The moment one entered the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, on July 3, 2014, it felt that something magical was going to happen. And, it did happen with the “Magic Songs of the Eternal Steppe” – a spectacular programme sponsored by the Kazakh American Association.
This beautiful programme set the stage for the US Independence Day festivities that were to follow in Washington the next day. The magnificent white hats and the colourful costumes of the artists blended so well with the music. Sitting next to scholars, scientists and educators, one felt the amazing chemistry that flowed from the stage and absorbed the massive concert hall. The music and the melodies had a mesmerizing effect on the audience.
The “Magic Songs of the Eternal Steppe” bring back wonderful memories from past events in the minds of many Washingtonians. Jerome Barry, Founder of the Embassy Series, remembers: “We have worked with Kazakhstan a number of times when we brought artists in from Astana – we had two wonderful programmes. In addition, we had an afternoon with sixty children from DC Public Schools participating in an afternoon at the Embassy, where the former ambassador addressed the students.”
From website of the United Nations Association National Capital Area, Washington, DC, one finds some interesting remarks by Asani Parks, a sixth grader from Leckie Elementary, who remarked, “I liked the music because it was relaxing and calming. I had never heard anything like it before. I want to listen to more.”
I looked around to my left and right. There were no children from the Leckie Elementary School. But, the esteemed fellow Embassy Series board members were all children of Abraham. And, we were perhaps more excited that the sixth graders. To my left was Dr. Ozden Ochoa, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M and to my right was Dr. Anne Howard-Tristani, a wonderful niece of former US Vice-President Hubert Humphrey – a leading Government Relations, International Public Affairs and Higher Education executive.
Speaking of U.S. Vice Presidents, the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington was home to Vice President James Sherman – whose family line connects to the famous General William Tecumseh Sherman. From his grave, the late Vice-President must be smiling now as the Kazakhstan Embassy kept the interior design without any change – also because it is a heritage building.
Each visitor receives a warm welcome – by the red carpet spread by Kazakh Ambassadors like Erlan Idrissov and Kairat Umarov and the entire staff. Each visit is very pleasing to the eyes especially to view the Kazakh artwork, jewelry, statues, and cultural attire that are on display inside, including a room designed to resemble the interior of a traditional Kazakh yurt, or nomadic tent.
The welcome mat is extended not by the diplomatic staff alone but also by Kazakh intellectuals like Dr. Saule Sataya – who as a visiting Fulbright Scholar took pains to explain the Kazakh history and culture.
And, along the memory lane, in November 2012, the Grand Mufti of Kazakhstan, Sheikh Abdsattar Haji Derbisali, charmed audiences at the Rumi Forum and the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington. Speaking in a soft voice – without any finger waving or angry rhetoric – he appeared to embody the faith he presented through his book “Islam – Religion of Peace and Creation.” With simple words and a smiling face, the Grand Mufti blended the rich cultural history of Kazakhstan – about 70% of population being Muslim – with Islam.
Here in Washington, Kazakh diplomats are often part of the intellectual discourse. For instance, at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies seminar on World Trade Organization and Central Asian States, Kazakhstan’s Ambassador Kairat Umarov recalled his country’s record of economic progress and the underlying reasons: geographic location, openness to trade, transparency and stability. He noted that despite being the largest landlocked country in the world, Kazakhstan had more than $160 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) to date – accounting for nearly 80 percent of all FDI to Central Asia. He observed, “Kazakhstan is committed to creating and maintaining the best investment climate in our region,” and added that his countrymen “would like to see Kazakhstan as a trade and logistics hub, just as it was during the [era of] the Great Silk Road.”
In December 2012, Karipbek Kuyukov’s beautiful paintings – a work of love with his mouth and feet – were on display in the Rotunda of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington, DC. As the honorary ambassador for the ATOM (Abolish Testing Our Mission) Project, Kuyukov has been quoted as saying: “In my paintings, I try to express (what) the nuclear weapons bring. … I was born in the nuclear test site zone. I was born without arms, but I have the power and strength to call on the world to stop the development of nuclear weapons programs.” His painting “A Mother’s Pain” just a few feet from the podium conveyed a more powerful message than all the words spoken that night. Few people could walk away unmoved.
A take away from a Kazakh National Day celebration held in December 2012 at the historic Willard Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Washington was the “The Stories of the Great Steppe” – an anthology of modern Kazakh literature by Dr. Rafis Abazov, Columbia University. In the foreword Erlan Idrissov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, wrote: “The concept of curiosity and love for exploring other cultures is deeply rooted in Kazakh society; at the same time we love to share our culture.”
Through the stunning performance of the Kazakh artists at the Kennedy Center in Washington and the sincere remarks of Vice-Minister of Culture of Kazakhstan Askar Buribayev and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal, one can see that both for America and Kazakhstan better days lie ahead.
The author is a member of the Boards of the Embassy Series and Interfaith Voices, a National Public Radio programme, and is a member of the National Press Club in Washington, DC.