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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #007

Astana, Kazakhstan 

There are few things that make me angry (besides oh-so-many-things capitalism). One of them is the decision to rename May 1st in Kazakhstan. International Workers’ Day is already completely disregarded in “official life” in the US, which made me cringe every year. But Kazakhstan, why? In 1995, while the country’s economy was still shrinking and after a much-criticized Constitutional reform, the president decided to rename and repurpose May 1st as the Day of Unity of Kazakhstan’s Peoples. While the effort can be noble, displaying, celebrating and promoting respect for Kazakhstan’s multinational state, ANY OTHER DAY could have been chosen for that. So boo for that.

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My first two weeks in Astana were extremely hectic. The spiral of meetings, which I feared could have been slow at the beginning, precipitated fast. Plus, I had the chance to go to several conferences touching upon various aspects of my dissertation and others that were outside of my remit, but still useful to develop contacts.

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An example of useless vs useful business cards collected.

There have been already 3 winters and 3 springs so far in Astana. We’ve been way below zero and peeked above 20C just to check out how fast people get rid of their heavy coats. That meant that I was constantly with a cold. Which was definitely not helped by beverages such as the psychedelic lemonade pictured below. Hopefully now, in May!!!!, we can get past this freezing winter.

Taking Kazakh classes has been productive so far. I now understand the structure of the language far better. Now it’s time to expand the vocabulary! Half of the taxi drivers, however, are generally mute (it’s very typical to have silent interactions here). While I’ve already had 3 women driving me in a taxi, something I think I had experienced only twice before in Kazakhstan. Given the amount of rides I have to take to get anywhere, especially in Astana, that’s a fraction of 1%. One ride was particularly fun: mom driving and son behind playing with his tablet, correcting his mom’s Russian and admitting in cute English that he should play less and study more to improve his English.

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A felt spread at the Eurasian National University.


Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #006

Astana, Kazakhstan

Felicità. That’s what the 60-something-year-old taxi driver was singing the other night. After a few productive weeks in Almaty, with some excellent interviews, moody weather, nomadic housing solutions, and long night walks, I flew into Astana. I also got a cold, which I fought with some paracetamol, bought at the staggering price of 35 tenge (per 10 tablets box), that’s slightly more that $0.01 and slightly less than €0.01 per tablet. Sugar would probably be more expensive.

In Astana, I thought my first week would be slower than this, but I guess it’s good to have a quick start. So, as always, I won’t have time to enjoy the view (!) and will continue living a super-busy life. If you’re around in the capital city, please make my life busier and let’s have a coffee/tea.

I’ve already participated in one conference and will attend another one next week (evidence, with out-of-control beard attached, below).

Since my latest blog post, while in Almaty, I went to theater again, because Artishock is just amazing. I’ve also managed to do some cooking (after living for over a month in a tiny flat without a kitchen!). Had gallons of green tea. Ate increasingly often Bozbash (lamb leg in a chickpea and potato soup) at Khachapuri Khinkalevich, a small Georgian place on Kabanbai Batyr/Zenkova, which also produces its own bread (lepyoshka). And picked Manpar soup instead of Lagman a few time at the Uyghur restaurant 12 muqam, on Zheltoskan/Zhambyl. And plov, tons of it, especially when made by my exceptional Uzbek friend. And baursak, bags of them, especially when bought still warm from the store (yes, people, you still haven’t prepared home-made baursak for me). And bliny! “the thinner the better”.

I’m planning my summer/fall. There will be travels, even more than now, so I have to improve my packing skills and become even more essential.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #005

Almaty, Kazakhstan

It’s Nauryz! (however you spell it)

Spring is here. I’m starting to run into friends around Almaty (feeling increasingly ‘local’), despite the large masses that have crowded the streets in the past few days.

Incredibly, people have been available for PhD interviews. One of them ended with a home-cooked Nauryz dinner, with the best manty I’ve ever tasted and my first try of a Gubadiya (a Tatar pie ). Stop me when I tell you too many times how nice people are here.

Also, finally went up to the top of Hotel Kazakhstan. The best toilet view in town.

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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #004

Aktau, Kazakhstan

Below, a short collection including research, travels, feminism, a dream and Sacco & Vanzetti.

Set up a few interviews and did some research on newspapers from the 1990s. I also took a small intellectual roundabout that could become a paper in the near future and make an exciting part of my PhD. More on that later.

Flew to Aktau to see the place again, before moving there next summer for a few weeks, reconnect with some of my contacts and visit the annual Adai festival in Otpantau. Saw oilmen, aksakals, camels, sheep heads, horses, and pipelines, in no particular order.

Personal notes:

Woke up early to a dream/nightmare: Mom and daughter were in a park that resembled Panfilov Park. The mom asked the daughter if she was tired and wanted to go home. The little one, who might have been six or so, said yes, pointing to her doll: “Her head hurts. I think because her husband beats her or something.” Woke up very upset that I could dream something so realistic… and in Russian. The scene was the typical moment in which a kid is tired but doesn’t want to admit it and finds an external excuse to go home. But the girl’s choice was chilling. I guess after two days of Femagora, a gender equality-focused event in Almaty organized around March 8, and going to theater to see Artishock’s crude and honest #прямопотолеби, this is what my memory wanted to keep its focus on: the long road to equality, to solidarity, and to happiness.


Now, what comes to mind (and brings the routine tears to my eyes) is Nicola Sacco’s final letter to his son, before being executed together with Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1920s witch-hunty USA. The Italian anarchist wrote to his child not to be selfish, to share his joys with the deprived, for they are his true friends. In a movie from 1971, the adaptation of the letter contains a sentence that is not in the original, “ricordati, figlio mio, la felicità dei giochi, non tenerla tutta per te” – which roughly translates into “remember, my son, the feeling of happiness that you have when you play; don’t keep it to yourself” – which is both about being unselfish and appreciating the culture of sharing with the have-nots and, crucially at least for my memory of today, the feeling of happiness connected to playing games as kids, which was clearly lost in the girl from my dream. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but this was not like every other dream that I infallibly forget.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #003

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Doing tons of readings and reconnecting with friends. Also trying to get in touch with people to interview for the fieldwork, but many seem quite busy. I might schedule a second trip to Almaty or prolong this one by a week or so.

Side notes: we’ve had all seasons in one week here. It snowed, it rained, it was hot (around 16C) and it was cloudy and windy.

Last night, I saw two men in military gear playing virtual roulette in a pedestrian underpass.

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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #002

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Getting settled in, finally. Got an office in KIMEP. Also tried to go to the National Library to access some old newspapers, but it apparently was “санитарный день”. Their day off is Monday, but I guess a pre-Nauruz cleanup is warranted (?).

More readings done in between chores, but tomorrow it’s time to set up some meetings.

Also, while walking back home tonight someone opened the window of a car and shouted: “HELLOOOOOO!!” to me. Yes, to me. I turned around and I was alone. I’m pretty sure I don’t know them. A few meters down the road, I saw a guy wearing a sweater that said: “UPSDAB EAMILY CLOTHING” which sums the whole thing up.

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again, technically not “assistant professor”.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #001

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Back to KIMEP today. Did all the necessary things to register, although I still need to finish up a few things before I can have access to my office. In the meantime, I’ll use the national library for some newspaper browsing sessions.

It was quiet at uni, because it’s reading week and most students and faculty are off. It was a beautiful sunny day, so I used it to walk around a bit and see some new features of the city (Panfilova is pedestrian-only now!!! and yes, they renamed Furmanova…).

In the evening, I went to the premiere of Don Quixote, in a surrealist version proposed by the talented theater group “Art & Shock” (ARTиШОК). Two take-home lessons: I need to improve my Russian and I still like theater (I hadn’t been in a long time).


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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #000

Almaty, Kazakhstan

A lengthy period of PhD fieldwork in Kazakhstan just started for me. I plan to keep a very short diary of my activities in the country.

To make it easier to follow on Twitter and elsewhere, I’ll use the hashtag #дәптер – notebook in Kazakh – so that I can also use it as motivation to learn some more Kazakh.

My first day just ended. Met some friends, ate lagman, settled into my tiny flat.

Currently fighting jet-lag, so if I you see me using a pen to operate a calculator when it’s turned off surrounded by tenge coins, €50 notes and random graphs as in the picture below, you’ll know why.

Back to school


Edinburgh, UK

After three years of incredible personal, professional, and business growth, I take my leave from The Conway Bulletin to undertake a doctoral degree at the University of Glasgow.

When I started at the Bulletin as a Kazakhstan correspondent, the newspaper had only 3 pages. Back then, everyone was excited about the start of the Kashagan offshore oilfield, which would have soon disappointed hopefuls when its pipes broke. Interestingly, Kashagan just re-started a few days ago. But now the Bulletin counts hundreds of subscribers, not just dozens, runs 12 pages packed with news every week and has a fully-working archive with over 7,000 news items from the past six years.

Now, after writing well over 2,500 news stories and around 200 news wires, covering  elections around Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and doing an immense amount of daily research, it’s time for me to move on to my next challenge, back into academia.

At Glasgow, I’ll fold back into my research of Kazakhstan’s energy sector, with a particular eye this time to its social impact. This means that I will travel more to Central Asia, attend more academic conferences, and write more for a diverse range of outlets.

