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So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman in All the Wrong Places by Elinor Burkett


Rating: (Recommended)


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Readers looking for colorful story-telling and descriptive language as if listening to a modern Marco Polo will enjoy reading Elinor Burkett’s new book, So Many Enemies. In this book, she recounts her brief teaching gig as a Fulbright professor in Kyrgyzstan. While in that part of the world, she and her husband visited other “stans,” including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. They also went to Iran and Iraq. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 12, “Olympic Illusions,” pp. 170-181:


If you resent the louse, you should burn the fur coat.



           The banked lecture hail at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, where both Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright had lectured students being trained to run Uzbekistan’s foreign policy establishment, resembled Harvard more than Kyrgyz-­Russo Slavic. Its staid formality only increased my apprehension as the dean steered me toward the podium. I’d dressed carefully that morning, in a suit and heels that had sat, unused, in my closet since I’d arrived in Central Asia. I needed all the ammunition I could muster to face what I’d been warned might be a fiery, contentious lot.

Uzbeks don’t pride themselves on humility, the way Kyrgyz do. Notoriously feisty, they consider their nation to be a cradle of civ­ilization, a leader of the nonaligned political world and an emerg­ing economic power. Their best and brightest—all trilingual or better, all spotlessly well groomed, confidence oozing out of their pores—weren’t about to take any guff from an American journalist, no matter that the dean had made her sound like a cross between Katherine Graham and Christiane Amanpour in his introduction.

Invited to address the students and faculty about the image of Central Asia, the image of Uzbekistan, in particular, in the U.S. media, I had decided to behave like an Uzbek, not to mince words.

“Before I begin my lecture, I want to pose three questions that I promise I’ll get back to: First, what is the primary religion of Bolivia? Second, who is the president of Mauritania, or does it have a president? Third, what keeps the economy of Myanmar going?”

I skipped a beat, then continued: “As I was getting ready to come here and talk to you about the image of Central Asia in the U.S. media, I went online through the Internet into the archives, the electronic library, of the Washington Post, one of the most prestigious newspapers in my country, and typed in the name Kyrgyzstan. Between January 1999 and September 11 of last year, with the exception of one editorial condemning the unfairness of the most recent presidential elections there, Kyrgyzstan was mentioned only in passing, in news briefs and in a sentence or two in broader stories.

“The Kazakhs were better represented, although most of the reports dealt with the Olympics or the Russian space program. When Kazakhstan itself was the topic, readers learned about its president, who was called the ‘Czar of Central Asia’s largest coun­try,’ or about corruption, hardly a flattering portrait.

“I finished up my experiment with the word Uzbekistan, which received even more scant attention. Your nation was mentioned briefly a dozen times, usually in stories about the war in Afghanistan, the rising power of Muslim fundamentalists or inter­national athletic competitions. The single piece dedicated solely to Uzbekistan was a report about the car bombing in Tashkent.

“And let me remind you again: the Washington Post is one of the best newspapers in the United States, with some of the most exten­sive and excellent foreign coverage of any American newspaper.

“So perhaps the most important thing I can say about the image of Central Asia in the U.S. media is that, until September 11, it didn’t have one. Central Asia simply did not exist for most Americans, or if it did, it was just that vast space on the map to the west of China that used to belong to the Soviet Union.

“Before I talk about why this was, on what I think it means for Uzbekistan, I want to go back to the questions I started with. If you don’t know what the religion of Bolivia is, and I suspect most of you don’t, or who rules Mauritania, or what drives the economy of Myanmar, and if your media don’t give you this information, why should our media do any better in informing Americans about Uzbekistan?”

The provocation was intentional, of course, so when the time came for questions, I gazed out at the audience, at the young men in carefully pressed jackets and ties, the women in tailored skirts and blouses, all of whom imagined themselves as future ministers and ambassadors, and girded myself for a smart, informed attack striking to the heart of U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia, if not in the Mid­dle East and Europe. I’d boned up on how Madeleine Albright had dealt with President Karimov’s overt persecution of religious Mus­lims. I’d read about the tangle of oil pipeline plans that, rumor had it, were America’s true agenda in the region. I could detail, to the dollar, the score of U.S. aid programs that kept Uzbek educational institutions, Uzbek women’s groups, Uzbek entrepreneurs, the Uzbek government, even the Uzbek military, alive.

I was convinced I was ready for anything when the first young man rose to a microphone, strutted actually, with the brashness of a young man who knew what he wanted to fight about well before I began speaking.

“Why did the United States cheat during the Winter Olympics?” he asked.

The Utah games had opened five weeks earlier to the usual flurry of optimistic rhetoric about global fraternity and the advancement of world peace through bobsledding, except in the former Soviet Union. The Russian nationalist press, still sore that a bunch of U.S. college students had humiliated the Russian ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Games, whimpered audibly because that old U.S. team was chosen to light the torch at the opening ceremony, and I’d heard about that indignity every time I left my apartment.

When the French judge in the pairs’ skating competition admit­ted to having made a deal to deprive the Canadian couple Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of the gold, my students, my neighbors and the woman who kept me in cigarettes had complained loudly, “Why do the American press lie about this?” And their ire flamed when Olga Koroleva lost to an Australian and two Canadians in the women’s acrobatic freestyle skiing.

Then came the Larissa Lazutina affair, when the wildly popular skier was disqualified because her hemoglobin was found to be sus­piciously high. “Don’t they understand that she was menstruating?” earnest young men told me, as if well-schooled in the relationship between hemoglobin levels and menstruation. “The test was not done in the correct manner,” others argued, without any details, since the Russian media hadn’t told them what was incorrect about the manner in which the test was conducted.

Pravda opined that Lazutina was disqualified as revenge for her vociferous—some might say puerile—complaints about “fazed degenerates in uniforms who, in the state of antiterronist psychosis, had crowded the locker rooms of Russia’s female athletes, digging through personal effects,” the Russian description of the routine screening to which all athletes had been subject.

“Just think of it, they found hemoglobin in Lazutina’s blood!” Pravda continued. “Her blood was red! Of course, that could have been the result of the insufficient level of Coca-Cola in it.”

When skater Sarah Hughes took the gold away from Russian favorite Irma Slutskaya, I was ready to lock myself in the house. Putin was denouncing the Olympic judges, members of the Russ­ian Duma were urging their team to pack up and come home, pundits were demanding that the resignation of the Russian foreign minister—and all of that moral outrage was being heaped on the few Americans left on the streets of Bishkek.

After the Americans defeated the Russians in the ice hockey finals, I steeled myself for Putin to imitate his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, race to Utah and begin pounding his shoe on the stage next to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Long after Kiss, in full metal regalia, closed out the games, the Russian media kept up the drumbeat. “Russia’s opinion is almost ignored now, and the USA together with its NATO allies are openly imposing their will,” wrote one columnist.

Pravda sounded an even more sinister alarm: “I dare say, deep in his or her heart, every Russian citizen has a bunch of scars on his or her national pride inflicted by so-called ‘biased judges.’

“Olympics as the school of hatred’ sounds truly terrible. Yet this is exactly what the organizers of Olympics have managed to turn the games into by treating our athletes the way they do.”

What was the agenda? Pravda asked rhetorically. “Gilding the idea of American leadership in everything without exception.

“May their objective be creating in ‘these Russians’ an inferior­ity complex, the feeling of being citizens of a ‘redundant’ country no one needs? May they achieve this forcing the Russians to end­lessly and senselessly rummage through their resentments, in and out of sports, while the very taste of victory becomes forgotten?

“Is what is happening an attempt to substitute sports war for Cold War?”

The U.S. bombing of Afghanistan had provoked nary a whiff of anti-American sentiment in Central Asia. Even the opposition to the arrival of the U.S. Air Force had felt more like posturing than hostility to Uncle Sam. The Olympics, however, had ignited World War III.

The night before I’d left on my embassy-sponsored lecture tour of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, a bartender at my local Internet cafe had suddenly lit into America for its “arrogance.”

“All this stuff about freedom and democracy doesn’t mean you’re so perfect,” he grunted after an exegesis on the unfairness of the Olympic judges. The hostility had caught me off guard, since Sergei, a former member of the Soviet Navy, had always been warm and chatty.

