Youssef Azemoun

From the book
'Songs from the Steppes of Central Asia'

Very little is known in the West about the Turkmens, their language and their literature. The Turkmen national poet Makhtumkuli Feraghy, was introduced to the Western literary world last century after the translation into English of three of his 'songs' by Alexander Chodzko in 1842 in  London, and the publication of thirty poems in Turkmen with German translations by the Hungarian scholar Vambery, who carried out research into the poet's life during his excursion to Central Asia last century. However, apart from the recent translation of a number of his poems into French, little attention has been paid to Makhtumkuli since.
     Turkmen literature assumed its full identity after the emergence of Makhtumkuli in the 18th century. The simple yet profound quality of his poems has, over two centuries, dominated the minds of not only of the Turkmens, but all Turkic peoples living in the vast region from the Oxus to the Transcaucasus. Berdak, a Karakalpak classical poet said: "I worship Makhtumkuli's every word". Vambery wrote that the poems of Makhtumkuli were second to the Koran among the Turkmen people. To many Makhtumkuli is so revered that he is something more than a poet - a saint perhaps. He is a poet of the highest spiritual dimensions. He has written on a variety of themes - mystical, lyrical, religious, social, patriotic and others which make his poems appeal to various strata among the Turkmens and other peoples. This quality made Makhtumkuli a national poet even in his own time. V. V. Bartold, a distinguished Russian
Orientalist, wrote: Makhtumkuli, who is a Gokleng, is the national poet of the Turkmens, including the Turkmens of Stavropol... (Sochineniya Vol 2 p614, 1963), "... the only people among the Turkic peoples who have a national poet are the Turkmens." (Ibid Vol 5, p187, 1968).
    Archives yield very little inforination about Makhtumkuli. What we know about him comes above all from his own poems and from the wealth of popular stories. Vambery provided valuable information by interviewing a Turkmen religious figure called Gyzyl Akhun (last century). Interviews with Gara Isban, a descendant of the father of Makhtumkuli of the sixth generation, who died at the age of 53 in 1992, are also useful. He gave a vivid account of previous interviews with elders of the Gokleng tribe and others. The information he provided is regarded as valuable and reliable.
    The exact date and place of Makhtumkuli are not known. He is believed to have been born in 1733. He was the third son of Dowletmamet Azadi, who is also known as Garry Molla (1700-1765). Azadi was a great poet, a writer, scholar and author of several hooks. Makhtumkuli was named after his grandfather, Makhtumkuli Yonarchy (1654-1720). He belonged to the Gyshyklar clan of the Gerkez division of the Gokleng tribe of the Turkmens. In a poem about the weight of the chains on his legs when he was taken captive, he introduces himself to his captors and thereby to his readers:

        Tell those who enquire about me
        That I am a Gerkez, I hail from Etrek and my name is Makhtumkuli

    Makhtumkuli's father was his first teacher and mentor. His father sent the young Makhtumkuli to a teacher called Niyaz Salih. During his studies Makhtumkuli also acquired the skills of a silversmith and a saddler. He studied in a Nladrassah (religious school) called Idris Baba; he continued his education in Bukhara and finished it at the Shir Gaza Mjdrassah in Khiva where his talent was recognised and he was appointed a "khalifa", a substitute teacher. He astered classical Arabic, Persian and Turkic languages and literatures beside his religious education. He returned home and began teaching at his village while plying the craft of a silversmith. One story supported by a poem he wrote entitled "Defy the Fiend!" depicts him as both a craftsman and a man who attaches importance to moral values. A beautiful young lady orders Makhtumkuli to make a silver artefact.
    When the object is ready the young woman tries to avoid payment by seducing him.  Makhtumkuli manages to
resist her charms and she has to give up the attempt. He says:

        Your lust shouts, 'Do it! Seize it for reliefi"
        But conscience whispers, "No - God sees a thief"
        Though you are bhnd, He watches you with grief
        Forget your impulse, let shame keep its lair.

    According to another story Makhtumkuli says to the woman (or to himself in some versions):  "Place your
hand on this ember, and if you can bear its heat, we may establish a friendship. If not, stay away!". This story
is confirmed by the last stanza of the same poem:

        when Satan says,  "It's sweet - forget your soul! ";
        God says "Defy the Fiend, stay in controll"
        So Makhtumkuli, seize the blazing coal:
        Then go and do it - if pain you can bear!

    His true love lay with Mengli (meaning a girl with a beauty spot), whose real name is said to be Yangybeg. She was a handsome dark-haired girl from the Gyshyklar clan of the Goklengs. She was beautiful and literate. Impressed by her beauty and intelligence, Makhtumkuli wanted to marry Mengli, but while he was away studying, she was forcibly married to someone else, and Makhtumkuli was left with a broken heart from which he perhaps never recovered.
 According to a story told by Gara Ishan, Makhtumkuli later saw Mengli lying dead. "Nightingale", one of his poems about his separation from Mengli, expresses his desperation. This poem has become the lyric of one of the most popular Turkmen songs:

        I'm a nightingale. Here's my sad song
        From my Garden of roses. Now I've begun.
        See the tears in my eyes? There they belong.
        what pleasure in hfe when loving is done?

    According to one account he was married to the wife of his eldest brother, who had disappeared. This cannot be true, because the body of his brother was never recovered. The poem "Abdulla Absent" about the disappearance of Maktumkuli's brother, said that Abdulla went on a journey and did not come back. According to another story, he was married to a certain Akgyz who some people assume was his sister-in-law. Whoever his wife may have been, it seems that he did not have a happy married life. Tn "Marrying", a satirical poem, he complains about marriage and tries to dissuade his readers. He says: "If you aspire to become an old ass, Go and get married!" He was against bigamy although it was permitted. In another satirical poem about men with two wives, entitled "Two Wives", he portrays the disastrous family life and ridicules them as the third woman in the family:

        If he can't coax her out of all such games
        Or call the pa ir of them by pretty names -
        Well, dolts like that are scarcely proper men!
        So wives plus husband right make - three dames!

    He ends his poem by counselling his readers that marriage should be based on understanding:

        O Makhtumkuli, let's not that way sink!
        Better wed once with understanding.

    Makhtumkuli had two sons. One of them, Sary, died when he was seven years old, and the other son, Ibrahim, died at the age of ten. The loss of both his sons left a deep and indelible mark on his poetic soul. In his poem "Loss", which is one of his most effective elegies, he depicts the reaction of certain birds and animals to the loss of their young and compares his state of mind with that of the birds and animals. He ends the poem thus:

        How can we bear the pangs offinal parting,
        Though Death may steal upon us while we sleep?
        Even if Makhtumkuli's son were nothing but
        a cub, what then? What should he do all day but weep?

    Makhtumkuli was a Sufi. He sought the blessing of a Sufi leader or sage. The Sufi, said to be called Shah GLirbat, was toid that a poet who was a Turkmen wished to see him. He said he did not want to see a poet who talked nonsense. Makhtumkuli then wrote his famous poem " I Took Up My Pen" which gives an insight into his enormous literary learning. He likened the Sufi to "a young hawk, (with) feathers still ungrown."
According to a story the Sufi travelled a long way to meet Makhtumkuli and apologise.
    Makhtumkuli's elegy about his father, "My Father , gives a good picture of a man of virtue who had influenced him profoundly and whom he regarded as his Kaaba (the sacred Muslim shrine in Mecca). The loss of his father made him suffer spiritually as well as emotionally and it deprived him of a spiritual intimacy. Perhaps as a Sufi he needed this separation to reach his perfection, or his spiritual maturity:

        Love caught fire within my heart, and burned and blazed
        Smoke whirling in the wind whipped me like something crazed.
        Fate caught me, spinning me upon its whee4
        wbo came to see me through the eyes of real desire?
        Separation was a storm - both flood and fire.

Separation makes a man burn into ashes; in other words, helps a man to be "annihilated in God"

        0, hopeful slave to the beloved's charms, whereby
        I lost my heart! A songbird of sweet tongues was I -
        Encaged! But separation scorched my soul.
        Then yea muig bit med me tip, to ash was turned my mind.
        And Makhtiimkith's life was tossed upon the wind.

The words 'pain' and 'burning' proliferate in some of Maktumkuli's poems, because some Sufis summarise their life in three words - being raw, becoming mature (by the fire of tribulations) and being burnt (turning to ashes).
        Makhtumkuli attached great importance to the Truth and the concept of a perfect man, as a Sufi would do. However, the human suffenng and social injustice which he witnessed around himself made him pay attention to worldly matters too. He became more interested in the concept of the happiness of his people. Even in his mystic poem like "The Riddle : A Vision" he defends justice, moral values and the oppressed. Viewing life from thc point of view of human morality became part and parcel of the sense of humanity and his love for people. It is these feelings that make it impossible for him to become reconciled to the corruption and injustice of society. In the following lines he depicts the position of the poor:

        The poor man ,voes barefoot, showing his need,
        At meetings they will seat him low intdeed,
        While if he rides ci horse it's called an ass -
        A rich man's ass. of course, is called a steed!

