- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Humor doesn’t travel well, and no one knows it better than Leila Kulbayeva.

The stylish 27-year-old investment banker with a master’s degree from Columbia University is one of the first in Kazakhstan to see a pirated DVD of Sasha Baron Cohen’s film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

“I found it funny because I spent time in America, and I know how people think there,” she said last week. “But all the friends I have here who saw it and don’t know America turned it off after 15 minutes because they got bored.”

The film is not legally available in Kazakh stores or movie theaters, but Tuligen Baytukenov, a reporter for the Central Asian country’s most respected weekly, Vremya, has written about it and felt obliged to watch it to the end.

“I didn’t laugh at all,” he said.

Both he and Miss Kulbayeva noted that the film has almost nothing to do with the real Kazakhstan. Still, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Britain wrote an angry letter to the Times of London, saying the film left a “nasty aftertaste,” and a Foreign Ministry spokesman was widely quoted as threatening to sue.

“I don’t know why our Foreign Ministry reacted in such a hostile way,” Mr. Baytukenov said. “It’s not offensive at all for us.”

The film has one wink at the real Kazakhstan: A neighbor of Borat is introduced as Nursultan Tuyakbay — apparently using the first name of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled since 1989, and the last name of Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, the opposition candidate in the 2005 presidential election. Mr. Nazarbayev won that election with an official 92 percent of the vote.

Borat received a blessing of sorts when Mr. Nazarbayev said at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London late last month, “This film was created by a comedian, so let’s laugh at it, that’s my attitude.”

Discussion among those Kazakhs who are aware of the Borat phenomenon — and most are not — subsequently shifted from who could be conspiring to besmirch the country’s image to how Kazakhstan can benefit from the exposure.

After all, this nation four times the size of Texas produces a lot of oil but very little news. Kazakhs abroad are always shocked by the lack of name recognition for their country, which emerged when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

Kazakhstan has struggled in its efforts to attract international tourists despite regular purchases of multiple-page advertising sections in Western newspapers and magazines vaunting Kazakhstan’s attractiveness to foreign tourists and investors.

Nariman Gizitdinov, a Kazakh correspondent for a Western news agency who went for training to London during the height of the Borat craze and looks somewhat like a heavier Borat, minus the mustache, reported upon his return to Almaty: “When I said I was a journalist from Kazakhstan, people’s eyes widened and they would say, ‘Kazakhstan? Really? Do you know Borat?’ ”

“Any publicity is good publicity,” Mr. Nazarbayev concluded in London.

That attitude was embraced when the sponsors of the Tarlan Prize, Kazakhstan’s top nongovernmental culture award, introduced a new category this year for “celebrating Kazakhstan through humor.”

Sapabek Asipuly, a respected 85-year-old novelist, nominated Mr. Cohen for the prize and the Vremya weekly splashed the story on its front page with a much-used picture of Borat in his signature revealing bathing suit surrounded by four models — above a mug shot of the white-haired novelist.

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