Monday, May 7, 2012

Introducing the Republic of Wadiya

Last month in this space I introduced readers to the world and Africa’s newest (de facto) independent country, the Independent State of Azawad, carved for the time being out of the northern, Tuareg-dominated two-thirds-or-so of what the rest of the world still regards as the Republic of Mali.  While that drama is ongoing (and reported on in this blog’s “This Week in Separatist News” installments), yet another, not-too-dissimilarly named African country has made its debut: the Republic of Wadiya.  But it isn’t showing up on any real maps.  It is the fictional country ruled by the dictator Admiral General Aladeen, played by Sacha Baron Cohen in his new film The Dictator, due to be released in American theaters on May 16th.

The last time Baron Cohen parodied the third world (while at the same time parodying the West and everything and everybody else) was with his 2006 mockumentary Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.  The title character, Borat Sagdiyev, was an amalgam of numerous stereotypes of Slavic, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and third-world men in general (he is the dark side of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s Czechoslovakian “wild and crazy guys” from Saturday Night Live), though the script is careful to mention he is non-Muslim, following an (invented) indigenous Kazakh religious system.  (Likewise, his new character Aladeen is “not an Arab” and is also, fairly apparently, not a “black” sub-Saharan African.)

Borat Sagdiyev in his native Kazakh village (actually, Romania)

The Republic of Kazakhstan, needless to say, was not amused at Baron Cohen’s deadpan portrayal of a Kazakh filmmaker who masturbates in public, tongue-kisses his sister, marries a prostitute, is gleefully misogynistic and anti-Semitic, cheerfully refers to African-Americans as “chocolate-faces,” and tries to stuff Pamela Anderson into a traditional Kazakh “marriage sack”—or the film’s portrayal of Kazakhstan as a nuclear-contaminated, backward, dirt-poor wasteland (the Kazakhstan scenes were shot on location in Romania) full of bigots, fanatics, perverts, and holders of an undying, unspecified grudge against Uzbekistan.

A timeline of Kazakh history, from the coffee-table book published to accompany the film Borat

The Kazakh government threatened law suits against Baron Cohen and his producers, and Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, even very somberly took the matter up with the United States’ president, George W. Bush, during a state visit.  However, a Kazakh journalist who got around his country’s ban on the movie by screening it at a film festival in Vienna, declared, “Cultural Learnings is certainly not anti-Kazakh, anti-Romanian, or anti-Semitic.  It is a cruelly anti-American movie.  It is amazingly funny and sad at the same time.  I think this is the best film of the year.”  (Baron Cohen, incidentally, is permitted over-the-top anti-Semitic jokes; he is himself an Englishman of Jewish extraction, who wrote his Cambridge thesis on the role of Jewish Americans in the 1960s civil-rights movement.)

A scene from Borat showing Kazakhstan’s supposed annual “running of the Jews” ceremony

More than five years later, Kazakhstan’s ruffled feathers are not yet smoothed down.  As I reported in this blog in March of this year, the Kazakh government flew into a diplomatic rage after a Kazakh receiving her gold medal at a sharpshooting competition in Kuwait stood on the podium and had to hear the mock Kazakh national anthem from Borat played over the public-address system.  The lyrics say, in part, “Kazakhstan, greatest country in the world / All other countries are run by little girls ... / Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan, you very nice place / From plains of Tarashenk to northern fence of Jewtown / Kazakhstan, friend of all / Except Uzbekistan, they very nosey people with bone in their brain ... / Kazakhstan, prostitutes cleanest in the region / Except of course for Turkmenistan’s.”  The athlete, Maria Dmitrienko, smiled uncontrollably while it played (watch her reaction here), but her government refused to believe it was not deliberate and demanded an apology.  The incident in actuality showed nothing more than the dangers of hastily searching YouTube to find obscure countries’ national anthems.  (It is also worth mentioning that the tournament Dmitrienko won was called the Arab Shooting Championships—which, with or without a hyphen, itself sounds like something out of Borat.)

Kazakh markswoman Maria Dmitrienko hears the Borat version of her country’s national anthem

The Dictator—not to be confused with the identically titled 1935 silent classic featuring Charlie Chaplin as Adolf Hitler—not only stars but is written by Baron Cohen as well.  It is a fully fictional, scripted film, unlike the guerilla Candid Camera approach taken in Borat, where Baron Cohen is mostly improvising opposite unwitting American dupes who think he is a genuine Kazakh journalist.  The Dictator tells of Aladeen’s unlikely assimilation into American life.  One feature of the new film’s promotional campaign has been a website for the Republic of Wadiya featuring film trailers but also information on Wadiya itself.  (Its level of professionalism is eerily reminiscent of the actual website for the Independent State of Azawad, which may indeed have helped inspire the fake Wadiya site.)  A map, under “Invest in Wadiya” on the Wadiya site, shows its position, on the Horn of Africa—or, rather, on what used to be the Horn of Africa until it was digitally shaven down to resemble Aladeen’s profile.  (See this announcement of the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly sculpted Aladeen Beach, which more or less erodes the Puntland State of Somalia out of existence.)