“Is there anywhere else that’s better?” Dennis inquired, as gently as possible.

“No,” Sergei conceded without a moment’s hesitation. “But Americans are too proud of their nationality.”

Having been yelled at by taxicab drivers griping that George Bush had bribed the judges, railed at by students convinced the judges had been corrupted by pity for America, and accused, in some unstated fashion, of personally helping to reignite the Cold War, I’d been looking forward to spending the day at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy arguing about Afghanistan, oil pipelines and the Kyoto Treaty. But I couldn’t leave the young Uzbek’s question hanging.

“How do you know that the Americans cheated?” I turned back on him. “What’s the evidence?”

The young man guffawed. “It’s been in all the Russian newspa­pers, and I saw Larissa Lazutina on television stating that she had taken no drugs,” he blurted out, as if he’d just pulled out a secret trump card.

“Do you think she’d tell the truth if she had cheated? And do you believe everything you read in the Russian newspapers?”

I didn’t need to hear his response. By then I’d learned that while Uzbeks, like Kyrgyz, might be skeptical about what their own jour­nalists wrote, they treated the work of Russian journalists with the instinctive respect obedient children accord to wise grandparents.

The young man stormed out of the lecture hall in full pique, ceding his place at the microphone to a faculty member. He, too, caught me off guard.

“Why does the United States have a plan to drop nuclear bombs on Russia, China and five other countries?” he asked.

I had no idea what the professor was talking about, and said so.

“According to your Los Angeles Times,” he explained, “the Bush administration now has plans for nuclear attacks against Russia, China, Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq and North Korea.”

The light dawned. “Did you read the Los Angeles Times article?”

“No,” he conceded. “But I read about it in the Russian press.”

“Well, let me read it to you,” I said, pulling the piece out of my briefcase. I don’t normally carry around random L.A. Times arti­cles, but I, too, had read reports about it in the Russian media— headlined THE USA IS GETTING READY FOR THE NUCLEAR WAR—and had downloaded the original for comparison. The “plans” in ques­tion were the “Nuclear Posture Review” conducted every six years by congressional mandate. According to the L.A. Times, the latest review set out plans for what the United States would do “in retaliation for attacks by nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.”

“Why do you think the Russian press failed to mention that these were not offensive plans but retaliatory ones?” I asked after reading the whole article aloud slowly and with careful enunciation.

The young faculty member who’d brought up the issue shuffled momentarily, then smiled and replied, “They must not have under­stood the English correctly.”



After a one—hour break for lunch, I returned to the podium to find a student waiting at the microphone.

“You asked why Americans should know more about Uzbek­istan than about Bolivia. The answer is obvious. Uzbekistan is more important than Bolivia.”

How did he know that? President Islam Karimov had laid it all out for him so frequently that it had become a local article of faith:

Uzbekistan is rich in gold, oil, gas and endlessly fertile soil. For eight decades, Uzbek wealth had been pillaged by the Soviet Union to fuel the USSR’s economic engine. With independence and, of course, Karimov’s wise leadership, Uzbekistan could now take its place not only as the leader of Central Asia but as a leader of the world. So spake Karimov.

That cheery overview was the tip of the iceberg of what Uzbeks heard on television, on the radio and read in newspapers. Uzbek­istan was, by presidential decree, the land of Good News, All the Time. The story line was clear and unwavering:


The economy is booming, the nation already almost se!f-sufficient in grain and gas. Investors like Daewoo, Mercedes-Benz and BAT tobacco are beating down the door of ministries in Tashkent for per­mission to invest. We’re the world’s second largest cotton producer, the seventh largest gold producer, and soon, we will all be rich. The Pres­ident’s Cup tournament has made Uzbekistan a Mecca for world-class tennis players, an Uzbek film won a prestigious prize at the Eurasian Telefonum in Moscow, and our president is not only beloved by his population—elected regularly with more than 90 percent of the vote—but is a world figure, the “Talleyrand of the East,” whose counsel is sought by dozens of nations.


