Choosing Kyrgyz

Big decisions have been made this week, ending my brief “landing” phase in Kyrgyzstan, and starting a new, experimental phase. I’ll be moving in with a very interesting group of students close to downtown Bishkek. Also, I have made the unorthodox choice to try my hand at Kyrgyz before Russian (I studied the latter almost two years ago, but can barely speak it at the moment).

Hopefully the move won’t entail more “student life”. Truth be told, although appearances probably suggest otherwise, I’ve never been a fan of the student’s existence. Yes, I enjoy the late evenings of conversations and being able to crash on a friend’s couch without worrying about annoying a spouse or being too loud after the children’s bedtime. However, I’ve never been keen about the material poverty and the mental tyrannies often inflicted by ideas, insecurities, and professors.

When I left Belgium, part of me finally hoped to return to living the young adult’s existence, of which I had much too brief a taste during my closing years in Philadelphia. An apartment full of upstarts, living in an upstart city, trying to do upstart things. Strange how those years still seem so near, and yet there is nearly half a decade between myself then and myself now. And strange how, in a way, I sort of had such an experience during my closing months in Leuven. Well, I will just have to see what transpires.

As for Kyrgyz, where do I start about that? The language issue, as I suppose it inevitably would be no matter what the context, is a real knot of issues. Like Belgium, Kyrgyzstan has a serious language crisis, so any decision a foreigner takes is bound to disappoint and consternate someone. I still remember how angrily some of my Flemish friends reacted when I decided to learn French, as well as how many of my expatriate friends rejected the utility of learning Flemish — “a farmer’s language” they called it.

I would like to ask my readers: if you were me, which would you choose to learn? Please answer this poll. And click “read more” to read the pros and cons as I understand them.

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Kyrgyzstan versus Belgium [perpetually updated]

2010706-kyrgyzstan-april-coup We find comparison lists all the time on the Internet, but I never thought to make one of my own. Well, it’s been almost one month since my relocation to Kyrgyzstan, and I figured, Why not try my own hand at it? And so, without further ado, here’s a comparison between Kyrgyzstan and another obscure society I happen to know somewhat well… Belgium!

BelgiumThis is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek and decidedly not spiritually-inclined list, so take it as you will. It may or may not always induce a chuckle, especially at the start. And indeed, recognizing that, to a large degree, this is an exercisn id stereotyping; and moreover recognizing that, as an American, I’m a visitor to both of these societies, I welcome any additions, corrections, rejoinders, etc. So, please leave a comment at the end of this post.

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Leuven, Louvain, Katholieke, Catholique — Ik weet het niet, Je ne sais pas!

Word in the Belgian press is that the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven shall be Katholieke no more — well, somewhat.

Although it’s still to be decided this week, officially, our Dutch name shall be “KU Leuven”, with the “K” no longer signifying anything (humorously, university officials like to emphasize that we shall also no longer be “K.U. Leuven”, either). Apparently, our English name shall be “The University of Leuven — KU Leuven” or “The University of Leuven (KU Leuven)”. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of letterhead, website design, curriculum vitaes, etc.

This decision is part of the ongoing mixture of market- and identity-politics here in Belgium. It has been presaged by earlier identity problems (or continuities, depending on your view): previously, we were the Studium Generale Lovaniense (from our founding in 1425 to 1797), the Université d’État de Louvain (until the 1830s, with a brief closure during the Napoleonic regime), then the Université Catholique de Louvain/Universitas Catholica Lovaniensis until the political crisis of 1968 resulted in two universities with the same charter: the Flemish-Dutch Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in historical Leuven, and the Université Catholique de Louvain in the purpose-built town of Louvain-la-Neuve in southern Francophonic Belgium.

The latest change has been justified along two lines: first, that the Catholic Church is interfering with stem cell research (apparently, the change shall also entail removing the archbishop as chairman, leaving him as chancellor); and second, that the “Katholieke” adjective hurts our reputation in the United States, as it supposedly gives the wrong impression of us, i.e., that in order to have a degree from here means one must subscribe to the Catholic faith. Proponents for the change also argue that the university is becoming more and more pluralistic (that remains to be seen in some faculties, but as an official intention this is true).

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Inside Belgium’s heart of darkness

Yesterday Liza and I biked to Tervuren to visit the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, otherwise known more simply as the Africa Museum. In terms of sheer aesthetic creepiness, this museum is second only to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, but in moral terms it may be far worse because of what it says about the history of Belgium, colonialism, and science. Briefly, for those of my readers who don’t know, the Africa Museum was established by King Leopold II to showcase the Congo Free State, but which was in reality an active act of apologetic for, if not even deception about, the horrible brutalization of the Congo’s native peoples. Much of the Africa Museum today remains relatively unchanged since its start, revealing much about the mindset that constituted it.

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Hiking and revolution fatigue (updated)

I had a lovely four days backpacking through Wallonia. My friends and I hiked from Franchimont through Spa and Wanne to Vielsalm, then I spent an evening and a day back in Spa and Namur, the latter being a small but ancient city that, not unlike Leuven, for one reason or another, I find myself drawn to, even though it also somehow depresses me every time I’m there.

