an elite.

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

January 24 2013

Uzbekistan's Useless Latin Script

LJ user a_volosevich suggests [ru] that the Latinization reform that has been underway in Uzbekistan over the last two decades is close to failure:

[Over the almost twenty years since Uzbekistan switched to Latin script] it has become clear that the new script in itself does not create the knowledge of foreign languages… Besides, the Russian language has proven to be more in demand [than Latinized Uzbek].

The blogger suggests that this might be a warning call to Kazakhstan, which is also abandoning Cyrillic script in favor of the Latin alphabet.

January 20 2013

January 10 2013

Central Asia's Vegan Dishes

Qurutob, a traditional Tajik vegetarian dish. Image from Caravanistan, used with permission.

(more…)

January 09 2013

Kyrgyzstan: Hostage Crisis in Uzbek Enclave

A hostage crisis developed over the past weekend in Sokh, a little Uzbekistani enclave inside Kyrgyzstan. All hostages have now been released. Central Eurasia Standard blog summarizes media coverage of the crisis.

January 05 2013

Celebrating New Year's Eve in Central Asia

Since independence, the post-Soviet nations of Central Asia have invented a number of new ‘national' holidays. Yet the celebration of the New Year's Eve, the Soviet people's most favorite holiday, still remains a cherished tradition among many people in the region. Despite some calls to denounce the holiday as ‘foreign' and ‘un-Islamic', families in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan celebrated the arrival of the year 2013 in line with the Soviet-era tradition - with a New Year's tree, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost, Soviet version of Santa Claus), and Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden, Ded Moroz's granddaughter).

Kazakhstan

Although some 17 percent of Kazakhstanis view [ru] the New Year's celebration as a ‘foreign' custom, over 70 percent of the country's people say they cannot imagine the New Year's eve without Ayaz Ata (the Kazakh version of Ded Moroz), Snegurochka, and a decorated tree. Bloggers Raul Garifulin [ru] and Vyacheslav Firsov [ru] have posted pictures of New Year's fireworks in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city and the former capital.

New Year's fireworks in Almaty. Image by Raul Garifulin, used with permission.

Another blogger, Ernar Nurmagambetov, wrote [ru] about his trip to Ayaz Ata's newly constructed ‘residence' in northern Kazakhstan:

Я не пожалел времени и денег, которые потратил на посещение Резиденции Деда Мороза. Хотя бы потому, что у 6-летней дочки, которая уже переставала верить в Деда Мороза - загорелись глазки. ))) А сын прокатился на настоящих северных оленях!!!

I do not regret the time and the money I spent to visit Ded Moroz's residence. After the trip, my 6-year-old daughter - who had begun to doubt that Ded Moroz existed - had her eyes shining with joy. And my son rode the real reindeer!!!

On VoxPopuli, Kazakhstan's leading photo blog, Damir Otegen posted [ru] a photo report about individuals who ‘work' as Ded Morozes and Snegurochkas during the New Year's celebrations. And Kanat Beisekeyev posted [ru] a story about two Kazakhstani bloggers who dressed as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka and walked along Almaty's main streets, congratulating people on the New Year's Eve and giving children presents.

Bloggers Vyacheslav Nerush and Konstantin Nagayev, dressed as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, on the streets of Almaty.

Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, the New Year's celebration has not lost its popularity despite the recent calls from some religious and political leaders to discard the Soviet-era tradition. In late December, Islamic clerics in this predominantly Muslims country called for the ban on the New Year's celebrations and urged the country's people to ignore the holiday. In addition, in a meeting with university students in Bishkek, lawmaker Tursunbai Bakir Uulu said [kg] marking the New Year's Eve was ‘un-Islamic'.

Apparently, these calls had little effect on most Kyrgyzstanis. Kloop.kg has posted [ru] a detailed report about this year's holiday, including a summary of the discussion about the holiday's appropriateness among the country's bloggers and Twitter users. The authorities in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, held [ru] a massive New Year's parade of Ded Morozes and Snegurochkas.

New Year's parade of Ded Morozes and Snegurochkas in Bishkek. Image from the Bishkek Mayor's Office Website, used with permission.

Tajikistan

In Tajikistan, there have also been recent calls to ban New Year's celebrations. In mid-November 2012, the official website of the country's Islamic Revival Party urged [ru] the authorities in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital, not to erect the traditional New Year's tree, suggesting that it was unwise to spend money on an ‘un-Islamic' holiday.

