Kazakhstan Not Laughing at TV's 'Ali G'

Kazakh officials have threatened to sue British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, a.ka. "Ali G," and his fictional alter ego, Kazakh television journalist Borat. Kazakhs say the Borat character promotes an inaccurate portrayal of them as backwards, illiterate and anti-semitic.

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(Soundbite of "Da Ali G Show")

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Fans of the HBO series "Da Ali G Show" will probably recognize this music. It's the theme from one of the show's characters named Borat. British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen poses as Borat, a television journalist from Kazakhstan and travels around America interacting with real people. Here's a sample of what he shares about his homeland with others.

(Soundbite of "Da Ali G Show")

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Borat) (Foreign language spoken) In Kazakhstan the favorite hobbies are disco dancing, archery, rape and table tennis. In the US and A, very rich people like to drink a wine. It is like a Kazakhi wine but not made from fermented horse's urine. We say in Kazakhstan letting a woman in a politic is like letting a monkey drive a plane. Yes, watch out. Bang!

BRAND: Well, listening to that, it's no surprise that the government of Kazakhstan has been complaining for years that Cohen is inaccurately portraying the country as misogynistic and backwards. But Borat may be the most recognizable Kazakh in the West. This week he even hosted the MTV Europe Music awards, and that's watched by tens of millions of people.

(Soundbite of MTV Europe Music awards)

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) It is no surprise that I have been select to host this year's MTV Europe Music award. I, the number-two television journalist in Kazakhstan. My other professions are ice maker and Gypsy catcher. High five!

BRAND: After this latest appearance of Borat, the Kazakhs had had enough. They are now threatening legal action against Sacha Baron Cohen, so we contacted the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington to learn more.

Mr. ROMAN VASSILENKO (Kazakhstan Embassy Spokesman): My name is Roman Vassilenko. I'm the press secretary of the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, DC. I don't know if he has ever met a Kazakh, but he certainly hasn't been to Kazakhstan. Never. Kazakhstan is a young country with a booming economy and a growing democracy and a very multiethnic people. We would like people to come and see Kazakhstan for themselves. We have a lot of things to offer to the people to see and enjoy, ranging from ski resorts to drinking the fermented horse milk. Yes, we do drink that. So Kazakhstan is a lot different from what Borat portrays.

BRAND: Vassilenko cites anti-Semitism as the most important misconception Borat spreads about Kazakhstan. This is Borat singing what he says is a popular song in his homeland.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Throw the Jew down the well so my country can be free.

Mr. VASSILENKO: This is really insulting and offensive, and in Kazakhstan there is no such problem. In Kazakhstan people of Jewish descent have the same rights and enjoy the same freedoms as the people of any other descent.

BRAND: So why Kazakhstan? Why is Sacha Baron Cohen picking on Kazakhstan? Here's what Vassilenko thinks.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VASSILENKO: People in the West know little of the countries which people here call collectively the Stans. At the same time, every Stan is very different and Kazakhstan right now is a Stan like no other.

BRAND: Thanks to Roman Vassilenko, the press secretary of the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington. And despite the complaints of the Kazakhs, Sacha Baron Cohen continues to play Borat. "Borat," the movie, is currently in production.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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