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Almaty or Bust!
Central Asia in Words and Pictures

Part Ten: Turkmenistan

Population: 4,775,544 (July 2003 est.)
Capital: Ashgabat
Ethnic Groups: Turkmen 77%, Uzbek 9.2%, Russian 6.7%, Kazakh 2%, other 5.1% (1995)
Religions: Muslim 89%, Eastern Orthodox 9%, unknown 2%
Languages: Turkmen 72%, Russian 12%, Uzbek 9%, other 7%

Turkmenistan is bordered on the left by the Caspian Sea, on the south by Afghanistan and Iran, and on the north and west by Uzbekistan. But inside, it's mostly desert. Its people are only a generation removed from nomadic herding, yet, because the country sits atop one of the largest, untapped natural gas reserves in the world and because it serves as a maritime connection between Central Asia's immense oil reserves and Azerbaijan's oil refineries and pipelines, it has a potentially rich future before it.

However, there's one problem: the country is ruled by a loon. How else can you explain the fact that President Saparmurat Niyazov officially renamed the month of January after himself, the month of April after his mother, and Tuesday as "Youth Day." Oh, and he also named several cities, schools, airports, and even a meteor after himself. He's been elected President for Life, so he might be around for a while, stirring up his own ego.

How did he get away with all this? Well, perhaps the better answer is, why haven't more Central Asian dictators followed suit? Niyazov, like the other leaders of former Soviet republics, was a former Communist Party crony who was in the right place at the right time when the Soviet Union collapsed. Really, Turkmenistan and the other countries (especially Uzbekistan) are still dictatorships; the only difference is that now the dictators are locals, not Russians.

But Turkmenistan itself is more than just its nutty leader. It's also the most homogenous country in Central Asia. As the name suggests, Turkmens are of Turic origin, so there's a close connection between Turkmenistan and Turkey; in fact, Niyazov is actively courting Turkey and actively ignoring Russia (much to Putin's annoyance). The Turkey connection is extremely popular in Central Asia, for many Turkic people see Turkey as a potential world power, who should sweep through the Muslim world and create an empire that would rival America. My question is: have any of these people ever heard of World War I? If not, then they should ask the Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, and Armenians about the benefits of a Turkish empire.

But what of the music? Well, actually Turkmenistan has a first-rate musical culture, and traditional musical (Islamic) forms are gaining popularity. Lonely Planet notes that Turkmenistan's national poet, Magtumguly Feraghy (1733-1800), wrote "qoshunk lyrics, four-line poems with a distinctive rhyming scheme, [which] are revered classics in Turkmen folk music, and a favorite of baghsys folk singers, accompanying themselves on the two-stringed dutar." The dutar plays an enormous role in Turkmen music, which is probably why there's a web site devoted to Turkmen music called Dutar.com. There are many parallels between Turkmen music and Uzbek and Tajik musics: the dutar, the "toy" (or celebration, which always features music), and the mugam.

A Turkmen musician playing a dutar. Note the headgear: it's traditional for all Turkmen.

A group of Turkmen musicians. If the President's mother can have a month named after her, then why can't a woman play Turkmen music?

The Cult of Personality himself: one crazy motherfucker.

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central asia in words & pictures
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