    He cannot do much to help the poor, who are despised even by their own close relatives, but encourages them that Soifle clay - even if that day might he Judgement Day - they will be strong:

        Oppressors then it 'ill have to play the moke -
        The poor; of course. will be the ibrest lion.

    He harshly criticises the oppressor and corrupt people of society:

        Sultans now laugh aijustice in eclipse.
        These derelictions all spell apocalvpse,
        When far'hi~igs buy a miftis best decree
        And tyrants die with no prayer in their lips.

In the poem -Everything Openly" Makhtumkuli describes the beauty of Central Asia. where the seasons are
pronounced and the steppes produce a fine display of colours. In what can be regarded as one of the nature poems, Makhtumkuli compares the regrowing of plants to resurrection.

        When Nawruz falls, the world takes colour - openly:
        Clouds cry aloud, mountains gather haze - openly:
        Even the lifeless come to life - breathing openly:
        Plants, before unseen, grow up and blossom - openly:
        All creatures benefit or do us harm - openly:
        They breed their kind and stealthy go by - openly:
        Birds open beaks and sing when summer comes - openly.

    He suffered a tragic personal and family life amid endemic tribal conflicts which intensified in the 18th century as the Turkmens became fragmented into smaller groups. This made it easy for the neighbouring rulers and khans to invade and plunder Turkmen territory. It was during such an invasion that Makhtumkuli lost the fruit of years of hard and devoted work when the contents of his house, including his manuscripts, were taken away on camels. It is said that Makhtumkuli saw the camel carrying his manuscripts slip, hurling the manuscripts into the river Etrek, thus making the river an enemy of the poet.
    The poem "Making My Dear Life Lost" recounts this sad event:

        Making my dear hfe lost to all that's good,
        An evil fate wrought awesome sacrilege,
        Hurling the books I'd written to the flood,
        To leave me bookless with my grief and rage.

    It is evident from some of his poems that Makhtumkuli himself was taken captive. In the poem "The Twelve Imarns" the poet describes the virtues of each of the Twelve Imams and asks forgiveness by invoking the sacred mem~~ry of every one. According to one account, Makhtumkuli, his mother and his brother-in-law were seized by a Shute ruler in Mashhad, a holy town in Iran, home of the shrine of Imam Riza, the eighth Imam. It is related that the ruler released the mother and told her that she could take one of the men with her. She asked for the release of her son-in-law rather than Makhtumkuli. Later, when asked why she had done so, she replied that Makhtumkuli was a poet and a master of words, and would be able to find a way out. And indeed he was set free after reciting his poem "The Twelve Imams",  pleading for forgiveness.
    "When the Sun Drives Daggers" was written when a poor young man told Makhtumkuli that he was in love with the daughter of a rich man, but could not have her hand. Makhtumkuli said in this poem "Jackals eat the finest melons", meaning that the rich undeservedly have the best. The young man was initially offended, hut accepted the reality after reading the whole poem more carefully. Nlakhtumkuli wrote some other poems for other people to help them express their feelings.
    Makhtumkuli was a man concerned with the welfare of his people. There are tales which say that he personally resolved disputes between various tribes. He believed that the whole tragedy of the Turkmens was due to the quarrels and disunity among the tribes. In some of his poems he warns his people against internecine strife. Having realised the dangers of tribalism, in his poem "Exhortation In The Time Of Trouble, he calls on the Turkmen tribes by their names, to unite into a single national state, thus becoming the first Turkinen poet to introduce such a political theme into Turkmen literature. He says:

        If Turkmens would only tighten the Belt of Determination
        They could drink the Red Sea in their strength,
        So let the tribes of Teke, yomut, Goklen, Yazir, and Alili
        Unite into one proud nation.

