Page 45 Review by Stephen
Originally released in 2006, this remains one of my favourite books from our extensive travel and politics section.
Time to dust off the old world atlas!
"Central Asia is the new Middle East: thrilling, terrifying, simultaneously hopeful and bleak, a battleground for a proxy war and endless chaos. It is the ultimate tectonic, cultural and political collision zone. Far away from television cameras and Western reporters, Central Asia is poised to spawn some of the new century's worst nightmares."
Yet Ted's fallen in love with it in all its crazy anarchy and its various dictatorships, through travelling. Or attempting to travel. Geography and History were never my strong suits at school, and it's only in the past ten years or so that I've become addicted to news programmes and interested enough to crave an education through the likes of Marjane Satrapi, Guy Delisle and, of course Ted Rall.
Like to AFGHANISTAN AND BACK, this is three-quarters prose with some searing strips slotted in, not for comic relief (because Ted's as ruefully entertaining in prose as he is in comics), but for added illustration of just how fucked up these countries are. Orphans of the Soviet Union, they were never going to grow up to be well-adjusted, but some of these places are bonkers. So first a quick bit of background: when the Soviet Union collapsed, it deliberately jettisoned some of its constituent countries whose inhabitants stopped being Russian employees overnight (teachers, doctors, nurses, police etc. were all paid by the central Communist State), and so found themselves unemployed and broke. Yet in spite of sitting on some of the world's largest oil reserves, they've ended up poorer than ever on account of bungled negotiations for pipe lines (they're not exactly coastal) and their leaders being avaricious and vainglorious old toe-rags. The results included 2,520% inflation during the first year, death rates rocketing, birth rates plummeting, schools disappearing altogether, and police forces subsisting on bribes (those bribes being extracted at random checkpoints if you want to get anywhere by "road", at stations if you want to buy a train ticket... in fact anywhere their individual imaginations take them).
Seriously, Turkmenistan, for example, would be hilarious if it wasn't so dangerous/tragic (fact: not a single river runs through it). Its dictator, Turkmenbashi (translation: "Leader of all Turkmens"), is mind-boggling: "Not only has the Central Asian dictator created the most elaborate and grotesquely comical personality cult since Ptolemy put the pharaohs out of business, his unique blending of naked greed and breathtakingly obvious stupidity has elevated autocracy to an art form." His egotism rivals that of North Korea's father-and-son despot dynasty. His picture is everywhere - absolutely everywhere. Can you imagine seeing Blair's face on a cereal packet, or Thatcher with her own brand of perfume? (Maggie Musk: Smells Like Mean Spirit.) That's the state of play in Turkmenistan whose ubiquitous, Nazi-inspired motto (dreamt up by Turkmenbashi, natch) is "One Nation, One People, One Leader" (One Choice). He built a gilt statue of himself, high above a column, which rotates 360 degrees a day so that he's always facing the sun; he renamed January after himself, April after his mother, September after his book (compulsory rather than compulsive reading, and I seem to recall that you have to take an exam on it even to get a driving licence!); and yes, he did build a hospital with state-of-the-art operating theatre, swimming pool and air conditioning -- but it's for horses!
Rall takes you with him on rail trips from hell (70°C, no windows, no air conditioning; Rall and friend spent the trip shirtless in the corridor, their lips sucking in what air they could through an inch-wide vent 6 feet above the floor), fending off muggers, bargaining with militia and being asked to marry the ex-wife of a mobster who'd kidnapped her son.
Prepare yourself for a whole different world in a region you'll be hearing a whole lot more about, and sooner than you think.