Unexpectedly, the call found support among some bloggers. On Blogiston.tj, Teocrat wrote [ru]:

Лично моя позиция к этому праздника такова, что пусть каждый сам решает праздновать его или нет! А государству не следует тратить бюджетные средства на всякие торжественные мероприятия - бюджет страны и без того уже последние 20 лет находится в критическом положении. Думаю, в этой ситуации стоит сэкономить немного средств не только на праздновании НГ, но и многих других торжеств…

I personally believe that everyone should decide for themselves whether to celebrate the holiday or not. But the state should not spend resources from the country's budget on celebrations of any kind; even without this spending, the budget has been in a critical state over the past 20 years. I think in this situation, it makes sense to save a little bit of funds by not marking the New Year's Eve as well as many other festivities…

Comments under this blog show that there is little agreement among Tajikistani users on whether the tradition of ushering in the New Year has religious roots or has a purely secular character.

On her blog, Tajik journalist Zebo Tajibaeva also called [ru] on the authorities not to put up a New Year's tree in Dushanbe this year. According to journalist, the tree that the authorities traditionally erect in the capital is so ugly that the country would be better off without it.

In response to these criticisms, the mayor of Dushanbe announced [ru] that the authorities would continue organizing ‘grand' festivities for the New Year's celebrations. The Tajik capital ushered in the year 2013 with a traditional New Year's tree, a massive concert, and fireworks.

On NewEurasia.net, Loki posts [ru] photos from the latest New Year's festivities in Dushanbe.

Uzbekistan

In early December 2012, there were reports that the authorities in Uzbekistan had instructed the state-run television channels not to show Ded Moroz, Snegurochka, and the decorated tree during the New Year's celebrations. Reports also suggested that the authorities had invented new names for the Soviet-era Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. The country's Ministry of Culture then had to interfere, saying [ru] such speculations were ‘baseless'.

Indeed, the celebrations in Uzbekistan this year were no different from the past years. On NewEurasia.net blogger Khayyam wrote [ru]:

Новый Год прошел <…>, и я с радостью констатирую факт, что Деда Мороза и Снегурочку никто не похитил, и они, как всегда, полноправно властвовали праздником в Узбекистане!

The New Year's celebration is over <…>, and I am happy to announce that Ded Moroz and Snegurochka have not been abducted; they have dominated the holiday in Uzbekistan as usual!

The blogger has also posted a YouTube video of the New Year's festivities on the main square of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

December 18 2012

Tajiks and Uzbeks Disagree on Birthplace of Poet

Travelling through Central Asia, blogger Don Croner writes that the “dispute over the birthplace of the Poet Rudaki (858-c.941) is heating up and may soon lead to wine-throwing and fist-fights”. The problem is that “both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are claiming Rudaki as one of their own”. In Tajikistan, the poet is considered to be the “founder of the Tajik classic literature” [ru] and the “sun of the Tajik civilization” [ru]. It is widely believed that Rudaki was born and is buried in a village in northern Tajikistan.

December 15 2012

November 17 2012

‘Uzbekistan Illustrated' on Facebook

A recent cartoon featured on ‘Uzbekistan Illustrated', used with permission.

(more…)

October 28 2012

Central Asians Treated ‘Like Crap' at Moscow Airport

I realized that once you find yourself at [the Moscow airport] Domodedovo, you start feeling like you are [crap]. And you feel so not because you are actually [crap], but because the personnel at the airport treat you this way.

In an emotional post, blogger Diana Rahmanova writes [ru] about the mistreatment of Central Asians at the Moscow airport. Millions of migrant workers from Central Asia travel to Russia every year, with many of them arriving at the Domodedovo airport.

October 17 2012

Central Asia's Water Stories

How is it possible that in Central Asia, a region with abundant water resources, safe drinking water is still a luxury for many people? On his blog, Bakhrom Mananov features several documentaries about water problems in the region and explains why this important resource has become a contentious issue in Central Asia.

September 07 2012

Biking from Tunisia to China for Wetland Conservation

Seven months ago, Arafet Ben Marzou, a 31-year-old Tunisian who graduated from a Biological and Environmental Engineering School, gave up his job as a university teacher and decided to pursue his childhood dream - traveling from Tunisia to China on a bike.

He started his journey in Tunisia and crossed the Mediterranean sea to Istanbul. He cycled through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. He is now in Xinjiang, China.

Ben Marzou has been providing updates about his trip through his Facebook page Tabba'ani (translated as “follow me” from the Tunisian dialect). On August 30, he wrote:

in china… alive.. i will update soon :)))

Xinjiang, China photo via Facebook page Follow Me

Xinjiang, China photo via Facebook page Follow Me

This travel project, entitled Wet-bike [fr], comes within the framework of an environmental battle for the conversation of wetlands and their resources. Ben Marzou's West Asia bike tour from one Ramsar site to another aims at raising awareness about the human and environmental value of wetlands and the dangers that threaten such areas. Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Photo taken in Azerbaijan. Via Ben Marzou's Facebook page Follow Me.

