Baron Cohen, Enemy Agent?

By Anthony Weiss

Published November 18, 2005, issue of November 18, 2005.
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Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former minister in the government of Kazakhstan and a critic of the country’s president, was found shot dead in his home Saturday. An alarming development, one might think, but officials of the Central Asian country seem more concerned about possible damage to their image done by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen at the MTV Europe Music Awards earlier this month. Kazakh officials threatened Monday to sue Baron Cohen, whose portrayal of the bumbling Kazakh TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev they have deemed an “unacceptable” attack on their country. One official intimated that perhaps the comedian was operating at the behest of some enemy of Kazakhstan and its people.

The lovable yet serially inappropriate Borat character, one of the alter egos assumed by Baron Cohen on his “Da Ali G Show,” has suggested, among other things, that rape is a common Kazakh pastime, that fermented horse urine is a beloved national beverage and that “Dirty Jew” is a popular Kazakh film. The character was filmed arriving at the MTV awards in a single-propeller Air Kazakh plane, piloted by a one-eyed man drinking from a bottle of vodka.

As they have in the past, Ka-zakh officials contend that the character depicts not only an inaccurate picture of Kazakh life but a potentially damaging one, as well. “People may have an inkling that Kazakhstan is a country that mistreats women and Jewish people,” Roman Vassilenko, a spokesman for the Kazakhstan embassy, told the Forward. “We believe this is very unhelpful.”

The character’s antics come at a time when Kazakhstan is looking to burnish its image on the international stage. According to David Twersky, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Congress, Kazakhstan has asked to host a conference on antisemitism, to be held next year by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “I don’t think they’ll get it, because of human rights and democracy questions,” Twersky said. “They think this is a ticket into the West — being good to the Jews, hosting the antisemitism conference.”

Attempts by the Forward to reach Baron Cohen for comment were unsuccessful. According to the comedian’s agent, Matthew Labov, “He is relaxing at a resort in the Caspian Sea.”

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