President Nazerbayev: the man proposing a name change for Kazakhstan. Photo:Getty.
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The President of Kazakhstan suggests his country should be renamed

President Nazerbayev doesn't want to rule a "stan" any more. So he's suggesting it become Kazakh Yeli or Kazakhiya.

What’s in a name? When it comes to geographical place names, quite a lot actually, as anyone who’s found themselves stuck talking to someone who insists on telling you about their fabulous holiday to Ceylon or Siam, will tell you. Naming a country or a city is a powerful act, and an opportunity to impose your ideology – which is why so many former colonies have been keen to shake off their colonial place names.

Take the central square in Tripoli, the focal point for Libya's 2011 revolution. Under Italian rule it was Rome Square, but after Muammar Gaddafi took power in 1969 it became Green Square – as the colour green was seen to represent his “Al Fatah” revolution. When Gaddafi fell, it became Martyrs Square, to commemorate the protesters who lost their lives there. Ask a taxi driver now to take you to Green Square, and you get a very funny look.

Or think of how St Petersburg became Leningrad, and then reverted to St Petersburg again, or Volgograd was briefly Stalingrad. Or look at India, where major cities have been renamed to reflect local nationalist sentiments. Bombay became Mumbai in 1995, Madras became Chennai in 1996 and Calcutta became Kolkata in 2001.

It’s not always obvious what name you should use for a country – do you go for Burma or Myanmar? The country’s pro-democracy movement prefer Burma, because they reject the authority of the military junta that renamed it in 1989.

And now Kazakhstan wants to change its name. According to The Economist, the vast and oil rich central Asian country is seeking to distance itself from its less well-off neighbours like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and avoid being lumped with volatile “stans” like Pakistan and Afghanistan. President Nazerbayev has suggested it become “Kazakh Yeli” (land of the Kazakhs) or Kazakhiya instead. So far his suggestion hasn't gained much popularity.

It’s unlikely the name change will do much to change international perception of Kazakhstan – in fact it sounds a little bit like a storyline lifted straight from the BBC comedy Ambassadors – but it will give sub-editors and diplomats something to puzzle over. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”