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A reportage prepared for RVM, RearviewMirror (photoreportage C. Doury)

Lucia Sgueglia

Mercoledi' 15 Dicembre 2010


Once, to satisfy my curiosity, I followed him up the hill. There was nothing extraordinary there. The steppe, lilac in the twilight, stretched to the mountain range on the far horizon. The dark, dim fields seemed to be dissolving slowly in the stillness.
(Chingiz Aitmatov)


The small airplane limps over the bleak plane. Sometimes it totters, its wing tilted, its bottom seems to stumble on imaginary steps, then its head comes up again. Down there, no visible human presence, animal or tree. They call it “steppe” but from up here, flying from Semey to Astana, the tragic past and the fantastic petrodollar-induced future of Kazakhstan resembles more precisely a lunar landscape; and the deep pink craters, Alya tells me from the next seat while my stomach touches the tip of my head, are salt lakes. “If we plummet here, now” I find myself thinking “no one will come looking for us.”

Easy to say “steppe.” Steppe is flat, dry, huge, and desolate,” this is the common understanding. But it is false. If you get closer, the line that seems an endless cotton thread on the horizon, embracing the void, is full of surprises, drop after drop. Beyond the dunes relicts of civilizations emerge: human settlements, travelling nomads, wandering herds. Heart of the World, the Great Scenario, Virgin Lands, call it as you prefer. But even if the nomads today have become monads and the empire collapsed, its soul is still in place, an ongoing transition –political, economical, social, cultural. As a central Asian man, an Uzbek friend confesses, “I have to choose to which identity be faithful: my clan or my tribe? My Kirgiz or my Uzbek nationality? Turkestan or Islam?” Steppe is a state of mind, it goes beyond landscape and geography. And even when it ripples, and becomes mountains, passes, and rivers marking borders (South of Kazakhstan or Kirgizstan), where it breaks into sandy dunes (Xinjiang), it seems like you still have that cotton thread, endless, before your eyes. The legendary landscape between Europe and Asia is a blurred, vague, suspended matter.

“No one lives there, anyway,” Lavrenti Berya said when, in order to obey Stalin, he picked Kazakhstan for the largest nuclear “amusement park” ever staged. It was the Cold War, and 500 atomic bombs tested between the earth and the sky just to see what they looked like, for the party they were dandruff on the blazer. Except that in the area lived two million people. “Steppe is huge, the perfect launch pad,” soviet scientist rejoiced, and in order for the flight to be smoother for Gagarin they start launching missiles and dogs into space from Baikonur. “Steppe is dry and has to be forcefully watered,” and the agronomists in Moscow slapped Mother Nature in the face, diverting rivers to water the Uzbek fields of cotton. They ended up drying an entire sea. The Aral. They call it lake today, but the name is just the shadow of reality: it contains only a tenth of the water it used to hold. The fishermen are now sentinels of a salt desert, and they pray Mother Nature to give them back what Goliath took away from them. And that filthy marsh that now again touches their villages, they call it miracle, even though it’s one foot deep. On the higher floors, among the governments of the Stans, in the meantime, a new battle develops, the battle for water, fought with taps and dams shut down out of spite.
“Steppe is far away from everything,” that’s why the soviet functionaries extended here the Gulag archipelago, deported here the Chechen “traitors.” “Steppe is uninhabited”: welcome the colons of the New Era, Kruschev said. But when the empire collapsed, they brought back to Moscow science and technology, up to the bolts of the doors. What remains to the people of the steppe was their big box of sand.

As if man had nothing to do with it, as if in these lands he was just a momentary accident. “But why is it always here? Why did all of their experiments have to be performed here?” Alya tells me while we glide over Astana’s Fritz-Lang-ian skyscrapers, the triumph of the Kazak man over the steppe and his past. One of the many mirages of this Middle Asia, pairs with the surreal and megalomaniac Ashgabat. “In Central Asia—a 1800s Russian major explains—the harder you hit them, the longer you will keep them quiet.” Today the Great Game renewed itself: with USA, Europe, Russia are India, Iran, Turkey, but it is China the fast competitor. Her footprints are everywhere, in the enormous market in the outskirts of Almaty and Bishkek, where for the first time in a former Soviet country they gave me chopstick, in the name of globalization, on the stalls no spices but electronics and fake fashion brands; on the silky way they now carry gas, oil, and uranium.

I have always asked myself how do they manage to live here, to build their lives on a flat horizon. It is not by chance that Claudine Doury’s eeyes focus on this absence, subtraction, disappearance. The skeletons of abandoned ships on the sand are pieces of a Fellinian dream, in the archival photos Soviet history is nothing but a backdrop of phony glasses and moustaches á la Groucho Marx. She is not interested in the iconic cities of this world, Samarcanda, Bukhara, Khiva. Today like a thousand years ago, the genius loci lies in the trajectories connecting the points on the map, transit routes between East and West, North and South, water routes, oasis. And courtyards. The spirit that resists the predatory violence in the name of the future. Here I found it: hundreds of refugees found a shelter in the shadow of a four side courtyard in the village of Suratash, in the days of the Ethnic pogrom in Osh. It doesn’t matter how many deaths has each family counted, for a guest there is always a bowl of honey, watermelon, dry fruits, fried dough, tea and stories that go beyond the present. In the shadow of a rose garden, perched upon those strange skeletons of four posters beds that are the heart of local hospitality, a raft in the middle of the waste land. Sitting on that raft, as a thousand years ago: pure synthetic velvet on the winter side, flowered made in China cotton, on the other.




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