A sharp-eyed, intrepid journalist’s account of her recent experiences living, teaching, and traveling in Muslim Central Asia and the Near East.
Burkett (Another Planet, 2001, etc.) begins with her August 2001 arrival in Kyrgyzistan, where she will spend a year as a Fulbright professor at the Kyrgyz-Russo-Slavic University in Bishkek, the country’s capital. It’s the ugliest, shabbiest city she or her husband has ever seen, and their immediate adventures with housing and food are the stuff of comedy. The tone turns darker when detailing Burkett’s classroom struggles with her repressed, ill-informed Muslim journalism students. Bewildered by concepts of freedom of the press, competition, and investigative journalism, they mouth what they’ve long been taught about the US, capitalism, and democracy as Burkett doggedly needles them into the beginnings of critical thinking. In November she makes a harrowing journey into and out of Kabul to report on the situation of women in Afghanistan for Elle magazine. Shortly thereafter she visits Iran, where she finds Stone Age fundamentalism thriving alongside modern technology—or as she puts it, polygamy side by side with Gucci shoes. Teaching assignments take her briefly to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; Burkett’s portraits of life there are revealing and vivid, as are her insightful descriptions of her travels in Iraq the year before the US invasion and of her homeward-bound journey through Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. The author seems to relish meeting people and picking their brains. Her views are fresh and often funny, her courage astonishing, and her endurance remarkable. Expecting to find hatred, she encounters surprising hospitality, much curiosity and contradictory beliefs about Americans, anguish at being caught between modernity and old-world traditions, and great unease about the future.
A lively and perceptive look at life in parts of the world few Westerners will ever experience firsthand.