The BBC's staff magazine 'Ariel' is not where I normally
expect to find interesting articles. But one week in June 1991, there was
a story which stood Out from the routine news of appointments and
programme changes. 'HIGHEST LITERARY PRIZE FOR LANGUAGE MONITOR' ran the
headline, and below was the story of how Dr
Youssef Azemoun of Caversham had visited the country of his ancestors, Turkmenistan, to be presented with the Makhtumkuli state literary prize. The award was in recognition of his efforts to promote the work of the poet outside Central Asia. All the article told me about Makhtumkuli himself was that he was 'revered', and that he lived during the 18th century. At the time, I was producing a BBC World Service programme called 'The World of Books', so I contacted Dr Azemoun to see if Makhtumkuli would make an interesting sublect. Dr Azemoun readily agreed to be interviewed, and sent me in advance a paper he'd written on the poet, which described his long-lasting influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The story of Makhtumkuli's life provided a fascinating insight into a region and a period of history I knew very little about. Before the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics were shadowy areas we rarely heard mentioned - although of course the great oasis cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent were famous throughout the world. Through what I now read of Makhtumkuli, I learned of the tribal conflict and violent upheavals of the past, and I was moved by his passionate desire for unity among the Turkmen people. Then there was the sadness behind his personal life - his unhappy marriage to his brother's widow, his unfulfilled love for his cousin Mengli, and the loss of both his sons. Dr Azemoun's article included several of Makhtumkuli's poems with English translations. I found many themes which would strike a chord with Western readers - marriage, separation and love of homeland for example - but given a new slant with images from a way of life and landscape which we find exotic and unfamiliar. Of course we lose the music and rhythm of the language in translation, but anyone lucky enough to have heard Dr Azemoun reading the
poems in the original can get a feel for that.
I was delighted with the piece I was able to record with Dr Azemoun for 'The World of Books'. But that was just the beginning for me. Since then, through the Society of Friends of Makhtumkuli, I've found out much more about the poet. It's been a privilege to get to know his work better, and to get a clearer picture of the culture to which it belongs. I've also been able to hear some wonderful music inspired by the poet, both traditional and contemporary. The experience has made me very aware of how inward-looking Anglo-Saxon culture tends to he, and I wish the Society every success in awakening our interest in great artists. achievements which lie beyond our normal horizons.