Central Asia Horse Diplomacy

Live document, with some fun photos, here. English translation below.

Soon after I arrived in Kazakhstan last Spring, I wandered around the Native Lands exhibition at Almaty’s Kasteev Museum. The exhibition assembled a stunning collection of photos taken over one hundred years ago documenting the nomads of Kazakhstan’s great Steppe and the Native American Indians of the American West.

The pictures drew out powerful similarities between these two societies. The nomadic tents – teepees and yurts; the elaborate ceremonial headdresses; the proud, sun-leathered faces of the elders. All were nearly indistinguishable.

Then there were the horses. In both sets of photos, horses were everywhere. Children grew up riding; saddles were built for long rides across the open range; the horses – in both cases wide backed and short legged – appeared custom built for their important role. Both societies were defined by their horses.

I’ve been surrounded by horses all my life. My mom jokes that she made all her children ride before we could walk. There were always horses around growing up. When I needed more, I’d work at the local stable, shoveling manure in exchange for the chance to ride.

The sight of this shared reverence for the horse – between these two cultures separated by thousands of miles of geography and impossibly large chasms of culture – brought tears to my eyes.

Seeing these pictures, I knew that I had come home. I had moved thousands of miles from my ancestral home in the western United States. But surrounded by Kazakhstan’s reverence for the horse, I felt very much at home.

At a certain point, at least in America, boys tire of riding, preferring competitive sports with speed and teams. At this point, when I could have moved on to other pursuits, I discovered polo. Polo, a game on horseback involving teams, speed and a ball, is descended from the great Central Asian game of bushkazi or kokpar. Discovering polo, my interest in horses deepened. I’ve been playing ever since, briefly as a professional, once on a team organized by India’s Maharaja of Jodhpur.

Last summer, in search of polo’s Central Asian origins, we traveled to the magnificent Song Kul lake, in the rugged and empty heart of Kyrgyzstan. One day, as we camped on the lake shore, we were overtaken by a group of young men playing bushkazi; two teams competing to deposit a goat carcass in the opponent’s goal.

I wandered into the melee. Eying me suspiciously, the boys raced around me, showing off their moves. Eventually, one offered me his horse. I jumped on, placed the headless goat under my knee, and made off toward the opponents’ goal.

Polo is a competitive game played at speed. However, nothing I’d learned in polo prepared me for the chaos of what followed. Horses crashed into each other. Incredibly nimble boys lent down to the ground while galloping at speed to pick up a goat carcass half their weight. I learned to appreciate the strategy of the game, carefully orchestrated moves hidden by the dust of the stampede.

Later, hoping to teach my own three children Kazakhstan’s horse heritage, we made our way to the Kapshagay horse market, where thousands of horses – some large, some small, most with peculiar markings, all rugged – stood for sale in cramped pens.

With a few words of Russian, we asked if any knew how to ride. Moving past the horses destined for the dinner table, we jumped on a pony with a curiously hitched trot. We fell in love with him instantly and bought him on the spot. Caspian as he’s now called lives at Almaty’s hippodrome, standing next to much better bred neighbors. My friend Toleg laughs when he tells the story of where Caspian came from. Sometimes, I still catch Caspian eying me suspiciously, wondering even now if he’s being fattened up for the slaughter.

Horses run through every aspect of Kazakhstan’s culture and history. Riding on a sure footed pony through the steep hills, I wonder if these great beasts have changed much since the times of Genghis Khan. Mare’s milk is a national drink. Horses roam free over the steppe and into the mountains. Traditional Central Asian nomads once said that “the horse is the plough of mankind.”

My employer here – the US Agency for International Development – has picked up on this horse theme. When USAID first arrived in Kazakhstan In the early 1990’s, soon after Kazakhstan’s independence, we chose to place a horse at the center of our logo. Around the office, old timers still have coffee mugs or shirts proudly displaying this design. More recently, we updated our logo, bringing in new colors and designs for a new age. The horse, however, remains, as a sign of the equestrian ties that bind our two countries together.

Interests make connections across cultures. Wherever I travel, I seek out fellow horsemen. We may not speak one another’s language. We may know little about the other’s culture. But somehow we are connected. In traditional Kazakh society, when a boy turns three, he is placed on a horse for the first time, using a special saddle to hold him steady. As he sets off, his elders bless him with these words:

“Go through the desert, where the bird’s wings are tired.

Find the way off-road, be ahead of the troops in battle.

Let your horse be always ready. I wish you this.”

These are words I would like to pass along to my own son. Because of the horse, I feel connected to Kazakhstan.

The author works at USAID’s regional Mission to Central Asia based in Almaty.

The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Government.

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Now that we’ve been living in Almaty for several months, I suppose it’s time to add in some Almaty content. We miss Cairo, but, to be honest, it’s not the end of the world to leave behind the chaos of Cairo for the moment.

Here’s the family in Bukhara, Uzbekistan:

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This being the land of Gengis Khan, of course there are many horses about. Here’s the family in Kyrgyzstan:


Nora seems happy that I haven’t found any polo yet, but I did try my hand at polo’s ancestor, Bushkazi, sometimes called Kokpar. Yup, that’s a goat under my knee. You score by dumping the goat in the opponent’s pit.


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Thoughts on the Revolution

These are exciting times in Egypt. This page includes a variety of ‘snapshots’ of what the Revolution looked like at various points since things started in January 2011. During the Revolution’s first year I developed several pieces summarizing key threads at a variety of moments, the first written soon after we were evacuated to DC during the first week of February, and the second later in the month just before we returned, the third in April, and the fourth in early July. I summarized why I’m bullish on Egypt’s outlook (October 2011), wrote a snapshot of the lethal spike in violence and revolutionary spirit in freshly occupied Tahrir in November 2011, a glimpse into what a SCAF government could look like by analyzing their performance as road builders (November 2011, a version of which was published on the Bridging the Divide blog), a description of the chaotic improvisation on display at the opening of the elected Parliament in January 2012, a snapshot of Egypt around the opening of the NGO trials in February 2012, some thoughts on Morsi’s presidential election victory in June 2012, and in August 2012 argued that the reported anti-America rhetoric of one of SCAF’s leading general required a more nuanced analysis. I contributed three chapters to Daring to Care, a recently published compilation of pre-revolution social commentaries edited to draw out post-revolutionary themes. Nora appeared twice on NPR discussing the US/Egypt assistance relationship, here and here, and several times in the New Yorker, latest mention here.

Recommended additional analysis includes the International Crisis Group’s analysis of Mubarak’s fall written soon after he left in February; Pew Research Center’s analysis of public attitudes toward key election issues; Amnesty International’s comprehensive compilation of human rights abuses during the revolution, particularly a day-by-day summary of the revolution’s key events; quite an insightful paper published by the Woodrow Wilson Center in summer 2010 predicting imminent chaos in Egypt’s future; Gene Sharp’s masterly analysis of the challenges of transitioning from dictatorship to democracy that served as a toolkit for some of the revolutionaries; Yasmine El Rashidi’s blog in the New York Review of Books; Wendy Steavenson’s Nile View blog in the New Yorker (including a blog post exposing the role that Nora’s aunts and uncle and their hired thugs played in trying to take advantage of the chaos of the revolution by breaking into our home, more on that story here); local Economist correspondent Max Rodenbeck’s summary of the volcano of rage that eventually dispatched of Mubarak and his regime; and the pre-revolutionary PhD thesis of W. Judson Dorman explaining how Egypt’s regime could hold such perceived power, yet so little influence in the ordinary lives of Egyptians. Josh Hammer’s pre-revolution profile of Gamal Mubarak in the New Yorker remains a useful overview of the dysfunctional political arrangement that sparked the revolution, as is Max Rodebnbeck’s July 2010 profile in the Economist “The Long Wait” which touches upon the tightening climate in Egypt pre-revolution. A 2003 Atlantic article by Mary Anne Weaver sets the stage and correctly predicts much of what would happen nearly a decade later. Foreign Policy ran an insightful piece on how the Brotherhood’s democratic posturing is not to be trusted. The best daily news in English from Egypt is probably Masry Al-Youm, now re-titled Egypt Independent.

Noteworthy graphics coming out of the revolution include a collage of newspaper front pages the day Mubarak stepped down, as well as two collages of key revolutionary photos, here and here.

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Cairo Writing

Changing public attitudes toward garbage in Cairo: raising awareness of the cultural barriers towards ending Cairo’s garbage problem.

