“Oh, I haven’t been to ‘the Stans’ yet,” an American woman tells me in a rooftop bar in London. We are making polite small talk, the kind where you speak in six-word sentences because the sun is beaming directly onto your face and the conversation feels suffocating. I have just informed her that I am from Uzbekistan, and watched a familiar black hole form in her mind as she tried to come up with a relevant observation about my country. The moment she refers to Central Asia as “the Stans” — a phrase I’ve heard so many times before — I grip my drink a little harder. Smiling politely, I hurry the conversation along because I don’t have the energy to explain why the term is so frustrating.
There are seven countries in the world whose name ends in “stan”: Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. The suffix istan itself comes from the Persian language, which means “a place abounding in”. Aside from these Central Asian countries, there are also republics and subnational areas scattered around the Middle East and Asia ending in “stan”: Tatarstan and Dagestan in Russia, or Iraqi Kurdistan. In many ways, “stan” is an equivalent to “land”, just as you’d find in Ireland, Finland, England, Scotland, or Poland. But you’d never hear anyone saying that they want to travel to “the lands”.
Etymology aside — and it would be pedantic just to concentrate on that — most people don’t realise that the term is incredibly loaded. Fictitious names of countries ending in “stan” seem to follow a common trope in popular culture, usually depicting “cultural backwardness” in games, films and TV series. Some examples include “Kamistan” in the TV show 24 and “Urzikstan” in the 2019 Call of Duty release. These made up words can also be rooted in Islamophobia, like when London gets called “Londonistan” because of its Muslim Mayor, or Bradford is nicknamed “Bradistan” due to its large population of British-Pakistani Muslims. “Dumbfuckistan” was a term used for the states that voted for George Bush in the 2004 American election. And, of course, who can forget the infamous Sacha Baron Cohen film Borat, in which he portrayed Kazakhstan as a backward, sexist, and racist feudal society? Is it surprising that in 2014 Kazakhstan’s president even wanted to change the country’s name to Kazakh Eli?