Photo taken in Azerbaijan. Via Ben Marzou's Facebook page Follow Me.

On February, 2, the day Ben Marzou hit the road, the World Wildlife Fund Tunis office wrote [fr]:

Pour cette initiative le message transmis est principalement un message d’une dimension humaine et environnementale.
A travers ce périple, il essayerai entre autres de porter une réflexion autour des lacs et des zones humides, et ceci par le partage des photos, vidéos, le contact des gens sur place et le partage de leurs expériences…

This initiative's message is mainly of a human and environmental dimension. Through this trek, he [Ben Marzou] will try to reflect on lakes and wetland areas, by sharing photos, videos and by getting in touch with local peoples and sharing their experiences…

Challenges

To make his dream come true, Ben Marzou came face to face with several challenges which he shared via his Facebook page. On July 26, he said:

encore la.. pour le malheur de la route qui reste :))) , des aventures a couper le souffle.. encore en Afghanistan et encore a velo.. merci pour vos messages touchants et sympa, hamdoullah tout va bien, traverser le Hidu kush a becane etait un fort challenge, 5 jours, 120 km et 3400 m d'altitude, sinon je suis quelques part entre kabul et Mazar-sherif

I'm still here..for the remaining road misfortunes :))), breathtaking adventures..I'm still biking in Afghanistan…thanks for your moving and compassionate messages. Praise to God, everything is fine. Crossing the Hindu Kush [a long mountain range that stretches between central Afghanistan and northern Pakistan] was a big challenge: 5 days, 120 km, and an altitude of 3,400 meters. Otherwise, I'm somewhere between Kabul and Mazar Sharif
Fortunately, Ben Marzou did not fall hostage to the Taliban. He was rather welcomed to spend the night in an Afghani viallge. Photo via Ben Marzou's Facebook page

Fortunately, Ben Marzou did not fall hostage to the Taliban. He was rather welcomed to spend the night in an Afghani viallge. Photo via Ben Marzou's Facebook page

One week earlier he shared tips to follow in case he was detained by the Taliban:

Première leçon enseignée dictée et ordonné par les militaires afghans, en cas où je tombe en otage par les talibans, il ne faut en aucun cas parler en anglais, l’arabe peux être très utile, ta religion peux aussi te sauver, si tu arrives à leur faire expliquer que t’es musulman avant qu’ils te tirent dessus, t’a une chance de survivre…

The first lesson given, dictated and ordered by Afghani soldiers: in case I am taken hostage by the Taliban, under no circumstances should I speak in English. Arabic could be very useful. My religion could also save me. If I succeed explaining to them that I'm a Muslim before they shoot at me, I would have a survival chance…

On August 5, he reported [fr]:

la route du Pamir est fermee… cela complique d'avantage le trajet :/ cette incroyable route qui traverse les Himalaya a travers le tajikistan et le kyrgyzestan est temporairement fermee… des affrontement avec les talibans en cause… pour ma part je serai reellement en impasse..
des suggestions..??

Pamir road [a road which crosses the Pamir Mountains through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia] is closed…this further complicates the journey :/ this incredible road which crosses the Himalayas through Tajikistan and Kyrgystan is temporarily closed…owing to clashes with the Taliban…for me this represents a real dead-end. Any suggestions?

On August 10, he disclosed the greatest challenge he faced during this venture [fr]:

je crois que, plus que tout, le vrai challenge dans cette aventure, c'est le fait d'affronter le blocus administratif et reglementaire de ces ex-republiques sovietiques avec mon cher passeport Tunisien

I believe that more than any other thing, the real challenge in this adventure is confronting the administrative and regulatory blockade imposed by former Soviet countries with my dear Tunisian passport
Ben Marzou cycling in Afghanistan. Photo via Facebook page Follow Me

Ben Marzou cycling in Afghanistan. Photo via Facebook page Follow Me

Iran: First encounter with Shia Islam

Shia shrine in Iran

Shia shrine in Iran

On his Facebook page, Ben Marzou shared with his fans once in a life time experiences, and lessons he learned from this seven month-long journey. As I neither have the space nor the energy to translate all of Ben Marzou's interesting stories, I decided to share with Global Voices readers his Iran journey.

In Iran, Ben Marzou, who comes from a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, encountered Shia Islam. Some differences in beliefs and practices, between the two major Islam sects sometimes led to sectarian violence in countries like Iraq, and Lebanon.