Now, it is one thing to piss off the Republic of Kazakhstan, as Baron Cohen did with Borat.  A few Kazakhs even managed to figure out that Baron Cohen has no grudge against Kazakhstan per se; he chose it because Kazakhstan is so little known in the West, because it sounds remote and obscure and has a funny name.  It would be quite another thing to piss off an actual living dictator.  Aladeen, in his unhinged flamboyance, resembles no one more than Libya’s Moammar al-Qaddafi.  The Dictator was conceived and began shooting well before Qaddafi’s downfall and execution in October 2011, but presumably by that point Libya’s dictator was already clearly on his way out (a fate he might have avoided if he had done what Baron Cohen’s Aladeen does: in order to avert a possible future Arab Spring uprising, he has all of the spring months removed from the national calendar).  (See my blog article on conflict in post-Qaddafi Libya.)

The original Aladeen?

But, still, one doesn’t want any actual dictator deciding that he is the model for Aladeen and taking appropriate Lockerbie-esque or Salman-Rushdie-fatwa-esque action in retaliation.  So Baron Cohen has shifted his fictional country into a zone where hardly any government functions at all, Somalia.  Perhaps coincidentally, Azawad, which resembles Wadiya somewhat in name (see my recent blog article discussing the name Azawad), was founded during The Dictator’s post-production, though the name Wadiya also somewhat resembles Awdal, a self-governing pseudo-state in extreme northwestern Somalia (i.e. Somaliland).  (See my recent blog article on the fragmentation of Somalia.)

The actual mess that is “Somalia” today (at least as of a few months ago; it skips a few recently created statelets).
Neither Sacha Baron Cohen nor Evelyn Waugh could have made this up.

Situating Wadiya in the Horn of Africa also fits with the film’s portrayal of Aladeen and the Wadiyans as neither Arab nor really black African either—though there are hardly examples of Somali demagogues quite as colorful as, say, Qaddafi, Egypt’s King Farouk, or the Central African Republic’s Bokassa.  (Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie is a possible inspiration, however.)  In choosing the Horn region, Baron Cohen is also following in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh, whose darkly comic novels Black Mischief (1932) and Scoop (1935), which set the high-water mark for satirizing third-world inefficiency and venality, were set in fictional East African or Horn of Africa nations called, respectively, Azania and Ishmaelia.  (Azania has since then been suggested as a name for post-apartheid South Africa, for the aspirant state which was eventually named the Republic of South Sudan, and for the self-governing Somali state in the far south more often called Jubaland or, sometimes, Greenland (itself a confusingly unoriginal name, but let’s not digress too much).)  Waugh knew the Horn, having worked as a journalist in Ethiopia, covering the Second Italo-Abyssinian War.  The chances that Baron Cohen is not a Waugh fan are approximately nil.

The frontispiece and title page for the first edition of Black Mischief, including “Azania”

John Updike’s brilliant comic novel The Coup (1978), however, shifts the geographically unspecified action a bit to the southwest, Congo-ward, in the countries of Kush and Zanj, though a neighboring country referred to as Sahel perhaps suggests more proximity to the Horn—and the original, ancient Kingdom of Kush is approximately where the Republic of Sudan is now.  And readers of Marvel Comics may be aware that the superhero known as the Black Panther is actually a prince from the Kingdom of Wakanda, situated more or less in the part of Ethiopia wishing to split off as Oromia, in the Horn of Africa region.  (See my blog article on separatism in Ethiopia.)

Map showing location of Wakanda, home of the superhero the Black Panther.
Just out of shot, not far from Waugh’s Azania, is the island nation of Genosha, where mutants are kept as slaves.
(Boy, they were asking for it when they tried to enslave Wolverine, though.  I know, right?)

But perhaps Baron Cohen has not entirely escaped something like the barrage of lawsuits and diplomatic kerfuffles that followed upon Borat.  It seems possible that some African dictator—or, just as likely, some “non-state actor,” as the jargon has it—may decide that Wadiya bears a little too close a resemblance to a real country, or aspirant country, or deranged demagogue.  Qaddafi is safely in his grave, but I wouldn’t want to make any enemies among Ansar al-Dine or the Polisario Front or Boko Haram.  Their tentacles are everywhere.

Borat’s family tree.  Just because.

In the meantime, the Republic of Wadiya website’s Tourism page invites us to visit Wadiya and see for ourselves.  Attractions include the Wadiyan State Zoo (“including pandas, white tigers, and Amnesty International officials”) and the Wadiyan Museum of Tolerance (“Open daily from 9 to 5; Women, Jews, and disabled not allowed”).

The flag of the Republic of Wadiya

[You can read about many separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]


  1. In the film, the borders are shown as covering real life Eritrea.

  2. is this a joke?


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