The father of Turkmen literature is poet and thinker Fragi Makhtumkuli (1770-1840), whose words are held in great reverence. Born in an area of south-west Turkmenistan which now forms part of Iran, Makhtumkuli was something of a tragic figure. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he lost his two young sons to illness; later in life his whole body of work was not only confiscated by the Persians but, as he stood witness, the camel on which his precious manuscripts were loaded lost its footing and fell into a river to be swept away. In his writing, Makhtumkuli spurned classical forms for home-spun wisdom and a simplicity of language that contributed greatly to his popularity with the travelling bards. Such was his influence that Turkmen literature became a compendium of mere copyists. Of those who managed to struggle out of the shadow of the great scribe, the most noted are the 19th century writers Kemine, whose satirical rhymes castigated the ruling circles, and Molapenes, the author of popular lyrical poems.
For the nomadic Turkmen the only piece of furniture worth having was a carpet or three. Easily transportable, the carpets served not just as floor coverings, but as wall linings for the yurt, providing a highly decorative form of insulation. Turkmen textiles artisans have gone quite commercial over the last hundred years: most ‘Bukhara’ rugs, so called because they were mostly sold, not made, in Bukhara – are made by Turkmen. These days the swish Ashghabat Carpet Museum or the Tolkuchka market are good places to see these mostly red, mostly geometric, entirely beautiful rugs.
Though Turkmenistan is predominantly a Sunni Muslim country, the religion is not militantly or strictly enforced. Centuries-old tribal loyalties are at least as important as Islam; even the most urbane Turkmen retains allegiance to his tribe, while in the more remote regions tribalism dominates to such an extent that each tribe is easily distinguished by dialect, style of clothing and jewellery and the patterns woven into their carpets. Of all Central Asian peoples the Turkmen have kept the most traditional dress. While under threat from shell-suit pants and polyester jackets, it’s still common to see men in baggy blue pantaloons tucked into clumping knee-high bots, a white shirt under a cherry-red and gold-striped heavy silk jacket, and topped by a shaggy wool hat. Women are less showy and wear heavy, ankle-length silk dresses of wine red and maroon hiding spangled, striped trousers beneath. A woman’s hair is always tied back and concealed under a kercheif or scarf.
Surprisingly for a country that is mostly uncultivable desert, some of the more interesting Turkmen dishes are vegetarian. Herb-filled pastries and cornmeal pancakes are common in the markets. Porridges with mung beans, or of cornmeal and pumpkin, or of rice, milk and yoghurt, can make a meal. The Turkmen also make a tasty meatless plov (pilaf) with dried fruit. Economic and political stagnation has had a major effect on Turkmenistan’s food industry. Restaurants are scarce and the fare is generally miserable.
Turkmenistan isn’t known for its jolly street parades. Public holidays include New Year’s Day (January 1), Remembrance Day (anniversary of a 1948 earthquake on January 12), National Flag Day (February 19), International Women’s Day (March 8), Labour Day (May 1), Victory Day (a commemoration of the end of WWII for Russia on May 9, 1945) and Independence Day (October 27).
The spring festival of Nauryz (‘New Days’) is one of Turkmenistans biggest holidays. It’s an Islamic adaptation of pre-Islamic vernal equinox or renewal celebrations and can include traditional games, music and drama festivals, street art and colourful fairs. Important Muslim holy days, scheduled according to the lunar calendar, include Ramadan, the month of sunrise to sunset fasting; Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan; and Eid-ul-Azha, the feast of sacrifice, when those who can afford to, slaughter an animal and share it with relatives and the poor.