On July 16, he published the following post:

Et c'est la fin d’une aventure persane qui a duré 70 jours, 700 km de vélo et plusieurs milliers de km de route, c’est une des étapes les plus intenses dont je me rappellerai toujours, ce grand pays plein de contrastes, plein de vie et de désir, je me rappellerai toujours de cette hospitalité inégalable, de cet amour du partage, « almousafér 7abibou allah » tel croient les descendants d’Ali…

Ce fut aussi ma première rencontre avec le chiisme, que loin de toute comparaison inutile je respecte…

«T’es chiite ou sunnite » c’est une des questions qui s’est fréquemment posée
« Je suis musulman tout court » tel était ma réponse,

Et là curieusement, et presque toujours, un grand sourire se dessine sur le visage de mon interlocuteur…

It is the end of a Persian experience which lasted 70 days, 700km on bike, and thousands more kilometers driving. It is one of the most intense stages, which I will always remember. A large country [Iran], full of contrasts, of life, and desire. I will always remember this incomparable hospitality, and this love to share. “The traveller is the Beloved of God”, that is how Ali's descendants think…[In Shia Islam Ali is regarded as the rightful successor of Prophet Muhammad]

It was my first encounter with Shia Islam, which away from any useless comparison I do respect(…)
“Are you a Shia or a Sunni Muslim?” was one of the frequently asked questions.
“I'm just a Muslim,” I would answer.
Then strangely, and almost always a big smile takes shape on the face of the person addressing me…

August 14 2012

Central Asia's Mixed Success at London Olympics

The 2012 Summer Olympics offered mixed successes for the five post-Soviet Central Asian states and Afghanistan. While the Games proved nothing short of triumph for team Kazakhstan, the success of athletes from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan was more moderate. And for Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan whose athletes left London empty-handed, the London Olympics were largely a disappointment.

Afghanistan

Team Afghanistan which grew from a four-person squad at 2008 Olympics to include six athletes at the 2012 Games matched the success it achieved in Beijing four years ago. After winning Afghanistan's first ever Olympic medal in 2008, fighter Rohullah Nikpai bagged another bronze medal in men's Taekwondo in London. Now the war-torn country that has participated in 13 Summer Games has  two Olympic medals, both claimed by Nikpai.

The fighter's 2012 success was met with an explosion of excitement in social media, with some netizens suggesting that Nikpai's bronze meant more than gold for Afghanistan. Another Afghan Taekwondo fighter, Nesar Ahmad Bahawi, finished the games one step away from a bronze medal.

Internet-based Daily Outlook Afghanistan wrote about the country's success at 2012 Olympics:

Afghan athletes are real heroes of the country. Their achievements in different international sporting events have not only brought some moments of joy and pride, but also a great sense of unity among Afghans regardless of their ethnic background…

Their achievements have not only been a moral boast to the confidence and pride of our terrorism-hit people, but also a paradigm for youth to play their role in bringing honor to the country. Our athletes deserve exceptional encouragement that despite lack of facilities, they make history…

Kazakhstan

For Kazakhstan, the London Olympics have been an unprecedented success. The country's 115 athletes won 13 medals, including seven golds. Due to this dazzling success, Kazakhstan finished 12th in the overall medal table, a huge progress compared to the 2008 Games when the country was 29th. Kazakh athletes took four of the seven golds in weightlifting. Female weightlifters Zulfiya Chinshanlo, Maiya Maneza, and Svetlana Podobedova won gold in different weight divisions, with Ilya Ilyin matching their achievement in men's 94-kg division. The remaining golds were claimed by Olga Rypakova (women's triple jump), Serik Sapiyev (men's under-69-kg boxing), and Alexandr Vinokurov (men's road face).

Team Kazakhstan's success was accompanied by some controversy about its Chinese-born female weightlifters, whose success was also claimed by Beijing. However, as one blogger suggested, the national origin of the athletes in questions “doesn't change what they have accomplished. [They] were not champions in China. Kazakhstan apparently found them, trained them, and made them champions.”

On Kazakh blogging platform Yvision.kz, Bnews wrote [ru]:

[П]рошедшая Олимпиада в Лондоне стала триумфом для нашей страны, многие заговорили и узнали о нас, а в зале тяжелой атлетике уже наверное давным-давно знают наш гимн наизусть.

Спасибо нашим спортсменам и всем-всем за сказку, длиною в 2 недели и за их тяжелый труд. Желаем успехов и превосходных достижении, через 4 года в Рио-де-Жанейро результат будет еще лучше!

The London Olympics became a triumph for our country, with many people speaking about us and having learnt about [Kazakhstan]; while in the weightlifting gyms, people have long known our national anthem by heart.

