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Turkmenistan: Embattled Writer Honored Abroad

  • Nikola Krastev

Rahim Esenov in New York on April 18 (RFE/RL) Banned Turkmen novelist Rahim Esenov received the 2006 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom To Write Award at a lavish gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on April 18. The 79-year-old novelist described as a "miracle" his appearance at the award presentation. He was under confinement for more than two years in Ashgabat, and up to the last moment the Turkmen authorities had rejected his request to the United States to receive the prize. Speaking at the Open Society Institute in New York earlier in the day, Esenov described his "hospital-to-jail" voyage following the ban in Turkmenistan on his latest novel, "The Crowned Wanderer" in 2004.


NEW YORK, April 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In a two-minute speech at the award presentation, Esenov said he wished he could thank individually each one of the 3,100 members of the American PEN Club.

He said his "tongue can't keep still" as he expressed his gratitude to his American hosts for making the event happen. And he said that he had always tried to stand up for what he believed was right.

The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award honors prominent figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression.


International Support

Up to the very last days, Esenov's travel to New York to receive the award was in limbo over the repeated denials of the Turkmen authorities to grant him an exit visa. Finally, after growing pressure from the United States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), he was allowed to board the plane.

Attendees at the award presentation included Salman Rushdie, the Indian-British novelist who has won numerous literary awards; Jhumpa Lahiri, the Indian-American novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000; E. L. Doctorow, a recipient of numerous literary awards; David Remnick, editor-in-chief of the influential "New Yorker" magazine; Graydon Carter, editor-in-chief of "Vanity Fair" magazine; Mort Zuckerman, publisher of the "New York Daily News"; and Barry Diller, a Hollywood mogul. Jeff Trimble, acting president of RFE/RL, for whom Esenov has worked for a number of years, was also present.

The audience at the rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan twice gave Esenov a standing ovation.

Esenov said he was happy to finally meet so many supporters: "I want to thank you that you have found time, that you've come to hear me. It is very interesting for me as well to meet you, to see your faces, your smiles, your eyes. They speak volumes."


It is the second trip to the United States for Esenov, a well-known political dissident in Central Asia. The first time he visited the United States was in 1988.


Lifetime Achievement

Esenov says that out of the more than 20 books he has written in Russian, he considers his historical novel "The Crowned Wanderer" his lifetime achievement. Esenov started working on the book in 1977, and it was banned in 1997 after the author refused to edit it to the tastes of Turkmenistan's authoritarian president, Saparmurat Niyazov. It centers around the life of Bayram Khan, a military general and a man of letters who fought to save the Turkmen nation from falling apart.

In February 2004, after Esenov suffered a stroke, he was forcibly removed from his hospital bed and placed in detention. He described the experience during one of his appearances in New York on April 18.

"They brought a stretcher and wanted to put me on it," Esenov said. "I told them that I don't want a stretcher. They said: 'Oh, no, you need a stretcher, you are ill!' I answered them with an English proverb: 'Once the head has been taken off, one does not complain about the haircut.' I descended by myself from the second floor using the staircase and they all the time tried to hold me under my elbows. I told them, 'Hands off!' because I thought it was humiliating. I didn't want to make them happy, to show my weakness."

After an international outcry, Turkmen authorities released him -- but not before confiscating and destroying 800 copies of his book.

Esenov described how he was constantly watched by Turkmenistan's notorious secret police: "I noticed that around my house [there was] the so-called 'outside' surveillance; they were following me everywhere. But I just tried not to pay attention. I knew that my phone was being tapped; I knew that my mail was being opened. All this was done in a nasty, arrogant manner, without even an attempt to conceal it."

The PEN American Center announced Esenov's award presentation in New York specifically to challenge his continuing house arrest.

On March 24, when officials of the U.S. Embassy visited him in his home in Ashgabat, he was informed he would receive the award. At that meeting, Esenov accepted PEN's invitation to travel to New York for the award, and PEN worked closely with the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat to make the trip possible.

(RFE/RL acting President Jeff Trimble contributed to this report.)

'The Crowned Wanderer'

'A RULER WHO DOES NOT MAKE THE POET A FRIEND IS A FOOL': Having thanked the emperor, Bayram Khan declared that he would prefer to go on a hajj. And, with that, he felt a certain sense of relief. He surprised even himself: he did not want to linger in the court, in this cesspit, a single day more. That would have meant once again putting on the bovsug -- the tight-fitting, iron collar of a courtier -- once more putting on a face, leading a double life... What a pity to spend years, decades, merely to realize that, once a courtier, even a courtier of the highest rank, a poet must become two men. Here then was the reason why, once they take a position of state, court poets write very little, if at all – and that just for one person, the sovereign, out of whose hand the court odist eats and drinks.

But, at the same time, a poet can accept no system of power. As he serves that system, he curses his own weakness of spirit. But an intelligent ruler, aware of the eternally splintering nature of a poet, always aims to bring the poet into his inner circle, to sweeten him. Only, of course, not those like the unruly Ferdowsi, or the free-thinking Khayyam, or the wise Saadi, who penned exortations addressed to the shahs that only served to rile them. That is why there is the saying "a ruler who does not make the poet a friend is a fool; but a poet who seeks to make a ruler his friend is a fool twice over." Evidently that was why many poets, those with a sense of their own self-worth, had preferred the wild canyonsof unpeopled mountains, the depths of the desert, and the dust of the wandering dervishes' road to thedazzle and pleasures of the court.

Only now did Bayram Khan gain a sense of the wisdom contained in this philosophy, a philosophy that a poet seeks after through the course of his difficult life. Knowing that in this state he was viewed as a dangerous, awkward person, he did not waiver before making his choice: to go and worship in holy Mecca, and to hand out the fifty or so rupees he had received from the treasury to the poor and to the needy that he would meet along the roads of Arabia.

(translation by Andrew Gardner)

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