The Ashgabad Gazette Issue 22

Above, Asat Meredev, a Language Institute student.

--Saturday, 31 October 98--
I was walking to the market when I passed a handsome, young Turkmen o said, "Hello," to me. I smiled and said, Hello," in return but kept on walking since there is no end of young Turkmen who can say "Hello, How are you?" but who cannot respond to "Hello, I am fine, how are you?"

The lad in question was wearing a blue stripped dress shirt, a neat, matching tie, black pants and black shoes. He had the black, slightly wavy hair and deep brown eyes that so many Turkmen here have. I was so struck by his friendliness that I looked back over my shoulder and saw that he was doing the same thing. That is not uncommon here where Westerners are treated with a polite and intense curiosity and backward glances are not at all uncommon. I continued to walk on but glanced back again, only to discover that he was also looking back.

This was unusual. Turkmen curiosity is intense but over with quickly. Second 'look backs' are rare. I smiled and stopped walking. He did the same. He turned toward me and after just a slight hesitation he started walking in my direction. I walked toward him, interested in a second look. As we approached each other I slowed my pace so we would meet in the shade: It was hot in the sun and I had built up a sweat from my bike ride.

"You are American?" he asked. I said, "Yes." "My name is Asat," he said and we shook hands. He had a slight build and a slightly tawny complexion. His smile was ming and revealed a neat row of very white teeth. He radiated the freshness of youth, the instant friendship of the pro-Westerner and the interest of a student linguist.

We chatted on the sidewalk. His English was good but frequently non-colloquial. Mostly he was easy to understand but he complained about how little English he knew. I asked him where he had learned to speak English and he told me that he was studying at the Turkmen National Institute for World Languages. I complemented his pronunciation and asked if his teachers were Americans. "No, Turkmen. They know nothing!" he lamented. "Maybe you come and talk to my class?" Flattered with the offer I accepted, figuring nothing would come of it. "Next week, what day?" Er, wrong again. We settled on Wednesday at noon.

"I live over there," he said and walked a few steps along the sidewalk to where he could point at a white and pink multistory building. "What are you doing now?", "Not much," I confessed. "You come to my house now?" What should you say to such a friendly invitation on a hot, lazy Saturday afternoon? "OK," I said.

He led the way through a vacant lot, over a mound of packed earth and into the side door of the building. On the way he pointed out the third floor apartment where he lived. Going up the stairs we met his youngest sister, a shy girl of about ten. He knocked on the door and I met his mother and other sister. I took off my sneakers in the large foyer and he showed me into the living room which was huge. In the room was another Turkmen by the name of Marat. Asat introduced us and we shook hands. Asat informed me that Marat was his brother and was a traffic cop in Charjou (a city northwest of Ashgabad). He was a handsome guy and I imagined how good he must look in the olive uniform with red trimmings.

Murat Meredev, Asat's older brother and a policeman in Charjou.

Asat told me that he had a friend named Joe from San Diego who had been in the Peace Corps who had lived with him. He had asked Joe to teach him English but Joe was too busy. "You can live here," he offered. I smiled.

The floor in a Turkmen household is used so extensively that there is much less furniture than in a western home. This room, easily twice the size of a typical living room in a home in the States, had a sofa, two armchairs (with the TV on a table in between them), one chair and a multipart wall unit. Marat kept his clothes in part of the wall unit which also contained book shelves, display crystal, pictures, and drawers. Asat showed me a picture of his father and said that he was dead. "That is sad," I said.

The floor was covered with four Turkmen carpets, the walls held two more and the sofa and chairs were covered with carpets as well. The patterns seemed to be from the tribes other than the Teke, the dominant tribe.

Asat told me that his father had been to America. "I have a map," he said and proceeded to show me a map of the US with an itinerary inked on it. His father had spent a month in the States and been to New York City, Boston, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Jackson, MI, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the inevitable Atlanta before returning. Asat went on to say that his father had spoken good English and loved to travel.

Asat asked me how old I was and I told him and then asked him how old he was. He answered, "Nineteen," and then told me that I was two years older than his father.

We chatted while Marat watched Turkmen TV and we generally got on swimmingly. I told Asat that I was having a party next Saturday and that he was invited. I said, "Why don't we go to my place and I will give you an invitation?" He said, "Yes." "Then," I said, "on the way, you can show me where I will meet you on Wednesday. Shall we go now?"

"No, in five minutes we have food. After that." So I was in for yet another Turkmen meal. The last one had been fairly good so I was not worried about this one. Sure enough the meal was served on an oil cloth on the floor. First there was chai (tea) which I am learning to like. It is served in a bowl and you can see a bit of the tea at the bottom.

The bread was a round flat loaf that seemed to be some combination of rye and white flours and it was the center of the meal; you used it to dip in the broth, scoop out the salad (a bowl of finely chopped tomato with chunks of garlic), etc. There was a plate of garlic and parsley and a platter of (chewy) lamb, potatoes, some onions in a tasty broth. We sat on the floor (Marat, Asat AND I) with soup spoons leaning against the platter. There was also a bowl of jelly (plum?). Neatness consisted in eating over the oil cloth so food would not get on the rug. Again the men ate alone.

I was not invited to wash my hands before lunch but I was after lunch. That is how I noticed the rugs in the bathroom.

After lunch Asat and I walked to my apartment and downloaded the pictures I had taken of him and Marat. He liked them a lot so I took some more of him.

We walked down to Magtymguly and got a ride to the Institute where he is a student. We agreed exactly where we would meet on Wednesday. He seemed worried that I wouldn't show up.

We walked back in some of the finest weather imaginable, a Fall day as mild and warm as any summer's day in Chicago. Asat asked me if I knew Russian and I said that I would like to learn it. We agreed that we would teach each other. We exchanged phone numbers.

He asked me how much I earned a month in US dollars. I lied and told him $6,000. He was very impressed. I told him that things were more expensive in the States and gave examples. He asked if I had a car -- that took some explaining. He really wants one.

Asat told me that he had to go to work, but we got nearer where we both lived, he said he didn't want to work that day, and he went with me to the Russian Market where I wanted to buy some dry wine and find a child's alphabet book. On a good day you can find anything at the Russian market. This was a good day and I got an ABC book for 35,000 ($4) and a small notebook for my lessons for 2,500. There was a Russian-English, English-Russian dictionary for the 400,000 manat that I didn't buy it which is just as well since we got to check out the bookstore I wanted to visit earlier and found an 8,000 word dictionary for 35,000. We agreed that tomorrow I will call him at 9 AM.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley