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« Deadly Silence | Main | Merry Christmas »

December 21, 2006

Goodbye Turkmenbashi

The email came over from my good friend and former missionary partner this morning with the subject heading: "A moment of silence."

Uh oh, not good.

This was all he had written: "Make sure you are sitting down and close to those you love. This one really hurts."

Hmmm ... this guy IS a jokester.  I was starting to guess that he doesn't quite mean it.

Then I clicked on the link, and learned that Turkmenistan's long-time president Saparmurat Niyazov has passed away.

Lest you think my friend's humor cruel, he wasn't mocking Mr. Niyazov's death, per se, but rather the fact that we had lost such a great source of personal humor. You see, my friend and I -- along with a handful of other colleagues (including the woman who would become my wonderful wife) -- served a missionary organization as investigators into Turkmenistan for a month in 1994. The idea was to record as much information as possible about the culture, universities, bureaucratic agencies, and living communities, so that subsequent missionaries could more easily set up shop for the longterm.

The problem was three-fold...

1. We'd all just completed one-year stints in other ex-Soviet republics and were a bit worn, and -- honestly -- a tad punchy.

2. Most of us were just one year removed from college and still working through our minor but lingering ... ahem ... "maturity issues."

3. HQ had given us - punchy, imprudent 22 year olds - a video camera to shoot a month's worth of footage of the capital city.

All of which is to say that walking around downtown Ashkhabad and seeing images of Mr. Niyazov ("The Turkmenbashi") everywhere -- and I mean EVERYWHERE -- gave too many opportunities for humor, as we filmed the city for our home missionary organization. Particularly given the fact that Mr. Niyazov was widely known to have an absolute and complete control over every aspect of Turkmen society. Thus, this quote from the BBC article:

"President Niyazov was in effect the state and what he decreed on any subject, from politics, to culture to science, was absolute law," says Michael Hall, Central Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.

Aside from the enormous posters, monuments, banners and flags bearing The Turkmenbashi's image, he -- sans shame -- enjoyed 99% of the vote in the presidential election.

My friend, in particular, had a certain routine that he used to provide voice-over for the video, for which he was helpfully blessed with a knack for accents. The result was that video of the city tended to focus on the omnipresent visage of Mr. Niyazov with accompanying voice-over such as "I am the Turkmenbashi. I take very good care of my people. But, please, do not oppose me" -- and then the more ominous repitition -- "Do NOT ... oppose me."

I can assure you that, as idiotic as that bit may seem to you right now, it completely slew us. And that is precisely why such commentary ran throughout the duration of the hours of footage we shot. And that is also precisely why our program director wanted to kill us, after we turned the footage over to her.

So, Turkmenbashi, thank you for 30 days of laughs. You will be missed.

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