The venue was Gloucester, the year
1992. In front of some 50 people expectant but as yet uninitiated. a number
of poems by the great Turkmen national poet Makhtumkuli were read out,
in Turkmen and in English translation. interspersed with the poetry were
musical performances: some by musicians of Central Asian origin, notably
the Bekova sisters; one inspired directly by Makhtumkuli a piece
by the respected composer and guitarist Gilbert Biberian for solo viola,
performed by Richard Crabtree; a number of other works. All this was made
possible by the generosity of Yakup Zadeh, a Turkmen living in Britain
for many years.
As far as we know, this was the first exposure of Turkmen culture in the United Kingdom. There was no doubting its significance from a Turkmen perspective: the event was captured by Atamyrat Shaguly. a visiting producer from Turkmen state television, and edited highlights were shown on several occasions in Turkmenistan. There was no doubting either the enthusiasm of those present. As a result there followed a further meeting in ~993, in Oxford, where around 75 people enjoyed a similar mixture of entertainment. including a further composition by Gilbert Biberian for sextet, incorporating a reading of the Makhtumkuli poem "My Father". One highlight of the evening was the ppearance
of the internationally popular singer Najma Akhtar, who performed unaccompanied folk songs. Of particular significance was the appearance. to great acclaim. of the Turkmen performer Mejit Bastan. who sang folk settings of Makhtumkuli songs. accompanying himself on the dutar. Again. Turkmen TV were present and the occasion was subsequently seen on television in Turkmenistan.
That these events took place at all was down to ofle man: Dr Youssef Azemoun. who. as a Turkmen and a leading scholar specialising both in the Turkmen language and in the poetry of Makhtumkuli. had decided that the time was ripe to introduce people in Britain to his people's literary and cultural heritage. He both organised the events and made the first prose translations of certain Makhtumkuli poems. There were two other key figures at this stage: Peter Hughes, who took Youssef Azemoun's translations and sensitively rendered them into poetic language; and Gilbert Biberian. whose interest and enthusiasm led to the writing of the two beautiful compositiofis beard at the meetings in Gloucester and Oxford.
These meetings were major achievements, but the work involved in sustaining afld nurturing the interest they had aroused was clearly beyond any ofle person's capacities. A number of those whose appetite had been whetted, and who had developed a taste for Makhtumkuli's poetry, decided that some sort of support organisation was needed. And so the Society of Friends of Makhtumkuli was created. The intention to form the Society was announced at the meeting at Oxford: and some months later a third meeting was held, this time in Reading. where within a similar mixture of poetry, music and dance, the Society was launched.
Its aims were broadly two-fold. The first was to promote an appreciation of Nlakhtumkuli's poetry. This would be achieved in a number of ways:
* through the publication of his works in translation
* through the publication of a definitive critical text (which does not currently exist)
* through public readings
* through the production of a journal - the one in which this article is appearing - to provide a forum for critical studies.
The second was more general. It was
to promote cultural ties between the UK and Turkmenistan, and to celebrate
not just the Turkmen cultural heritage but the culture of the Central Asian
region as a whole. So the Society is determinedly inclusive. welcoming
and supporting a wide spectrum of scholarship and activities with a Turkic
Since its formation the Society has been pursuing its ambitions in a variety of ways. It has continued its celebratory meetings. and has benefited from the participation of the talented young Turkish violinist Cibat Askin. the Torkmen folk group Ashgabat, the Uzbek folk singer Rosa Sulanova, the Afghan folk specialists John and Veronica Bailev and the lutenist Judit Pasztor. In conjunction with the Central Asian Section of the World Service of the BBC. it has promoted a concert by the Uzbek classical singer Munajat Yulchiyeva. In 1994 it sponsored the first performance in the UK of a Turkmen play: the Jaan Theatre Company directed by Kakajan Ashir performed the Turkmen epic 'Deli Domrul' at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London to a highly appreciative audience. Linked to this event was a concert, again in London, where among other delights authentic folk instruments such as the gyjak (a form of viol) and tuyduk (a reed pipe) were heard.
On the literary side the Society has been no less active. By great good chance the eminent writer Brian Aldiss came into contact with Youssef Azemoun, took a liking for Makhtumkuli's poetry and set about producing verse translations. As a result of his outstanding work the Society was able to publish, in 1996, a volume entitled 'Songs from the Steppes of Central Asia', a selection of some of Makhtumkuli's loveliest and most accessible poems in Brian Aldiss's expert and deeply sympathetic renderings.
Nor have the cultural ties been all one way. Under the Society's auspices, and as part of a group also comprising Youssef Azemoun, Peter Hughes and BBC producer Sue Waldram, Brian Aldiss and Richard Crabtree
lectured and performed respectively in Turkmenistan - again, to our knowledge, the first such appearances by British artists in that country.
This is a record of achievement that the Society is proud of, but much remains to be done. Its work has taken another step forward with the publication of the first volume of the journal you are now reading. Youssef Azemoun is working on the definitive critical edition of Makhtumkuli's work. A number of performers, artists and scholars have been invited to England to take part in a celebration in April. And moves are under way to promote another theatrical performance later in the year.
The Society welcomes help and contributions from all those who have a love for Central Asian culture, whether in the form of articles for publication in the journal, support for events and meetings or ideas for new initiatives. I can be contacted at 152 Lowfield Road, Reading, Berkshire, UK.