by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 28
October 2020
Idea
07:00

So which ‘stans’ are you allowed to joke about?

For the confused, here’s a rundown
by Peter Franklin
Sacha Baron Cohens Borat

Currently, there are seven sovereign nations whose names end in the suffix ‘-stan’ — which is of Persian origin and means ‘a place of’. Together they form a contiguous block of territory that stretches from Russia down to the Arabian Sea.

All of them are mostly or totally non-European. And all of them are majority Muslim. However, there’s no consistency as to whether a western comedian can get away with insulting them.

For the confused, here’s a rundown of how things stand:

Kazakhstan

Yes, you can get away with even the most grotesquely inaccurate portrayal of this central Asian republic. Sacha Baron Cohen proved this with his 2006 film, Borat and the 2020 sequel, Borat: Flogging a dead horse.

Most of us know next to nothing about Kazakhstan. We’re clueless as to the religion, ethnicity or culture of its people — which makes it difficult for our professional offence-takers to get a purchase. Yes, the Kazakhs themselves have every reason to be appalled, but remember the first rule of political correctness: the outrage bus doesn’t move unless a) the perpetrators are from the West and b) the outrage is felt in the West.

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Along with Kazakhstan, these countries form the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia. And, like Kazakhstan, westerners are pretty ignorant about them. For instance, a YouGov poll this week found that 39% of Britons said they hadn’t even heard of Kyrgyzstan. So, if Baron Cohen had picked any of those four as the butt of his jokes, he’d have got away with that too.

That said, there was the occasion when the late Herman Cain, a leading contender for the 2012 Republican nomination, referred in jest to a country he called “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”, which did at least raise eyebrows.

Afghanistan

This is trickier ground, comedy-wise. Remember, the better known a non-Western country, the more respectful we have to be. Of course, ‘respectful’ doesn’t seem to mean ‘not invading’, but for some people humour is a touchier subject than, say, drone strikes.

Pakistan 

No, no, no. Don’t even think about it! It’s inconceivable that a film that portrayed Pakistan in the way that the Borat portrays Kazakhstan would get made these days. But why the distinction? If there were as many people of Kazakh descent living in the West as there are of Pakistani descent, then perhaps we’d be more tactful.

When it comes to deciding what is and isn’t acceptable in comedy, it seems that unfamiliarity breeds contempt. Unless, of course, the country is a western one, in which case the opposite applies.

Baron Cohen’s Kazakh stuff is, therefore, a pretext for what his liberal audience really wants — which is humiliation for the people of Trumpistan.

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kinelll086
kinelll086
1 year ago

Any jokes about Pakistan would be dangerous. Even stating the FACT that the majority of the child rapist gangs in the UK are of Pakistani origin is shouted down as racist

geoff evans
geoff evans
1 year ago

Interestingly, SBC’s other major comic success was Ali G. An absurd and derogatory depiction of a young man of Asian heritage and more than likely Muslim. Bit of a theme here? Though I suspect AG would not run today. Maybe time too will catch up with Borat (as it did with Apu). But it probably helps for his current acceptance that he targets unpopular figures on the right…

Ken Schefers
Ken Schefers
1 year ago
Reply to  geoff evans

The character’s full name is “Alistair Leslie Graham,” so I don’t think the character is intended to have any Asian heritage.

geoff evans
geoff evans
1 year ago
Reply to  Ken Schefers

Interesting how history can be reframed. At the time many people did think the TV character (‘Ali’) referred to an Asian trying and failing to be cool and black. (Though some black commentators saw the character as ridiculing black culture.) The Alistair LG name was created for the 2002 film. Though even current wiki refers to the character as a ‘chav’ indicating poor white rather than privileged. Punching down as usual.

Ken Schefers
Ken Schefers
1 year ago
Reply to  geoff evans

Interesting. I only discovered the movie and the character many years after the fact.

Jess Meade
Jess Meade
1 year ago
Reply to  geoff evans

I think the whole point of the Ali G character was that he was not of South Asian heritage. My recollection was that he was a relatively privileged white boy appropriating a ‘street’ identity.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

Yes, we can talk about Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Afghans etc without giving offence. But there’s one Stan whose exonym we dare not utter…

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

You wouldn’t be referring to Islam’s only nuclear power, Pakistan would you?

Aren’t they also rather ‘chummy’ with the CCP?

I trust the USN, in the form of an Ohio class sub, has them under ‘close observation’, for all our sakes.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Surely not the People’s Republic of Jockistan?

Edit Szegedi
Edit Szegedi
1 year ago

Kazakhstan had once one of the biggest German minorities (Stalin’s policy towards different ethnicities) and more Lutherans than France (Alsace and Lorraine).

geoff evans
geoff evans
1 year ago
Reply to  Edit Szegedi

The tragedy of the Volga German Republic and Stalin’s ethnic removal policy. What happened to them: did they migrate to Germany post-1991 or are some still there?

M Spahn
M Spahn
1 year ago

It helps that Borat’s Kazakhstan has no resemblance. Kazakhs look more like East Asians than Middle Easterners. I think his sets are actually in Bulgaria or something.

Gary Taylor
Gary Taylor
1 year ago

Wait – I thought the rule was ‘don’t punch down’?

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
1 year ago

Yes, Baron Cohen is certainly a liberal and has recently said some egregiously woke things about freespeech and offence (mind-numbingly ironic, considering his work), but his comedy work has been so consistently politically incorrect and anti-woke – so full of “unacceptable appropriation” and so “unsafe”, in short so damn good – that to paint him as a simply an “anti-Trump liberal” seems ignorantly tribal and un-nuanced.
(Although your observation on which Stans are acceptable to satirise in the West is brilliantly perceptive. However this is not Cohen’s fault – he is simply riffing on the present social convention)