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Keith Rosten is a 49-year-old lawyer who lives in Forest Hills with his wife and two sons. But more than 12 years ago and 6,000 miles away, Rosten lived a very different life in Kazakhstan. Even a trip to the market proved to be anything but familiar: “Heading towards us was an older man with a fishnet bag. I knew I shouldn’t look twice, but I glanced at the brown furry ears protruding from the top of the bag….The blood was still bright red where the horse’s head had been severed from the rest of its body. This bag was not headed for the deli at Safeway.”
That passage is from a section titled “Black Beauty Revisited” in Rosten’s new book, Once in Kazakhstan: The Snow Leopard Emerges. Rosten worked as a Fulbright lecturer in Kazakhstan in 1993 and 1994, when the country gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union; the book is based on Rosten’s e-mails to a small group of friends and colleagues.
Kazakhstan’s transition to democracy was important, sure, but it was Rosten’s fish-out-of-water delivery that made his e-mail journal a must-read for those at home: Rosten reported on the new government’s garbage-collecting foibles, his experience buying $28 contact-lens solution from a locked safe, and the currency transition from the Soviet ruble to the Kazakh tenge, for which he devised his own method of gauging the exchange rate: the “Snickerometer,” or the cost of a Snickers bar.
After his trip, Rosten discovered that his e-journal had been circulating throughout D.C. The missives originally went out to fewer than 20 people, but “before I knew it,” says Rosten, “I would go to a party and people would say, ‘Oh, I’ve read your journal!’”
And they were reading it all the way to the Bank. “What surprised me the most was the response from the World Bank,” says Rosten. “They were supposed to have good information on the ground, but several people said they would disregard the official information and just read my journals.”
Rosten tried to publish his e-mails as a book when he returned to the States in 1994; unfortunately, he says, the agent who wanted to make it into a best-seller died that year. The manuscript sat on Rosten’s shelf for a decade, but after having traveled to Central Asia about 20 times since the early ’90s, he was inspired to revive the project, self-publishing it through iUniverse Inc. in January 2005.
Despite the time lapse, Rosten remembers his time in Kazakhstan vividly. In fact, after living there for a couple of months, he says, he felt as if he’d never lived in the United States—and that he might never get back there. Kazakhstan’s flight-reservation process in 1994 was typical of the country’s disarray: “It is almost a full-time job,” he writes. “There is no Delta office here. The closest office is in Moscow….Even when I get a line and the call goes through, no one answers the phone.”
That’s not to say the country was altogether backward, despite what the Kazakh character Borat on HBO’s Da Ali G Show may lead people to believe. (Kazakh officials are threatening to sue British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen for his portrayal of their country as a woman-hating wasteland.) In his book, Rosten is careful to qualify his own bewilderment. “My descriptions may give the false impression that this place is somewhat uncivilized,” he writes. “It is not. Buses run, people work, and there is plenty of food.”
Still, Rosten gets Cohen’s joke. “It’s a good laugh,” Rosten says. “Too bad he’s picking on Kazakhstan, and too bad they’re taking it so seriously.”