The Silk Road to Ruin

By Hervé St-Louis
November 4, 2006 - 15:59

According to Ted Rall, Central Asia is the next Middle East. It’s an area filled with oil where people we find odd by Western standards, live. The Central Asian countries of Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are former Soviet Republics which became countries when Russia literally expelled them. Rall, one of the first cartoonist to constantly criticize President Bush, including during the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, has travelled several times to the area and neighbouring Afghanistan. In this book, part travelogue and part editorial cartoons, he sheds some light on the political, social, religious, economical and ecological turmoils that have besieged this part of the world that remains unknown to most Westerners.

I did not expect to enjoy reading this book. In previous books by Rall, he enjoyed repeating the same criticisms continually. It felt didactic and after a while, as if he were crying wolf. But here, Rall is provided with new material over which few have any opinion. Be warned. Rall is a liberal. He will not shy away from adding a few comments about current American President Bush and his administration. Yet, the warnings he does provide, should be heeded by any level headed Western politician who wants to influence Central Asia. A good example of this is how few American students are enrolled in colleges’ programs that teach the different languages spoken in the “Stans,” as many call them. This is an abject weakness, for an area, which according to Rall will become the next hotbed of the political world.

Tied with Afghanistan culturally, each of the Central Asian republics is struggling to control the rise of Muslim fundamentalists with coercive states where civil society has limited breathing rules. State police and the militias control the exchange of goods in these roads which once were part of the silk road that led the West to China. If you enjoy reading about the political games of balance of powers played by super powers, and the sheer idiocy of some dictatorship, you’ll enjoy Rall’s essay.

Although completely new to me, by the time I finished this book, I could tell something about each of the different Central Asian republics. I still cannot pronounce their names, but I know what makes Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan different. This is not a book that you have to read from the first chapter until the end. In fact, I would read any chapter and proceed to any other, starting of course with the many comic strips included in this book. As a comic book reader, these were the best part of the book. Rall has a wry humour that works. Characters are curt, yet, fascinating.

A good sign about a travelogue, is if it makes you feel like “going there.” Central Asia is the last place on Earth I would want to go after reading about the bleeding diarrhoea, vomiting and foul food that everyone that goes and lives in there has. Although it did ignite the adventurer in me! I’ll have to rethink that “Do not go to this part of the world” decision. For those who, like me, are asking themselves whether the adventure is worth it, Rall has included a very informative chapter called “If You Go.” Reading it made me wish more people would write about the area has it seems clear that Rall’s first person opinion is not comprehensive.

There are so few current books on Central Asia that Rall’s book will become one of the required readings for any student of the history and political science interested in these countries. Rall’s epic journey is as current as to the month of May 2006. By the time I was done reading this book (a mere two weeks), its spine was completely used, the protective front cover had been discarded. This is a real book for the real world. It did not remain neatly unused on a book shelf. I have read it entirely, sometimes reading some chapters a second time, and I have learned a lot. Thanks to Rall, I went to bed less dumber each night.

As for the comic strips, Rall has a peculiar style. He doesn’t care about proportions and great design. You can feel the oblique stupidity of his subjects in this book. Better page layouts would have helped. Whereas his cartooning style was not impressive in Generalissimo El Busho: Essays & Cartoons on The Bush Years, In Silk Road to Ruin, the look fits perfectly.


Last Updated: January 24, 2022 - 11:00

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