I have heard about Kazakh hospitality, but am not prepared for this: this is no ordinary hotel, this is a palace. The Golden Palace.
And I’ve got a deluxe room. It’s huge. Huge floor to ceiling windows on two sides with a view of the orthodox church in the distance.
Feels great to have a big bed and couch in the room.
In the elevator, I see this:
I have never seen an ad quite like this.
We can learn a great deal about different cultures from their advertisements.
How would you describe the expression on this man’s face?
“Welcome to our business lunch. You got a problem?”
“Hello. If you don’t like our business lunch, I will smash it in your face.”
“Which of you schmucks had the meat?”
I have dined with many eminent figures and great leaders, but never imagined I would have a chance to eat breakfast—my first breakfast in Kazakhstan—with Marcus Aurelius. Can you believe it?
I was supposed to have time for a nap, but after striking up a conversation at breakfast (love the crepes, cucumbers and eggs)with Marcus Aurelius (who could pass that up?), taking a shower and getting organizized, it is already time to go to lunch.
Zhanar, a graduate student and instructor, takes me to lunch. Beef soup and some kind of light beef dumpling called Oromo, hot tea, really good.
Kazakh people like to sit around and talk and drink tea (black tea with milk) the way people in other countries like to sit around and talk and drink beer.
After lunch, Zhanar helps me find a winter coat. I try on about twelve coats, all black. Finally find this proletariat number, the biggest they have. All the inexplicable buckles, straps, zippers and pockets (for ammunition?) remind me of the Explorer’s coat in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. But it’s warm, functional and can’t argue with the Soviet-era price.
Need winter shoes. I have to walk very slowly, stepping gingerly so as to not slip on ice. And the cold goes right through my Adidas.
Zhanar takes me to meet the Vice-Rector, and Sholpan (first thought “Chopin”), another graduate student instructor, who will be my translator and assistant.
They are both very welcoming and friendly. Serving often as the interpreter of late, it is interesting to be on the other end of the translation. I am being welcomed, and told what is expected of me, what I need to do. Some things I am being asked, but I it is clear that I am being told. I notice part way through the translation that there is no space for me to respond. I try to create some space, then realize it is meant to be that way. Near the end, I squeeze in a “thank you,” and the Vice-Rector nods and smiles.
“There will be a panel discussion at 3 pm. We would like you to be on the panel with the other foreign professor and two professors from our university. Is that ok?”
I am wondering what the panel discussion will be on.
I didn’t prepare anything, but am too tired to think about it.
I’ll be there, just be on the panel. Listen.
On the way over, I ask Sholpan:
“What will the panel discussion be on?”
“English Literature and English Education.”
“Ah, ok. Is there anything I should talk about?”
“You can just talk about what you do. And they will ask you questions.”
This puts me at ease.
“Lately, our students have some lack of interest in literature. So if you can talk about
what you do in English Literature in some exciting way, that lets them know the field
is still an active one these days, that would stimulate their interest, that would be good.”
Now I know what to talk about.
When we get to the library/lecture room, the Italian professor is handing out certificates. This is her last day. She receives a resounding round of applause. I wonder what it will be like on my last day.
The two Kazakh professors join us, and the panel begins.
Soon comes the question about what we do in literature, why we chose to major in it in college, and what excites us about it now, as professors.
After the Italian professor answers, it is my turn.
“My major in college was not literature, but philosophy. When I thought of literature back then, I thought of works by Shakespeare and Charles Dickens—of course, they are wonderful. But now that this is not all of what literature is about. Literature is also here and now. For example, through interviews, we can elicit and transcribe the life stories of those around us, and give voices to the unheard and unspoken. This too is a rich field for the production of literature.”
I feel the silence in the room increase, and realize I said “Shakespeare and Charles Dickens” with a tone of denigration. Here I am, first day in Kazakhstan, bashing Shakespeare and Dickens! How odd. This was my attempt to raise interest in the contemporary at the expense of the canonical. And my quick addition of “wonderful” was an attempt to revise that once I felt the reaction.
Sure enough, as the panel progresses, I realize that the focus of the Italian professor’s week-long lectures was Romeo & Juliet.
Last year, when Marilynne Robinson visited Seoul, I asked her if she had read any recent novels she could recommend. She responded that she was so immersed in Shakespeare, she could not.
As the discussion moves on, one student asks the Italian professor if in fact Romeo & Juliet might be more suitable for Italian audiences than Kazakh ones, as it is set in Italy. The Italian professor responds sensibly that this is not the case, explaining why. She states how Romeo & Juliet can be read through multiple cultures, and how it has been and continues to be reinterpreted in new and illuminating ways throughout the world. This makes me think of Kenneth Koch’s avant-garde renditions of Hamlet, and when it is my turn to speak, I suggest that the student read them.
