Abai Kunanbaev, 1000 miles, and two continents

I love travelling, but jeeze, I’ve done a lot in a short amount of time. After my last post — a theme which, by the way, I shall be exploring at greater length in this blog in the future — I wrapped up the semester and headed to the United States for two weeks with a close Belgian friend. This was my itinerary: New York City to Philadelphia to Washington, DC to New York City to Boston (with a furlough to Manchester, New Hampshire) to New York City. That’s approximately 1000 miles, the majority of which was covered in a six-day spurt. I also backpacked through several of these cities, and by “backpacked”, I often mean running with 10 kilos strapped to my back, as I tried to make it to various appointments (I proved to be in better shape than I had realized).

It was a mixed experience. On the one hand, I was able to re-connect with many loved ones as well as several of my long-lost relatives. Once again, I felt that swinging by only once a year is simply not sufficient, particularly as my parents get older, but the inevitable frustration arises that I simply don’t have the time or money to go back every, say, six months. Frankly, I wish that I could just put all my loved ones into a suitcase and bring them back with me.

On the other hand, I was also reminded, in rather stark relief, why I’m simply happier being outside of the United States. The massive disparities in wealth and security, the extreme individualism coupled with extreme patriotism, the infrastructural decay and the post-modern yuppie condos, the insane amount of cars and obese people — and all of these phenomena mutually reinforcing, too — drove me batty within only a few days. There was also a strong feeling of powerlessness: this is just how the American system has become and shall remain, regardless of the man (or woman) in the White House.

Not that it’s all hunky-dory outside of the United States. Ask any Greek, Italian, or Spaniard how empowered they feel as Germany and France remove their democratically-elected governments and install technocracies, and don’t get me started on the Belgians, Russians, or Kazakhs. Nevertheless, within myself I could feel a degree of cognitive freedom and empowerment.

Tiny but illustrative examples include background conversations and advertisements: increasingly, I can understand Dutch (Flemish), and it’s getting easier for me to read French and Russian, which means I can grok the chatter going on around me or the sales pitches on the billboards. The difference is that while in English, being as it is my native language, I can’t seem to tune these things out, in another language I can actually choose (most of the time) to simply ignore it: my brain can register other languages as mere noise.

Other examples would include things like diet and entertainment. Most of my loved ones back in the United States are still hooked into the fast food industry and heavily mediatized. That’s not a criticism as much as a lament: Chinese take-out, pizza, video-games, ESPN, etc., are very much the norm, and are slowly undermining my loved ones’ physical health and cognitive independence. Of course, in Europe and beyond there are more than a few equivalents to this crap, but the difference is that I, as a foreigner, can somehow choose not to partake in them. In the United States, there’s just no escape for me, at least not without seriously reforming all of my social relationships (not exactly a pleasant task).

Anyway, during this trip I was also doing my research for an upcoming article(s) for the BBC on Kazakhstan’s most famous philosopher, Abai Kunanbaev (Qunanbaiuli). He’s little-known outside Central Asia, and even I did not know about him until stumbling upon a graffiti portrait in Almaty back in April 2011. I was immediately intrigued, and when the Central Eurasia Scholars and Media Initiative (CESMI) put out the word that they were accepting submissions for publication on the BBC, I leapt at the chance. When I first encountered Abai, my gut instinct was that he could be understood as a kind of prototype for the independent Central Asian journalist of today. My foray into him this past month confirmed that hunch, as well as opened the door to many possible avenues of future research and reflection.

This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been able to do something journalistic about philosophy, as I’ve written a few pieces already for RFE/RL (here, here, and here). For better or for worse, it’s not the most hard-hitting academic analysis, but I nonetheless do consider myself unusually blessed to be able to write about philosophy, indeed, to philosophize, in such a public medium, particularly such respectable and influential ones. I hope my work on Abai for CESMI/BBC shall lead to more such opportunities — and hopefully ones allowing greater depth — in the future. Moreover, I hope that future pieces, as I’ve tried to do in my piece about Abai, shall be of real intellectual and spiritual use to my readers.

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One thought on “Abai Kunanbaev, 1000 miles, and two continents

  1. Well, I like very much the way you write, the way you express your feelings without being mushy.
    You reminded me of my youth doing the same but just in Canada and the US.
    All the best!

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