The Ashgabad Gazette Issue 16

Above, Duran dances at the wedding celebration. In the background are the trailers holding the DJ and bride and groom.

--Monday, 19 October 98-- $1 = 8,000 manat
Ed and I had lunch at a cafe near the Foreign Ministry but it was no good at all. I ordered a cheese pizza and it came with chopped, boiled egg, with only slightly melted cheese on a bed of parsley and five daubs of ketchup, all on some sort of orange soft doughy bread. Yuck!!

I selected some of the better pix from the Turkmen wedding and had Roustam print them out. I put them in a plastic sleeve and sought out Duran when I got back to my apartment. I found him about 30 feet from where I first met him. I shook hands and gave him the pictures. He looked at them and liked them but asked me if there was a picture of him with his brothers. Ah, humanity! Ever the me, me, me. Especially when it comes to photos. And very especially when it comes to Turkmen: They love to have their picture taken.

He took me to his house which was in the center of the block. I saw the sandals lined up on the steps and took off my sneakers before I entered. The doorway led to the kitchen where a woman was rolling dough on a round board placed on the rugs that covered the floor. I shook hands with his mother but no one offered to introduce the sisters.

I was conducted into the large living room which was covered wall to wall with Turkmen carpets. Sometimes they were laid edge to edge, sometimes one rode over the other but always carpets of the traditional rich red color with similar designs. On one wall was set of cabinet wall units, drawers and recesses that held crystal goblets and the like. No small number of them. On the other wall was a line of stuffed chairs.

In the big, open space in between was a man lying on a pad and two stuffed pillows. He was watching television and was supporting his right hand which was discolored and bloated from below the wrist to the fingers. It had a nasty look and glinted of some greasy ointment in the light. Duran introduced his as "fater" and we shook with our left hands. Duran's father went back to watching television while Duran explained in mime that gasoline on this father's hand had somehow become ignited. I was rather glad for my inability to appreciate the details of the story, few as they were.

Duran offered me some "Russian Water" but I declined with enough touching of my forehead and stomach to indicate why. We sat in the chairs and Duran examined the pictures again. We tried to communicate but it was difficult. Also in the room was Manut, a six year old brother who could count to eleven, and an older brother whose name I can't recall. Manut was very proud of his linguistic achievements and tried to help out. He wasn't nearly as obnoxious as an American child would have been. Indeed, he wasn't obnoxious at all. We can learn from these people.

Duran asked for photos of his mother, sister and himself. I said that I would bring them tomorrow. The word tomorrow was a problem. Manut first suggest zafstra after I circled the hands of my watch twice. We worked it out that I meant zafstra. I hope I did.

Duran offered me tea or coffee so I chose tea (chai). One of the women came in and set the table. She put the table cloth on the floor and then a 50's style oil cloth in the center of that. I was invited over to take a seat at the table. My joints started aching at the prospect but I went with a smile. I figured that I was in it now. First the chai, then the food and the vodka. In such a polite culture there would be no way to avoid all this without giving considerable offense.

So I took my "seat" beside the table cloth and Duran poured me some tea. I took mine straight but Duran added a lot of sugar to his cup -- really a small bowl. The tea was actually good. Duran got a photocopied book from somewhere and showed me the title: "English in Three Weeks." "Maybe," I thought, "but judging from the size of the book, not much of it." He read through the pages looking for things to say to me. One sentence he pointed out was "A thief stole my watch." He pointed at his bare wrist and then at himself with an unhappy look on his face.

They were curious about me. They asked me where I worked. To be as simple as possible I said the US Embassy but that didn't cut the local mustard and I agreed when they said "United States Consulate." They asked what I did and I tapped my fingers as if on a keyboard and they didn't understand. It took several repetitions for them to realize they were not likely to understand my work.

They asked if I had a car and I said, "No." Then they asked about a driver. It became clear to me that it was not at all clear to me if they were inquiring about me as a chauffeur or the one being chauffeured or whether I had a driver's license or whether I owned a car in the States.

The topic had become something of a group discussion. Duran was asked questions by his older brother and his father and even his mother, the only woman who entered the room without serving something, put in her 50 manat's worth. Beyond my possibly being a driver, they were interested in the number of rooms in my apartment and how much I paid for it. I told them "four" for the first question but thought I might be on dangerous ground on the second. After all, did I really want to tell them that my landlady was getting $550 a month when they might know her? Should I have thrown in that in Bucharest I paid $3,000 a month?

And so I told a Clinton-esque style truth: that the rent was paid for me (very true) and that consequently I didn't know how much it was (not nearly as true). [Please do not forward this email to the Special Prosecutor!! It might end up costing the nation another $50,000,000.]

Fortunately it was time for dinner which was indicated to me by Duran signaling that I should wash my hands. It was not an order but a service from one person who ALWAYS washed his hands before a meal to another he knew maintained as high a standard. That was how I discovered that even the bathroom has rugs in it.

The meal was served by one of Duran's sisters. Every time she came in she held a portion of her head scarf in her lips. She never spoke to anyone and no one spoke to her. The food consisted of ground brown meat (lamb?) wrapped in dough and cooked (steamed?), a bowl of thick white goo (camel yogurt) that had a slightly salty and slightly fruity taste and a large, round loaf of light brown flat bread.

There was also a plate of small Boston-fern-like green stuff that everyone sampled and ate as if it were a breath freshener. I noted that Duran's brother ate only the fronds at the tip of the stems so I demonstrated my food savvy by doing the same. The taste was intriguing but hard to place. (I found out later that it was dill.) (I thought about the time I fell face first off a porch roof into a truck garden. I missed the trucks but ended up with a mouthful of green stuff. The dirt we won't discuss.)

Everything was specifically offered to me so I put something of everything on my plate, trying to keep a demilitarized zone between the various items lest one prove totally obnoxious to my junk-food-oriented stomach.

Well, I made it through dinner with more enjoyment than I would have expected. Perhaps it was because I kept staring at the Russian news program on the TV (it was on all the time). Or perhaps it was because the food was good. It isn't always easy for me to tell.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley