If there is an archetypal Central Corner somewhere, that would be the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Just open a map, see for yourself where it is located, and you get the idea.
That would be it, if there wasn’t so much more making Almaty a Central Corner than arid geographical coordinates.
To get started, let me begin with a little theoretical rumination. I want to introduce the temporal dynamics of Central Corners via a personalistic peripheral vision of Almaty that starts with an ignorant foreigner and ends up, ten years later, with a cultivated resident.
In Aristotelian fashion, the combined virtues of knowledge and experience should turn corners into centers. Except that, as Aristotle knew (I suspect he could read my thoughts 😬), I am actually cheating. This is the classic stance of the bad theorist who forces the hand to fit reality into her/his (heirs?) model. As a matter of fact, all theorists are bad theorists, just that, differently from religious authorities, we are aware of that and we like to make it known, possibly with a little irony and a lot of humility. Anyway, Almaty was more of a corner than a center for me at the beginning, and it was more of a center than a corner by the end, but not so much in both times to make it an either/or. It was a very cornered center at the beginning and a very spherical corner at the end. Actually, the theory fits: Almaty was and is a Central Corner! Cheating again with a tautology, an unfalsifiable theory. Good for me that Central Corners is just a rhetorical device 😎.
Enough of this. For the moment, I will stop here with this devious switch, and go on with my Almaty, but I will be back with my theoretical (de)evolution.
Starting again, these are a few impressions of a city I loved and loved to complain about. Like every city, Almaty has both its unique beauty and magic corners, but also its annoying sides and specific problems. As a real lover, I will talk about both, and it will take more than one post.
To be true to my experience of Almaty (and, remember the theory, illustrate the chronodynamism of Central Corners), I need to go back in time, when it all began. Actually, even before.
It started with an application, followed by a phone interview, and a job offer. I was going to move to Almaty for work, but I had no clear idea of where it was. The only help came from two dubious sources.
The first was my old-communist father. Apparently, when he was a kid he used to fantasize about going to the Soviet Union and, looking at the map, for unfathomable reasons – widening my vocabulary through cartoons, thanks Megamind! (1) – he was fascinated by a place called Alma Ata. Later on, he managed to go to the USSR for a couple of weeks in the late 1980s, as a chaperon to my sister, who was going for a fashion magazine photo session. After visiting Leningrad, Moscow, and Suzdal, he came back with a very distorted idea of the place: beyond the canonic ultra polished locations where they took the pictures, all he was able to see were the five-star hotels reserved for foreigners, where they were served vodka and caviar for breakfast. I will talk about him and his meeting with the realities of my wife – born in the USSR – later, in a post about Imagined Central Corners. In this case, he was the most excited in my family, including myself, about the fact that I was going there.
The second source of information I had came from the movie sensation that was released in Italy one year before my trip: Borat. In Kazakhstan people are at best divided about that movie: they like the fact that it made them known to the rest of the world, but they definitely hate it because it made them look like Soviet peasants from the 1970s, with macho issues, and a German sense of fashion. While it is evident to most people from other countries, it is difficult to see that Borat actually makes fun mostly of the US rather than of Kazakhstan, if you happen to be a Kazakhstani.
So, I had a nostalgic communist and a fictional journalist as my sources of information. A normal person would have spent five minutes to check the internet. An intellectual would have read a few books about the country. I decided to ignore everything and go for the surprise – which, upon reflection, makes me realize that not only I am not normal, but not even an intellectual. Since I already lost out to other promising career paths like scientist (I think I am allergic to math), soccer player (obviously, I was an overlooked talent), and son of a millionaire (clearly my parents’ fault), I am still hoping for the artist card: did I mention that I have the clothes?
Armed with a suitcase full of Italian food, the sense of orientation of a three year old, a Russian vocabulary consisting of three words total (da, niet, spasibo), and a brain full of political philosophy but without any practical useful knowledge, I left towards the unknown corner.
On a gloriously cheap Air Baltic airplane, I flew out of Milan with a stopover in Riga (2). As soon as we left the European airspace, notwithstanding the sensual effect of the moonlight dimming above, the landscape down below was submerged in darkness – any city-lights having disappeared. At first, I thought that we were flying over a very overcast sky. After a good half an hour, a few lights sparkled below, and immediately vanished. Half an hour later, a few more twinkles illuminated the space beneath us. That was the moment when I realized that I was actually flying over the (almost) empty steppes. For a European, the idea of such a huge empty space is disconcerting. It simply does not agree with our visual imagery. Sure, we romanticize the natural spaces of our mountains, forests, and seas, but somewhere in the back of our minds there is the knowledge that civilization (if that is a good synonym for urbanization) is behind the corner. During those couple of hours on the plane over the Kazakh airspace, Riga, whose airport was the only place I saw, felt so familiar, while the consciousness of being remote was slowly dripping in. Then, the descent started while the sun was rising. Out of the shadows, the spectacle of mountains at dawn and a city at their foothills. Beautifully breathtaking, of course, but my eyes were distracted by the nothingness around. I was starting to feel like I was on an alien planet.
Then we landed, and I was home. Not exactly Europe, but most definitely Italy. Not enough cabins for passport control, people talking loudly (not so much to locate us in southern Italy, but enough for its northern part), and waiting at the baggage pick up in a shape that looked more like a Kandinsky’s splash than a Mondrian’s line. Out of the customs control, I got friendly assaulted by irregular taxi drivers, willing to provide me with a massive dosage of smiles and excessive prices, and I knew exactly where I was: Termini train station in Rome.
From then on, it was just a matter of time for me to become not only accustomed, but familiar with Almaty: the dusty streets in the periphery in summer; the roads to the mountains; the small houses and the Soviet architecture; new huge apartment complexes and a marvellous all-glass building whose lines follow the mountaintops; the proliferation of malls and the tiny grocery shops; the brutal Soviet monuments celebrating the Great Patriotic War (World War 2) standing in the same park with a crayon-colored Ortodox Church; the growing number of Mosques; the many small parks and playgrounds; the absence of a main source of flowing water, not the sea, not a lake, not a pond, not a river; the fountains in front of Abay Theatre; kids being dragged on their sleds on snowy Winter days; the botanical garden; smelling the aroma of shashlik (the best marinated and grilled lamb that you could wish for) in the air; air pollution that some days is thick as a curtain, and can be seen from the hill of Kok Tebe rolling down like a carpet over the city; the ticklish effect of kumys (fermented horse milk) unfurling in your mouth or the more forgiving shubbat (fermented camel milk); the small gestures like shaking hands and the corruption that through those hands passes; the new sports arena and the subway; the diversion of money to the offshore banking accounts of oligarchs; the strong sense of family of the Kazakhs and the nepotism that comes with it; the grabbing of public and private assets by the ruler and its family; the hopes of new generations of idealists; the love for parties and dancing.
The place might have been a corner at the beginning and for a time due to the physical factors (distances, weather, architecture…), but its inhabitants were immediately my center: they were and are my people.
I used to call it the Mediterranean way of life, although it does not do justice to the extension of this kind of attitude: roughly speaking, it spreads from the northern and southern shores of the Middle Sea to the whole of Central Asia, passing by the Middle East. I suspect that Central, South America and most of the rest of Africa could be included too. Maybe I should call it the Sunny Peoples way of life. And yes, I remember Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and I am not trying to mimic or propose any ‘serious’ study. It is just a commonality that can be easily observed. There are also differences, clearly, but Southern Europeans and Central Asians have more in common in their attitudes towards life than Italians and Norwegians, as much as Norway is the place where I would like to live – exactly because they are not like us. Or are they?
To be continued…
- There are very good chances that if you are going to visit Almaty you will be flying. Anyway, if you want to explore other options, a few years ago two French guys walked to Almaty (and then continued towards China). You can see their travel notes and useful info at http://www.toutenmarchant.com/