The Ashgabat Gazette Issue 60

--Thursday, 30 September 99-- $1 = 14,500 manat
The water heater was not functioning in my apartment this morning but I don't know why. I ended up taking a slightly cooler than tepid shower and shave. The skin on my face protested all day.

Ed was approached by someone from the Embassy who was having a problem giving text books to the Economics Institute (where Ed lectured recently). The problem may be that the books are in Russian and the government is increasing mandating that books be in Turkmen. But how are these books to be created?

A meeting with the Deputy Chief Engineer of the Capital Investment Department of the Hakimlik of Ashgabat, was not very productive. We asked about how the site for an apartment building was chosen and he said that Ashgabat wants to look like a modern city and was trying to construct modern buildings on vacant lots. The apartment building in questions was constructed on a vacant lot that was used for illegal dumping. An apartment building was constructed because it was in a neighborhood of apartment buildings. Also, a lot of older buildings were being demolished so new one's are needed. "Who suggested this lot?" Answer: City Hall which has regular meetings involving all departments.

When we discussed the construction of a particular street he had mentioned, it became clear that we would be getting no useful information. He said that construction had been stopped in January because of lack of funds. I asked when construction had started and got a long answer, clear only about its vagueness. I asked what percent of the street was complete and got another long answer saying that part of the street was fully complete and that part only had the foundation on and on, more obscurantist than before.

When we asked how projects are prioritized he suggested we talk to Mr. Regipov, one of the most important people in the Hekimlik. Later, back in the office the staff told me that the head of the Privatization Program had tried to meet with Mr. Regipov for over a year and had not succeeded. I doubt I will have better luck.

I set aside this evening to contact Asat (he is featured in an early edition of the Gazette) who I wanted to invite to my party. I had called his phone number frequently but I always got a busy signal so I assumed that it was out of order. I walked over to his building and guessed which was his family's apartment. I knocked on the door and a very lovely young Turkmen woman of perhaps 18 answered and I said Asat's name. She said, "Da," but went on to use "nieto" to indicate that he was not there at the time. I gave her the written invitation to my party and said Asat's name again. She looked at it and understood. Then she invited me in (at least I think she did, for my Russian is not up to anything beyond basic conversation boilerplate). I thanked her and left. Charming.

Having walked this far I decided to continue on to the Iceberg Cafe with its delightful Turkmen beer. Beyond the beer, I had always met pleasant, interesting people there, mostly Turkmen, who, like me, enjoy a pint of beer. It turns out that meeting them is not difficult for they will often invite you to their table just to talk to you. Somehow they seem to know that I am not a native, I can't quite figure it out.

This night I thought I had found an empty table when two Turkmen arrived at the same moment just in front of me. I mimed a request to sit at the same picnic bench and they immediately agreed. Almost as quickly a fourth person came seeking a seat, negotiated with them and sat down.

Across from me on the right was Shokrat, a handsome young Turkmen (age 22 with 2 daughters) who clearly wanted to practice his English which wasn't very good. There was a series of haltingly phrased questions and misphrased responses between us. His friend occasionally offered clarifications and the fourth person also tried to explain things. We made slow progress but everyone was patient.

Above, a picture of Shokrat who I met in the Iceberg Cafe and who wants to improve his English skills. Shokrat's uncle and friend, Toolee, has three wives. Does that make his a "trigamist"?

It turned out that Toolee, Shokrat's friend and also his 30 year old uncle, has three wives. When I asked "Why?" he said that he wanted to have children. He told me that one wife was in Moscow (three children), one in Ashgabat (three children) and one in Tashkent (six children) and all the wives knew about each other. I told him he was a great success at having children. He went on to say that his job called for him to spend three months in Moscow, three months in Tashkent and six months in Ashgabat.

Bigamy aside, what stood out to me was Shokrat's interest in learning more English. Before long he was asking me to be his English teacher. I have been here before and generally try to avoid such situations. He persisted with a charming smile and I succumbed. But this time I said that I wanted a "Russki" teacher and he agreed. In seconds I was explaining to him how to say things and demanding that he teach me how to say the same things in Russian. He showed a lot of patience. It wasn't just what he was getting out of it, he seem pleased to see me getting something out of it.

We three chatted for two hours exchanging phrasings. I really felt that I was learning spoken Russian. He asked to meet me "zaftra" (tomorrow) but I had plans already so I said, "postly zaftra," (the day after tomorrow, Saturday) which he misunderstood as Piatnitsa (Friday). We worked this out in a way that led me to believe that he had enough English to teach me basic Russian and I had enough Russian to teach him basic English. We shall see on sabotta, er, Saturday.

On the bigger linguistic front, Shokrat and Toolee told me that a Turkmen can understand 25% of Turkish, 80% of Uzbek, 40% of Kazak, 0% of Kirgiz and 0% of Iranian. They went on to say that Iranians understand 100% of Tajik and that Turks understand 95% of Azeri. Be sure to remember this for the quiz in a subsequent issue.

We paid our bills and took an informal taxi to my place where they would not let me pay at all. That was sweet. Then they drove on to wherever they lived.

Later the phone rang and it was Shokrat. He wanted to be sure that he had the correct number. There was a woman giggling in the background.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley