Kim Kardashistan: A Violent Dictator's Daughter on a Quest for Pop Stardom

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Gulnara "Googoosha" Karimova, whose father rules Uzbekistan with an iron fist, wants to be a Western-style celebrity, but a despot's daughter still can't have it all.

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Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, in Cannes, France. (AP)

It's July in Uzbekistan, and Gulnara Karimova's camera crew is trampling the city of Bukhara. There's a man in black running on the roof of the Poi Kaylan mosque, there's a camera crane staring down a minaret, and in the center of it all is Gulnara, the dictator's daughter, in a black and white dress, blowing kisses, sashaying like a star.

I'm watching this on YouTube in Saint Louis, cut off from the action, as are the people in town. Like so much about the family of President Islam Karimov, Gulnara's video is a selective spectacle, open only to the camera crew that has barricaded the streets. They are creating an Uzbekistan that they can market to the world: an Uzbekistan without Uzbeks, a holy Bukhara with only one site worth seeing. "Googoosha", the video proclaims, "coming soon".

Everyone in Uzbekistan hates Gulnara Karimova. That's what the State Department wrote in 2005, citing her greed and corruption, her theft from nearly every lucrative business, her connections to organized crime. Like so much unearthed by Wikileaks, this emerged as a quasi-revelation. Who wouldn't hate Gulnara Karimova, a number of media asked, the mafiosa princess with the cruel heart and delusions of grandeur (and scholarship, and fashion design, and enterprise)?

Uzbek opinion of Gulnara may have been less uniform than that. But that was irrelevant then -- since when have the Karimovs relied on Uzbek opinion? -- and it's over now: the age of Googoosha has begun. Googoosha is Gulnara's pop star alter ego, a breathy, bleached blond ingenue who sings in English about lost love. (Gulnara Karimova is a 40-year-old mother of two.) According to her website, Googoosha is also a "poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty." Mocking Googoosha is almost too easy: @realgoogoosha, her Twitter account, is a comedy-gold spambot, vainly seeking celebrity solidarity. ("Love Katy Perry? Follow dance pop sensation Googoosha!" it bleats.)

When YouTube gives you Kim Kardashistan, it is hard to turn away. But the emergence of Googoosha raises a number of strange questions. Why is a middle-aged, Harvard-educated woman, one of the richest women in the world, courting the approval of Americans -- not only Americans, but Snooki-esque Americans like the ones dancing to "Round Run (DUB Mix)" in Tampa? Why is Billboard magazine, that pre-iTunes icon of relevance, so meaningful to Gulnora that she risked humiliating herself by first claiming to be on the cover (actually an advertisement) and then proclaiming to have earned a place on the charts (a lie)? When you rule the court of political propaganda, why crash and burn on the real-world stage?

It's July in America and I'm watching "Round Run," watching Gulnara twist herself to my expectations. I'm thinking I like this video. I like it when Gulnora shoots in Uzbekistan a lot better than when her father does.

•       •       •       •       •

In May 2005, Gulnara's father, President Islam Karimov, ordered troops to fire on a crowd of thousands of protesters in the city of Andijon, killing at least 700 people. In the aftermath of the massacre, which Karimov blamed on Islamic terrorists, Uzbek poems offering an alternative version of events began to circulate online. One of the most popular was "Qon Andijonda (Blood in Andijon)," written by Yusuf Jumaev, a snarky poet activist from Bukhara. The refrain went like this:

The people -- Islom, Tatanya, Gulnora,
The Faith of Islam -- his children and grandchildren
The padshah's family are the people, sir
The rest are the terrorists of Hizb-ut Tahrir.

Xalq -- Islom, Tatanya, Gulnora, Lola
Islomu Yimondir - nevara bola.
Podsho oilasi xalqdir, taqsir
Qolganlar terrorchi Hizb-ut Tahrir

In December 2007, five years before Gulnara would film her music video nearby, state security agents fired on Yusuf Jumaev's home. The poet escaped, only to be captured later and sent to Uzbekistan's Jaslyk prison, where he was tortured nearly to death. In 2011, Jumaev received political asylum in America, where he is now part of the greater Western audience that Gulnara Karimova hopes to reach.

Poetry has always been a way of asserting and subverting authority in Central Asia. That is perhaps part of why Central Asian despots, from shahs to Soviets to Karimov, have long kept poets at their sides. Better yet is the leader who writes poetry himself, whose authority stems not by birthright or force, but from the power and grace of his words. Karimov is not a poet -- he is a bureaucrat, and the ideologues that churn out his tales of triumph ("The Uzbek People Will Never Depend on Anyone") know to sprinkle them with spirituality ("High Morality -- an Invincible Force"). But poetry is not the forte of the Karimov family. At least, not until Googoosha.

"My poems are rhymed thoughts, sensations and feelings, that is why they have become really valuable to me over the years -- these are various pages of life, of the things that 'shape' a soul of a person," Googoosha explains on her website. "The flavor of self-comprehension in these poems made them sound like melodies of life."

In 2011, Gulnara's sister Lola unsuccessfully sued the website Rue89 for calling her a "dictator's daughter." Self-awarness has never been a Karimova strong suit. But poetry is a pathway to reinvention. It's what made Yusuf Jumaev, held hostage in his hometown, live larger than his limitations. There is always a way out through words. But what is Gulnara trying to say?

I'm on YouTube and Googoosha is singing in English, "I don't want to lose you now," and I wonder -- whose approval is she seeking? Is this about her father, who shuns the international stage, dodging treaties and laws and media interest? The daughter of one of the most insular dictators in the world is clamoring for international attention. Poetry may connote authority in Uzbekistan, but Uzbekistan holds no authority for Gulnara -- it is the world she wants, the world that her father wants to shut out.

•       •       •       •       •

Gulnara Karimova has always been able to buy just about anything -- degrees, accolades, clothes, careers. But pop stardom in the 21st century, the shamelessness of what Bret Easton Ellis calls post-Empire, is a tough game for a propaganda princess to play. A few weeks ago Gulnara sniped at a friend of mine on Twitter, who had been mocking Gulnara and Leila Alieva, the daughter of the dictator of Azerbaijan. "Smile! You've been kept on camera! : )))" Gulnara tweeted back. Surveillance as a casual threat -- such a daddy's girl.

The problem for Gulnara is that Western fame is its own form of surveillance, allowing her target audience to watch her pop aspirations and political power unravel in real time. Gulnara will have fans but she will never have validation. And you have to wonder why she needs it. Why the evil queen of having it all needs a Hot Dance Club Hit. Why an Uzbekistan that "doesn't depend on anyone" suddenly finds itself depending on everyone.

What do you get for the dictator's daughter who has everything? The realization, perhaps, that while her father can buy Gulnara the world, Googoosha comes at a price.

A version of this post originally appeared at Registan.net and is reproduced with permission

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Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in Central Asia.

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