The Ashgabat Gazette Issue 39


A view of the Neutrality Arch on New Year's Eve. At the top, a gold plated Turkmenbashy rotates once each day.

--Thursday, 31 December 98-- $1 = 12,000 manat
I woke up late this morning but I don't know why. I flew around the apartment doing only the utter essentials and was out the door in 25 minutes.

New Years Eve. In the former USSR, the government's discouragement of religion included the celebration of Christmas so the gift giving a am told that you celebrate with family until Midnight and then you go and celebrate with your friends.

This morning Eleonora suggested that I give a long stem rose and a card to Mrs. Gurina and Deputy Minister Andraeva. She had everything organized so it was easy to do. Each presentation was polite, friendly and brief. Admirable characteristics. Mrs. Gurina invited me to a party in her office at 1 PM and I accepted. We are having a party in our office at 2 PM and will close down at 3:30 PM to give everyone an early start to the festivities.

During the morning people have been walking into offices of the Ministry and congratulating everyone there. They wish a happy New Year, the fulfillment of all wishes, good health, success, luck, the granting of all your dreams and many, many other things. The morning is the usual time for delivering such messages and people were on the move all across the ministry. The chief minister and a deputy actually wandered into our office and did the "snovem go-dem" [Happy New Year] thing.

I went to the Investment Department's party and had a good time. There were nine women and three men. Mrs. Gurina began it by saying that the men should serve the women. I got the feeling that I was witnessing a once-a-year reversal of roles that was special to the Investment Department. They took the situation in good stride and everyone had a good time. Then she gave a small speech introducing me and gave me al boxed collection of liqueurs that contained a local cognac, "Turkmenbashi vodka" and "Balzam," which I which I was told you drink with the other two. At "Alk. 45%" it must pack quite a wallop.

After we settled in and completed the usual introductions, the staff asked all sorts of questions about my background. The staff were interested in the fact that I was an Irish American (something I had never mentioned) and asked about the "O" that precedes many Irish names. I told them of the great potato famine and the emigration of millions to America.

The first food course consisted of various vegetable concoctions that can go unnamed and smoked sturgeon and cheese. With it came the inevitable "champansky", vodka, and cognac (nearly always of Greek production, why?). There always seems to be someone who is designated to keep refilling your glass.

Then the toasts began. It seems that everyone is expected to produce a long, heartfelt collection of wishes for the New Year. Frequent themes included leaving the past behind, finding the best of the new, health, happiness, luck, success, and the achievement of ALL your dreams. The last I found particularly frightening.

Near the time I had to leave I asked to propose a toast. I told them that it was an American characteristic to believe that "if some is good, that more is better" and so I had two toast for the group. My first toast was in the Russian model and wished everyone there all the good things of life, health, wealth, success, etc. but that I did not wish them the fulfillment of ALL their dreams, because not all our dreams are good for us, so I wished them the fulfillment of only those dreams that would make their lives better and their happiness greater. They liked that. I went on to extend my wish to all the citizens of Ashgabat and to all Turkmen. I told them that I had visited many countries and that no where were people friendlier to me than in Turkmenistan.

Then I said that I would like to give them a traditional Irish toast. "May the road rise with you, may the wind be always at your back, may the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand." They loved it!

The party for my group was pleasant but not really inspired. This was probably caused by a lack of adequate alcohol consumption.

Grant came by and was a bit whooped from an office party. He was with his principle contact in the office and the guy proceeded to complement every women in the room differently. Edjegyz was the "first woman of the office", someone else was the "most effective secretary of the DM," someone else was the "foremost translator," and yet someone else was "the fair haired leader" of something or other. In his complements, he was inspired, prolific and articulate -- and rather drunk, although in a very charming way.

Ashgabat used to house the first Baha'i temple constructed anywhere. (Chicago, believe it or not, has the second.) In the early part of this century, Ashgabat had a significant Baha'i community which had emigrated from Persia due to persecution and they built a temple here. It was demolished by the government in 1956? and the door incorporated into an art gallery. I will check it out.

Serdar called to invite me to spend New Year's Eve with his family. I was complimented that he should do so but I wanted to spend the evening alone with a lot of people so I declined and after a nap I walked to the Neutrality Arch.

The park that was recently opened there is popular. It is one more place where Turkmen love to be photographed. Tonight there were several thousand people wondering back and forth in the extensive open space. Small groups of young men were occupied with setting off fireworks. Not the rat-ta-tat-tat of the staccato explosion of Chinese fireworks I am accustomed to but the ka-BOOM!, sisss BANG!, and POP! of a different kind.

The New Year arrived without any special fireworks and I walked home enjoying the mildness of the night.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley