National Catholic Reporter ®

September 28, 2001                                                                                                  Vol. 1, No. 5

In Kazakhstan, a plea for attention
and a marvelous sign of hope

It impressed me that these young women — one Kazakh, the other Russian; one Muslim, the other Christian — could forge a friendship, and a partnership, so unburdened by those differences. Theirs is a marvelous dream, regardless of whose agenda it serves, that they shared with me.

I write this week from Kazakhstan, where I am covering John Paul’s visit. It is the fourth country to which papal travel has taken me, and I now realize that these journeys, from the host’s point of view, are a bit like the Olympic Games: a logistical headache, but also a priceless opportunity to grab the world’s attention.

Governments tend to be anxious to “help” reporters tell the story, with sometimes convincing, and occasionally weird, results. A couple of anecdotes make the point.

In Syria last May, authorities pulled out all the stops to get the press to Quneitra, a town in the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967. The Israelis bulldozed the place before withdrawing as part of a peace deal after the 1973 war. The Syrians preserved the ruins as a monument to what they see as Israeli atrocities. 

Although John Paul went to Quneitra to pray for peace, government-provided press buses played hawkish anti-Israeli videos on the way. Former residents of Quneitra lamented Israel’s theft of their homes (despite the inconvenient fact that for 27 years, it has been the Syrians, not the Israelis, preventing them from returning).

The most surreal moment came as we waited for the pope amid the rubble, in a place where so much blood has flowed over the centuries, and found our vigil interrupted by a young man in a tuxedo shirt offering steaming cups of coffee. It turns out the government had trucked in waiters and drink service, hoping to score further points with the press.

“Bizarre” doesn’t begin to describe the sensation.

(I should add that the Syrians I met on that trip were among the kindest people in the world. Their PR technique, however, could use some work).

Here in Kazakhstan, local authorities have likewise taken a keen interest in what the press sees and hears, though in a much more artful fashion. Thus it was that I spent Sept. 21 on a government-arranged flying tour of two regions of this vast country. 

Our presence was obviously considered a big deal. When our plane touched down in Petropavlovsk, a band greeted us. Kids in local garb danced and showered us with roses, and a gaggle of politicians gave speeches. 

I covered the pope’s arrival the next day, and the truth is that we got a more elaborate reception in Petropavlovsk than he did in the capital city of Astana.

We were shown a few churches and mosques, because religion writers weren’t likely to sign up for the trip otherwise. But from the government’s point of view, the high points were clearly excursions to a steel plant and a farm. I assume the idea was for us to write glowing stories about Kazakhstan’s economy. At one point I suggested we explain that few Vaticanisti double as metallurgical or agricultural writers, but it was too late.

(A couple photographers managed to find a creative use for the experience. When we trekked into a wheat field, they talked one of our interpreters, a cute young Kazakh girl, into posing with a few stalks. A “girls of Eurasia” calendar may have been born that day, surely among the more unintended fruits of a papal trip).

The hospitality kept coming. On the farm, we were served the national dish, a goat-and-onions combination called “five fingers,” meaning you eat it with your hands. In a gesture that I tried my best not to find revolting, the animal’s boiled head was carved up for the guests of honor. The ears landed on my plate, but I must confess that I did not rise to the challenge.

The final event was a banquet featuring the national orchestra, a prize-winning dance team, and a seven-year-old Gypsy singer who sounded (and pranced) just like Tom Jones. 

This royal treatment was obviously, from one point of view, a form of manipulation. The Kazakh authorities want the press to present a positive image of the country, so they put their best foot forward.

In the end, they got poor value for their money with me. I’m in no position to say whether the investment climate here is good, or what kind of a guy the quasi-ubiquitous President Nursultan Nazarabyev is. Despite having grown up in Western Kansas, I have no idea if the wheat here is really as refined as the farm manager we met passionately insisted.

I can, however, report two things. One is that many people in the places we visited, learning I am an American, told me how sorry they were about the bombings in the United States. The comments seemed authentic and spontaneous.

The other is that if two interpreters I met, Galiya and Vera, are any indication, there’s ample hope for the future. We spoke quietly, away from authority figures. Both are in their early twenties, both teach English in Petropavlovsk, and both hope to study special education in the United States in order to build a program for disabled students here. 

It impressed me that these young women — one Kazakh, the other Russian; one Muslim, the other Christian — could forge a friendship, and a partnership, so unburdened by those differences. Theirs is a marvelous dream, regardless of whose agenda it serves, that they shared with me. 

Turns out that Kazakhstan got some bang for its buck after all.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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