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Kazakh Charm Defensive

Tonight on the HBO show we're hanging out with a bunch of Kazakhs whose genes were irreversibly fucked by the 450-odd nukes the Soviet Union set off in their backyard. But I'd like to talk about something even more dangerous than nuclear radiation...

Imagine how boring it had to be on the steppes for them to come up with Dog-Shirt Halloween.

Tonight on the HBO show we're hanging out with a bunch of Kazakhs whose genes were irreversibly fucked by the 450-odd nukes the Soviet Union set off in their backyard. But I'd like to talk about something even more dangerous than nuclear radiation: tradition.

Kazakhstan's been its own country for about 20 years and change. This is around the age most college kids start looking at where they're from and trying to figure out their identity, and nation-states are no different. If their country wasn't already born out of an eruption of nationalist furor or some arcane revolutionary movement, within the first few decades of countrydom a klatch of library nerds will start kicking around their nation or ethnic group's history for cues on how to be more them-ly. It's typically when people sort through all their weird old customs and holidays to see which ones are too goofy for modern use and which ones they want to practice on the reg. Which can be cute or pretty iffy. But what happens when a new country doesn't have enough traditions to throw out the goofy ones?


While a bunch of the post-Soviet republics went independent at the same time as the Kazakhs, most of them had some form of national experience prior to forming the swollen belly of the Russian Empire. Georgia was a democratic republic for a spell, Ukraine was a hetmanate, even Kyrgyzstan had its own Islamic thing going for a little while, until the Uzbeks took over.

Before it was swallowed up by Mother Russia in the 18th century, however, Kazakhstan was less "a country" than just "country"—a limitless expanse of steppes occupied (very sporadically) by people who spoke a similar-enough language. Really, it only became Kazakhstan so the Russians could say they just conquered a Kazakhstan.

Without an ancient Kazakhstani epic hero or golden age to hang their felty hats on, Kazakh national identity is confined to about 100 or so tribal customs from their nomad days. That's all they've got. Worse still, they've got to compete with all the made-up dogshit Borat set alight on their doorstep, even though most of it is way more Eastern European than Central Asia (I don't even think they have Jews). And so, like the college freshman who makes up for his rootless suburban upbringing by getting really into his "Irish American" heritage and being a Nazi about drinking rules, the Kazakhs hit their few traditions hard.

The centerpiece of these customs, the Kazakh Sunday mass, is hospitality. Obviously Kazakhstan isn't the only place that makes a big stink about how nice they treat out-of-towners, but few cultures on Earth put their guests through such a rigid and grueling hazing when you ring their doorbell.


The first step for hosting a guest in Kazakhstan is killing something for them to eat. Depending on how close or far you are from the city, this can be abbreviated to a preliminary trip to the butcher's, or drawn out into a ritual slaughter wherein the guest not only gets the opportunity to thank the sheep or goat before its throat is slit in front of them, but is also privy to the entire exsanguination, disembowling, de-bile-ing, and meat-extraction processes from start to finish.

Once the sheep's in the cooker, the guest is then seated before a lavish banquet of noodle dishes, pastries, mayonnaise-based veggie and potato salads, fancy candies, and horse sausage. All of which is generally delicious the first go-round. To inaugurate the feast, the host identifies the "most distinguished" member of the visiting party and presents him (not her) with the charred head of the dinner sheep to carve for the table. While said head guest tries to figure out how to skin the sheep face (imagine peeling a hairy mango with ears), the host goes on to suss out the youngest member of the visiting party. The rule of the skull is: Youngest guest eats the ears, most important guest eats the eyeballs. If you're both, you eat both. The rest of the guests get the facemeat, and the opportunity to laugh at whatever stooge they nominated for the honor of choking down a viscous bulb of burnt eye film and floppy, cartilaginous ear fat while smiling politely.


At this point, often a suspiciously short time after it bled out on your shoes, the boiled remainder of the sheep is brought to the table and dumped on the potatoes. As the meal commences, a bottle of vodka will be passed around to make toasts with. Despite having spent the better part of the last few centuries under some form of Russian occupation, the Kazakhs are not what you'd call connoisseurs of fine spirits. Maybe it's the Islam, I don't know. If the benchmark of a good vodka, however, is a smooth, water-like drinkability and not a throat-clenching ethylene burn, most Kazakh vodkas aren't scoring a Type-3 Lux grade anytime soon.

Fortunately most Kazakh hosts will provide a chaser for their shots. Unfortunately this chaser will be kumis, which is fermented horse milk. I've drunk milk out of a pretty diverse array of beasts—from cow to sheep to goat to camel—and while each milk has its selling points and drawbacks, no milk I've drunk has so redolently conjured the flavor of the animal whose tits it came out of as kumis. You can seriously taste the horse on it. And for hours after each sip.

As the vodka and horse milk slowly besots the table, eating will give way to revelry, as it does. A traditional Kazakh host will use this opportunity to show off other totems of his Kazakh heritage, such as the horsewhip he received at his Kazakh bar mitzvah; the family tree of his tribe, extending back at least seven generations; and his dombra, which is like a two-stringed cross between a balalaika and a banjolin. If one of the guests is determined to be a "poet" (the definition is favorably loose), he will be gifted a traditional Kazakh cloak and hat to wear for the rest of the night. It may seem insensitive to liken this garment to a wizard's robe, but the blue-and-yellow color scheme tends to force your hand.


