Archive Books & Sites Contact About
Select text size - x-small small medium large x-large
"SO MANY ENEMIES, SO LITTLE TIME"
by Elinor Burkett: Review by Jessica Kuzmier
When the attacks of September 11th took place in New York and Washington, it began to seem as though it was a dangerous time for an American to travel. There were those I spoke to at the time who thought it might be better to just stay at home. Media seemed to imply that there were people out there who just wanted American blood. Television pictures of people dancing in the streets at the destruction of the Twin Towers seemed to confirm that. "They" don't like us. Travel isn't worth it; let's just watch reruns of "Survivor" for entertainment.
But of course, this wasn't the opinion of all Americans. Plenty of people traveled pretty much as they did before, removal of shoes notwithstanding. Lisa Beamer, the widow of the hero Todd Beamer on Flight 93, even traveled on the same flight that her husband was taking that day, just to show that it wasn't unsafe for people to travel. There were those that I met that in sheer defiance decided to travel to the city more, not less. Their opinion was, I'm not letting the terrorists take away my city, my right to travel. In a sense, they decided to not let the terrorists win by making them afraid in their own country.
Elinor Burkett, a journalist and professor, went through a similar situation. Feeling the ennui of a comfortable middle age settling upon them, she and her husband Dennis decide to shake up their lives before old age became a reality. In the months before September 11, she applied for and received a Fulbright grant to teach journalism in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. Different enough from the places she had taught before, not so dangerous as to be Pakistan, but not the First World, Burkett was off on her adventure with her trusty sidekick husband. Never mind that none of her friends knew anything about the place, and that she received a travel warning from the State Department urging all non-essential American personnel to leave the country before she even left the comfort of her Catskills home. Suffice it to say, this comfortable journalist trying to get out of a rut made the decision to head to a country that is so unheard of, my own word processing program registered it as a typo, with no alternative suggestions.
On August 25, 2001 Burkett made her arrival to this Central Asian republic, not knowing what to expect, and then soon wondering what the heck she was doing there to begin with. A post-Soviet republic stuck between two worlds, the world she entered was scattered and disorganized. In a place organizing a capitalist, private economy with no blueprint as to how to do this, even getting an apartment was an adventure. In this fluctuating world, attaining a cultural grip on what was going on was even more complicated, because the society that she and her husband and entered didn't seem to know what was going on either. Some things seemed well-established, such as the theory that sitting on cold cement was bad for virility and fertility. But what to do when your entire planned life became a big vacuum with nothing to fill, this made everyone seem at odds with what was going on, not very comforting for a person such as Burkett who walked in on the scene definitely not knowing what was going on.
Burkett's world becomes one of cultural time warp. She becomes a symbol for America, an envoy who receives messages for her to take back to her superiors. In this world, many times people approach her as this national symbol, rather than approached individually. What America is, isn't, should do, shouldn't do is the context of much of her conversations. For her part, teaching American journalism to people who have never dealt with an open and free press, she seemingly takes on the role of cultural ambassador, though in this strange world which could go either direction, it is hard to say whether her crash courses in Western civilization would confuse, anger or just add to the malaise of people who felt too fatalistic to have much impact on their world.
Much of Burkett's book was based on e-mails that she sent back to Americans back home, and sometimes the book was redundant. To her credit, she begins to pick up this repetition, such as when she writes yet another lament against tradition holding people back. It really doesn't seem to be until the end of the book that she has a lot of insight to her motives in the role she plays, instead seemingly caught in her frustration of being the representative token for everyone's frustration against America. The contradictory expectations seem to numb her; trying to cut through people's verbiage of saying America should intervene in everything and intervenes too much within one paragraph seems to get really to be too much for her. This certainly isn't some romantic adventure to the Central Asian steppes.
In the end, Burkett seems to be trying to find out what it means to be an American in post 9-11 world. It appears that she has trouble appreciating the difficulty that people who worked in a collective world have in switching over to a mentality where one works for everything that he or she has. To these people who have been cradled in such fashion, this state where one is working all of the time doesn't appear like freedom at all. An American who, although had spent much time overseas, was well instructed in working from the bottom up, had trouble bridging the gap between her understanding of life and what these people were going through.
In this post Soviet Republic, the subject of Russia naturally comes up. Burkett took this trip in 2002, where it seemed like the Soviet Union's influence was so yesterday. Many of her Kyrgyz students still refer to the old republic, and in Burkett's mind, it understandably sounds quaint, like looking to a daddy for advice when he has gone senile. However, in light of recent events in the republic of Georgia, the subtle overtone of Russia's influence lends a darker tone, like it is a monster hiding in the shadows when everyone thinks that the light has gone on. Russia lurks throughout the book, much as it does now in real time.
"So Many Enemies, So Little Time" is a book full of contradictions, both in the author and the world she finds herself. She wants to go to a Third World country, but gets upset by the lack of good food she finds there. Her Kyrgyz students want all of the accouterments of Western life, like the money to travel and buy books, but they don't know how to work to acquire these things. Tradition, something that many Westerners romanticize about in a vastly changing world, is a bad word here. To her credit, Burkett is astute enough to show that what the West labels as authentic and traditional is usually nothing more than romanticizing poverty in a world where everyone is affected by everyone else.
How much should people change to survive in this so-called flat world? No one seems to be able to figure this out. Burkett is there to witness this ambivalence, and her answers have more to do with how she perceives the world than anything else. This is what good travel journeys are all about, after all. How she changes and comes to see the world is the ultimate travel story, and this is the ultimate success of the book. She is observant, and like the travel writer Paul Theroux does not wax poetic about the natives just to make it sound pretty to her readers. Travel in a post 9-11 world is possible, and in the most unlikely places. Burkett is a person who is willing to make that journey, and comes back in one piece to tell us the tale.
Post your comments here
E-zine home page
© 2003 - 2008 All writing, music or photography presented on this site is the property of their respective and individual creators. No reproduction can be made without express permission from them. Web design is the property of the Webmaster. Please click to contact us for any reproduction questions or comments.