Thanks to our athletes and everyone else for the fairy-tale that lasted for two weeks, and for their hard work. We wish them success and remarkable achievements. In four years, at [2016 Rio de Janeiro Games], we are going to have even better results!

Kyrgyzstan

The London Olympics were one big disappointment for Kyrgyzstan which had sent 14 athletes to the Games. Four years ago, in Beijing, the Kyrgyz took one silver and one bronze in men's Greco-Roman wrestling. Travelling to London this year, Kyrgyz wrestlers also hoped to bring home at least two medals. Among the country's main medal hopefuls in London was Aisuluu Tynybekova, a 19-year-old female wrestler, who faced a criminal charge of “hooliganism” at home. Tynybekova and all the male athletes from team Kyrgyzstan left the British capital empty-handed.

The failure of Kyrgyz athletes to win medals has cost them a lot of criticism at home. After Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kyrgyz service asked readers of its website to say what they think of the country's performance at the 2012 Olympics, Aybek from Bishkek wrote [ru]:

…Я согласен с тем, что результаты на Олимпиаде отражают ситуацию в стране в целом, то есть все абсолютно плачевно…. Нам нечем и некем гордиться… Виноваты все - и государство и каждый из нас… Вместо того, чтобы покупать себе джипы и строить особняки, лучше бы спортсменам помогли.

…I agree that the results of the Olympics reflect the situations in the country in general, that is, absolutely everything in the country is sorrowful… We have nothing and nobody to be proud of… Everyone is to blame - both the state and each of us… Instead of buying expensive off-road cars and building mansions, we'd better help our athletes.

But another Bishkek resident, Bolot Temirov, was less pessimistic, suggesting [ru] that the 2012 Olympic failure might actually benefit the country in a longer term:

Самое главное сделать выводы. Иногда нужны поражения, чтобы потом были победы…

The most important thing [now] is to draw conclusions. Sometimes you need to lose in order to have victories in future…

Tajikistan

Just like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan won two medals - one bronze and one silver - at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Just like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan was hoping to at least match its 2008 success in London. Unlike Kyrgyzstan, however, Tajikistan bagged an Olympic medal at this year's Games. The country's only medal, a bronze, was won by 19-year-old female boxer, Mavzuna Chorieva. By achieving this success, the fighter is said to have broken major social stereotypes related to women's role in Tajikistan. She is also being promoted as a new “national symbol” by some netizens. The rest of the 16 athletes representing Tajikistan in London, including the 2008 Olympic heroes Rasul Boqiev and Yusup Abdusalomov, failed to impress this year.

Yet, Tajikistanis appear to be happy about the single medal taken by the female boxer. As journalist Salim Aioubzod explained [tj] on Facebook:

Як медали биринҷии мо баробари 10 нишони тилои баӣзе кишварҳост.

Our single bronze medal equals ten golds taken by some countries.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan which hasn't yet won a single Olympic medal brought 10 athletes to London. None of them was expected to contend for a medal. And none of them did. Yet, according to the government news service, Turkmenistan's athletes “performed respectably” [ru] at the Games, breaking several personal and nationals records.

The only thing Turkmenistan is likely to be remembered about after the London Olympics is the incident with a Turkmen boxing referee, Ishanguly Meretnyyazov, who was expelled by the International Boxing Association for improper officiating at the Games.

Uzbekistan

Prior to London, Uzbekistan took 17 Summer Olympic medals, including four golds. At Beijing Games four years ago, Uzbek athletes won six medals: one gold (in men's freestyle wrestling), two silvers (in men's judo and wrestling), and three bronzes (in men's and women's gymnastics, and in men's judo).

Uzbekistan had a more moderate success this year in London where its 53-athlete-strong team claimed four medals. Artur Taymazov, the country's famous freestyle wrestler, won his third straight Olympic wrestling gold in men's 120-kg category. Three bronzes were won by Abbos Atoev (men's 75-kg boxing), Rishod Sobirov (men's under-60-kg judo), and Soslan Tigiev (men's 74-kg freestyle wrestling).

Discussing the results of the London Olympics for Uzbekistan on Russia's most popular online social network VKontakte, one user wrote [tj]:

Олимпиада Лондон-2012 закончилась.

Узбекистан 47 место! Кто-то доволен результатами, кто-то нет! Но всё, же мы поздравляем всех тех, кто принёс нашей стране медали (не важно какие) главное что они есть…

The London 2012 Olympics is over.

Uzbekistan is 47th [in the overall medal count]! Some people are happy about the result, some are not! Still, we extend our congratulations to those who won medals for our country (whatever medals these are). The most important thing is that we have [these medals]…

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