For a brief period, I will continue to work part-time at the Bulletin, hoping that my replacement can be found soon. And I will stay on in Edinburgh until there’s a good reason to move.

After almost two years, the blog is back. Or is it?

Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 2

Croton-on-Hudson, NY

Well, Rodriguez has made it into my daily routine. I remember his lyrics, his riffs, his pauses. It’s time to post a review of his second and last album so far, “Coming From Reality”.

There is little doubt that if “Cold Fact” didn’t make it into the US charts, there would be no game for “Coming From Reality“, which came out only one year later in 1971. Rodriguez was playing around in Midwestern bars while Jimi Hendrix was already a legend and the Beatles had already disbanded. Johnny Cash was The Man In Black and Bob Dylan was living his fame. Rodriguez was to become only a musician by night: his new album sold only few copies in the US and his record label dropped him… two weeks before Christmas, as he mentions in “Cause”, although the song was recorded months before the release and the sacking. He would move on to work in factories in pre-crisis Detroit.

“Coming From Reality” is a dark album. There are almost no cheerful lines in Rodriguez’s poetry here. Climb Up on My Music seems a call to the listener, it’s about trust, Rodriguez says: there was a girl named Christmas, / Did I tell ya she drank gold?. Not much sense, just blind trust is what Rodriguez needs from his audience. At least at a first glance. His guitar laments his way into the next track A Most Disgusting Song, which is perhaps the cleverest, reflecting on the craft and the stress of being a musician. The simplicity with which he treats his audience is reflected in the casual name-dropping (Jimmy “Bad Luck” Butts, old playboy Ralph, Mr. Flood, Linda, Tim, Tom, Martha…). The message targets the routine, the dullness, the literally disgusting never-ending present: everyone’s drinking the detergents / that cannot remove their hurts … every night it’s the same old thing / Getting high, getting drunk, getting horny. Then, oh, a sweet love song… about a lost love; I Think Of You is not a song about the break up, but tracks the nostalgic feeling that comes months, years after the end of a relationship. A psychedelic trip starts suddenly thereafter with Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour, a crazy ride, with verses that chase each other in a hectic and messy manner: Rodriguez warns to look out for the cops and the itchy trigger fingers, but no-one disagrees that happiness is free on Heikki’s suburbia bus tour ride. A lullaby-like love song turns the mood back to sad-mode: Silver Words? is about the odd feeling of having a chance with the person that made you fall in love. The violin gets introduced by the end of the song and comes back in the next track Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyle, back to the real blues, but with string instruments resounding like an orchestra. “America gains another pound / Only time will bring some people around / Idols and flags are slowly melting” – it’s always winter in Rodriguez’s calendar. To Whom It May Concern is actually addressed pretty accurately, despite the title, to those who are waiting for love. The song would thematically fit perfectly in between “Silver Words” and “I Think Of You”. Then It Started Out So Nice throws you into a magic world… of sorrow and melancholy, of course, but still magic. Again some name-dropping, this time mythical: Genji, the Ixea mountains, Orion, etc. From the sea to the skies, it was a great love, remembered with the words of somebody who knows, that love is lost. Coming from fantasy, back to reality, Halfway Up The Stairs is another song about missed opportunities, half-baked ideas, unfinished tasks. Here comes the masterpiece of the album: Cause. From his oft-cited inner city to the local factory, the working class seems to cry through Rodriguez’s voice: Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them. The album ended here with an Estonian Archangel, Molly McDonald, Willy Thompson, and Annie Johnson, the common names of common people, exceptional figures of the constant, flat present.

Three more songs were added in later editions of the album, particularly in the bootleg version distributed in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a constant feature on the radio (the few allowed tracks) and in basements. I’ll Slip Away, Can’t Get Away and Street Boy are about journeys, of course. In the first track, Rodriguez communicates the uneasiness of conformity and the inability to continue a relationship, be it a sentimental or a political one: Now I’m tired of lying and I’m sick of trying / Cause I’m losing who I really am / And I’m not choosing to be like them. In the second song, Rodriguez explains his origins with a touch of color: Born in the troubled city / In Rock and Roll, USA / In the shadow of the tallest building / I vowed I would break away, but he can’t. Then, my personal favorite, Street Boy, which speaks of a nomadic and innocent life, perhaps naive. The singer gives some grown-up advice to the boy, but acknowledges his need to get away and find himself. The last word is a warning though: you’ll never find or ever meet / Any street boy who’s ever beat the streets.

This concludes my two-part praise of my new favorite musician and songwriter. Click here for the first part and here for more guesses on the meanings of his lyrics.