Daring to Care: I have three chapters in the recently published book of chapters written pre-revolution edited in order to summarize post-revolution trends. The book was published by the Association of International Civil Servants in Egypt, with support from the United Nations.

Egypt and Food Security: An examination of Egypt’s preparedness to deal with shifting patterns of global food supply and demand.  Written with my friend, German agronomist Paul Weber.

Egypt’s Hydraulic Future: A reminder of the irrigation induced civilizational decline in Sumer and Akkad, and a ponderning of lessons learned for Egypt’s agricultural experiments with the High Aswan Dam and other irrigation enhancements.

In praise of undirected reading: a comment piece which ran in one of the inaugural editions of Egypt Independent, a spinoff of Masry Al-Youm, celebrating the richness of the paper reading experience over the directed self-censorship enabled by a screen.

Jewelry with kids: a profile as part of Masry Al Youm’s parenting series on designing and creating jewelry with kids.

Missing Public Space: an examination of the absence of reasonable public space in Cairo, published Feb. 2009 in the Al Ahram weekly. Below this article is “Getting Going,” an examination of some common sense solutions to Cairo’s traffic chaos.

Re-imagining urban Cairo: thoughts on Cairo’s urban development, inspired by David Sims’ excellent book “Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control.” A version of this article also appeared in Masry Al-Youm/Egypt Independent.

Tarek Sharif: profile of one of Egypt’s most exciting gastro-entrepreneurs.

Sharing the Nile: the case for cooperation over competition: An examination of Egyptian efforts to bully upstream neighbors in light of its own lax water practices. Published in Community Times, web version currently unavailable.

Smoking away in City Stars: a screed against lax anti-smoking enforcement in Cairo’s largest mall.

Spanish Gastronomy Week: a profile of the delightful tapas and wines served as part of the recent Spanish Gastronomy Week organized by my friend Marta in Cairo.

Street Profile: Zamalek’s Brazil Street: as part of Masry Al Youm’s street profile series, my daughter/photographer Hannah and I set off to discover one of Cairo’s most dynamic streets.

Water sector communications in Egypt: I helped Egyptian water and wastewater utilities develop a communications strategy, in English and Arabic, and compiled and edited a series of communications guidelines, in English and Arabic, a communications toolkit for utility officials.

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Restaurant Review

Alezba Garden: child friendly rural retreat on the outskirts of Cairo.

Amar El Sham: a wonderful Syrian sohour place during Ramadan, now its own reastaurant near the Sofitel in Zamalek.

Americani Resto: authentic Thai food–perhaps too authentic–catering to the Thai student population of Al Azhar.

Andrea’s Maryutea: Much copied, never equaled, this place deserves regular visits.

Aperitivo: a delightful update to La Bodega’s restaurant space, serving up Italian country food.

Arabesque: restored nightspot in downtown; gone from comatose to happening in the space of a few months.

Aux Delices de Marie: Delightful French countryside cooking at the foot of the Abu Sir pyramids. Unfortunately, now closed.

Bella: not so bella Italian food at the Garden City Four Seasons.

Bistro: an excellent new downtown bar and bistro.

Blackstone/Maadi: a wonderful new American bistro in Maadi.

Blackstone/Zamalek: The successful bistro comes to Zamalek.

Branzino: Thai food out in the Cairo suburbs

The Bread Guide: guide to Cairo’s best baguettes, co-written with my friend Catarina Berglund.

Burger Factory: the best of Cairo’s recent burger fad.

Cafe Mex: a new cafe/shisha addition to Zamalek’s street scene.

Cario Kitchen: delicious home-style Egyptian food – already in Zamalek – arrives in Maadi.

Cellar Door: decent, if not exceptional, international food in Maadi.

Chantilly: old-school splendor along Korba in Heliopolis.

Chop Chop: A decent Asian chain newly arrived in Giza.

Cortigiano: passable Italian food in Dokki.

Don Quichotte: A timeless favorite tucked away in Zamalek, a favorite of Cairo’s senior hipsters.

Estoril: Fustily wonderful old-time downtown place with the best toumeyya in town.

Flying Fish: Classic fish establishment in Agouza which has stood the test of time.

Fromagerie: delightful, if a bit pricey, imported French cheese and home-baked breads. Closed unfortunately.

Fuego: passable suburban dining.

Gourmandise: Maadi’s new branch of this French cafe with superb bread.

