Journey to the Centre of the Turkmen Universe

Two years ago I met a man from Ashgabat in a McDonald’s in downtown Moscow. We chatted for a while and once he was relaxed enough, I decided to ask about some of the bizarre stories emanating from his homeland:

‘Is it true that gold teeth are banned in Turkmenistan?’ I asked.

‘Complete bullshit,’ he said.

‘What about beards? I heard that beards are banned.’

‘Also bullshit. Don’t believe what you read on the Internet. Well, believe half of it, but as for the other half—forget it.’

He had no love for Saparmurat Turkmenbashi, the ‘Father of All Turkmen’, but even so, lazy misreporting in the foreign press still irritated him: as if it wasn’t bad enough having an eccentric dictator in charge at home, when you got out you had to put up with people like me asking stupid questions because of nonsense on the BBC website. I understood his irritation, and after talking to him, I wanted to get closer to the truth. I knew that the Rukhnama, Turkmenbashi’s legendary ‘book of the soul’ (allegedly required reading if you were going to take a driving test, work for the government, eat food, wear underpants etc), had been translated into English, so I went out on the net and downloaded it from the handy website Ruhnama Online.

It started off well: on the very first page I learned that the Turkmen nation was 5000 years old, descended from Noah, and had founded more than seventy states, though Turkmenbashi didn’t say what his sources were. Then he quickly segued into the rules of good manners, the fourth of which was:

Wear clean and decent clothes.

It seemed strange to suddenly be talking about this sort of thing after such an epic beginning. Then he shifted again, into a story from his lonely student years in Leningrad wherein an old man revealed unto him the details of his father’s death (he was shot by Germans during the war). His mother too had died when he was young, and thus driven to the edge of ‘maddness’ by loneliness, Turkmenbashi launched into a heartfelt poem that began:

I have powerful Turkmen thoroughbred, would you groom it Jygalybeg? I have also a broken and uneased heart, would you groom it, Jygalybeg?

And so on. It was only on page 69 that he really got down to explaining the purpose of the Rukhnama, using multiple metaphors, though one of them will do nicely enough here: ‘If the spirit of the Turkmen is the universe… then Rukhnama must be the centre of this universe.’

And as I read on, I discovered that the Rukhnama really was the centre of the universe. Turkmenbashi was effectively trying to write his country, previously a scrap of desert colonized by successive empires, into existence. It contained everything: moral teachings, history, folklore, discourses on neutrality and the friendship of nations, religious instruction, definitions of Turkmen character, praise for such potent national symbols as melons and rugs, excerpts from the constitution and more poetry. He described the soul of a Turkmen: loyal, brave, clean, pleasant, peaceful, but ferocious in his defense of the motherland. He was seeking to create a magnificent national identity, inextricably bound up with his own good self, of course.

By about page 300, however, I wasn’t taking anything in anymore. Though the book’s five sections all had different, evocative titles (‘The Turkmen’s Path’, ‘Spiritual World of the Turkmen’ for example) there wasn’t much structure at all: Turkmenbashi just rambled on about this for a bit, then rambled on about something else. You can’t blame him: writing a book is laborious and time-consuming, and his day job was running an entire country, so he must have worked on the Rukhnama in snatches between sleep and being God. But even so, it was disappointing: just because someone is a tyrant, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a bad writer. Though no-one has much good to say about Hitler’s style in Mein Kampf, apparently Ivan the Terrible wrote some of the finest Russian prose of his day. However, even allowing for a weak translation, the Rukhnama was still a shambles. I put the book down.

About a year later, however, I managed to get a visa for Turkmenistan and one of the first things I did was buy a copy of Turkmenbashi’s magnum opus in a government bookshop in Ashgabat. It was pink and green, with RUKHNAMA written in big yellow letters on the cover, giving it the look of a children’s storybook. Turkmenbashi had written at least three other volumes besides, among them a volume of poetry and a collection of stories about Turkmen national heroes for the edification of the nation’s youth. There was also a sequel, Rukhnama 2. When I asked a fan of Rukhnama 1 what was in the continuation, he smiled sheepishly:

‘Er… more of the same.’

I decided to give Rukhnama 1 another go. Riding through the Kara Kum desert I grappled with the shifting vagueness of Turkmenbashi’s thought until I finally accepted: yes, he really was making it up as he went along. He needed a good editor. But who would dare tell the Father of the Turkmen to do a rewrite?

But then, why bother? He had a (literally) captive readership: driving around I saw billboards for the book everywhere, its title was written in white stones placed on distant mountains, and on TV the ‘news’ would end with a reading from the Rukhnama accompanied by images of nature, such as eagles in flight or the sun rising over the desert. One programme consisted of passages from the Rukhnama being read aloud in Turkmen, English, French, German and Russian in a giant concert hall to an audience sitting in rapt attention. The idea was to persuade the viewers at home that people the world over were reading their national book, but all the readers on the stage were young Turkmen, students no doubt at the linguistic academy (the widely reported claim that foreign language education has been banned in Turkmenistan is false). Several times I caught it referred to as The Holy Rukhnama, though Turkmenbashi explicitly denies in its opening pages that he has written a holy book. No doubt this was the result of unctuous sycophants lathering on the praise to please their master in the hope that they’d get one of the nice new apartments in the marble towers he was building at the foot of the Kopet Dag mountains.

And yet, the longer I spent in Turkmenistan, the more I started to feel that though the Rukhnama itself was fairly unique, the phenomenon in its entirety was less exotic than it seemed. In our own society we, like the Turkmen, are obliged to read and parrot nonsense, to declare bogus enthusiasms and beliefs every day for the sake of our jobs or education. A friend on the trip with me told me that his brother had recently gone on a training weekend where he had run across hot coals in his bare feet to prove to the rest of his team how much he loved selling advertising with them. This is at least as absurd as wearing a pin of Turkmenbashi’s head on your lapel and reading his book for fifteen minutes every morning, as was recommended to me. However, my friend’s brother thought it was fantastic. And so in Britain some people are able to believe in this sort of crap and go far, while others struggle to and lag behind—just like in Turkmenistan, even if the manifestation of the phenomenon is more extreme over there.

None of the management training manuals behind that rubbish are floating in space however. The Rukhnama is, at least if we can believe one story in the papers.  It is currently orbiting the earth in a space capsule and will continue to do so for another 150 years. It would be nice if it somehow broke free and was able to drift freely through the cosmos. Then aliens might find it, decode its ramblings, and base their image of our planet entirely on the late night thoughts of a certain Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Esq., now deceased, his memory long since faded on his home planet. But far away, on that distant star, they could keep alive the image and ideas of the strange dictator. Maybe they could build a monument to him: he’d like that. And they could ban gold teeth and beards too.

(Expanded version of an article on the Rukhnama originally published in the Guardian Online (29/12/06)

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