me that these young women — one Kazakh, the other Russian; one Muslim,
the other Christian — could forge a friendship, and a partnership, so unburdened
by those differences. Theirs is a marvelous dream, regardless of whose
agenda it serves, that they shared with me.
|I write this week from
Kazakhstan, where I am covering John Paul’s visit. It is the fourth country
to which papal travel has taken me, and I now realize that these journeys,
from the host’s point of view, are a bit like the Olympic Games: a logistical
headache, but also a priceless opportunity to grab the world’s attention.
Governments tend to be anxious to “help” reporters
tell the story, with sometimes convincing, and occasionally weird, results.
A couple of anecdotes make the point.
In Syria last May, authorities pulled out all
the stops to get the press to Quneitra, a town in the Golan Heights captured
by Israel in 1967. The Israelis bulldozed the place before withdrawing
as part of a peace deal after the 1973 war. The Syrians preserved the ruins
as a monument to what they see as Israeli atrocities.
Although John Paul went to Quneitra to pray for
peace, government-provided press buses played hawkish anti-Israeli videos
on the way. Former residents of Quneitra lamented Israel’s theft of their
homes (despite the inconvenient fact that for 27 years, it has been the
Syrians, not the Israelis, preventing them from returning).
The most surreal moment came as we waited for
the pope amid the rubble, in a place where so much blood has flowed over
the centuries, and found our vigil interrupted by a young man in a tuxedo
shirt offering steaming cups of coffee. It turns out the government had
trucked in waiters and drink service, hoping to score further points with
“Bizarre” doesn’t begin to describe the sensation.
(I should add that the Syrians I met on that trip
were among the kindest people in the world. Their PR technique, however,
could use some work).
Here in Kazakhstan, local authorities have likewise
taken a keen interest in what the press sees and hears, though in a much
more artful fashion. Thus it was that I spent Sept. 21 on a government-arranged
flying tour of two regions of this vast country.
Our presence was obviously considered a big deal.
When our plane touched down in Petropavlovsk, a band greeted us. Kids in
local garb danced and showered us with roses, and a gaggle of politicians
I covered the pope’s arrival the next day, and
the truth is that we got a more elaborate reception in Petropavlovsk than
he did in the capital city of Astana.
We were shown a few churches and mosques, because
religion writers weren’t likely to sign up for the trip otherwise. But
from the government’s point of view, the high points were clearly excursions
to a steel plant and a farm. I assume the idea was for us to write glowing
stories about Kazakhstan’s economy. At one point I suggested we explain
that few Vaticanisti double as metallurgical or agricultural writers, but
it was too late.
(A couple photographers managed to find a creative
use for the experience. When we trekked into a wheat field, they talked
one of our interpreters, a cute young Kazakh girl, into posing with a few
stalks. A “girls of Eurasia” calendar may have been born that day, surely
among the more unintended fruits of a papal trip).
The hospitality kept coming. On the farm, we were
served the national dish, a goat-and-onions combination called “five fingers,”
meaning you eat it with your hands. In a gesture that I tried my best not
to find revolting, the animal’s boiled head was carved up for the guests
of honor. The ears landed on my plate, but I must confess that I did not
rise to the challenge.
The final event was a banquet featuring the national
orchestra, a prize-winning dance team, and a seven-year-old Gypsy singer
who sounded (and pranced) just like Tom Jones.
This royal treatment was obviously, from one point
of view, a form of manipulation. The Kazakh authorities want the press
to present a positive image of the country, so they put their best foot
In the end, they got poor value for their money
with me. I’m in no position to say whether the investment climate here
is good, or what kind of a guy the quasi-ubiquitous President Nursultan
Nazarabyev is. Despite having grown up in Western Kansas, I have no idea
if the wheat here is really as refined as the farm manager we met passionately
I can, however, report two things. One is that
many people in the places we visited, learning I am an American, told me
how sorry they were about the bombings in the United States. The comments
seemed authentic and spontaneous.
The other is that if two interpreters I met, Galiya
and Vera, are any indication, there’s ample hope for the future. We spoke
quietly, away from authority figures. Both are in their early twenties,
both teach English in Petropavlovsk, and both hope to study special education
in the United States in order to build a program for disabled students
It impressed me that these young women — one Kazakh,
the other Russian; one Muslim, the other Christian — could forge a friendship,
and a partnership, so unburdened by those differences. Theirs is a marvelous
dream, regardless of whose agenda it serves, that they shared with me.
Turns out that Kazakhstan got some bang for its
buck after all.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111