Grizzly’s: Competition for Zamalek’s best diner heats up.

Hana Barbeque: Zamalek’s landmark Korean restaurant reopens.

Kamala: delightful Asian fusion food at the Fairmont hotel in the Sawiris towers.

Kebdet El Prince: very possibly Cairo’s most delicious tastes, tucked away in Imbaba.

La Bodega: one of Cairo’s enduring classics. The Bistro side now needs a new home; Aperitivo continues.

La Maison Blanche: Extraordinary, extravagant, quality in the First Mall.

Little Swiss: fondue and Swiss food in Maadi.

Lucille’s: An American diner in Maadi.  May have the best burgers and pancakes in town.

Maharani: wonderful Indian food at the Pacha.

Makani: very competitive sushi at this widely available cafe.

Malek El Gambari: Classic local seafood joint in Shubra.

Massala: Spectacular Indian food on a side street in Heliopolos, run by a scion of the Oberoi family.

Matam Al-Khartoum: delightful down-market authentic Sudanese outpost downtown.

Melange: suburban food still lags way behind, this one’s in Sheikh Zayed.

Munch and Bagel: nearly New York quality bagels in Zamalek.

Napa Grill: Californian cuisine at the Fairmont.

Nawab: an unpretentious new Indian joint with a great range of dishes in Zamalek.

Nola: upscale new cupcakes in Zamalek.

On the Border: Surprisingly good Mexican food in City Stars.

Outback Steakhouse: something got lost in translation when this arrived.

Palas ’85: gritty but authentic Malaysian food with a Thai twist in Nasr City.

Pizza Mia: authentic Italian tastes on an unpretentious Zamalek corner.

Rifai: traditional grill in Sayeda Zeinab.

Saffron: Despite location, a suburban gem in 6th of October.

Saigon Bleu: overly indulgent French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine in the Fairmont.

Samar Al-Nil: Ethiopian food in Dokki with a glorious helping of Sudanese and Ethiopian fusion.

Sequoia: Is the doyenne of the Zamalek dining scene worth the hype?

Stavolta: fresh new gelateria in Maadi.

Sugar and Spice: a delightful new bakery in Zamalek started by a friend of mine. Closed unfortunately.

Taboula: Solid Lebanese food in Garden City, right near my office.

Taj Al Sultan: Indian/Arabian food near to Khan Khalili

Tempo: Decent dining in a suburban landscape on the Allegria golf course.

Trattoria: Zamalek’s neighborhood bistro

Uighur/Barakat: Authentic Uighur food serving this western Chinese community’s students studying at Azhar.

The Virginian: Faded, hill-edge bar in Moqattam commanding an extraordinary view of the city.

Wagamama: noodle chain comes to the Sawiris towers.

Zo: Excellent affordable Asian cuisine from the creators of Makani.

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The Gezira Club: A rough guide

Gezira Club. This link directs you to a document my dear friend Nevette and I wrote some time ago.  It’s intended as an introduction to all the glorious things on offer in the club.  Things may need to be updated; feel free to send comments and/or suggestions.

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The rest

Commercial Viability of POU Water Purification Technologies: My 2005 dissertation from Oxford University examining if inexpensive point-of-use water purification devises can be dissiminated via a commercial mechanism.  It was published by the WHO.

Radical environment shift: An environmental call to arms, published in the Daily Star, Lebanon.

Articles I’ve enjoyed: A questioning of the fruits of the Iraq war; I clearly remember the day it started; Nora flew from our home in Lebanon to Cairo to give birth to Hannah on the first day – late March 2003 – that American jets began bombing Iraq. A nuanced reflection of some contributions that religion can make to our lives, similar to the contributions made by art or literature or nature, not holding religion responsible for making sense against a ‘knowledge’ criterion. A thoughtful unpacking of what Israel’s right to exist means. Jordan’s King Abdullah’s controversial article in the Atlantic where he takes the gloves off about nearly everyone, from tribesmen in Jordan to an Islamist crescent developing in the Middle East to his own family. An extraordinary video of a partial transit through the Suez Canal. Salman Rushdie on the demise of moral courage. A trailer for my friend Hossam’s documentary on Bob Bradley, American coach of the Egyptian soccer team, an American in a unique position in soccer-made Egypt at an extraordinary moment.

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