A few clouds darkened the horizon of the official portrait, of course. Egged on and funded by foreign powers, Muslim extremists were imperiling Uzbekistan’s prosperous democratic future with their plans to impose a theocracy But Karimov insisted that they would not prevail because he, the president, in his infinite wisdom, was rounding up anyone associated with those “enemies of the State” to ensure a peaceful and stable transition to democracy and capitalism.

Uzbekistan is a country with a great future,” declared Karimov. “Our sovereign, democratic state, which operates in accordance with constitutional law, is founded on the principles of humanism, and guarantees the rights and freedom of all its citizens, irrespective of nationality, religious creed, social class or political beliefs.”

The unofficial story line went more like this:

An old Communist Party apparatchik appointed party chief by the Supreme Soviet in 1989, Karimov was elected president in 1991 and reelected in 1995 and 2000 with vote counts that proved him to be almost as popular as Saddam Hussein. Karimov played at democracy as if it were a grand game, creating, dissolving and ban­ning a rotating series of political parties to create the illusion of an opposition. The charade was an elaborate dance that convinced absolutely no one since all four recognized political parties were kept so tightly under Karimov’s thumb that the bills he submitted to the Oliy Majlis, the parliament, always passed unanimously

When the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the last presidential election as corrupt, Karimov shot back, “The OSCE focuses only on the establishment of democracy the protection of human rights and the freedom of the press. I am now questioning these values.”

Uzbekistan’s economy had shown real growth—Karimov wasn’t making up that detail. But the country’s oil and gas production was declining faster than new reserves were being discovered, and its agriculture was threatened by a high concentration of chemical pesticides and natural salt in the soil. Foreign debt was skyrocket­ing, and the International Monetary Fund had refused to restruc­ture it because Karimov would not introduce a fully convertible foreign exchange. New foreign investment had fallen off precipi­tously when it became clear that currency-exchange licenses, which allowed overseas companies to exchange their soum profits for dollars, were revoked as soon as the profits became substantial.

The only organized opposition was mounted by Muslim funda­mentalists bent on establishing a Taliban— or Iranian-style theocracy But Karimov’s predilection for blaming religious extremists for everything made it impossible to know just how many they were, or even how many had begun as nonpolitical Muslims who’d been pushed into rebellion by Karimov’s penchant for rounding up willy-nilly men with long beards.

Highly skilled professionals were driving taxis, and villagers were struggling to eat. Corruption was so rampant that teachers openly solicited “tips” from their students, and many a deputy minister owed his august position to the bribes that he’d paid. But no one dared complain publicly since the president, notorious for throwing ashtrays and cellphones at subordinates who brought him bad news or dismissing underlings whenever he needed a scapegoat for another failed policy, brooked no opposition. Critics who hadn’t already fled into exile were rounded up, beaten with planks studded with nails, subjected to electric shock and tried in courts that Stalin would have approved of, charged, of course, with being Islamic militants.

Yet in private, Uzbeks acted like Uzbeks, which meant they weren’t shy about grousing. During a meeting I had with women leaders in Samarkand, they unleashed a torrent of complaints about everything from the state of the economy and the pay of teachers to Karimov’s decision to change Uzbek from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin. “That might not sound like a big thing to an outsider,” said one elderly woman, her hair a shock of white. “But we’ve already been through the Arabic alphabet, the Latin alphabet~ the Cyrillic alphabet, and now they are switching back to the Latin. Parents can no longer help their children with their homework, our libraries are becoming useless since everything is in Cyrillic~ and, why? For the glory of the Uzbek nation as defined by Presi­dent Karimov!”

At dinner that evening, in a private room of a restaurant plunged into darkness when the electricity failed, yet again, five Uzbeks regaled me with Georgian and Chuchik jokes, their brand of Polish jokes. By the fifth round of vodka, they were telling me stories about how many suitcases they had to fill with the virtually worth­less Uzbek soum in order to purchase refrigerators or airplane tick­ets as the value of the local currency plummeted.

“This is the Uzbek model of a ‘strong currency,’” one man quipped. “It’s a currency that makes the people strong because they have to carry twenty pounds of it just to buy groceries.”

