The number one question asked of me by friends and family during my latest foray in England and Canada was asked after they found out that Kazakhstan is nicely sandwiched between Russia, China, several -stans and — well — Russia was: Is it safe? A variation of this was: Are you safe?
The answer is yes.
Kazakhstan does not have the same issues with Russia as the Ukraine. I feel safer walking around Atyrau than I did Glasgow: fewer drunk people during the day (one at 4pm, the whole time I’ve been here), parks aren’t cordoned off because yet another woman has been raped, no stabbings that I’ve heard of. That’s the clincher, of course: that I’ve heard of. Also, I only tend to wander the streets during the day with two very blonde two-year-olds. (If there is one thing that the native people in Atyrau love, it’s children. When I leave the building without them, strangers will come up to me and ask me where my children are. At least, I think that’s what they are asking me. My Russian is…progressing.) Saying that, I have gone out to the square just down the road in the evenings and found that everyone else is wandering the streets, as well, and by everyone I mean from the ages of a couple of days old to 99. During the summer, the whole family stays up until eleven or midnight, because after dinner was the only time it was cool enough to take your kids outside.
The next question is: How crazy are the Muslims? That’s not how people have been putting it, but that’s what they mean. And I totally get it. On television back home it is only Muslim extremism that is reported and shown…and I’m next to a bunch of -stan countries. Of course people are a bit worried and also a bit curious. Well, the people I have seen do not appear to be extremists and women are allowed to wear whatever they want (or to not wear whatever they want — when I first arrived there was a topless, female DJ playing at a restaurant just around the corner. Nobody was stoned…with stones, that is.), alcohol is everywhere (mostly vodka and beer — post Soviet and all that).
When I first arrived, everything seemed so very foreign, but I walk a lot. What has struck me during these walks is that at the most basic level the people I see on the streets are the same as the people I would see on the streets back at home or in Munich, or any of the other Western places I’ve lived: they love their children, they care about how they look to other people, they wonder how they are going to pay the bills, they are hoping someone will come into their store and buy their wares. The children play Red Rover, Red Rover. (I swear to whatever god you believe in, they do.) Kids in their late teens and early twenties act the same way around the opposite sex as the kids back home. Hip hop culture is huge. Everyone has a mobile phone.
The other side of it is, of course, that I see a very small part of what is going on in this city. You don’t get to see a lot with two two-year-olds in tow. Other people see other sides and have other, less nice things to say. Often with reason, such as a friend who had a zealot try his damnedest to stab him, the chase only ending when the friend made it back to his compound and behind the security gate by the skin of his teeth. It’s a crazy one-off that has happened to none of our other friends. As my title implies, and as everyone in Scotland knows, the same thing would have happened to him in Glasgow if he were wearing the wrong football colours in the wrong part of the city on the wrong day.
In a nutshell: my life here is so very different from anywhere I’ve lived, but we’re going to be just fine.