It’s perhaps odd to some of my readers that I’m blogging so excitedly about as un-exotic a region as southern Belgium, when I seem to barely mention my travels to more electric places like Stockholm or Milan or truly geographically mighty locales like the Italian Alps. The reasons are many, from Wallonia’s influence upon the American memory of Europe and herself — after all, it was the site of the famed Ardenne Campaign, and I was struck and moved by how almost every hamlet we passed through had a memorial, great or small, for slain American soldiers — to its quiet cyclicism — the forests that are constantly re-planted and cut down for logging, the farming communities and aristocratic estates that have been there for nigh an aeon, the vast fields and rolling hills.

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Time of masks, time of truth

This is my favorite time of the year — Halloween and All Saints’ Day. It’s been my favorite since childhood. I remember being fascinated by the costumes, roaming around in the dark, going from house to house with friends, the way in which the world seemed to change, for just a moment, to let in something beyond itself, indeed, to become that something, in jest or in seriousness. I remember my mother explaining the famous sequence in Fantasia, the terror and fascination I felt for the dreaded creature on the mountain and the invasion of skeletal spectres, and the odd sense of eternity that came with the solemn, meditative march of lights in the fog in the denouement.

As I grew up, Halloween took on more mystical and pleasant signification for me, as it was the time that I could spend with my oldest friends, Kav and Khaalid, in the former’s large and somewhat labyrinthine house in Yonkers. Eventually, it took on great personal significance, as it also became the day when I first encountered the Bab in Haifa. Increasingly for me, this time of masks has come to mean a time of truth.

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So long Prague, RFE/RL (for now)

Well, today was the last day of my internship at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and this Saturday I leave Prague for Leuven. It’s been a great experience. I really felt part of the Central Newsroom team and I really enjoyed interacting with the various language services so closely. The company is far from a perfect or uncontroversial place, but it’s remarkable how many positive things it’s accomplished over the years, and continues to accomplish. I’m happy to report that I’ll be remaining on board as a stringer, one of the company’s only two in the Brussels area, where I’ll be continuing my WikiLeaks beat, and hopefully expanding into cultural and European political reporting, as well.

And as for Prague, the city is also remarkable in its own way. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to know many Czechs (unlike my previous experiences in Israel, Belgium, and South Africa, where I worked hard to get to know the locals, this time around I was mostly with expats) but I was nevertheless able to get some taste of the city. On the one hand, there’s its obvious dark side, which Kafka knew so well — the desperate drug addicts, the lethal bureaucracy, the burden of history — but on the other hand, there is still something pleasant and welcoming about it. One could easily fall into the city’s embrace, and a warm embrace it often is.

Most of all, my two months here have taught me about the humanity of journalism, the foibles and hopes of news reporter and news maker alike. It also helped re-focus my mind and my heart. I can thank Keith, Andrey, Tolkun, Larisa, Salimjon, Daud, Alaa, Mohammed, Naz, Mike, Ron, Luke, and Jay for this, but most of all, Peter and Camilla. I can also thank Assange in a way. And it’s not lost upon the mystic in me that last week was Rosh Hashannah, and that my journey back to Belgium this Saturday precisely coincides with Yom Kippur. Inshallah, I am going back atoned, refreshed, and renewed. But whatever happens this coming academic year, I am thankful for all the goodwill that has flowed toward me this summer.

God may be a Trappist monk

Although drinking alcohol is against my faith as a Baha’i — and besides, I was never much of a drinker anyway — there’s no point to living in Belgium if one doesn’t try the world famous beers.  Hence, I sample, usually just a few sips, occasionally a full bottle. The Flemings’ enthusiasm for beer is intoxicating to experience and they have a good laugh at my lack of skill in “proper pouring”.

My roster of Belgian beers so far is perhaps not that impressive.  A few Chimays, a Duvel or two, too many Hoegaardens (I’m not a fan) and Stella Artois (even less of a fan), a nauseatingly sweet Kasteel, and a few Westmalles (delicious).  Well, tonight I had the privilege to drink an entire Westvleteren 12, which is renowned as the world’s best beer.

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I’ve been following the tragic events in Southern Kyrgyzstan all weekend and coordinating neweurasia‘s English coverage.   It took me a while to re-establish contact with our team in Osh and Jalalabad, at least one of whom appeared to be hiding in his house.  The videos have been heartbreaking: entire neighborhoods burned down.

The whole disaster has cast a dim light back onto the society in which I currently find myself, Belgium.  This country also has long standing difficulties between its two major constituent ethnicities, and it has has just undergone an election in which apparent separatists emerged triumphant. Many of my friends here are alarmed by the results and fear for the future of their nation.

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Manifold colors, underlying unities


Even if all the trees were pens and the ocean ink, backed up by seven more oceans, the words of God would not be exhausted. — Qur’an 31:27

Another late Sunday evening, but a good one. Indeed, a weekend of good late evenings, ripe with meaningful conversation and encounter. And the days, too, have been lush, but with work — for job, for school, for life. And while others lament the coming winter, I am finally, quietly, defiant, like the blazing colors of the autumnal trees. November has always been my favorite month, and not simply because it is my birth-month. The manifold colors reveal underlying unities, and with them, new focus.