Late that night, we drove over to Central Asia’s most extraordi­nary women’s shelter, a place so extraordinary that it was a national secret. The brainchild of an Uzbek physician, the shelter served the growing number of wives who broke under the pressure of tradi­tional rural marriages—of husbands who beat them and mothers-in-law who enslaved them—and doused themselves with kerosene, then lit a match. Fire, they believed, against all Koranic teachings, was the only method of suicide that wouldn’t keep them out of heaven.

The physician who cared for survivors whose faces were stretched taut by keloided scarring and whose shame confined them to the shelter should be an international heroine, I thought, honored by women’s groups across the planet and supported by foreign governments, NGOs and feminist groups. But when I asked her to sit for an interview she declined. “I can’t let you write about me. Officially I’m working with women who accidentally burn themselves on their kerosene stoves. If you print something that embarrasses Uzbekistan, I’ll get in real trouble.

“People in Uzbekistan know that there are women burning themselves alive, but we’re not allowed to discuss women being abused. The only bad news we’re permitted to hear is about Islamic terrorism because that makes the president more powerful.”

The Uzbek government had abolished prior censorship, leaving editors theoretically free to print other bad news. But they’d been warned that they would be held personally responsible for what they published, and at least three journalists were in prison—for reporting on spousal abuse, typhoid and government corruption.

Yet Karimov’s critics are equally quick to defend much of what he did, The women’s leaders in Samarkand heartily agreed with his crackdown on “fundamentalists,” even though they acknowledged that hundreds of innocents had been caught up in his dragnets.And most Uzbeks applauded his decision not to plunge into economic reforms, convinced by Karimov that they would be consigned to the fates of their neighbors in Kyrgyzstan.

And they had succumbed totally, merrily in fact, to the pride Karimov was instilling in the Uzbek people, a sort of Central Asian brand of manifest destiny The founding father of that august future was Timur, called Tamerlane in the West, the Uzbek national hero. It was Timur who broke the Mongol hold over Central Asia, although he’d then gone on a nine-year rampage of looting and murder from Russia to northern India, from China into Iraq. Inside Uzbekistan, he was remembered for none of the bloodshed, of course. Timur, you learned at the Timur Museum and from every schoolchild on the street, brought a lawless society under control, promoted science, culture and the arts, and transformed Samarkand, his hometown, into a glittering capital.

Timur sat majestically atop his bronze warhorse in a square in the center of Tashkent where Karl Marx once held sway Posters and paintings and statues of Timur were ubiquitous in public, and scores of private, spaces. Every bookstore had a major Timur section. And new operas and plays were being written to aggrandize his name.

Forget Russia, Karimov taught. We’re Uzbekistan, the children of Timur. When the Russians were nothing but peasants led by petty princes, we were the people of Timur the Lame. We don’t need the Russians, or the once-mighty Soviet Union, risen to power on Uzbekistan’s wealth. We need no one, for Uzbeks will forge our own exalted future by following our own model of development, our own neutral path.

Karimov basked in Timur’s reflected glory—what sense would it make to create it in the first place if you didn’t plan a little politically convenient basking? And he laid out his program for rebuilding a country based on its great and ancient history in Uzbekistan: Its Own Road of Renovation and Progress, a national best seller, needless to say.

My last afternoon in Tashkent, I took a cab back to my hotel, past mile after mile of the same concrete-block apartment buildings that would tell a traveler who’d arrived blindfolded that he was in the former USSR.A few were being resurfaced, turned into cheap parodies of Madison Avenue, and a handful of buildings reflecting Uzbek architecture, white columns and turquoise domes, had gone up.Yet despite Uzbekistan’s conceit about Tashkent—the largest city in Central Asia, the hub of Central Asia, the only Central Asian city with a subway—it looked as dreary and lifeless as Bishkek.

As we drove across town, my taxi driver tried to speak with me, although his English was only slightly more fluent than my Uzbek. After a mile or two of silence, during which he searched for the words, he asked, “You’re American, no?”

When I confessed that I was, he went on: “What do Americans think about President Karimov’s book?”

I’ve enjoyed earlier books by Burkett, and So Many Enemies never disappointed. For a deeper understanding of Central Asia countries, and the experiences of Americans in that region, read So Many Enemies.

Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Many Enemies.htm


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