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

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

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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