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So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman in All the Wrong Places

So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman in All the Wrong Places

by Elinor Burkett

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At a time when Americans were so riveted by questions about their place in a newly hostile world and were swearing off air travel, Elinor Burkett did not just take a trip — she took a headlong dive into enemy territories.

Her yearlong odyssey began with her assignment as a Fulbright Professor teaching journalism in Kyrgyzstan, a faded fragment of Soviet


At a time when Americans were so riveted by questions about their place in a newly hostile world and were swearing off air travel, Elinor Burkett did not just take a trip — she took a headlong dive into enemy territories.

Her yearlong odyssey began with her assignment as a Fulbright Professor teaching journalism in Kyrgyzstan, a faded fragment of Soviet might in the heart of Central Asia — a place of dilapidated apartments, bizarre food, and demoralized citizens clinging to the safety of Brother Russia. She then journeyed to Afghanistan and Iraq — where she mingled with tense Iraqis, watching the gathering storm clouds of an American-led invasion — as well as Iran, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, China, and Vietnam.

Whether she's writing about being served goat's head in a Kyrgyz yurt, checking out bowling alleys in Baghdad, or trying to cook a chicken in a crumbling apartment, Burkett offers an eclectic series of adventures that are alternately comical, poignant, and discomfiting.

Editorial Reviews

Brooke Allen
Burkett is often amused and amusing. Her portrait of Iran (''a sort of fundamentalist theme park'' full of ''glitz and kitsch'') is among the best I have read, and she is utterly convincing when she claims that Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, is the most surreal city on the planet. Its bizarre personality cult of Turkmenbashi, the ''oddly anticharismatic Turkmen president, who looked like a used-car salesman in an off-the-rack suit and a bad toupee,'' outdoes the wildest expressions of public devotion to Stalin or Saddam Hussein.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
"I'm not a danger junkie," Burkett (Another Planet, etc.) declared at the start of her Fulbright year with her husband in Kyrgyzstan on September 18, 2001. In a burst of midlife ennui, the two wanted to move somewhere where she could teach and they could both recharge their cultural batteries. The process of elimination led the pair to this small central Asian republic of the former Soviet Union, advertised as having a "liberal media" and "actively pursuing ethnic tolerance and democratization." When they arrived in Kyrgyzstan, reality overtook them. While appointed to teach "American-style" journalism, Burkett found students so shaped by Stalinist culture, it was all she could do to make them ask questions, much less stir controversy. Unable to resist a little adventure, she and her husband visited Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. When invited, Burkett hosted forums on the media, which usually turned into brouhahas critiquing potential U.S. intervention in Iraq. In Afghanistan, she met with a series of educated women who'd been terrorized by the Taliban and remained fearful. As Burkett walked in Kabul in her burqa, getting elbowed and bruised by men who "walked down the street as if the women simply weren't there," she decided the struggles in Central Asia were more an attempt by hardcore traditionalists to fight modernization than about religion per se. Few readers would actually want to face a dinner of roasted goat brains or dodge bombs on the highway passing the Tora Bora caves; reading Burkett's snappy, witty account nicely suffices. Agent, Lisa Bankoff. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Teaching journalism in Kyrgyzstan. Riding motorcycles with mullahs. And watching from Iraq as plans for invasion heat up. This journalist has done it all. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 surprisinghospitality, 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.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

So Many Enemies, So Little Time
An American Woman in All the Wrong Places

Chapter One

Forward into the Past

No matter how often you say Halvah,
the taste won't appear in your mouth.

--Russian Proverb

There's a moment in any voyage, just after I clear customs, when I pause in the netherworld between the timeless, placeless, plastic surreality of the airplane and my chimera about what's to come. On the one side is the familiar, the routine; on the other, the door to the unknown. It's a delicious interlude, fantasy ruling for one final instant. Then the doors swing open ...

On August 25, 2001, this is what I saw:

A churning sea of Oriental men smiling and screeching, blocking the exit, turning my first glimpse of life in Kyrgyzstan into a lesson in not-so-diplomatic assertiveness. Taxicab drivers, porters and shills jockeying for meager tips pulled at my jacket, grabbed at my luggage, bargaining -- with each other, not with me, because I was too busy clenching my teeth to dicker. "Pitisot somof, 500 som," yelled an older Kyrgyz man in a worn leather jacket. "Nyet, chitirista somof, 400 som," a young Russian offered, shouldering the other man aside even as a third man caught my eye, pointed to himself and whispered, "Uch juz, besh juz," which I assumed was a price in Kyrgyz, although 300 som was unlikely to sway an obvious foreigner unlikely to understand the language.

Nyet was one of the few words I knew in Russian, and it was the only word that would come out of my mouth.

Nyet to the drivers.

Nyet to the porters.

Nyet to the shills.

I was waiting for the embassy driver and Nurilya Barakanova, the public affairs assistant, who should have been the "woman with the cellphone." But everybody had a cellphone, and since the drivers wouldn't take nyet for an answer, the price of a taxi had fallen to dvesti somof, 200 som.

It was 4 A.M. in Bishkek, 5 P.M. back in New York, which I had left forty hours earlier. Outside it was pitch-black, although it wasn't much brighter inside the terminal, where half the bare light sockets in the ceiling were empty, the other half filled with yellowed forty-watt bulbs. The only store open was a small kiosk run by a woman so surly that passengers would have had to be desperate for gum or a cup of tea for her to make a sale.

We finally found Nurilya, tall, slim and stylish, standing with her cellphone to her ear, loaded our baggage into the white Toyota Land Cruiser and headed off for the city. Somewhere along the lovely tree-lined highway from Manas International Airport to downtown, I blanked out, my mind on overload, my body demanding relief after a four-hour drive to the airport, a seven-hour flight from New York to London, a six-hour layover and the ten-and-a-half hour trip to Bishkek -- not to mention a sudden mind-numbing what-have-you-gotten-yourself-into panic. When I awoke twenty minutes later, we were on an obstacle course, the challenge being to circumvent at least most of the cavernous potholes that made the road feel like macadamized Swiss cheese. Our driver was not meeting it.

As I looked around me, I saw the outskirts of the city, row after row of tightly packed, tiny Ukrainian-style wooden houses washed with thin, streaky coats of green, brown or blue paint. In the neighborhoods behind them, dirt tracks were lined with high fences constructed of wood, wire, steel and trash. All the shutters were tightly secured, no light escaping to suggest the presence of a night owl cozily prodding himself to sleep with warm milk.

The city itself appeared abruptly, the street suddenly transformed into the floor of a canyon created by block after block of stolid apartment buildings, all of Soviet gray cement, the near-universal shape and color of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, from Warsaw to Almaty. The only relief from the sea of cookie-cutter structures -- built from prefabricated concrete forms in one of the eight approved patterns -- were the balconies, seemingly the sole design element over which an architect had exercised some creative control. Some were formal and rectangular, traditional, practical. Others were rounded or elongated, the most recent even embellished with what looked, in that context, like daringly bold, almost avantgarde pop art concrete designs. But each balcony had become prisoner to its owners' proclivities or financial means. They were bricked in, boarded up, sealed with corrugated fiberglass, windowed or set off with fancy railings. Laundry hung, detritus collected and sick-looking plants languished.

Even as dawn broke, Bishkek was dark, lit only by the infrequent streetlight that had not blinked itself out of existence in a city where burned-out lightbulbs were only rarely replaced. Just down from the Grecian-columned Opera House, the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the round Wedding Palace that were the heart of"official" Bishkek, the driver wended his way through the gloom into an alley between two crumbling brick buildings, ending up in a courtyard bound on one side by an old red-brick apartment building, on the other by a row of padlocked metal garages so rusted that they no longer looked like they had ever been gray.

As Nurilya urged us out of the plush Land Cruiser, we trudged past a jumble of reeking garbage cans straight into the smiling countenance of Alexander Katsev, the head of the Department of International Journalism at the Kyrgyz-Russo-Slavic University, who escorted us through a cold metal security door that screamed the South Bronx.

I'd been dreaming of my first meeting with my new boss for five months, but I hadn't expected it to occur at 5:30 A.M. or to be scheduled so that he could try to convince me to rent his apartment.

When we'd made our way up a flight of unlit stairs, through another security door and into a breathless, airless apartment, his wife, dressed in what looked like one of June Cleaver's old shirtwaists ...

So Many Enemies, So Little Time
An American Woman in All the Wrong Places
. Copyright © by Elinor Burkett. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Elinor Burkett has worked as a newspaper reporter, university professor, and magazine writer. A Pulitzer Prize—nominated journalist and the author of eight previous books, she divides her time between the Catskill Mountains of New York and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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