Another student asks what we know about Kazakh and Russian literature. I confess that I know nothing about Kazakh literature, and very little about Russian, and hope they will teach me about both. But there are three things that pertain to Russian literature I often think about:
- When the famous American novelist William Faulkner was asked to name the three greatest novels ever written, he replied: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.”
- Chekov once said, “if there is a gun on the wall in act one, it must be fired by act three.”
- When I was in college, my teacher praised Osip Mandelstam and suggested I read his work. I went to the library and read his poems. I kept reading the poems and turning the pages. I read on, but could not find any poems I liked. When I met my teacher, he asked if I had read Mandelstam. I said I did, but what was the big deal? I didn’t find any poems I liked. “Oh, you must read his prose!” I went back to the library and found his prose—a big dusty book no one had checked out for twenty years. I read and read. This was amazing. The most inspiring work I read in all four years of college. Especially Journey to Armenia. And his scathing criticism of Jack London. After some time, I realized that the problem with Mandelstam’s poetry was not that it was not good, but that it probably was not well-translated, whereas his prose was.
I think I am winning the audience back over, making up for my Shakespeare/Dickens faux pas with the Tolstoy anecdote. And everyone in the room knows the Chekov reference—they are finishing the line about the gun on the wall before I can.
But when I mention Mandelstam’s criticism of Jack London, the Kazakh professor to my right perks up.
“I love Jack London,” she says. “I wrote my PhD dissertation on Jack London.”
“I love Jack London too.”
“And what you say about translation, I too have experienced it. It is an important aspect of our work.”
I recall that she—along with many of the faculty members present—is a professor in the faculty of translation.
After the panel discussion, I am energized, tired and hungry. I could eat a horse. Or could I? Being on a panel can burn calories.
Without further adieu, the Italian professor and I are whisked to the Abay National Theater and Opera house. We are going to the ballet.
As I en-pointe down the icy steps and wait for the van, the driver, a tall, thin older man, looks at me and says something.
“He’s worried about your shoes,” says Sholpan.
The theater—a remnant of Soviet times—is amazing.
Built in the 1930s, then rebuilt in after independence, the combination of that Soviet larger-than-human scale and all-too-human Central Asian designs makes for an incredible fusion.
As I look up through the high ceilings, I make a comment about the daytime night sky.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
I am wondering what ballets are on.
Turns out we will see two in a row—Othello and Carmen.
The curse of Shakespeare!
How’s that for a double feature?
As we recline in our balcony seats, the theatre darkens. It is so warm and comfortable.
So tired, as the ballerinas and -rinos stretch their lithe bodies through the music over the stage, I whisper apologies and fall asleep—dreaming and waking intermittently for the entirety of Othello.
Deeply relaxed, pondering the admixture of Othello and dreams I had while sleeping through it, I realize I’ve insulted Shakespeare twice in one day.
Erica and James—two professors from Italy and Bulgaria—laugh and ask me how I liked it.
“You will not be able to sleep during Carmen,” says the Italian professor.
She is right. Thanks to the score, some gum, my colleagues, and the masterful dancers, I get a second wind, and think a lot about The Bad News Bears.
After the ballet, we are escorted to dinner at Tubeteika for a traditional Kazakh and Uzbek dinner. Tubeteika is the word for the traditional Uzbek cap worn by this figure:
When I see “camel milk” and “horse milk” on the drink menu, I turn to James (Bulgaria) on my left and joke about ordering some. A few minutes later, the drinks arrive. Our host points at the bowls of cloudy liquid and says, “This is camel’s milk. And horse milk.”
James drinks first. Judging from his reaction, the horse milk is hard to handle.
I hesitate, then take a sip.
It’s a bucking bronco. Extremely sour and fatty. Like a powerful liquid yogurt, but not that bad.
After this, the camel milk should be easy.
I’m looking forward to drinking the camel’s milk, and take a sip.
What… is this? Something is wrong.
I realize I drank the camel’s milk first.
Horse milk is crazy: it tastes like electricity. And burning.
Very strong, smoky flavor. I take another sip of camel milk to bring me back to earth.
“You know, you can get drunk on horse milk.”
“Yes—it is fermented.”
Before coming to Kazakhstan, I did some research, and found that the most common dishes contain horsemeat, lamb, and beef, in that order. The guest of honor is usually offered the lamb’s eyeball.
I love lamb and beef, but decided I would abstain from horse… and eyeballs.
However, our host ordered several horse dishes, including the national Kazakh dish, besbarmak.
This is horsemeat over wide, long noodles.
I decide to go for it, and enjoy it—especially the noodles.
The highlight of the meal, however—after being on the road, where it’s often hard to find fresh vegetables—is this “Vegetable Plate”: tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers heaped with fresh dill and parsley.
Just got back to the golden palace at 11 pm.
Have to teach first class tomorrow morning.
Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.