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Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

Mark Sabbatini By

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Banishment from the country takes effect with the publishing of these words.

Assuming otherwise is foolishness in Turkmenistan, the most repressive and two-sided country of the scores I've visited seeking jazz in the most remote and unusual places on Earth.

Brilliantly lit marble monuments and unerringly smiling faces camouflage a serpent's nest that strikes instantly with any hint of my being a journalist. It's officially treason, punishable by life in prison, to write negative impressions about the world's most hostile nation toward the press except for North Korea.

Still, musically there's intrigue here. And it's a place that, uh, knows how to listen even if people frequently talk very quietly.

Coming here may seem like questionable judgment, but for a person who's favorite novel is George Orwell's "1984" the lure was irresistible. The post-Soviet dictatorship of President Saparmurat Niyazov, who cast himself as the prophet-like Turkmenbashi ("father of the Turkmen"), is a 15-year span of decrees and excesses seen as the pinnacle of political tragicomedy, the fiefdom of a deranged man trying to bring Las Vegas or the Land Of Oz to the parched Central Asian desert.

"It is not known whether Niyazov has read Orwell but the Ministry of Fairness is certainly very like a structure described in detail by the English writer," the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote in 2003. The same year another Russian newspaper, Moskovskiy Komsomolets, wrote "George Orwell can hardly have suspected that the country of the all-seeing Big Brother he invented which, in his story, was somewhere in Central Europe, is actually in the heart of the Orient—it is Turkmenistan."

A contest or fiction writer would be unlikely to surpass his eccentricities: Renaming the month of January after himself, bread after his mother, the year 2003 after his father. Prohibiting ballet, opera, car radios, lip-syncing and most public playing of recorded music. Requiring doctors to pledge allegiance to him instead of the Hippocratic Oath and banning the diagnosis of many communicable diseases. Closing libraries outside the capital of Ashgabat on the assumption rural dwellers are illiterate (or, as he told a foreign leader, the illiterate are easier to rule). Forbidding television news anchors from wearing makeup because he said he couldn't tell men from women when they did (they also begin broadcasts with a pledge that his/her tongue will shrivel if he/she slanders the country, flag, or president). Banning beards, possibly because he couldn't grow one. Demanding people give up "unsanitary" gold fillings and chew on bones instead, as he saw dogs doing as a child (today's population wouldn't know—he banned dogs from the capital because he didn't like their smell).

The impacts are equally bizarre. An economy of scale where an hour of Internet cafe access (in one of only two places, under police watch) costs the same as three one-way plane tickets (although residents may wait futilely for days for them due to a massively flawed ticketing system). Fountains gushing non-stop around vast buildings and monuments that are mostly deserted, while families in stifling desert heat go without power and wait hours for a trickle of water to fill a bucket. Facilities such as a ski resort on the arid foothills of the Iranian border, a massive amusement park in the center of Ashgabat and stunning mosques either mostly or completely empty, while schools and hospitals wither without basic equipment and staff.

The oddities could consume the length of this article many times over. But for my trip the goals were:

1) Assess the music scene in a country with so many restrictions on modern performance, but supposedly a reverence for it's cultural history.

2) See if, following the unexpected death of Turkmenbashi from heart failure last year, there are signs of future progress. Some music restrictions have seemingly been relaxed as the country attempts to lure wealthy tourists. Even this effort is hesitant, though, as there's concerns about monitoring more people and that a larger pool of travelers means more potential sources for negative comments to the outside world.

It's not like this was a fool's errand from a jazz perspective. The country of 5 million people shares much of its cultural heritage with Turkey, which has a strong and identifiable presence, and the scene in adjacent countries like Azerbaijan is surprisingly vibrant. Instrumentals with heavy doses of improvisation are among the most popular forms of traditional music. The day before my arrival a pianist at a jazz bar in Uzbekistan said he was a native of Ashgabat and, in his extremely limited English, gave the impression there were players to be found.

So I booked a tour package through a Central Asia travel agency, complete with a stay at a five-star hotel, an easy request since Ashgabat (population 700,000) has more of them than London and they're all mostly vacant. But it's a long process that's the only realistic way a lone Westerner can get in. Even then there's plenty of potential land minds anybody able to search Google could seemingly expose (link number three for my name begins "Mark Sabbatini is a destructive force in music journalism"). But the process was less challenging than I imagined, mostly consisting of many back-and-forth emails to deal with simple questions during a period of several weeks.

I listed my profession as a musician, since the word "journalist" in any context is a near certainty for automatic rejection even if you're a longtime former resident whose parents are buried there (true story). Freedom to walk the main streets in the capital was allowed, I was told, the rest would be a crapshoot involving an escort and probably lots of roadblocks to check identity papers. I told them my intention was to be conservative and remain within the city limits—repression or not, exploring one of the hottest deserts in the world during the summer, when temperatures can exceed 115 degrees, has no appeal for me.

I took no notes, only a few photos and generally avoid mentioning people's names here since they were unaware they were talking to a journalist. Additional information comes from email interviews and research (links provided where possible).

Also, while the hypocrisy there is deplorable, nearly everyone was exceptionally friendly, I never felt unsafe except for the few inadvertent slips about my profession and the architectural glow is impressive. Suggesting travelers avoid a trip on moral grounds is inappropriate since I didn't and viewed from a completely nonpolitical perspective it offers a much better than average bargain for travelers who enjoy Palm Springs-like desert getaways. Those willing to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth can experience a pleasant and reasonably priced luxury vacation that provides some benefits to a population in need of all the help it can get.

A Tale Of Two Pubs

Talk about the best and worst of times.

Live jazz is most easily found at two nightspots a block apart in the heart of downtown, according to my tour host and others. At the relatively simple and small City Pub, a lead singer and trio of instrumentalists were beginning to shift from their bar stools toward a small corner stage a few feet away when I dropped in on a Saturday at about 9 p.m. The owner/manager, maybe 35 or 40 and all hearty smiles, welcomed me in slightly broken English at the door when I asked if jazz was part of their repertoire.

"Yes, yes, they play many things—blues, pop, jazz," he said with a heavy accent that all but slapped me on the back, as a couple of the band members nodded in smiling agreement after conferring among themselves to figure out what I was asking. "Come on in; listen to some jazz."

At that moment I was an ideal customer, a rare outside visitor with money to spend. Then I did something beyond idiotic: In a moment of forgetfulness triggered by his enthusiasm, I did what I've instinctively done these past couple years of global travel and handed him an All About Jazz business card.

"I'm doing research about music here as part of a project about jazz musicians in remote and unusual parts of the world," I said. "Is it OK if I talk to them between sets and can you help if I need any translation?"

Ninety-nine percent of the time the response is enthusiastic at the thought of promotion for their business and culture. But the backslapping club manager looked at it, stiffened immediately and shoved it back at me. The chill was Arctic.

"We don't do anything like that," he said.

I apologized, said I'd mind my own business and grabbed a seat out of his line of sight. But he came over moments later and told me I needed to leave. Asking why did nothing except make it clear he was ready to physically throw me out if I resisted.

"I don't need a reason. I have the right to refuse to let anyone I want in" was all he'd say, varying the words only slightly a couple of times. "Goodbye."

I could hear the band on the street corner and I listened to about four or five songs in a bit of terror, since there's about three police officers along every side of every street. I could only imagine the consequences of their checking my papers or making inquiries in the club after seeing me come out of it so quickly. Thankfully, the band was doing a rock and pop set, and the officers didn't approach.

I'm also immensely thankful the manager reflexively gave my card the dead fish treatment, since I'd otherwise have been in nonstop terror about his giving it to authorities. Because outsiders must provide extensive information about their itinerary, where they're staying and who is sponsoring their visit, there'd be no trouble locating me.

I didn't fully grasp the danger I'd put myself—and him—in until a couple of days later. The saying "the walls have ears" is true to an unknown degree, with hotels and popular tourist gathering spots reportedly bugged and video cameras required by decree in all public places (if they're actually that prevalent I missed some). A Turkmen man cooperating with a BBC reporter last year was arrested with other associates and sentenced to seven years in prison on what they said were manufactured charges by security officials who planted weapons in their car. Human rights groups regularly report journalists have been imprisoned for lengthy sentences, sometimes tortured or killed in custody (although the death penalty is officially banned). Prison conditions are as bad as anywhere in the world, according to outside governments and individual narratives.

In a more day-to-day reality, Radio Free Afghanistan reporter Faizullah Qardash described his experience while part of a delegation from Kabul a month after my visit as completely sheltered and supervised. He said aside from the official presentation by Turkmenistan officials the media was allowed to cover, he was unable to conduct a single interview or get any response whatsoever to even nonpolitical subjects. He was also prohibited from talking to any Turkmenistan citizens and officials ensured he didn't get the chance (the same is true in reverse, as local journalists cannot talk to foreigners without official permission).

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