'Ashkhabad? Where's that?' A British novelist tells us.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, new nations came into being. In place of what had been marked 'Soviet Central Asia' on the map stood five newly independent states, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kirghizia. The mere names awaken curiosity. The republics stretch from the Caspian Sea to the frontiers with China, and are home to about fifty million people. Of these populations only about four million live in Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is the most Westerly republic, and Ashkhabad is its capital. It borders the Caspian Sea, and has for its southern neighbours Iran and Afghanistan. I stood at its southern frontier in the Kopet Dagh Mountains, where the reign of Marx had petered out and the rule of Mohammed began. Yes, I entered Turkmenistan this year, and thereby hangs a curious tale.
I was doing what might grandly be called research for a novel which would cover some of the problems of the contemporary world. Turkmenistan held a particular attraction for me, not least because it is so little written about, so little visited. The country is the size of France, and ;most of it consists of the forbidding Kara Kum desert. In a quest for national identity, these rather remote Asian republics adopt national heroes. In some regions, Genghis Khan is back in favour. But in Turkmenistan, the elite - to wit, President Saparmurad Niyazov - has chosen a poet. It's as though we had Shakespeare or Marlowe atop of Nelson's Column instead of the Admiral...
Makhtumkuli is big in Ashkhabad, the capital, and large are the statues erected to him in the park s and open spaces of the capital. Makhtumkuli is a rather gloomy eighteenth Century poet, a master of the rubiayat form. Not a particularly Bytronic figure. But he went into my book My central character, Burnell, arrives in Ashkhabad when Makhtumkuli is being celebrated by the top brass.
The novel was by now entitled Somewhere East of Life. Some while after Malcolm Edwards, my editor at Harper Collins, had accepted it, I received a letter from the one man whose address in Ashkhabad I had managed to discover, a literary man much published in Moscow and elsewhere. Mail still travels via Moscow, so that it takes three months to get a response to one's letter. The letter contained the name and phone number of a Turkmen living in Reading.
You learn something new every day, or hope to. Reading has a small Turkmen community. There I met Dr Azemouii, a lively intellectual who commands several languages and a silver flute. He is busily organising an English translation of the poems of Makhtumkuli.
I went to a Turkmen evening which was so enjoyable that I signed on as a Friend of Makhtumkuli. Then I found myself versifying prose English translations of the distinguished poet. Next thing I knew, there came an invitation to Ashkhgabad to attend a Makhtumkuli festival, coupled with celebrations to mark three years of national independence.
It is not easy to get to Ashkhabad. You can fly via Moscow or Istanbul. Flying time is something like eight hours. The British Council were very helpful. I heard through them that Ashkhabad had been described as 'a nasty little place' - which made me even more excited. Actually, it is quite an amazing city, all of it rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1948. Its streets are shady and mainly irrigated with water channels. Birds sing, the young ladies go elegantly to the market in golden sandals. Desert lies in wait beyond the city boundaries. It's a miracle of human endeavour that the place exists at all. I found it a peaceful city, slowly waking up to its challengingly independent existence. There are no guns there and no pollution.
Fantasy or Fact?
I followed in the phantom footsteps of Burnell. Burnell is invited at short notice to lecture at Ashkhabad University, and has rather a difficult time of it. When I wrote that chapter, I was sure I was inventing the university. It was rather creepy to find it existed. Creepier still, I was invited to lecture there at short notice.
I am glad to be the first British writer to speak there. Let's hope more writers will go. The senior class was exceptionally bright. I needed no interpreter. The young men and women spoke good English. I did not have a difficult time. But it was saddening to discover that classes and teachers receive no support - or books - from this country. They were currently getting their English from American writers such as John Cheever.
The Minister of Culture, an impressively well-informed and diligent man, would welcome the presence of the British Council; but, as I understand it, funding here in England is difficult. So goodwill undoubtedly goes to waste.
Somewhere East of Life was published in August, after I had returned from Turkmenistan. So what did I get right and what wrong?
By and large, I gave that almost unknown country a better press than it has otherwise received. I am pleased to have brought it to readers' notice, and of course staggered by the way in which my interest found such a speedy response. What I got wrong mainly concerned religion, and there I had only a few sources to guide me.
The Independent Magazine ran a good article by Patrick Cockburn, but most information regarding the new Central Asian republics came from reports following the then US Secretary of State James Baker's lightning visit. These tended to be alarmist, implying that the republics would embrace Islamic fundamentalism. Cockburn was more cautious. Following the American reports, I made Ashkhabad more Muslim than I found to be the case.
After seventy years of Russian Communist rule, the Turkmen are about as Islamic as we are Christian. They fall back on the mosque as we do on the church, as special occasions in our lives: christenings, weddings, and funerals. I saw no minarets, no mosques, in Ashkhabad. It's true I was sometimes greeted by a'Salaam Aleiykum'; on the other hand, they downed their vodka and wine like the veriest Muskovite atheist.
I came away feeling this was a place to be cherished, a country full of cheerful people facing immense economic difficulties, and perhaps less extreme than its neighbours. There was also some sadness. For in what did these people believe, now the communist order has collapsed? Building new hotels is no substitute for vision.
We all have to live with some kind of ideals. Their old enforced ones have crumbled like the sands of the Kara Kum.