    According to widespread stories, Makhtumkuli died as a result of the unbearable oppression of sad experiences in his old age, aggravated by his distress at the tribal hostility which had caused him so much suffering. The date of his death is not known, but it is thought to be towards the end of the 18th centurv or the beginning of the 19th century. Before his death he sat at his open door to look for the last time at the splendour of the mountains which had been so much a part of his life. Here is how the poem "When I Cease To Be" ends:

        Whoever lives will soon in graves have lain;
        Says Makhtumkuli, death devours all sins.
        The sky remains, while earth in orhit spins,
        The sun will rise and set, moon wax and wane...

    There are over a hundred manuscripts of Makhtumkuli's collected poems in Turkmenistan, and many others
in Iran, Afghanistan and other places; there is one manuscript of Makhtumkuli's poems at the British Library which also has poems by other Turkmen classical poets. None of these manuscripts are complete. The original manuscript of the author has never been discovered. A large manuscript which is believed to belong to Makhtumkuli was seen at the turn of this century, once in a village in northern Iran and another time in Garry Gala in Turkmenistan, but it has not been seen since. Under the Soviet system, people were persecuted for having books with Arabic script in their homes since they were regarded as religious. Many destroyed or buried old manuscripts or even hung them in old wells. Some were discovered after Perestroika, but many had already disappeared and the poet's own manuscript might be among
them. Collections of poems of Makhtumkuli from these manuscripts were published several times in Turkmenistan in the Soviet period, but religious poems were excluded from them. Only after Perestroika did these poems begin to  appear in Turkmen literary journals. A collection of "Unpublished Poems Of Makhtumkuli" called "Bagyshla Bizni", meaning "Forgive Us" which is the title of the poem "The Twelve Imams", was published in 1990 and consisted of
religious poems including "When Judgement Day Comes" and "Dawn Is The Time" both of which feature in "Songs From The Steppes Of Central Asia".
    Most of the manuscripts begin with the poem "Revelation", the first version of which was written by Makhtumkuli when he was nine years old. He developed it later. There are many ncompatibilities in the text in various manuscripts. Makhtumkuli must have revised the poem a number of times. Gara Ishan once said
that when Makhtumkuli was about nine years old, his family went to a funeral leaving him at home sleeping. A sack of grain fell on him when he was asleep. He was dreaming. When he woke up his mouth was foaming and this is mentioned in the poem. IThere is a striking similarity between parts of this poem (and other poem "The Riddle : A Vision") and a poem by Pushkin called "The Prophet". A Russian scholar, Bertels, and a Turkmen scholar, Zilikha Mukhammedova have compared the poems]. Makhtumkuli had a great love for his mother tongue, and he brings out the richness and beauty of the Turkmen language. He made ingenious use of the everyday language of the people, at a time when the Turkmen language was under the influence of Chagatay, the stilted written language of culture in use
throughout Central Asia. He broke the barrier hetween the literary language before him and the common language of the people, transforming the 18th century literary language and making it accessible to the people. He also used the wealth of Turkmen folklore with some skill. Avoiding verbiage he expressed his ideas in as few words as possible. They often turned into proverbs, which sometimes make it difficult to distinguish real proverbs from Makhtumkuli's inventions. His clarity and simplicity make his striking use of imagery all the more effective.
    He wrote some poems in the classical forms, but most of them use the popular form "qoshuk". Qoshuks are poems consisting of quatrains with lines of eight or eleven (or occasionally seven) syllables. This form of poem. lucidly written and rooted in folklore, creates a musicality which suits Turkmen folk music and makes it easily understood and eagerly taken up by "Bashkhis", the folk singers. This is one of the reasons why his poems have spread over a vast area from Central Asia to the Caucasus. His qoshuks generally have the rhyming scheme of A, B, C, B in the first stanza and C, C, C, B and D, D, D, B and so on in the remaining stanzas.
    Being a representative of oral tradition Makhtumkuli, like others of his kind in Eastern literature, needed to ensure that he was distinguished from his imitators. This he did by incorporating the trope of addressing himself in the last stanza of every poem. it served as a kind of signature or verification of the poem's authenticity:

        O Makhturnkuli, worlds float in your thought
        When you were young you only cared for sport:
        Now you are thirty and you see more plain,
        Those tears that fall announce your sad report.

The first poet to introduce political themes, social criticism and even new forms into Turkmen literature. Makhtumkuli wrote on an enormous variety of subjects which appeal to various strata of Turkmen and other Turkic peoples. For this reason some see Makhtumkuli as a spiritual leader and a teacher, others as a patriot and a guide leading his people to happiness. To the Turkmens he is "Magtymguly, Bagtyng guly" - the hestower of Happiness.