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Kazakhstan: MTV Europe Awards Host Caricatures Kazakh TV Journalist

  • Ron Synovitz --> (RFE/RL) The live broadcast of the 12th annual MTV Europe Music Awards last night featured a controversial host who pretends to be from Kazakhstan named "Borat Sagdiyev." But the rude host isn't from Kazakhstan at all.  Borat is a fictional character created by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen that satirizes a Kazakh television journalist.

Prague, 4 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Cohen, playing the character of a Kazakh journalist named Borat Sagdiyev, welcomed an international audience yesterday to the 2005 MTVEurope Awards in Lisbon, Portugal.

Borat got laughs by pretending to get things mixed up. And that's usual for Cohen's invented character, who frequently appears on the MTV network.

MTV calls Borat a television journalist who is the "sixth most-famous man in Kazakhstan."
For example, Vassilenko lamented, women are not kept in cages in
Kazakhstan as Borat has claimed. Kazakhstan's national sport is not
shooting a dog and then having a party. Wine in Kazakhstan is not made
from fermented horse urine.

But nothing about Borat's descriptions of Kazakhstan withstand scrutiny. Borat doesn't look like an ethnic Kazakh. His native language resembles Polish more than Kazakh or Russian. And the music to his fictional program on "Kazakhstani Television" sounds like it is more from the Balkans than Central Asia:

In fact, Borat is a parody of a Kazakh television journalist invented by Cohen. The British comedian first gained international fame by posing as another fictional character -- a British hip-hop music journalist named "Ali G."

That character became so popular among the young generation in Britain that his television program -- "Da Ali G Show" -- became a huge hit in Britain in 2000. Ali G's pop culture status was such that he was even featured as Madonna's chauffeur in the video for her song "Music."

But Kazakh officials aren't fond of the prank interviews Cohen conducts with unsuspecting Westerners while pretending he is Borat Sagdiyev from Kazakhstan.

Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Mukhtar Karibay put the objections this way to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on 4 November: "Yes, I heard about that guy once...last year or the year before last. He has nothing to do with Kazakhstan. He is a citizen of a foreign country. Our embassies officially protested his statements then. Afterwards it was found out that he was not a Kazakhstani. And then all talks about him withered. I believe it was established that the person had some psychological disorders. Well, since he has mental problems, there is no need to pay attention to that person and to act officially on the ministry's behalf. I am sure it is not the case for any official to react now. There are different people, you know. For instance, there are people, who run out to the center of the stadium naked during soccer matches. That is just a similar case."

In both the United States and Britain -- where the Borat character has appeared regularly on "Da Ali G Show" -- Kazakh officials have formally complained about the false portrayals of their society.

Last year in Washington, Kazakhstan Embassy press secretary Roman Vassilenko told "The New Yorker" magazine that Borat was responsible for spreading many misconceptions and falsehoods about Kazakhstan.

For example, Vassilenko lamented, women are not kept in cages in Kazakhstan as Borat has claimed. Kazakhstan's national sport is not shooting a dog and then having a party. Wine in Kazakhstan is not made from fermented horse urine. And a person cannot earn a living in Kazakhstan as a "Gypsy" catcher.

While acting as Borat, Cohen has made all of those claims about Kazakhstan. He also has convinced many of the unsuspecting victims of his prank interviews to behave ridiculously out of respect for what he says is Kazakh culture.

Once, Borat persuaded a meeting of local officials in Oklahoma City to stand in silence for 10 minutes in memory of the victims of Kazakhstan's so-called "Tishniek massacre."

"As everyone know, today is the 14th year anniversary of the Tishniek massacre. So please, now, I ask you to stand and give them respect. Please, we will have 10-minute silence."

The fact that Cohen invented the fictitious "Tishniek massacre" has led some pop-culture critics to argue that he is really making fun of Westerners who know little or nothing about Central Asia.

But his stunts clearly touch on culturally sensitive issues. One of his most controversial jokes was to lead a sing-along at an American country-and-western bar.

Posing as Borat, he claimed the tune was a national song of Kazakhstan called "In My Country There Is Problem." He then got bar patrons to sing: "Throw the Jew down the well so my country can be free. You must grab him by the horns. Then we have a big party."

Even though Cohen is an observant Jew in real life, the Anti-Defamation League condemned that stunt as anti-Semitic -- saying that his irony would be lost on most of the TV program's audience.

Borat's portrayal of women in Kazakh society also has upset Kazakh officials. In one prank interview, an American tries to explain that the legal rights of men and women are equal in the United States. A dumbfounded Borat laughs incredulously and responds with what he says is a common expression in Kazakhstan: "First God, then man, horse, dog. Then women. Then rat."

Speaking with the owner of one elite gentlemen's club in London, Borat described Kazakhstan's equivalent as a place where businessmen gather to watch pornographic videos: "You have a gentlemen club. In Kazakhstan, we have a club where you go. You have other men that come with friend. They talk. They do business. They watch porno. We see a man and a woman, very exciting to see."

And Borat's derogatory jokes about Central Asian woman aren't just restricted to Kazakhstan. Women from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also are targeted by rude and unflattering comments -- always presented as if this is normal behavior for a man from Kazakhstan.

Acting as Borat, he has told his interview victims that a Kazakh man buys his wife from her father for 30 liters of insecticide. He also has claimed that the favorite hobbies for men in Kazakhstan are disco dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis.

And Borat describes Kazakhstan as a place where people kill dogs for fun: "We love, in Kazakhstan, to kill animal. To hunt. It so much fun. It is a great feeling when you kill an animal. It make you feel like a real man. We like to shoot a dog. In Kazakhstan they say this thing is crazy. Thank you very much."

In Lisbon yesterday at a press conference just hours before the live broadcast of the MTV European Music Awards was due to begin, Cohen again shocked journalists with a joke that has been condemned as "in bad taste."

Disguised as Borat, Cohen told the journalists he had brought a gift for them -- a bag of birds from Romania, the first country in mainland Europe to detect bird flu. Unfortunately, he said, most of the birds died.
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