All of which, save for the permanent aftertaste of horse, is a lovely welcome into Kazakh culture and, on its own, kind of a perfect little ethnic ceremony, what with the hats and strange meats and compulsory dombra recital et al. It's like a weird, acid-trip Thanksgiving, or a Christmas spent at a British person's house. The problem is, when you're making a documentary on the road, you'll often go to two or three houses a day to interview people. And in Kazakhstan, that means your daily schedule better allow for at least as many Hospitality Christmases, the charm and novelty of which rapidly dissipate after your third or fourth sheep's ear.

Now I too can think of nothing more American Gauche-ic than bitching about what other-countrymen serve you for dinner, especially under the auspice of generosity. "Hey, Chet, get a load of the garbage these rubes spent all day cooking for us. Can you even?!" I agree. Fuck me AND Chet. Regardless of how poorly a culture cherry-picked its cuisine from that of its oppressors (and considering they had pretty much the Russians and Mongols to choose from, we should probably be happy Kazakh food isn't worse), it ain't your place to say so, anymore than it is some Dutch asshole's place to run his yap about ketchup. It's certifiably tacky is what it is. But what about when that very foreign generosity conspires to kill you? What about when bitching could save your life? What then, Ms. Manners? Read below and please advise.


For half a week in Kazakhstan, we stayed with the doctor of a tiny mountainside village who was everything you ever wanted in a rural Kazakh physician—a thundering, mustached Babar of a man whose physique recalls the healthy, non-euphemistic meaning of "well fed" and also warns you from afar how loud he's going to be. Because of the size of our crew, Dr. Babar put us up in an empty wing of the village hospital. He then brought us over to his house, where he ran through the hospitality ritual by the book: Thank sheep, kill sheep; carve the face, eat the ear, eat the eye; meal, shots, dombra, horsewhip, wizard robe, finished. We'd had plenty of time by then to grow accustomed to the formula, and even more time the next morning when it was repeated for breakfast. Then again for lunch. Then again for dinner. Then again for breakfast, again.

Sometime before dinner of day three, the doctor's wife, who is also a doctor, took a couple of us aside and asked, "Do you guys want me to make something else to eat? I can fry up some perch or just throw together a little veggie salad." Before we could weep her our thanks, Dr. Babar stormed into the kitchen and bellowed, "NO! THESE ARE OUR GUESTS. THEY WILL EAT THE GUEST MEAL." And so the table was set, as was our fate.

We were all very aware that we had been eating the same type of food for the last six meals, but what none of us realized was that we were in fact eating the same food, run in grim circuit from the dining room to the kitchen back to the dining room back to the kitchen—the unrefrigerated kitchen. I don't know whether Dr. Wife's fish-fry intercession was motivated by the knowledge that her husband's hospitality was getting a little gamey or by a more fluid approach to keeping guests happy, but it couldn't have come sooner or been kiboshed more tragically.


Appropriately enough, we were all in hospital beds when the effect of our overstayed welcome became clear. Because it did so by jolting us upright and ejecting a hydrant-strength flume of vomit onto the linoleum floor. As Lesley Arfin once said, nobody who's had actual food poisoning will ever lie about it as an excuse because they know how hard it sucks. This was as actual as food poisoning gets. The kind where you weakly sip a bottle cap full of gatorade and immediately dry-heave for a minute straight. The kind where you can't keep down a Skittle.

Even though those of us who were sick were so sick that it looked like the walls were breathing, not all of us were sick. Four members of the crew had miraculously sailed through meal seven unscathed. As we were using rudimentary epidemiology to isolate our contagion to a single plate of heavily mayonnaised carrots, the good doctor blasted through the double doors at the end of our hall and surveyed our sorry state. Even through my hallucinatory nausea, I could see the dilemma etched on his brow: As a doctor he was duty-bound to properly diagnose and fix sick people; but as a Kazakh, he was hospitality-bound to serve his guests a very specific meal and not to poison them while doing so. Here, in one rank, bucket-laden hospital room, two and a half millennia of the Hippocratic Oath crashed headlong into 20 years of Kazakh tradition. And lost.

"Ahhhh, HANGOVER!" he eureka'd with his arm out like a Roman orator or something. "You're all hungover. You each need a shot of vodka and to go for a run. Then eat another meal and maybe some tea or something and you'll be fee…" This last part was hard to make out because he was already leaving the room as he said it, before any of us could tell him that we'd all been palming our vodka shots (like we'd noticed he had) for the past two meals. As we yakked out the open back door of our Nissan on our way to breakfast, it became clear that no amount of logic or medical science was going to break the cycle we were in.

So we bolted. Faced with insulting our host's traditional hospitality or accepting a traditional cure that wasn't just as bad as the disease but simply was the disease, we chose the only tradition we had at our rootless Western disposal: the Irish goodbye.

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