In November 1997 1 spent two wonderful weeks in Turkmenistan. The excuse for the visit was to attend thewedding of a friend's son. I also took the opportunity to travel to Tashauz and to organise a Makhtumkuli evening in Ashgabat.
The aim of the evening was to read a selection of Makhtumkuli's poetry in English translation to introduce the English-speaking expatriate community to the poet's works. There is now a fairly large English-speaking community in Turkmenistan - businessmen, diplomats, teachers and representatives of international organizations. I was also keen to present our English-language translations to the growing number of Turkmens studying English.
My first stop was the British Embassy, where the ambassador was most helpful and encouraging. The embassy arranged the printing of publicity posters for the event and gave me a list of British subjects in Ashgabat registered as residents. I handed the ambassador a copy of our journal to be conveyed to President Niyazov.
Next port of call was the Ministry of Culture to arrange official permission. Deputy Minister Murat Beriyev was again most helpful. He offered to provide a venue and some musicians to perform musical versions of Makhtumkuli. We were lucky enough to have some of the foremost folk and popular singers in the country eager and willing to perform for us. After all, this was the first event of its kind in Turkmenistan and excitement was high among the musicians.
Having agreed on the venue - the Music College - and the date, the publicity campaign began. With my friend guide Maya Saparova we telephoned every number on the ambassador's list, inviting them to the evening. We placed publicity posters in all the main hotels, the British pub - yes, even in Ashgabat you can't get away from draught Guinness and educational establishments. The US Embassy's cultural attach6 kindly promised to contact all American citizens in the city.
My friend Haji Atakgayev, who had invited me to the wedding, is a distinguished Turkmen artist, and he offered to provide a small exhibition of some of his work relating to Makhtumkuli to be on show during and after the event. Press, radio and TV were invited. All now seemed in place; it only remained to see how many people would attend. The Ministry of Culture insisted that the programme be limited to one hour, one reason being problems with the light in the Music College. I had to choose carefully which poems to read, aiming to give as wide a diversity as possible to our new audience - religious, lyrical, political, humanitarian.
The big day arrived. I was interviewed by a radio reporter and several press journalists from the leading cultural editions. ATVcrew was present and filmed the entire proceedings. I learnt later that the radio interview was broadcast severaltimes, and that Turkmen TV showed excerpts from the event. Altogether about 150 people came to the evening, mainly Turkmens with perhaps ten or so foreigners. The poetry and music were very well received and when it was over I was surrounded by people eager to ask me about the work of the Society of Friends of Makhtumkuli.
As a first experiment, I think it can be called a success, although several lessons were learnt for any future such gathering. Two weeks were insufficient to organise and publicise it in the way I would have wanted. Had I known how poor the light was at the Music College, I would have tried for another venue. However, given these problems, I think, to judge from the enthusiastic response of both foreigners and Turkmens, that it was worth doing. The Society is now well-known in Ashgabat artistic and diplomatic circles, and, I hope, can continue to expect co-operation and help from the authorities in future activity.