by Kerry Healey, 89.7 WGBH
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Here’s a quiz: What are the 5 most censored, secretive, authoritarian governments in the world? North Korea makes everyone’s list. Equatorial Guinea, Burma, Libya and… can you guess? Try Turkmenistan, an obscure, doubly land-locked, oil and gas-rich former Soviet Republic cradled gently between Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan.
Turkmen anchormen on the State’s one TV station repeat a pledge on-air daily wishing that their tongues shrivel if ever they slander their homeland. All foreign journalists are banned. So because no journalist can, let me tell you what I saw in Turkmenistan this month.
Thanks to Tukmenistan's legendary beaurocracy it took 4 hours to walk just 500 feet from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan, across triple moats lined with a razor wire-topped fence. But honestly, the machine gun-toting guards dozing at their posts in the 100 degree heat, evoked more sympathy than fear.
Most Turkmen live in flat-roofed adobe-style houses, farming or herding goats. Turkmen women plow fields, walk to school, or sell camels at the Sunday Market, wearing elegant, colorful, traditional floor-length gowns. Scarves are optional. They say this beautiful dress is not mandatory—except for school girls—simply that it was the will of the first post-Soviet leader Turkmenbashi the Great. While Turkmen women seem more liberated than those in neighboring Iran or Afghanistan, brides are nonetheless forbidden to speak to their husbands or in-laws for forty days after marriage. The in-laws decide when a wife may speak—if ever. Now that’s censorship!
In Turkmenistan, remnants of ancient Zoroastrian culture are as evident as those of Islamic invasions and Soviet domination. The Soviets precipitously withdrew in 1991—leaving a taste for vodka and totalitarianism. It was then that Turkmenbashi the Great began styling himself the “Father of all Turkmen”, declared neutrality and banned all foreign journalists. He decreed that all buildings in the capitol, Ashgabat, be white marble (a stone not available in Turkmenistan) and erected multiple gold-covered statues of himself—the most notorious of which rotates, always facing the Sun. Turkmenbashi’s book, the Ruhnama, is required reading that forms the basic knowledge required of each Turkmen citizen. Ashgabat is a 3-D Potemkin village, part Dubai, part lost Vegas, but eerily quiet—perfect and empty. The people are quiet too, convinced that every room in it is bugged.
For the record, Turkmenbashi died in 2006 and Turkmenistan is now ruled by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, Turmenbashi’s dentist.
I hear Katie Couric uses the mnemonic “I’m a dinner jacket” to pronounce the President of Iran’s tongue-twister name. Good thing for Katie, Turkmenistan’s president wants his name to remain a secret!